David Bowie once remarked that Just a Gigolo was his 31 Elvis movies rolled into one, the joke being that the King’s cinematic output was hardly one full of first-rate classics. The problem with this is that it isn’t strictly true: his two pictures for Michael Curtiz, King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, offer their pleasures, as does Don Siegel’s underrated Western Flaming Star. Whilst Kid Galahad isn’t in the same league as these efforts, it certainly proves to be preferable to such latter movies as Paradise - Hawaiian Style or Stay Away Joe.
The main point of interest with this film lies in the fact that it’s a remake of the 1937 picture of the same name. That was a hardboiled picture starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart (who would appear in another remake, 1941’s The Wagon Rolls at Night) and Bette Davis, part of Warner Bros. thirties cycle of gangster movies which included the likes of The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and Little Caesar. This, however, is a musical, and as a result the film rather whitewashes the plot of the original, as well as being a tad more simple.
In this version, Elvis returns to the town of his birth following a stint in the army. He hopes to gain employment as a mechanic, yet falls in the compulsive gambler Gig Young (“I’ll lay ya 3-1 I never bet on another horse”), and embarks on a career as a boxer. Of course, with Presley being the star, he also gets a little love interest courtesy of Gig’s sister Joan Blackwood, and has the opportunity to sing a few tunes.
This latter element proves to be the film’s greatest downfall. Whilst the songs themselves are amiable enough, director Phil Karlson invests them with little visual style, which is crucial when dealing with the musical genre. Consider the evidence from Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic 42nd Street routines to Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, or from Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain, and it becomes apparent that the key to a great musical is the huge visual pleasure to be had in the dance sequences, indeed many films of the genre rely solely on these sequences for their greatness. All Kid Galahad offers is Elvis doing a few twist moves at a picnic - hardly On the Town, is it?
Of course, it can also be argued that there are a number of popular musicals which don’t rely on dance sequences - I’m thinking of the likes of The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. Yet even these films offer a keen visual eye (The Sound of Music’s key image is, of course, the helicopter shot circling Julie Andrews at the very beginning), though in the case Karlson seems content to stick Elvis in a static back-projection shot whilst he sings along to a car radio, rather than offer anything remotely adventurous.
It is, however, a little unfair to centre the blame entirely on the director. As with many of Elvis’ pictures, his manager Colonel Tom Parker serves as “technical advisor”, and I believe he has a strong role to play in the smoothing out of the star’s rougher edges. (If you want to see some fine Elvis on screen, whether big or small, go for the 1968 comeback special or Denis Sanders' record of his 1969 Las Vegas season, That’s The Way It Is, as opposed to anything fictional.) Indeed, rather than the likes of ‘Hound Dog’, Presley is reduced to singing numbers that wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, a Doris Day vehicle.
Perhaps this is also the reason for the film seeming so anaemic when compared to its 1937 source in terms of dealing with anything even slightly edgy. The boxing film has always treated the subject in a somewhat seedy light, whether it be Alfred Hitchcock’s twenties silent The Ring or John Huston’s Fat City (or even Guy Ritchie’s Snatch). Moreover, the sport has also been a favourite of the film noir genre, which has given us such tough delights as Body and Soul and The Set-Up. Of course, we’re dealing with a musical here, not a hard-boiled pic from the forties, and yet whilst it touches on the theme of corruption and features a few mob characters, this elements is always underplayed in favour of the musical interludes or treated almost for laughs. (I can’t recall a single other boxing musical to offer a comparison, so it may well be that Kid Galahad is the sole holder of the title, unless you count Rocky IV which essentially remixed the best bits from the previous three films into a number of music videos, and bookended them with a couple of new fight scenes.)
The film does offer certain pleasure however, primarily from its cast of supporting players. Whilst Elvis gives an amiable performance, Gig Young steals the picture with another of his fine comic turns. Spending much of his career in lightweight romantic comedies such as Teacher’s Pet (opposite Doris Day and Clark Gable), Young has always been a watchable, and likeable, presence on-screen, and Kid Galahad proves no exception. Indeed it is this likeable aspect that goes someway to dulling the film’s darker edges; even when facing a death threat or rowing with his long-term girlfriend (Lola Albright), he stills offers a smirk or half-smile, ensuring us that everything will turn out just fine in the end.
Also notable is Charles Bronson, who up until this point had played one of the seven in The Magnificent Seven but was mainly known for supporting roles in such Vincent Price movies as House of Wax or Masters of the World. Of course, there has always been a roughness to Bronson, which perfectly suited such later works as Once Upon a Time in the West or his own boxing vehicle, Hard Times, and his role as Elvis’ corner-man similarly plays on this element. This earthiness is welcome amongst the films gloss and, certainly, his performance here is far superior to much (if not all) of his eighties output, and you feel a real sense of friendship between him and the King.
Sadly, the two female roles are underwritten, obviously because the film is written purely as a Presley vehicle, and yet also because neither proves to be as strong a character actor as Young or Bronson. Both of whom have a keen supporting actor sense as a result of having largely played second or third fiddle for much of their career.
So, a lightweight picture and one that fails within in the context of the genres it’s placed in, yet as an Elvis picture (where expectations are always low), it proves to be almost a delight. A simple, frothy picture, though that’s never really a bad thing.
Picture and Sound
Whilst offering the occasional scratch, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer at least offers the wonderfully vibrant colours of many of the films of the early sixties. Whilst not in the same league as say Warner Bros. stunning work on North by Northwest, the picture is watchable nonetheless.
The sound is spread over the front two speakers, though monaural throughout. The film is, of course, fuelled either by its dialogue or the numerable songs, and the disc never struggles with either.
Another of MGM back catalogue releases, the only extra offered is the original theatrical trailer. As is expected, Elvis proves to be the key element here (“Nobody loves like Elvis/Nobody fights likes Elvis/And nobody but nobody sings like Elvis”).
Whilst I’m sure that Elvis would much rather be remembered for his songs than his movies, Kid Galahad is still a likeable effort. It’s not his best (and certainly nowhere near approaching his worst), though for fans working their way through his big screen output this could well be a worthy purchase.
Here's an idea: take a 1937 hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart boxing movie and remake as an Elvis Presley musical! Intrigued? Anthony Nield takes a look at the Region 2 release of Kid Galahad.