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Elvis's nineteenth motion picture, Harum Scarum (1965) was made during a period in the singer's career when he was grinding out three films a year, thanks to Colonel Tom Parker's exploitive contractual agreements. While this eighteen-day wonder is little more than a costume drama parody with some acrobatic action (shades of Douglas Fairbanks) and a desert romance, it's ironically timely now; the storyline follows entertainer Johnny Tyronne (Elvis) as he visits the Middle East on a personal appearance tour. He ends up getting kidnapped by a band of assassins, implicated in a plot to kill an Arabian king, and rescuing some slave girls so they can become Las Vegas showgirls. These various intrigues take a back seat to the music though which features "Go East, Young Man," "Animal Instinct," "Shake That Tambourine," and the title song. In addition, Elvis gets to show off his karate moves (he previously flaunted this skill in such films as GI Blues which was filmed the year he earned his black belt - 1960).
Harum Scarum was produced by Sam "King of the Quickies" Katzman, whose specialty was churning out cheap, topical entertainments that usually exploited some recent fad like Twist Around the Clock (1961). But the only thing being exploited here is Elvis, modeling a variety of desert sheik outfits (courtesy of Frederick's of Hollywood?) in a pale imitation of Rudolph Valentino. Even Colonel Parker had his doubts about the picture's potential appeal and proposed adding a talking camel which might make it work as a family picture; this suggestion was thankfully ignored. Yet, despite the general tackiness, Harum Scarum is of some historical interest: the temple set was an artifact from the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille epic, The King of Kings, and many of the extras are wearing costumes from the 1944 and 1955 versions of Kismet. Also worth noting is the second appearance of Mary Ann Mobley in an Elvis picture (her first was Girl Happy, 1965) and the participation of Billy Barty, the 3'9" character actor, who plays Baba the mute.
Music/Film Critic Howard Hampton best summed up Harum Scarum's goofball appeal in the book, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n Roll in the Movies: "Rocking the Casbah with the ripest dialogue this side of What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966, "Infidel pig!; "Toranshah, you live!"), the movie offers one delirious interlude after another. How about Elvis growling the pedophile anthem, "Hey Little Girl" to a hip-gyrating prepubescent? Or ponder the implications of El's historic encounter with Sinan, who as the actual 12th-century leader of the Assassins utters the immortal Presleyan slogan, "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." It's almost as though the entire movie has been made in code, with each moment of blissful obliviousness concealing a separate, impenetrable double meaning of its own."
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Gene Nelson
Screenplay: Gerald Drayson Adams
Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr.
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: McClure Capps, George W. Davis
Music: Fred Karger
Cast: Elvis Presley (Johnny Tyronne), Mary Ann Mobley (Princess Shalimar), Fran Jeffries (Aishah), Michael Ansara (Prince Dragna), Jay Novello (Zacha), Philip Reed (King Toranshah).
C-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford