Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film
by Robert Horton
Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:
A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.”
In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal “First Take” Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presley’s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.
Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning film’s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)
This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnais’ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the “excess of thinking” that marked his work in French literature.
Because Resnais’ original cut of Tickle Me was never released, it deserves close description. Elvis plays a rodeo rider known only as X, who travels to an all-girl dude ranch to work as the equestrian instructor. There he fends off the amusingly amorous advances of the lady ranch boss (leggy Julie Adams), while carrying on a romantic rivalry with the only other male at the ranch, a racecar driver/scuba diver/roustabout named Brad (Giorgio Albertazzi). X meets a woman called A (Delphine Seyrig), a bored socialite. In a series of enigmatic scenes, X and A wander the cold, drafty halls of the ranch house, puzzling over the question of whether they had met the previous year and arranged to meet again here at the Circle Z. He insists they had an affair at Marienbad, but later admits it may have Daytona Beach, or even Acapulco. Perhaps, he wonders, it happened at the World’s Fair.
Characteristically, Resnais toys with our traditional notions of time; we are never entirely sure whether we are in past, present, or future. Even Presley’s physical appearance seems to bear this out: X is sleek and lively in one scene, bloated and dozy in the next. The stark flatness of the studio shooting, with its painted Arizona skies and cardboard tumbleweeds, anticipates Resnais’ future excursions into Brechtian theatricality, such as Smoking/No Smoking.
Elvis’s habit of eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes at every meal amused his worldly director and leading lady, who tried to encourage the boy from Tupelo to sample the French cooking at Hollywood’s leading haute cuisine restaurant of the era, Le Petomane – to no avail. It may come as a surprise to film buffs that Elvis got along so well with Delphine Seyrig, the elegant, aloof queen of 1960s art cinema. He described her as “a real fine gal, very clean and polite,” and she later claimed to have based her performance as a reclusive, ritual-driven housewife in 1977’s Jeanne Dielman on her observations of Presley.
The film’s plot culminates in a visit to a ghost town, where treasure has been buried – an apt metaphor for the overall feeling of alienation, missed opportunities, and submerged emotion. The cryptic ending suggests that X and A have exited the dude ranch together, but even Colonel Parker agreed that the resolution should be left in the viewer’s mind. The song titles are a virtual index of classic Resnais motifs: “I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever,” “Slowly But Surely,” “It’s a Long Lonely Highway,” and “Put the Blame on Me.”
At this point, some of you may have looked up Tickle Me on the Internet Movie Database, and wondered why veteran director Norman Taurog and Ellwood and Bernds are credited, but not Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. And here we must say that the eternal battle for the soul of cinema – Art or commerce? Prestige or box-office? Glen or Glenda? – rears its inevitable head. Allied Artists, desperate for cash after sinking most of their money into the expensive biblical flop Hotter Than Ninevah, needed the Presley picture to hit big. Veteran director Taurog was called in to shoot a new subplot, much of the Resnais footage was cut, and the song “Dirty Dirty Feeling” was added. The latter, although admittedly a kickass number, is an especially jarring note given the delicate, ghostly atmosphere Resnais had been trying to evoke.
The French director, infuriated, returned home. His interviews with the European press indicate that he was especially upset at the removal of Elvis’s karate scenes. Nevertheless, Tickle Me was released in 1965 and became Allied Artists’ third-highest grossing film ever. Elvis and the Colonel returned to their safe formula, although throughout his life Elvis maintained an affection for the products of the Franco-American food company – a suggestion, perhaps, of his lingering affection for French culture. And the real Tickle Me, the film that might have transformed Presley’s career into something more than inane musicals, was forgotten. Until now.
We owe a great debt to Turner Classic Movies and Canal Plus for the restoration of most of the Resnais footage. (There is no truth to the canard that Ted Turner wanted to colorize the film until he learned it was already in color.) Some of the missing reels were discovered in metal cans in a dairy in Tillamook, Oregon (by happy chance, nitrate film stores exceptionally well at the same temperature as Muenster cheese). Except for the smell, they were in superb condition. Another print, nearly full-length, was unearthed in a prison library in Budapest, where it had entertained inmates throughout the Cold War. Thanks to the miracle of computer imaging, the Hungarian subtitles have been digitally removed with virtually no loss of picture quality.
The resulting film, which Resnais has dubbed Tickle Me Redux, debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a fourteen-hour standing ovation, and will bow on the Turner Classic Movies channel on the anniversary of Presley’s death. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will feature it in their upcoming program, “Alain et Elvis: Studies in the Phenomenology of Time,” a collection of 25 films on the theme of Resnais and Presley. Finally – inevitably! – a DVD box set will be released for Christmas, with three cuts of Tickle Me (original release, Redux, and Hungarian), full letterboxing, and a commentary track by Resnais and longtime Tickle Me booster Quentin Tarantino. Tragically, the karate footage has been lost.
The Turner Classics website still carries the “Brief Synopsis” above for their entry on Tickle Me. Check it out here, but please don’t tell them to correct it.
This piece is co-published at Parallax View.