Though the beloved hip-thruster starred in 31 feature films, Elvis Presley will not go down in history as one of Hollywood’s great actors. Viva Las Vegas is easily his most popular film to date, but even some of Presley’s most adoring fans would be hard pressed to admit it had any cultural impact outside of being a bankable vehicle for a then rising star. At the time of its release, Vegas saw Elvis at the last few moments of his career’s climb. By the premiere of 1967’s Clambake, the same career had stumbled, sputtered, and fallen into a downward spiral of bad fashion and cotton candy rock tunes.
Viewers should not be worried about following the plot contained in Clambake, since every development can be spotted from a mile away. Elvis plays Scott Heyward, a dashing fellow who sports happening clothes (as far as this era was concerned, anyway) and has a phone installed in his flashy sports car. Yep, Scott has everything a man could want…accept love. Women only want him for his money, you see, so Elvis—er, Scott—runs away from the riches provided by his oil baron of a father to see if he can stand on his own two feet. Of course, no such person exists in the real world, especially Elvis himself, but we’re told to go along for the ride.
Elvis stops at a quaint gas station to order a ham sandwich from a vapor-stricken waitress and buy gas from a character actor who seems to be channeling a crusty old gold miner. While waiting, he meets a water-skiing instructor named Tom Wilson, played by Will Hutchins. Tom makes an offhand comment about switching lives with Scott, which promptly cues something I like to refer to as Revelatory Music. Scott gets a knowing look on his face, and before you can say, “Prince and the Pauper Pickle Printed Papers,” Scott is riding Tom’s motorcycle while Tom is in the sports car.
Of course, no Elvis movie would be complete without a lovely lady, but all the viewers of Clambake got was the homely Shelley Fabares. She plays Diane, a gal out on the hunt for a millionaire bachelor. Though she tries to gain the attention of playboy motorboat racer James J. Jameson III (drastically underplayed by The Incredible Hulk’s Bill Bixby), there’s no doubt she will end up with our old Elvis. Oh, and there’s also various subplots about experimental boats, Scott inventing a special hardener known as Goop (we’re meant to buy Elvis as an engineering genius, apparently), and Tom trying to figure out why he loves to wear eye shadow. Seriously, it looks like the guy got a makeover by the counter girl at JC Penny.
With such a wafer thin plot, Clambake desperately tries to pad the running time with a bevy of songs, none of which are at all well written or entirely memorable. Elvis probably knew this, too, since his performance is about as stiff and uninterested as the lyrics. He embarrasses himself at the get-go with the awful title tune, where the poor guy has to warble “Clambake” until the cows come home. Two almost identical tracks have him staring at the horizon and whining like a simpleton, while another has him spouting exposition about said Goop, boats, and whatnot.
The problem with all of these songs is that they get their point across by the end of the first stanza, but insist on plowing forward for another two to three minutes. For example, Scott and Tom sing a little ditty called “Who Needs Money?” after officially trading lives. See, Scott expounds about how he doesn’t need money while Tom croons about how much he loves the stuff. Simple, right? Too bad the message is hammered out over the course of about seven verses. At some point I just wanted to smack both of them, as well as the guy who was dubbing for Tom’s singing voice.
Thankfully there was one bright spot in this mediocre film, and it came in the form of a melody called “Confidence.” In a surreal, almost nightmarish sequence that lasts over five minutes long, Scott preaches to a playground littered with children about how they need to have, say it with me now, “confidence.” The song has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and brings the little there is to a screeching halt. At one point the camera is turned upside down for no conceivable reason outside of drug use on the director’s part, and, while playing Cowboys ‘n Indians, Elvis actually mock shoots himself in the temple. A not-so subtle look into his psyche, perhaps?
Even though I was tempted to go for the Fast Forward button during some of the more interminable songs, Clambake provides some quality laugh-out loud moments. So if you want to see Bill Bixby go into a karate stance moments before being punched by a hammy, dull-eyed Elvis, or try to sit through a motorboat race finale that seems to go on for half a century, give this movie a chance. As for me, this is the only Elvis film I’ve ever seen, and it’s probably going to stay that way.