Elvis Presley made 31 films in his storied career and each one was worst than the last. While none of Elvis' movies ever lost money at the box office, they never the less plumbed new depths in sheer idiocy, bad taste and wasted talent.
Elvis had charisma, sex appeal and could really bust a move. With the right scripts and direction, Elvis could have had a decent movie career. As it stands, no one except Jennifer Aniston has made more rotten movies than Elvis and still retained "A List" status.
In the end, it was a testament to the loyalty of The King's fans that they kept showing up at the drive-in to watch his latest exercise in cinematic insanity.
Which naturally begs the question, Which Elvis flick is the worst of the worst? In a career that includes "Clambake", "Kissin' Cousins", "Spin Out" and "A Change of Habit", how do you choose?
I could use a complicated cinematic algorithm to the divine the "winner" or consult the reviews of learned critics or just pick a title out of a hat. Instead, I chose the one Presley flick that never fails to make my jaw drop and my eyes pop: "Harem Scarum" from 1965.
This film is guilty by reason of insanity. It takes an unbelievable premise--that foreign baddies believe a movie star is a top flight assassin--and stretches it to the breaking point. Then it piles on the bad jokes, racist stereotypes, horrible dialogue, clumsy fight scenes and obvious plot points until the whole rickety contraption sits on your head and crushes your skull.
Wackiest of all, whenever the action flags, Elvis breaks into song--a lot. In prison, in a harem, in the market place, hiding out from the cops, it doesn't matter. Elvis sings and sings and sings to the point where it gets really, really annoying. And when Elvis sings and it gets on your nerves, you know something is very, very wrong.
Instead of being a pineapple heir, water skiing instructor, race car driver, G.I., back woods hick or a doctor running a free clinic "In The Ghetto", "Harem Scarum" casts Elvis as Johnny Tyronne, America's top singing movie star/action hero. He's on a Middle Eastern goodwill tour, where he's premiering his latest flick "Sands of the Desert" and warbling his newest hit "Go East Young Man" for a crowd of dignitaries.
Sitting among the elite are Prince Dragna (Michael Ansara, all purpose meanie) and his flinty gal pal Aishah (Fran Jefferies). They believe Johnny and his movie alter ego are one in the same and thus convince him to visit the country of "Lunarkland" for a little R&R. Elvis, who obviously has the hots for Aishah, agrees.
Camping out under the desert moon, Aishah and Elvis get all kissy face, sip some hooch and then Presley promptly passes out. Aishah (who dresses like Diana Rigg from "The Avengers") has slipped the singer a Mickey, all the better to kidnap him. Not that Presley minds. See, he's holed up in a harem where he's surrounded by a bevy of belly dancers who enthusiastically attend to his every need. The man from Memphis only gets uppity when he's presented to "Sinan, Lord of the Assassins" and made an offer he has every intention of refusing: kill kindly King Toranshah (Phillip Reed) or die!
Elvis manages to give these baddies the slip with the help of a chap named Zachra (Jay Novello), a sneaky double dealer who rolls his eyes and constantly tries to fleece Elvis for money. A far more pleasant companion is Princess Shallimar (Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959), the king's daughter. She and Elvis meet up when he stumbles into her garden while being chased by palace guards. Pretending to be a slave girl named Yanni, the princess agrees to help Elvis, which causes him to break out into a gooey love ballad.
Visiting the town market place, Elvis sees the troupe of performers Zachra "manages". Sensing their act could use a little help, Elvis jumps in and belts out "Shake That Tambourine". The crowd goes wild, which allows midget Billy Barty the opportunity to pickpocket the bystanders. Soon enough, bumbling cops arrive and everybody scatters. Hiding out with the troupe (which also includes two cute orphans), Elvis learns the performers want to be free of Zachra (who they call "The Root of All Evil") and want Presley to buy them instead. He offers to work something out.
Meanwhile, Princess Shallimar gets all mopey for Elvis. She even fantasizes that he sings her another drippy love ballad while gazing at a reflecting pool. Unfortunately, the real Elvis is once again nabbed by Aishah. To ensure he will indeed off the king, she threatens to kill the orphans. What's a movie star to do?
The whole thing is just so stupid you can't believe it--or maybe you can. Anyway, during "Harem Scarum"s production, Elvis' Svengali Col. Tom Parker thought the film needed more laughs, so he suggested they add a talking camel to the cast. No dice. Elvis, on the other hand, thought the movie was suppose to be more serious in tone and was disappointed that the flick was marketed as a "spoof". But, really, no amount of cheap gags or rewrites could have saved this movie; it's beyond redemption. Even the ending-- Elvis headlining a Middle Eastern-themed stage show, Zarcha's dancing girls swishing away and those two cute orphans apparently adopted by the king--makes you cringe. On second thought, maybe a talking camel would have been a good idea...
Another element that contributes to "Harem Scarum"s over all rancidness is the film's toxic double bill of racism and sexism.
Although the film is set in the Middle East, all the Arabs on screen are portrayed as backward, dishonest and uncivilized. Even King Toranshah, a good guy, is seen as a misguided reactionary: he has deliberately kept his country cut off from the rest of the world to keep those pesky infidels from corrupting the populace. The civilizing presence of Elvis changes all that, of course, and the film ends with the king enjoying Presley's stage show and allowing Shallimar to dress in western clothes. His world view suitably enlarged, I'm sure King Toranshah will even allow that American oil company to come in and start drilling.
As bad as things are for Arabs in this movie, women have it even worse.
True, chicks in Elvis flicks exist merely to drool over The King. However, the females in "Harem Scarum" are universally presented as submissive, passive playthings who live only to serve men. Even the hard as nails Aishah calls her boss "master". There is not one female in this flick who is smart, independent or articulate. Although this flick was made in 1965, the sexism is still pretty jarring for a "spoof".
The only fun element in the film is the terribly tawdry acting of the cast. Elvis, who appears to have been dipped in Quick Tanning Syrup, is stiff and pouty as Johnny Tyronne; you get the feeling he'd rather be anywhere else than in this movie. Michael Ansara purrs his lines and squints his eyes, so it's no surprise he's unmasked as the villain. Fran Jefferies, as bad girl Aishah, slinks around as if she were Theda Bara crossed with Emma Peel. Unfortunately, her wooden delivery renders her stiffer than Elvis. The worst performance, however, goes to Mary Ann Mobley as Princess Shallimar. We know she's the innocent virgin of the piece because A) her costumes don't show off her belly button and B) she's content to merely hold hands with Elvis, instead of slipping him the tongue like naughty Aishah. However, her barely disguised southern accent and over abundance of eye-liner make her the least believable Arab royal since Tony Curtis warbled "Yonda lies dah palace of my fadda" from "The Prince Who Was A Thief" in 1951.
Although Elvis didn't like the final cut of "Harem Scarum", there was one aspect of this dreadful cinematic dog that he did like: his costumes. Those flashy harem pants he wore pleased The King so much, he took to wearing them around Graceland in his off hours. Their expandable waistlines no doubt came in handy when Elvis' diet of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches began to take a toll on his physique.