This period comedy drama starred Elvis Presley (in one of his final acting roles), several catchy songs (Signs of the Zodiac being my favourite) and a great supporting cast (including Sheree North and Marlyn Mason), but was overshadowed by its grim themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism and murder. Certainly not your usual Elvis fare – which probably accounted for its dire box office reception – but director Peter Tewksbury (TV’s Father Knows Best) was way ahead of its time – as his period drama musical, which landed in US cinemas on 3 September 1969, is much more than your usually popcorn Elvis vehicle.
Based on the 1960 novel, Chautauqua, by Day Keene and Dwight Vincent Babcock, it’s actually the kind of leftfield murder mystery that you’d kind of expect [today] from the likes of the Cohen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Brothers. In a small Iowa town in 1927, the travelling Chautauqua company arrives with its new manager, Walter Hale (Elvis Presley), in charge. While dealing with its internal affairs, including attempts to establish a workers union by one of his employees, Charlene (Mason), Hale uses a local scandal, the murder of a pharmacist (Dabney Coleman), to bolster the troupe’s attendance figures when he gets his killer, Nita (North) to confess to the crime in public. But things don’t all go to plan…
‘You’re not only handsome, you’re bright!’
Vincent Price gets a cameo (watch it below) alongside guest stars like John Carradine, Joyce Van Patten and Frank Welker (aka Scooby-Doo’s Fred). But he certainly makes his brief appearance count. Being a regular on the US college lecture circuit himself, he draws from his own experiences in his portrayal of his showman-cum-academic, Mr Morality aka Mr Jonson (without an ‘H’), who really is a larger-than-life version of Price himself (sans the horror label).
It’s one of my favourite Price walk-on roles, so much so, I now always sleep with four pillows – just in case… Mind you, I cannot watch this without thinking of the tragic demise of little Anissa Jones, aka Buffy in Family Affair, who would died of a drug overdose aged 18 seven years after making this film.