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Flaming Star (Blu-ray Review)

8 Dec, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Elvis Presley, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores Del Rio.

One of the great tangential benefits of having programmed the AFI Theater for give-or-take nine years was the opportunity it afforded to hear the hisses and worse when Col. Tom Parker’s name appeared as technical advisor on an Elvis Presley movie we happened to be running. More than anyone else, the Colonel has always gotten the blame for having sunk The King’s screen career in a sea of 3 a.m.-at-the-drive-in fare promoted by this carny huckster’s abysmal bad taste. And Flaming Star is the picture that marked the beginning of the end (the next year’s Wild in the Country was the kicker) of any chance Elvis had to become a serious actor.

Twilight Time’s Nick Redman and frequent commentary collaborator Lem Dobbs waste no time getting into this on the Star commentary here, noting that the die was cast when the Paramount/Hal Wallis G.I. Blues (released Nov. 23, 1960) gave audiences who were hankering for the first post-army Elvis movie just what they wanted — whereas Star (Dec. 20) underperformed at the box office despite being one in a handful of contenders for the best narrative movie the singer ever made. Except for the cool title tune and a jaunty birthday number that opens the story — I’m a rare one who loves the latter because, for one thing, as far as I know, this was the only time L.Q. Jones ever accompanied an Elvis tune — this is straight drama and definitely a Don Siegel picture. A white Texas settler and single father marries a Kiowa, and they have a child, setting up conflict 20-or-so years later during Indian wars with faint echoes of those in The Searchers. In other words, Elvis’s character (Pacer) is something of a pariah to all. Even his half-brother’s squeeze (Barbara Eden, who replaced Barbara Steele — now, there’s a switch) eventually confesses she’s never approved of him.

Other than Michael Curtiz and George Sidney (both very late in their careers) and Phil Karlson, this is the only time Elvis worked with a director who had a following, though this was back when Siegel was just a cultist’s cause and not the ‘A’-lister Dirty Harry briefly made him. This is another of the efficient low-end ‘A’-movies that kept the director’s career going, sandwiched as it was between Edge of Eternity and Hell Is for Heroes. At one point the commentary notes the strikingly large number of Siegel films where the lead actor dies (as I recall, The Killers reaches Hamlet and The Sand Pebbles volumes when it comes to dispatching most of the cast). But in tallying the number of screen deaths endured by John Wayne (whose swan song was Siegel’s The Shootist), it shortchanges the Duke by several. Not even counting The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (told in flashback after Wayne’s death), I think there are three or four more beyond those noted.

Another thing here: Elvis is surrounded by some solid actors, including John McIntire as his father and, as his mother, Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, who’d later be utilized again as a Native-American by John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn. Even Steve Forrest as Elvis’s white sibling is as good as I’ve ever seen him (if you want to see Sequoia-level-wooden, check him out opposite Anne Baxter in Bedevilled, from which I suspect his career never really recovered. This is the kind of movie that is often called “efficient,” which means it is easy to take for granted. But Siegel and cinematographer Charles C. Clarke (Margie and Captain From Castile would be most welcome on Blu-ray, pul-eeze) handle CinemaScope well for a Blu-ray presentation that significantly betters the old DVD — with bountiful interior scenes that are rarely static and an outdoor set that sticks the memory as the next thing to another character in the movie. In terms of its rep and my memories, this is a much better movie than John Huston’s similarly themed The Unforgiven, which had come out the previous spring.

Star studio 20th Century-Fox certainly had the jukebox demographic covered with its November 1960 release of the John Wayne-Fabian hit North to Alaska — but as mentioned, this was merely a profitable Presley at a time when Hal Wallis claimed that an Elvis picture was the only sure thing in the business. Worse, 1961 offered box office re-enforcement. Wild in the Country flopped in the early summer (I’ve been meaning to take a fresh look for about five years now), but then it was Blue Hawaii at Thanksgiving — the biggest screen hit of Elvis’s career with more songs than you could shake a lei at. In the long view, though, his movie days were numbered almost as fast as you could say Harum Scarum, and it’s a matter of public record that this graveled his guts, even if the Colonel did end up getting the kind of pictures he thought would keep his client in the big leagues. Well, we all know how that worked out, don’t we?

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