Crop-duster pilot Mike Edwards (Elvis Presley) is a rock-and-roll crooning Casanova who can’t resist buzzing a couple of cute blondes on the highway while his buddy Danny (Gary Lockwood) is in the front seat, presumably praying they don’t crash. While Mike is all about the ladies, Danny has a gambling habit and blows their pay on his latest poker game. After rescuing his penniless pal from angry gamblers, Mike discovers the local sheriff has impounded their plane until they pay off Danny’s debts. So Mike and Danny hitch a ride with Mr. Ling (Kam Tong) and his cute little niece Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu) who are on their way to the World’s Fair in Seattle. With Ling busy on the road, Mike agrees to escort Sue-Lin around the many splendid attractions at the fair. Eating too many sugary desserts lands Sue-Lin with a tummy ache at the hospital where Mike promptly falls for nurse Diane Warren (Joan O’Brien). His attempts to woo Diane are complicated when Ling mysteriously disappears leaving Sue-Lin in Mike’s care.
Politics combined with rock-and-roll to ensure the making of It Happened at the World’s Fair. Well, sort of... It was Albert Rossellini, governor of Washington at the time, who suggested to MGM that the World’s Fair in Seattle might make a picturesque backdrop for their latest Elvis escapade. In retrospect it is easy to discern the feelgood factor for Americans watching the greatest rock star in the world strolling through an exhibition celebrating a bright and shiny future for a nation that, in the early Sixties, was on top of the world. Veteran cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, whose many illustrious credits included Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Invitation to the Dance (1954), Brigadoon (1954) and Gigi (1958) before bowing out with another Elvis vehicle Speedway (1968), soaks up the gorgeous fairground colours and sleek futuristic scenery provided by the Seattle Center Monorail and the Space Needle for a film that, while undeniably light on plot, carries an air of uplifting optimism.
Screenwriters Si Rose and Seaman Jacobs never really settle on one definitive plot but rather awkwardly interweaves several ephemeral threads. Yet somehow the film assembles a subtext that proves unexpectedly affecting. While Joan O’Brien essays one of Elvis’ more unremarkable love interests, the film hints it is the optimism she represents that galvanises Mike to get his hitherto wayward life together. Little Sue-Lin embodies Mike’s possible future as an upstanding family. Meanwhile Danny seems content to remain a ne’er do well and conspires to rid Mike of both “corrupting” female influences. Five years later Gary Lockwood, who also appeared with Elvis in Wild in the Country (1961), played astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) leading one to wonder whether Stanley Kubrick was an Elvis fan?
Adorable scene-stealing tyke Vicky Tiu undoubtedly earned the envy of millions of kids around the world. She even gets to sing a duet with Elvis. Norman Taurog, whose directing career stretched back to classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Boys Town (1938) and Presenting Lily Mars (1943) was noted for coaxing strong performances from child actors whom he often rewarded with chocolate after a good take. Tiu certainly earned her sugar fix and unlike her sisters Ginny Tiu and Elizabeth Tiu and brother Alexander Tiu who starred opposite Elvis in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), inhabits a genuine character rather than conform to a cutesy Asian-American caricature. Elsewhere, fans of the Sixties Batman show should keep an eye out for curvaceous Yvonne Craig, a few years before she went on to fuel generations of adolescent fantasies as sparkly purple Batgirl, whose romantic clinche with Elvis is interrupted by her gun-toting papa! Craig, who was supposedly dating Elvis offscreen, had a more substantial role in his next film, Kissin’ Cousins (1964). By far the most notable thing about It Happened at the World’s Fair is the scene where a young Kurt Russell kicks Elvis in the leg, all part of his scheme to score sympathy with Diana. Russell of course went on to play Elvis in John Carpenter’s 1979 biopic.
It Happened at the World’s Fair gives fans their money’s worth of Elvis songs. While there is nothing comparible “Jailhouse Rock” or “Love Me Tender”, the music ranks among his strongest soundtrack efforts. The film also throws in the usual scenes where Elvis thrashes a dozen thugs single-handed, included in his contract so he could show off his karate moves and play the action star he always wanted to be rather than the soppy romantic lead Colonel Parker ensured he stayed. Gary Lockwood proves about as handy as he was against HAL. Though commonly derided, It Happened at the World’s Fair stands as an ode to more innocent and optimistic times and for sheer feelgood entertainment ranks among the top tier Elvis titles.