Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Taurog! Taurog! Taurog!

As next week marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, the major studios are having a field day re-issuing their Elvis catalogs, with Warners, Paramount and MGM all putting out box sets of the Elvis films in their catalogs (Fox re-issued their Elvis titles last year for some reason, while all Universal merely owns in CHANGE OF HABIT, which it issued on disc in time for the 25th anniversary back in 2002). Of all of the sets, Warners' is the one to get for many reasons; while MGM and Paramount are merely re-packing their same old transfers in new (and cheaper) packaging, Warners has actually gone the extra mile to put together new versions of JAILHOUSE ROCK and VIVA LAS VEGAS which I'm sure will be considerable upgrades to the original versions first issued on disc (Jesus!) 10 years ago. But more importantly, their new ELVIS: THE HOLLYWOOD YEARS set includes several Elvis films never before available on DVD and a couple never available on laserdiscs, either. The new-to-DVD titles include STAY AWAY, JOE and LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, while the newbies are KISSIN' COUSINS (the one where he plays twins), TICKLE ME, GIRL HAPPY and CHARRO, along with THIS IS ELVIS and newly re-packaged versions of several Elvis titles previously available, like IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD'S FAIR, SPINOUT, and SPEEDWAY. Nothing but classics there, I tell ya.

Well, actually not, but there's something about an Elvis movie that makes them all a genre unto themselves. Even those really crummy ones (and there's a few in this set) had a certain watchable quality about them, a sort of "comfort food" aspect to them. They're predicable in every way, but no matter how lame they get (and they could get pretty damn lame), that familiarity doesn't work against them; like watching an episode of "The Brady Bunch" or something, it's bit soothing knowing that Elvis is going to win that big race at the end, you know? Much has been written about how Col. Tom specifically wanted all of Elvis' movies to be so cookie-cutter so he wouldn't alienate his audience and in order to accomplish this, Parker called upon one of the most cookie-cutter filmmakers in the history of Hollywood, Norman Taurog, who helmed eight of Elvis' films at the end of a very long and sometimes distinguished directing career. When I re-discovered Elvis a little over ten years ago, I started watching a bunch of the old MGM letterboxed laserdiscs of films like SPINOUT! and SPEEDWAY and was intrigued by what I kept seeing in them, a smooth professionalism that also came with a distinct lack of personality and passion. I've been fascinated by Taurog ever since.

Taurog is actually an interesting character; starting his career as an actor, he was involved in film as a youngster, with a bit part in a 1912 short TANGLED RELATIONS and directed his first film (THE FLY COP) all the way back in 1920. He directed over 100 shorts through the 20s and became the youngest director to ever win an Oscar (still) with SKIPPY (which starred his nephew, Jackie Cooper) back in 1932. After that he became one of those directors who were able to crank them out like there's no tomorrow, making an occasional good film (BOYS TOWN) mixed in numerous pleasant but forgettable ones. He was the guy you got to do a star vehicle or a harmless piece of fluff and he came through with a picture that merely entertained, nothing more. He worked with the likes of Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, and later made six pictures with Martin & Lewis (such as THE CADDY and PARDNERS), all of which were recently issued on Paramount's Martin & Lewis DVD sets. Along with the Elvis pictures, he also made DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE and SERGEANT DEAD-HEAD at AIP in the mid-sixties, but following the completion of LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, Taurog went blind and was forced to retire from filmmaking.

So while there's a lot of history there, and no doubt some good stories, Taurog remains pretty much unknown to today's audiences and unappreciated by most film scholars. While the guy wasn't really a hack, he wasn't an artist, either. More of a journeyman director than anything else, Taurog's work (from what I've seen of it; I'm not that devoted to the guy) showed him to be more than capable but also suggested very little personality as a filmmaker. There's nothing that suggests his own style or personal vision (the phrase "Taurogian" has yet to enter the lexicon, you know?), just an efficiency that I'm sure the studio execs and the crews admired more than anyone else did. Despite the Oscar and the years worth of constant work (and I'm sure the respect of his peers), once Taurog was gone, he was quickly forgotten. Deservedly so? I can't quite say for sure; the guy did so much, but how much of it was memorable? I appreciate the Elvis pictures more for Elvis than anything else, and though I can recognize Taurog's skills, I certainly wish they were all better pictures. Taurog's other pictures (that I've seen) all depend on the material and if it wasn't all that great to begin with, he didn't really do much to make it so (though apparently, even Mario Bava couldn't make a decent DR. GOLDFOOT movie). In watching his films, I gain a greater understanding of why sub-par filmmakers like Shawn Levy and Brett Ratner keep getting work, though it doesn't mean I gain any appreciation for them. Taurog's legacy is more or less non-existent, but to me he may be the ultimate afterthought in film history. So much accomplished, but little of it sticks.

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