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Harum Scarum

To say that the quality of Elvis Presley's musical-comedies was uneven is a gross understatement. Sometimes the creativity required to create ever-new situations into which to drop the singin', swivelin', girl-crazy King was stretched to the breaking point — and the ludicrous Harum Scarum (1965) is evidence of what happens when writers and producers desperately scrape the bottom of the barrel. While on a goodwill tour of the Middle East promoting his movie, singing action star (and martial arts expert!) Johnny Tyronne (Elvis, of course) is kidnapped by a sinister group of black-clad ruffians who go by the subtle-yet-evocative name "The Assassins." Their cartoonishly evil leader wants Johnny to kill King Toranshah (Philip Reed), head of a country that's described as "stepping back almost 2,000 years … the pageantry and beauty [are] almost unbelievable." After camping out on a sand-covered soundstage, singing to some improbable harem girls and escaping into the same southern California hills used for 90 percent of all location photography, Johnny arrives at the sets originally built for Cecil B. DeMille's 1925 epic King of Kings and falls for King Toranshah's beautiful daughter, Shalimar (ex-Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, not quite covering her heavy southern accent). With the help of a comic-relief thief named Zacha (Jay Novello) and his band of cut-purses, Johnny wanders from obvious film-set to obvious film-set and finds reasons to sing at every opportunity — including an impromptu rock number in the village square and a vaguely unsettling, up-tempo, "Hey little girl, come dance with me" ditty to a nine-year-old showing off her slave-girl dance moves. Harum Scarum is disjointed, almost anecdotal in nature, and Elvis appears to be either heavily drugged or bored stiff through most of it — yet, for all that, it's oddly entertaining in its own cheesy way. As the scheming femme fatale of The Assassins, Fran Jeffries is red-hot sexy (delivering lines like, "Unless you obey the wishes of my master and kill with your skilled hands, the lives of these orphans will be forfeited"), and the musical numbers are staged with refreshing creativity by director (and longtime song-and-dance man) Gene Nelson. Warner's DVD release of Harum Scarum offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print that's extremely clean for the most part, with just a few specks. The monaural Dolby Digital audio is adequate to the task. On board is the theatrical trailer plus trailers for four other Elvis titles. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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