"Nobody calls my sister a dirty, stinky bitch. She's not dirty."
This is the only Elvis movie I've ever watched. Besides my experience tonight, the only other Elvis movie moment I've been privy to is the quintessential scene from Clambake with The King out on the beach singing "We're gonna have a clambake." Ah, such a delicious memory. Much to my surprise, while watching this, Elvis' last movie (not counting his final two concert movies), I wasn't praying for the minutes to pass by more quickly. I realized that I wasn't bored out of my mind nor were my ears bleeding from an incessant number of corny movie songs. Without a basis for comparison in the Elvis pantheon, I boldly state that this is not a bad Elvis movie. Want to hear an even audacious statement? Unlike my experience during Summer Holiday, not once did I think of Eddie Murphy.
Facts of the Case
Light and airy like an angel food cake, the plot of this little trifle is as thin as a communion wafer. Even though this movie was not written with Elvis in mind—that is, a serious, non-musical drama—there's still not much to explain in this one.
The church has come up with a secret new project to bring help and hope to the tougher regions of New York City. Three sisters have been dispatched from the convent to a troubled neighborhood in the City. Sisters Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore—yes, that Mary Tyler Moore), Barbara, and Irene are well-educated women who are going to help Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis Presley!) at his free clinic. A pivotal and controversial aspect of their trip is that the nuns are going undercover—they will not be wearing their smocks. It is their hope to earn people's trust without the immediate assistance their religious apparel brings.
Upon arrival at Dr. Carpenter's clinic, the women are met with resistance by everyone at every level: the doctor doesn't think they're qualified (in fact, he thinks at first that they're knocked up and in trouble), their neighbors think they're hussies, the local church pastor is negative and unhelpful, and the local residents simply don't like new people in their hood. In spite of the enormity of their opposition, the women are slowly able to win people over with their intelligence, compassion, and concern. All the while, they are able to maintain their secret identities.
However, by spending so much time with the good doctor, it's inevitable that one of them will catch his wandering eye. As expected, John gets the hots for Barbara. As he makes the moves on her, she kindly pushes him away without trying to let him know that she's a nun. But how long can she keep him at bay?
The community is slowly accepting all three women, and their circumstances are offering them each opportunities to face their personal devils. For Barbara, it's her developing love for Dr. John. Should she stay with the order or leave it to possibly pursue happiness with the doctor? Irene gets involved when she witnesses the local market owner taking advantage of his poor and lowly educated patrons. Irene is maddened by his immoral actions and eventually must decide what she can do to right these perceived wrongs. And then there is Irene. As a young black woman, she decided to go to the convent not only for her love of God but also as an escape from the racial injustices of the time. However, she is no longer in hiding and some young black men confront her to see what kind of black woman she is. What exactly can she do to realize who she is and what can she do to help right injustice in this neighborhood?
In the end, each woman will face her demons and help bring some needed joy to the neighborhood. What does each woman do? Will the bitter local pastor accept the sisters' progressive ideas? Will the sisters reveal their true backgrounds and how will everyone react? How many songs will Elvis sing?
There is a lot that can be said about this movie, most of it relating to Elvis. Much to your probable shock, not all of it is going to be bad. Again, as this is my first (and probably/hopefully only) Elvis movie, I'm sure many of you will find my interpretation and deductions of this film to be skewed and somewhat erroneous. So, ardent Elvis fans in the building, please indulge my virgin analysis of The King's last foray to the big screen. "And on that note, we cue the music."
How do we succinctly describe Elvis' acting ability? I deem mediocre to be an accurate summation of his skills in this venue. Fortunately, from my perspective, this really isn't an Elvis movie; for I see him playing more of the supporting man to Mary Tyler Moore. But, as he's Elvis, he gets top billing if not the most screen time. This "limited" screen time allows the other actors to make the movie work. Elvis does try his best to make his part succeed, but even as a veteran of a dozen-plus movies, he just does not have the innate ability to be a true actor. This is clearly evidenced in a dramatic scene later on in the film between him and Mary. While her acting is comfortable and convincing, he comes across uninspired and practically dull in the scene. The viewer feels awkward watching The King being easily overshadowed in "his" film.
Besides his acting skills (or lack thereof), there are many other funny little Elvis moments throughout the movie. Foremost, of course, is the fact that the movie is book-ended by Elvis songs. I know, it's an Elvis movie so he has to sing (he can't really act, but boy can he sing). Nonetheless, it's inherently and immensely amusing to have the movie open on a music scene that is so obviously scripted just to take advantage of the star's strong voice. I guess I'll also be bold and say that three of the four songs sound pretty much the same to me, just with different words. Other quirks: because of his limited acting range, many times he just looks out of place—he really could not single-handedly take on three thugs, he throws a football like a girl, and what is the deal with the huge muttonchops?
It's time to move on to the rest of the story, which isn't going to get much better because Elvis is not the only problem with this movie. Weak, predictable, and clichéd dialogue, painfully obvious foreshadowing, and a very '60s mentality (meaning women have a very certain place in society) contribute to this pedestrian experience. On the positive side: the performances of the three actresses playing the nuns are quite strong, director William Graham (who has only done two movies) turns in a solid film, and there are only four short songs in the entire movie!
Being released in 1969, I was truly impressed with the quality of the video transfer. I expected to see a fuzzy, hazy, dull transfer; perhaps I should have known better and Elvis would get more respect, for this transfer is nothing of what I expected. While the picture is a bit soft, does have some light dirt, and exhibits some very light grain, the colors are bright and accurate, blacks are solid, and detail is sharp. Aside from those slight problems, there are no other transfer flaws: no edge enhancement and the like. On the audio side, you get a 2.0 Dolby mono track that is a bit uneven—dialogue, which is crisp and clean, is good at one level but the music comes across too loudly at the same level. Fortunately, it isn't uneven enough to ruin your experience.
There are a few, practically worthless bonus features on the disc: a trailer that gives away way too much of the film, minimal production notes, fluff cast and crew biographies, and an utterly useless "recommendation." None of them are worth your time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One word: Elvis. He is The King. Anything he touches is glorious in its own way. He may not be the best actor, but his charm and charisma help him elevate any role above mediocrity. Add to that his heavenly voice, whether he's singing or not, and you have a fun movie-going experience. One step further, the movie itself is a sweet and charming tale with a message of hope and charity.
Before I watched the disc tonight, I thought I'd be praising my luck for having been able to avoid any Elvis movie this far into my life. Surprisingly, as I write this, I don't feel ruined by the experience. I've read that many consider this to be one of his weakest roles. With that in mind, it piques my curiosity to want to see another one of his better films so I can see what Elvis can do on a good day. However, as sweet and innocent (for the most part) this film is, I can't recommend it to you unless you're an Elvis fan. I think only completists would want or appreciate his last film.
Not guilty. While it would have been nice to get a remixed audio track for Elvis' songs and to have a stronger script with some better supporting actors, there is not enough evidence to convict the film of any crime.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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