This August 16th will be the 45th anniversary of the death of “the King,” Elvis Presley. To celebrate, we thought we’d look back at some of ‘ol Swivel Hip’s musicals collected in the blue
suede flocked boxed set, Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection, from a few years back. Titles included are: 1957’s King Creole, 1960’s G.I. Blues, 1961’s Blue Hawaii, 1964’s Roustabout, 1962’s Girls! Girls! Girls!, 1963’s Fun in Acapulco, 1966’s Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and 1967’s Easy Come, Easy Go. In other words: all of Elvis’ Paramount pictures for producer Hal B. Wallis (except for Loving You, which still hasn’t seen an official U.S. release).
By Paul Mavis
If you’re any kind of Elvis fan (I count myself an Elvis freak), you can see from that list that there are one or two quite good movies included in the set, one or two acceptable ones, and the rest junk…and that would pretty much line up with how the King himself assessed and described his big screen career. Where his movies—or indeed Elvis himself—stands in today’s popular culture is a matter, I would suspect, of some minor discussion among our cultural betters, but don’t expect the conclusions to be positive. In today’s nightmarish world of gargantuan griefs based on Lilliputian education and understanding, no doubt most of the stories dealing with Elvis next week will trot out that facile, totally erroneous “Elvis stole black music” assertion for the umpteenth time. The relative aesthetic value of say, Blue Hawaii or Girls! Girls! Girls!, probably won’t come up.
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Today’s “pop culture writers” (hahahaha) and most “music historians” (blech), and various other media/“higher education” cranks with an axe to grind and a tenure application awaiting woke government approval, see Elvis as just another cultural idol to tear down, a whipping boy for one small segment of the overall continued march of historical re-evaluation of Western civilization (I believe the college course bulletin code is LAHW: “Let’s All Hate Whitey”).
It’s all so crushingly predictable at this point, but what are you going to do? These jack-offs run the show for now…until the pendulum swings back again (Western Civ-hating socialist commies who use race to divide the masses love to talk about “historical inevitabilities”…but never that one).
It was a different story back in the 70s. Elvis, fresh off his Singer Presents…Elvis (a.k.a. ’68 Comeback Special TV spectacular) career rebound, was seemingly everywhere. His old movies played constantly on TV (“It’s ‘Elvis Week’ on The 4 O’Clock Movie!”); his music, new and old, could be heard on the radio; his TV specials were huge Nielsen winners, and of course, his various romances and stage performances (on the road and in Las Vegas), were a constant media drumbeat, orchestrated no doubt by his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker. You couldn’t get away from the guy.
Which is exactly what that old Dutch carny wanted: Elvis as overwhelming media presence. And to his credit, it worked. No matter how influential Elvis may have been in the creation of the rock ‘n’ roll genre, there was certainly no guarantee he would have still been a force in the pop culture 15 or 20 years down the line. Fads come and go, and fans grow up quick, and the pop culture machine is forever hungry for “the next thing,” and needs feeding. The fact that the Colonel could keep Elvis in the public eye for so long, was a remarkable achievement…outside of any consideration of the cost to Elvis himself.
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Some degree of that credit, though, should also be given to veteran movie producer Hal B. Wallis, the man who gave Elvis his first screen test, and who signed him to his first movie contract. Elvis always wanted to be a movie star first; singing was just a vehicle to get him to his final, ultimate goal. Elvis’ fame on stage could have proved ephemeral; Elvis captured on 35mm film was permanent. He could be repackaged over and over again in a pleasing product (a light, family-friendly comedy/romance, with a bunch of songs to move that soundtrack album, and a bunch of pretty locales and prettier girls to keep the ticket buyers’ attention) for years and years.
And Wallis was instrumental in setting that mainstream tone. Elvis may have wanted to be the next James Dean or Marlon Brando, but Wallis and the Colonel went for quantity, not necessarily quality. They wanted years and years out of Elvis’ middle-of-the-road fame, not his chancy, iffy “best” years as a serious dramatic actor who could have flashed out and faded away (Montgomery Clift would be the best example of that). Hollywood has always been about money, first and last, and with a proven formula that worked (Elvis’ pictures were budgeted low; he got a hefty slice of that below-line money to keep the Colonel happy; and a predictable number of fans always bought tickets and soundtrack albums to make a profit), Elvis was going to be Bing Crosby, not some ass-scratching Brando clone.
In only his fourth movie role, Elvis plays Danny Fisher, a sensitive but angry teenager trying to adjust to his new life in the old French Quarter of New Orleans. His pharmacist father (Dean Jagger) is a drunk who can’t hold a job ever since his wife died three years before. Danny resents his father’s weakness (despite his sister Mimi’s [Jan Shepard] entreaties to understand their father’s troubles), and decides that school (twice he’s been held back from graduating) and a staid, “normal” life, isn’t for him. He wants money and his freedom from the grinding poverty of his home life, with either his singing talents or crime (he falls in with Vic Morrow’s gang of hoods) being his best bet to accomplish his goals.
Of course, there’s a price to be paid for this choice. While legitimate offers for his singing beckon from good-guy King Creole Club owner Charlie Le Grand (Paul Stewart), a twisted desire by malevolent mob boss Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) to pressure Danny to either sing or steal for him, puts Danny in a very dangerous place. This situation isn’t helped by the fact that he shares strong feelings for one of Maxie’s “girls,” Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), a “good girl gone bad,” who sees something of herself before she went wrong, in Danny. Creating additional conflict in Danny’s emotional state is his equally strong attraction for nice girl Nellie (Delores Hart), who waits patiently for Danny to decide which path his life will take.
Quite often cited as Elvis’ best movie performance (including by the King himself), King Creole holds up very well today, with Elvis’ best cast and crew aiding him enormously in this proto-film noir musical. Shot in silky, oppressively dark black & white widescreen, King Creole meets quite a few film noir requirements, including an angry, rebellious protagonist caught in criminal social forces beyond his control; a choice between a blonde “good girl” who offers salvation and a brunette “bad girl” who, though aware of her better nature, is doomed to never cross back over into the light; and a perverted kingpin who enjoys using his spider web of influence to crush people.
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These noir elements fit comfortably, for the most part, within the movie’s musical structure when the songs Elvis sings maintain a nasty, mean tone (the celebrated Trouble and Hard Headed Woman could be noir theme songs). However, as was the Colonel’s demand, too many songs were crammed into the movie (the better to fill out the nation’s record bins), and inevitably, the lesser ones dim the overall soundtrack’s impact.
King Creole has atmosphere to burn, with its rather startling opening, when the funky bass line of Crawfish thuds on the soundtrack as the camera travels over Bourbon Street to settle on Elvis, lazily singing along on his squalid bedroom fire escape with Kitty White, giving the Elvis fans in the audience plenty of time to ogle their idol. Veteran director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), always good with neophyte actors (he guided Doris Day to screen stardom), is a good choice for this adapted Harold Robbins story, one that was originally envisioned as a starring vehicle for James Dean (Curtiz did great work with the similarly toned Young Man with a Horn).
Elvis’ costars here are probably the best ensemble he worked with in his career. Jones, complex in her simultaneously cynical, hopeful, and neurotically sexualized desires, has a compelling asymmetrical beauty, perfect for noir. Hart offers a nicely shaded version of the stock girl-next-door character, while Matthau, fully ripe in the screen villain stage of his career, is smoothly menacing here (and does a believable punch-up with Elvis, too).
It’s become a cliché to site King Creole and Elvis’ previous movie roles (Love Me Tender, Loving You, and Jailhouse Rock) as evidence that he could have become a noted, serious actor, had he only (as the mythology goes) broken away from manager Colonel Tom Parker’s smothering, suffocating influence, and escaped from moronic movies like several of the ones collected in this box set. It is true that Elvis is quite good here in King Creole, bringing an obviously heartfelt and earnest, restless energy to his role that no doubt was encouraged by Curtiz.
What fans forget, though, who prescribe to the above theory, is that Elvis did try other dramatic roles after his “fall upwards from grace” (which I would peg as the impressive money pulled in by G.I. Blues), with disastrous box office—and largely negative critical—results. Granted, Flaming Star and Wild in the Country were flawed projects to begin with, but the limitations of Elvis’s acting training (which was non-existent) showed through, and one may wonder if he would ever have obtained his goal to be the dramatic equal of his idols Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Tony Curtis.
Once the Colonel compared the box office receipts of G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii to Wild in the Country and Flaming Star (and indeed, King Creole, which was a hit…but no an overwhelming one), no matter how much Elvis wanted to be a serious actor, he was subsequently shoehorned into a color-soaked, stiflingly fluffy movie career.
G.I. Blues tells the rather tawdry tale of Army Specialist Tulsa McLean (Elvis), a G.I. tank gunner stationed in Germany. Saving up money to open his own nightclub after he’s discharged, Tulsa and his gang decide the best way to make a killing is to place a bet with Turk (Jeremy Slate), to see who can bed down iceberg dancer Lili (Juliet Prowse). When Tulsa’s go-to guy suddenly gets transferred, though, it’s up to Tulsa to seal the deal, with the aid of pint-sized right hand man Cookie (Robert Ivers).
Soon, Tulsa becomes enamored with Lili, but as expected, she finds out the whole romance was predicated on a bet. Will Tulsa, with the aid of a cute baby, marionettes, and lots of front projection travelogue shots, win Lili’s heart again?
G.I. Blues was widely touted at Elvis’ return to the big screen after being discharged from his two years stint in the Army, and as such, seemed like the perfect vehicle for fans to welcome him home. Watching it now, it’s hard to discern what the excitement was all about (it was a sizeable hit), but it’s not hard to see why this movie proved to be the catalyst for subsequent Elvis puff pieces.
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All of the stock, middle-of-the-road, conventional, safe elements that were rigidly adhered to in most future Elvis movies, can be found right here. An exotic locale. An exotic woman (usually multiple numbers). An adorably cute child or baby to interact with Elvis in a few scenes (the grandmas in the audience loved that). A gang of anonymous cohorts who act like adolescents and who back up Elvis’ schemes. Elvis as the karate expert who never loses a fight. And Elvis as a straight-arrow, hard-working individual who never takes charity.
These thematic elements would be religiously observed in subsequent Elvis features, until it became difficult, even for Elvis, to tell the movies apart. There’s a nasty undercurrent to G.I. Blues, however, despite all the cutesy-pie scenes designed to make Elvis’ fans swoon, that is off-putting (there’s a particularly obnoxious scene where three women are brought before a sergeant for his inspection and approval before selecting one for the evening).
I wonder how all of Elvis’ female viewers took the movie’s central premise: a bet to see if a guy can “make” a girl who’s supposedly frigid. Were they uncomfortable? Did they laugh at it? Or did they picture themselves as the willing object of the bet? Hard to say, but G.I. Blues’ openly leering, sneering attitude had to have offended some of them.
To homogenize the inherently nasty aspect of G.I. Blues’ central plot element, lots of female-friendly elements are incorporated into the plot, to not only keep all those screaming teenagers buying movie tickets and 45 records, but also to appeal to older female fans. Most strikingly, the dangerous punk that Elvis used to be in movies, that rebellious, hip-shaking, leg-thrashing sex machine who did prison time and got into knife fights in his previous movies, is completely gone.
Elvis is now as Establishment as can be: a soldier who plays with puppets and babies. The Wooden Heart song, where Elvis does a duet with a marionette, is charmingly done, showing Elvis’ easy way with light comedy, but seriously…what the hell does that have to do with the “King of Rock and Roll?” Where’s the Elvis that young girls used to listen to precisely because it drove their parents nuts? He’s gone forever, that’s where.
Even though faint glimmers of that character would occasionally resurface in later films (Roustabout, for instance), it was too late to recapture that sexually dangerous, potentially violent persona for Elvis. Instead, Elvis would increasingly sing silly, vapid ballads and lullabies to anonymous leading ladies and children, as in G.I. Blues.
As well, any attempt at even having a basic dramatic script has been thrown out, in favor of anesthetizing the audience with widescreen travelogue shots of Germany (and plenty of unconvincing front-projection shots of Elvis), while the majority of the movie remains resolutely studio-bound. Plot is irrelevant at this point; cramming in as many songs as can fit on a soundtrack album is key.
And quite often, if you watch Elvis closely, you can see already that he’s becoming bored with the icky ballads and faux-rock numbers that have been chosen for him (watch him sing Shoppin’ Around as he keeps looking off camera, obviously incredulous at points in the song, as if to say, “I went from Heartbreak Hotel…to this?). But no matter; the fans loved him in this one, and utterly rejected Elvis in that same year’s serious effort Wild in the Country (as I’m sure the Colonel knew they would), so the die was cast.
Arguably Elvis’ most popular, enduring picture with the fans, and the one that truly set the “Presley musical” format in stone. Blue Hawaii beefed up the usually chintzy Presley production values (Elvis finally gets to go on location, because illegal alien Colonel Tom Parker wasn’t afraid to go to Hawaii), secured the services of ace cinematographer Charles Lang to shoot all those gorgeous Hawaiian beaches, and somehow conjured up Elvis’ best-selling soundtrack album, all to make the quintessential Elvis Presley musical. If only they had gone one step further, and ditched director Norman Taurog.
Elvis plays ex-G.I. Chad Gates, who’s returning to Hawaii after active duty in Europe. Wanting nothing more than to lie on the beach, Chad actively looks for ways not to visit his parents, Fred and Sarah Lee Gates (Roland Winters and Angela Lansbury), the latter a Southerner with a penchant for getting “sugar” from her baby (jesus christ…). Chad’s father is the regional manager of a pineapple farm for the Great Southern Fruit Company (they were transferred to Hawaii from Georgia when Chad was a boy), and he wants Chad to follow in his footsteps. But Chad has other ideas, and wants to make his own way in his life.
Hooking up with girlfriend Maile Duval (Joan Blackman), and working for a travel agency as a tourist guide, Chad’s first assignment with schoolteacher Abigail Prentice (Nancy Walters) and her four teenage charges, including snooty, snotty Ellie Corbett (Jenny Maxwell), is a rough outing. Elvis tries to break down her wall of rudeness, while charming Miss Prentice. But a barroom fight gets him fired from the agency, and misunderstandings abound.
Blue Hawaii is the easiest Presley movie to just groove along to, where you can pleasantly zone out while enjoying the beautiful Hawaiian locales, the beautiful girls, and the genuinely fun Polynesian-inspired soundtrack of songs. There’s an assuredness to Blue Hawaii that would only resurface occasionally in later Presley vehicles, but this one feels the most like an “A” picture, and not the resulting “B’s” that were soon to follow.
Veteran director Taurog, never exactly known for jacking up the energy level of his later pictures, manages to keep Blue Hawaii focused on what’s important: the music, the scenery, and Elvis. Elvis, looking tan and relaxed, seems to be having a good time, and he has some lovely ballads to sing, including the haunting Can’t Help Falling in Love, the sensuous title track, the lilting No More, and the cute Moonlight Swim.
The supporting players are fine, too, particularly Lansbury who’s hamming it up as a Southern belle something awful (watch Presley genuinely cracking up and hiding his face to avoid ruining the shot when she tells a story about a Southern relative), with The Andy Griffith Show‘s Howard “Floyd the barber” McNear making a funny appearance, too. All of the hallmarks of a Presley musical are on display in Blue Hawaii, including Elvis’s gang of guys, hanging around for hijinks, a bevy of beautiful girls all vying for his attention, some cute kids to have a few scenes with, exotic locales, and Elvis’ determination to stay independent, and to work alone for what’s his in life. They even worked a dog into this one.
Sure, some off it is heavy-handed or misconceived (Ellie’s suicide attempt??), but overall, Blue Hawaii succeeds at what it’s aiming for: mindless entertainment. Unfortunately, its success convinced the studios and most importantly the Colonel, that subsequent Elvis musicals should never deviate from Blue Hawaii‘s standard format. And for the most part, that’s exactly what happened for his next twenty-three feature films.
GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!
…and now the junk begins. In Girls! Girls! Girls!, Elvis plays fishing guide Ross Carpenter, puttering around the Hawaiian islands on boats owned by Papa Stavros (Frank Puglia). Unfortunately, when Papa tells Ross that he must move to Arizona for his wife’s health, Ross is out both a job and a home (he lives on the West Wind, a sailboat he built with his father, who later died, with the boat then being bought by Papa).
Occasionally singing down at the Pirate’s Den, a local bar, Ross dodges the rather darkly neurotic put-downs of former girlfriend Robin Ganter (Stella Stevens). Hoping to secure the money to buy back his own boat, Ross enters into a deal with the current owner, low-down snake Wesley Johnson (Jeremy Slate), to skipper a tuna boat for him. But of course, Johnson wants to see Ross fail, for no other reason than to be mean about it.
It doesn’t help Ross, either, when a rich socialite that he met, Laurel Dodge (Laurel Goodwin) buys the West Wind, intending to give it to Ross. Will Ross get his boat? And which girl will he choose?
Following two very decent outings for United Artists (the delightful, underrated Follow That Dream, featuring one of Elvis’ best comedic performances, and Kid Galahad), Elvis returned to the Hal Wallis and Paramount fold, and came up with this floater. It’s apparent that everyone involved thought a return trip to Hawaii was just what the King needed to boost his box office receipts (those UA titles proved successful with the critics, but b.o. numbers were down a bit), so Elvis donned a navy blue captain’s hat, rolled up his sleeves, and starting trotting out the faux-Polynesian songs again.
Only this time, the songs weren’t nearly as melodious or catchy as Blue Hawaii‘s, with songs like We’re Coming in Loaded and Song of the Shrimp. Never heard of them? Exactly. Only Return to Sender proved long-lasting, which Elvis performs in his best finger-popping Jackie Wilson style.
But discounting that highlight, that leaves a lot of downtime for Girls! Girls! Girls!. While the opening seems to promise a Frank Tashlin-like tone, with gorgeous girls caught in various forms of play (like that travel montage in Hollywood or Bust), the visual style of director Norman Taurog quickly coagulates, offering nothing fresh or interesting.
And he’s not helped by Allan Weiss’ script. Singularly responsible for more crappy Presley musicals than any other screenwriter, Weiss seems incapable of constructing a coherent storyline, with character action left largely unmotivated (to be fair, Weiss later stated Wallis ordered Weiss’ screenplays to his specifications). Chief victim of this slipshod treatment is poor Stella Stevens. Her character, who’s central story action has already occurred before the movie has even started (she never does get with Elvis), makes so many mysterious, enigmatic statements about Elvis “crying on her shoulder” that eventually it becomes more fun to make up lurid backstories for the pair than wait for an explanation that never comes.
It’s also apparent that the two leads—who act like they’re in separate movies—distinctly don’t like each other. There’s zero chemistry there (I don’t care what the rumors said. Look at how she watches Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, compared to her open disdain for Elvis). Stevens, a knock-out both as an actress and as a beauty, is wasted yet again in a terrible 1960s project. As for Slate, he comes off just the way he’s supposed to: as another creep for Elvis to smash in the face when there’s time to kill. Girls! Girls! Girls! should have sounded a big warning bell to Elvis, but he either didn’t care or wasn’t listening. Or worst of all: he felt powerless to do anything about it.
FUN IN ACAPULCO
If possible, even worse than Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco‘s main crime is that it doesn’t even let Elvis step foot in Mexico. Elvis plays Mike Windgren, an itinerant sailor who’s fired from his post when his boss’ daughter sets him up for resisting her advances (happens all the time, man). Stranded in Mexico, Mike befriends little Raoul (Larry Domasin), a friendly Mexican boy who seems to know everybody in Acapulco. Setting up an appointment with a relative of his, who runs the Acapulco Hilton, Raoul proposes that he manage Mike’s career.
And like a sensible adult, Mike agrees to an eight-year-old running his life. There, Mike secures a job as relief lifeguard and nightclub singer (I know, I know). Offending the macho Latin sensibilities of permanent lifeguard and champion cliff diver (I know, I know) Moreno (Alejandro Rey), Mike proceeds to muscle in not only on Moreno’s job, but also his girl, Marguerita Dauphin (Ursula Andress), a deposed princess from an Iron-Curtain country whose royal father, Maximillian Dauphin (Paul Lukas), now works as a chef at the hotel (I know, I know).
Meanwhile, he’s also having a mild flirtation with Dolores Gomez (Elsa Cardenas), Mexico’s best female bullfighter (ole!). Mike has a dark secret, though—he’s afraid of heights. And for a very good reason. Will Mike’s secret be revealed, and will he make the high dive off the hotel’s cliffs?
While there are plenty of travelogue shots of Acapulco in this Presley yawner, you won’t find one with Elvis in it. That’s because he didn’t travel to Mexico for the second unit work: the Colonel forbade it (no traveling for the I.N.S.-shy Colonel). So most scenes in Fun in Acapulco either have Elvis in some cheesy front-projection shot, alternating with a bad double shot in Mexico, or in a cramped, dark, badly designed and dressed set in Hollywood, utterly ruining any verisimilitude the movie may have had. One of the hallmarks of the Presley musical was always at least some pretty scenery, but when it’s obvious that Presley never actually set foot there—not ever—it really ruins the effect.
Not that that’s the only drawback to Fun in Acapulco. The ridiculous premise—SPOILER Presley accidentally killed his brother in a circus acrobat stunt—doesn’t leave a lot of room for credibility. The Andress/Lukas subplot is ludicrous, and Andress, a stunning beauty, is poorly costumed here, with big granny-panty bikinis that look terrible on her (she could wear a burlap bag and look smashing—how do you screw that up?).
Elvis doesn’t look too much better. Never exactly a bodybuilder, his slight build here fails to convince us he was ever a catcher in a flier act, nor does he look that comfortable in a bathing suit. Looking at his face, it’s obvious he’s losing interest fast in junk like Fun in Acapulco (he was now making three of these a year), and its painful to watch. As for the songs, the ersatz Mexican songs are uninvolving and too similar to stand out from one another. Only the scintillating, raucous Bossa Nova Baby makes the grade, but it’s canceled out by dreck like No Room to Rhumba in A Sports Car (yep) and You Can’t Say No in Acapulco.
The solid studio director, Richard Thorpe, had already been helming projects for almost forty years when he guided Fun in Acapulco, and frankly, it shows. This is tired moviemaking. The pacing and set-ups are classic Thorpe: plain, simplified, and totally unimaginative, without a moment’s passion. At this point, Elvis was sliding down a slippery slope, with little chance of recovery. Already long-written off by critics, his fans would soon grow tired of tripe like Fun in Acapulco, too, leaving his movie career in tatters.
On a roll, after the wonderful Viva Las Vegas over at M-G-M (the Colonel would disagree: too expensive, and that girl overshadowed his boy), Elvis returned to his Wallis/Paramount contract and starred in Roustabout, a speedy little “B” programmer with plenty of atmosphere, and some great supporting actors. In it, Elvis plays Charlie Rogers, a quick-to-anger singer who lams it on his Japanese motorbike whenever his romantic life because too complicated.
Busted for wasting three obnoxious frat boy goons, Charlie is bailed out of jail by a friendly waitress, with Charlie paying her back by leaving her in the dust at the police station. Out on the road, he hits on a pretty girl, Cathy (Joan Freeman) riding in the back of a Jeep. Her near-insane, grumbling father Joe Lean (Leif Erickson) runs Charlie off the road, whereby his mistress, Maggie Morgan (Barbara Stanwyck), offers him a job at her carnival until they can get his bike fixed.
Now a carnival roustabout, Charlie proceeds to hit on anything that moves, including Madame Mijanou (Sue Ann Langdon), a sexy older palm reader (make your own joke). Baiting Joe almost constantly, while pursuing his daughter, Charlie soon starts packing in the suckers when he picks up a guitar and rocks the midway. Maggie wants him to sign a contract, but you can’t tame a wildcat, so Charlie keeps things cool.
Maggie, however, needs the money; the previous year, Joe had rigged a ride drunk, causing a customer to get injured, and she had to take out a loan to pay off the judgment (she had let the insurance lapse). Meanwhile, big time operator Harry Carver (Pat Buttram) wants Charlie for his own lavish carnival. Will Charlie choose “family,” over money?
The biggest drawbacks to Roustabout are the less-than-stellar songs (although the title tune is sensational, and Elvis does a knock-out version of Little Egypt), and an Elvis who is clearly unhealthy. Still trim, his pale face, though, is puffy and frequently sweaty, and close-ups of his eyes sometimes show someone who’s clearly under the influence of some substance (we here at the Movies & Drinks are experts).
It’s truly disconcerting to see Elvis this way, especially since his early movie performances had such energy and life to them. However, Roustabout more than makes up for these impediments by creating a believable carny atmosphere, shot in wonderfully expressive style by master cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and directed with some verve by a newcomer to the Presley franchises, TV director John Rich.
No doubt falling back on the Colonel’s early experiences running such shows, the carnival in Roustabout looks and (almost) smells real. Rich does something smart at the beginning, and has Cathy show Charlie around the place, cluing us in on the special terminology that’s exclusive to carnivals. It’s a fascinating sequence, and it’s played without sentiment nor cynicism. The viewer really feels they’re getting a peek into a world they’ve seen but never really understood, and that’s saying something for a Presley musical.
As well, the compositions, particularly the nighttime studio-created exteriors, are marvelous studies in deep blacks and reds, stripes and criss-crossing lines, courtesy no doubt of cinematographer Ballard. It may be Presley’s best-looking movie, and those compositions certainly go a long way towards keeping our interest. As for Rich’s direction, he’s not afraid to try new things—again, highly unusual in a Presley musical, where the Colonel maintained a firm hand on keeping things exactly the same, film-in and film-out (it’s cheaper that way).
There’s a marvelous sequence in Roustabout with Elvis and Joan Freeman, where they ride a Ferris wheel while he sings her a song, with Rich putting a camera right on the wheel, giving us a beautiful overhead shot of the whole carnival. He keeps the camera distant from Elvis and Joan, instead focusing on the wheel going around and around, creating a nicely dizzying effect. As well, Rich directs a nicely tense sequence where Elvis rides around the “Wall of Death,” a deeply curved bowl-shaped velodrome where Elvis cracks up his bike.
The actors are top-notch in Roustabout, too. Barbara Stanwyck, a legend by this point in her career, effortlessly commands the screen whenever she’s on, bringing a sense of reality to her character that usually is missing in Presley musical supporting performances. Leif Erickson, always good playing a miserable wretch, is first-rate as the unsympathetic father. And Langdon is sexy and funny as the horny palm reader.
It’s just a shame that Elvis wasn’t in better shape, both physically and mentally, to where he could have engaged the material, instead of looking like he’s frequently zoning out. If he had, and if the songs had been sharper and more pertinent, Roustabout may have been one of his best pictures. All the ingredients were there…only Elvis was missing.
PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE
Quite a few fans, myself included, call Paradise, Hawaiian Style one of, if not the, worst movie in Elvis’ career—and that’s saying something. Going back one last time to Hawaii (except later for TV), Elvis plays Rick Richards, an airline pilot who’s been fired for chasing one too many girls (he was attacked by an air hostess on his last flight). Returning to Hawaii, he looks up his friend Danny Kohana (James Shigeta), who runs a small air charter service.
With business slow, Rick hustles up a partnership with a bigger outfit to buy two helicopters and provide service for tourists looking for out-of-the-way locations on the Islands. Danny, hesitant because they have to put up their own money, and because Rick is an unreliable skirt-chaser, eventually comes around and they go into business together.
Hiring pretty Judy Hudson (Suzanna Leigh) as their secretary (even though she’s a qualified pilot), Danny warns her to pretend she’s married, to keep Rick at bay. Meanwhile, Rick is hitting up all his old conquests, who naturally work at all the swankiest resorts, to see if they can hustle up customers for their service. Taking one of his female buddies along with one of Danny’s daughters, Jan (Donna Butterworth), Rick lands on a deserted part of the beach, while the girl promptly throws away the keys to the helicopter (as you do).
They’re stranded there overnight, but Danny comes to rescue them. He’s upset, and breaks up the partnership, but Rick has a chance to make things right when Danny crashes his helicopter, and oh what’s the point of going on….
It’s difficult to accurately describe the positively zombie-like feel of Paradise, Hawaiian Style unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. So much of it is so wrong, it’s hard to know where to start. First, and most glaringly, is Elvis himself. At times looking distinctly portly, Elvis is clearly under the influence here, ever so slightly bobbing and weaving through his scenes.
Watching him in the big finale that takes place at the famed Polynesian Cultural Center (which is shot like someone recording their kid’s dance recital way back in row 45), as he slowly, slowly walks across camera, his paunch laughably hanging out, and his eyes fixed determinedly ahead (like some drunk carefully navigating across a dance floor), Elvis is clearly in trouble, and everybody on this set had to have known it. What happened to the guy who threw himself at his frenzied audiences, driving them wild with his erotic, forbidden gyrations? This man can barely walk across a sandy stage. It’s a vaguely morbid experience, to say the least, watching Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
The story is laughably simplistic, to the point of abbreviation, with Elvis really only having three or four sequences that advance the plot. Quite a bit of Paradise, Hawaiian Style is made up of aerial shots of Hawaii. Whether these were originally planned, or were added to pad out a film that may have stalled due to Presley’s condition, is anybody’s guess.
As for the other actors, they look as distinctly uncomfortable as Elvis looks in a bathing suit (he keeps his back to the camera, or a towel around him, whenever his shirt is off). Leigh, who was funny in director John Rich’s cult comedy, Boeing, Boeing, has nothing to do here. Her subplot of being a pilot is set up as something that will surely crop up again, but it’s dropped, lost in the shuffle of helicopter shots and Elvis coming on to a ridiculous number of women, ominously promising to “scratch their backs if they’ll scratch his,” when clearly most women wouldn’t get near him in the condition he finds himself.
And there’s no point discussing the songs. With titles like Queenie Wahine’s Papaya (make your own joke) and Dog’s Life (where Elvis flies a pack of dogs in his helicopter, in what must be the single most embarrassing moment in his cinematic life), it’s not surprising there weren’t any Top Ten—or even Top 100—hit singles from this soundtrack. The Colonel, no doubt privately embarrassed by what had become of his boy, didn’t even bother to release any from this wretched movie.
EASY COME, EASY GO
Watching our last title in the Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection box set is a lot like its own title: you can take it or leave it. It really doesn’t leave much of an impression at all. In his last picture for producer Hal Wallis, Elvis plays Lieutenant Ted Jackson, an underwater demolitions expert for the Navy who accidentally discovers buried treasure during one of his missions.
Getting confirmation on the wreck from the original skippers’ granddaughter, Jo Symington (Dodie Marshall), Rick enlists the aid of his hippie bar owner friend Judd (Pat Harrington, Jr.) and Captain Jack (Frank McHugh), a kiddie show host who has scuba equipment for cheap. The team starts to count their dough, planning to dive for the treasure, but what they didn’t count on is rich photographer Dina Bishop (The Munsters‘ Pat Priest) and her goonish boyfriend Gil Carey (Skip Ward), honing in on their action.
There’s just the faintest germ of a goofy, comedy adventure lurking in the debris of Easy Come, Easy Go, but it always frustratingly fades away in mistimed sequences and tentative action scenes. Utilizing a hippie backdrop for the comedy, the Judd character may seem like he’s a gas, but he doesn’t have any actual funny lines to firmly convince us of that fact. The infamous yoga scene, where Elsa Lanchester as Madame Neherina (what the hell is she doing here?) sings the absolutely bizarre duet with Elvis, Yoga Is as Yoga Does, shows signs of promise, with Elvis playing it low-key and straight (none of his sometimes uncomfortable mugging).
But without a witty script that has a point to its satire, the sequence just lays there, like most of the scenes in Easy Come, Easy Go. What might have been a snappy little spoof on the emerging California hippie scene, say in the hands of Tashlin or Quine, just dries up and blows away in director John Rich’s unusually unsteady hands.
As for the underwater action sequences, they’re competently lensed, but they offer no more excitement than an average Sea Hunt episode. Elvis, back in great shape here (possibly getting ready for his comeback special and his marriage to Cilla?), certainly looks like he could be a competent Navy frogman, but there’s still a distance in his eyes, a hesitation, that tips you off to the fact that he knows Easy Come, Easy Go is a far cry from where he wanted his movie career to wind up.
Ultimately, Easy Come, Easy Go leaves no more than a ripple on your memory; only about an hour after watching it, I had to frequently refer to my notes just to remember basic plot points. It’s a shame, too, because Elvis wouldn’t have too many more chances in his feature movie career, to stem the tide of mediocre misfires like Easy Come, Easy Go. But then again…those throw-away fizzles seem to be exactly what the Colonel and Hal Wallis wanted, weren’t they?