Arthur H. Nadel’s Clambake (1967) was Elvis Presley’s 25th film, the last he made as a single man and his least favorite. Before re-watching Clambake in preparation for this post I would’ve said that in comparison to the many, formulaic musicals Elvis made this one lies at the bottom of the barrel. It’s unfortunate, however, that even the King himself couldn’t appreciate all the elements in Clambake that make it so awfully fantastic. I mean it’s really bad, horrible goodness. It’s so bad, in fact, that it may well be the best beach party movie ever made. I try to make a case for that here by comparing it to a beloved masterpiece.
I imagine most of you balked at the mere mention of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) alongside the (somewhat) embarrassing Clambake, but I did so because the pairing has merit. Let me explain…
Many have designated Welles’ masterpiece as the greatest film ever made. I imagine they do so based on the qualities the film possesses, such as story, performances, visuals, etc., which are superior in comparison to the same elements in other films. So assuming that the thoughts on Kane are correct, then I argue that Clambake can be considered the best example of a cheesy beach party movie. That is, in the same way that one designates a certain film as being the quintessential example of a certain genre. For instance Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is my idea of a quintessential film noir. Well, beach party movies from my point of view must also exhibit certain traits like camp and cheese (as in cheesiness) and all of the individual elements that fulfill those traits.
As yet another example, I offer my original choice for the Beach Party Blogathon (for which this entry was intended), Joshua Logan’s South Pacific (1958). That film has a wonderful story and cast as well as outstanding numbers with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, respectively. I mean, in my book those guys are tops and that’s a top-rate book musical. But as I watched South Pacific I kept asking myself…where’s the cheese? I couldn’t keep my mind away from all of those Annette and Frankie walks on the beach and Eric Von Zipper! I had to do something to get my camp on, which is a requisite for me to enjoy beach party fun. So I switched gears and chose the only Elvis movie with a beach setting that was left – poor, little Clambake! Although I have to admit that my first thought was “Oy” when Clambake surfaced as a possible choice, after watching it for the umpteenth time I came to recognize its true value. Clambake is the Citizen Kane of Beach Party movies!
1. Visuals – I start with what I find most memorable in both Citizen Kane and Clambake. While I (famously) do not subscribe to the idea that Kane is the be all and end all of movies I am ever fascinated by its visual majesty. Welles manages a rich tapestry in the world of Charles Foster Kane that remains unequaled. In a similar fashion Clambake offers unforgettable visuals albeit by way of green screens and more green screens. In fact Clambake is a green screen cautionary tale!
The use of green screens are often (if not always) used in beach party movies, but Clambake takes them a step beyond. Everything in this movie is green screened except, it seems, the behind-the-scenes-guy who tosses water in Elvis’ face when he’s supposed to be out in the ocean. They even green screen in mountains. In Miami!
The visuals in Clambake are so bad that I’ve no doubt the movie will stay with you for a long time after viewing it, just as Citizen Kane does.
2. Storyline – Staying true to most beach party movies the plot of Clambake is as forgettable as Kane‘s is memorable. And while Kane has “rosebud” Clambake has “GOOP,” a miraculous glue-like substance that saves the day at the end, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you so that’s all I’ll say.
In Clambake Elvis plays Scott Hayward, heir to an oil empire, who’s tired of people (mostly women) paying him attention because he’s rich. On his way to Miami Scott runs into Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins), who’s sick of being broke. The two agree to switch identities to see how they fare. Elvis becomes Tom, the ski instructor at a beach resort and Tom becomes Scott, the son of a millionaire. And the two friends deal with their temporary identities by way of surfing hijinks and a clambake. All in front of fake, green-screened surroundings.
3. The star – Here we have equally impressive forces. Although my main complaint about Citizen Kane is that it’s too much Welles, whose presence is oft overwhelming, I recognize the movie would not be what it is without him. Similarly Elvis makes Clambake. In fact he’s the only reason to watch it…except for the fun and terrible everything else. As an Elvis fan who recognizes his incredible talent I can’t say I’m thrilled that he was forced (in a sense) to make one cookie-cutter musical after another. But, I’m also happy to see him in anything and Clambake is no exception.
I must add that in the beach party world Elvis fits the bill beautifully. For instance, beach party musical stars usually have to be good-looking. Check. They can sing. Check. But they also have to be able to – with one note – summon up the sounds of background singers and/or an entire band with no musical instruments or singers in sight. Elvis does all of that in Clambake! A LOT!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention THE HAIR! Hair is one of the most important characterization elements in beach party movies, particularly true in regards to the stars. The stars of beach party movies must have hair that is not in any way affected by inclement weather or extracurricular activities. This includes surfing, racing water crafts of any kind, monsoons or even activities that require headgear that would muss the hair of normal people. You may be familiar with the quintessential example of this, which is Annette Funicello whose football helmet do is one of the unexplained phenomena in the movies. Well, Elvis’ famous locks don’t fall far behind. If memory serves Mr. Kane has a scene or two with a messy head of hair!
Also worthy of note is the fact that Scott Hayward is a more adaptable character than Charles Foster Kane is. For instance, I can see Scott Hayward buying a newspaper while it’s an impossibility that Kane would ever be a water ski instructor. Discuss in the comments if you disagree.
4. The romantic male lead – Although you’d think my section on ‘the star’ would cover the romantic lead it doesn’t. I’ve separated this section because this is of particular value to the beach party movie. And in the romance arena Clambake outshines Citizen Kane. I would not attribute an ounce of romance to Charles Foster Kane, but Scott is a true romantic in both of his personas in Clambake.
As far as romantic leads and beach party movies – whether it’s Frankie or Moondoggie in the Gidget movies – the romantic male lead is always a rather innocent, good guy. Elvis’ Scott/Tom is that in spades! Not prone to going to parties Scott prefers to prove himself as an individual to (hopefully) step out from his father’s shadow. In addition he actually helps the girl he falls for to catch his rival, the rich and self-absorbed James J. Jameson III (Bill Bixby). The girl in question is Dianne Carter, played by beach movie alum Shelley Fabares in her third and last movie with Elvis. Anyway, Scott is such a good guy that he even takes time out to teach a bunch of kids a lesson in confidence with a song aptly titled “Confidence.”
5. The Music – usually the music in beach party movies is rather silly to go along with the plot. In the case of Clambake you get a title song with inspired lyrics: “Clambake, gonna have a Clambake.” Adding to the realistic tapestry of the important clambake scene is Elvis playing an unplugged electric guitar on a fake beach. Charles Foster Kane? He plays no instruments. And if he did I bet he’d plug them in! Where’s the fun in that? Also, Bernard Herrmann‘s magnificent score would not work well in a beach party setting while the (awful) “Hey, Hey, Hey” tune can work in almost any setting.
Jokes aside for a moment, there is a particularly beautiful ballad sung by Mr. Presley in Clambake, “You Don’t Know Me,” written by Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker.
6. Suspension of disbelief – It may surprise you to know that Kane and Clambake have a lot in common in this arena. With Citizen Kane, Orson Welles demands that his audience believe that people rarely turn on the lights, that life reflects art – in a mirror, that people are viewed at odd angles and so forth. Well, along beach party lines Arthur H. Nadel makes similar demands with Clambake.
Let me start by reminding you that suspension of disbelief is a requisite of the beach party movie sub-genre (assuming these fall under the general musical category). Whether it’s a mermaid, Frankie Avalon playing a dual role as British singer ‘The Potato Bug” in Bikini Beach (1964) or Eric Von Zipper’s powerful finger there is always the unbelievable to consider. In the case of Clambake, which has none of those charming elements, we must believe that a rich, gorgeous man lacks confidence in himself in romantic situations. Maybe I’m cynical, but that’s way out there far out! Played by Elvis Presley, no less, we are asked to believe that Scott is a lonely guy whose love interest prefers a rich guy – not him, because she doesn’t know Scott is a rich guy. The movie’s better songs are due to Scott’s loneliness, in fact. The aforementioned “You Don’t Know Me” is placed at the point in the story when Dianne goes off on a date with Jameson after Scott fixes her hair so she’s more attractive. And later in the story Scott sings the lovely “The Girl I Never Loved” by a tree, by his lonesome, but with full musical accompaniment and chorus.
Then there’s all the green screening I mentioned, the movie making no attempt at reality as far as the action sequences go, which – as mentioned – include a boat race with stock footage looking quite different from the close-ups of the drivers. A couple of the scenes actually remind me of the 1966 Batman movie when the Dynamic Duo must save a periled yacht. Lowering the Batladder, Batman descends above roaring seas to step into danger. BUT WAIT! The Batladder is lowered too far and Batman is immersed halfway into the blazing seas! When Robin raises the ladder we see that Batman is being attacked by a vicious, man-eating rubber shark! OK, so there’s no rubber shark in Clambake, but there is a cameo by Flipper! Or his understudy. While Citizen Kane may be able to boast a superb cast, Flipper doesn’t make a cameo! Fail!
7. Parental figure as villain – like so many of its more serious, 1950s predecessors the beach party movie usually portrays adults as evil, which is why the teens (or young people) rebel (albeit in a benign way) by doing little but surfing and partying all day long. In the case of Clambake the “evil” adult is quite benign himself, a sort of Jock Ewing on steroids as far as the Texas oil tycoon figure goes. Played by James Gregory, a great character actor, Duster Hayward and his son clash, but there is never a truly dramatic scene that results. Instead Duster tells Scott he’s proud of him in about two minutes and a life-long feud is resolved. But Duster’s enjoyable to watch in any case.
There is a second father figure in Clambake that adds to the seriousness of the movie. Gary Merrill of All About Eve fame plays Sam, an understanding “adult,” the owner of the boat Scott works on who supports the younger man’s endeavors. Although Merrill and Gregory are not as well-known as other former, classic stars who appeared in oft silly roles in beach movies, you do get a couple of actors with gravitas in Clambake. Although I think the gravitas may be green-screened.
As an interesting (and serious) aside, which is what makes the parental figures aligned in darkness in this historic comparison between two memorable films – James Gregory also plays Senator Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In that movie he is married to Angela Lansbury, who portrays one of filmdom’s most horrible villains. Well, Lansbury–not to be undone by Gregory–also played Elvis’ parent, a goofy, Southern Belle mother, in the superior beach party movie Blue Hawaii (1961), directed by Norman Taurog. While that connection means absolutely nothing to this post, it’s a fun beach degree of separation, which one can add to the weight of the Clambake cast in comparison to Citizen Kane‘s.
8. Dancing. If you’ve seen Citizen Kane – and I certainly hope you have – you know that there’s a production number that’s all about Kane, a terrific way to take a break from the action, but emphasize the one, most important element in the film – Charles Foster Kane. Well, you’re probably surprised to know that Clambake also uses key musical moments to tell as much as possible about characters in the story. Since there are numerous examples of this, however, I want to focus on a musical element that is present in most – if not all – beach party movies. That is the close-up of a bikini-clad girl’s shaking derrière:
There are plenty of go-go girls in Clambake as it should be, I suppose in a beach movie. These are also incredibly choreographed in odd situations. Like when the real Tom brings in a group of girls to help the real Scott with the boat. Scott is ready with a song that tells the girls what tools to use and they reciprocate with a (not nearly) fantastic dance choreography around the boat. Anyway, also interesting is that in most cases the girls are scantily clad while the guys are fully dressed. Even in the pivotal clambake scene for instance, Elvis wears trousers, a turtle neck and a jacket while most of the girls that dance around him are wearing bikinis
Since our main character poses as a waterskiing instructor you get several impressive water skiing scenes in Clambake. There’s really little to say about them. Instead I’ll offer an example of the impressive shots…
Neither the scantily clad, iconic female figure or the water skiing are present in Citizen Kane so the comparisons must end here. I hope I’ve convinced you with my arguments. Both Kane and Clambake are worth your time. To enhance the viewing of the latter, however, I suggest having a glass of water nearby and sprinkling yourself during the ocean scenes. If you wear glasses the effects are enhanced.
American International Pictures (AIP) all but owned the ‘beach party’ movies during the craze of the 1960s. AIP was the studio that produced the biggest hits with the creme de la creme of the genre being the Frankie and Annette outings. William Asher’s Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) is my favorite of the bunch, by the way. Other major studios and a few independents also delved into the surf and sand trying to capitalize on the teen beach craze, but they achieved only moderate success. Interestingly United Artists (UA) released only two beach party movies, Leslie H. Martinson’s For Those Who Think Young in 1964 and our own Clambake in 1967. Clearly UA knew it had broken the mold with the movie that promised “the wildest beach party since they invented the bikini and the beat!” Clambake delivers neither of those, but note yet another comparison to the famous Citizen Kane. The ads for Welles’ controversial picture boasted “everybody’s talking about it!” and it so happens everybody was talking about the latest Elvis vehicle in ’67 too – “it’s a real clinker!”
Aurora is a classic film fan and blogger. By day she works in higher ed. administration and teaches mass media. By night she watches movies. You can read more about what she watches at Once Upon a Screen.