Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
"Elvis: The Movies"
The Best Elvis Movie Book Ever!
Alan Hanson | © December 2017
Published in December 2017, “Elvis: The Movies” is a remarkable book that credits me as its author. In actuality, though, I was only a contributing partner in the project overseen by Erik Lorentzen, a long-time Elvis fan and publisher in Norway. “Elvis: The Movies” was his vision from the start, and the text I provided is only one element in this incredible volume.
My involvement in “Elvis: The Movies” began a year earlier, on December 15, 2016, when an email message from Erik showed up in my inbox. It was nothing unusual, as I’d communicated with Erik many times before. Over the past few years, he had used certain articles on elvis-history-blog.com in some of his Presley publications. But when I opened his email on December 15 last year, I was surprised to see he had something much more ambitious in mind. It read:
“I would like to do a book about all of Elvis’ movies, just called ELVIS – THE MOVIES. I would love to have ALL your reviews and other articles you have written about Elvis and his movies. It would ONLY be your stuff in the book. What about that, Alan? I think it will be vey nice for you to have all your stuff put together with a lot of awesome photos in a book like this. Your reviews and the way you have written them remind me a lot of my own youth growing up in the sixties. All the movies would have a number of pages, and the total pages would be something like 400 to 430. I hope you don’t think I’m totally crazy asking about this, and I hope to hear from you soon about your thoughts.”
After I sat back and thought about it for a few minutes, I decided it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Since I had already written all the movie reviews, my time commitment would be minimal (or so I thought!). Erik was offering to do all the design work, provide all the photos, and shoulder all of the project’s financial obligations. And I, with minimum involvement, would get my name on a second Elvis book. I emailed Erik back—“I’m in!”
My Elvis film reviews had all been written over a few months back in 2007 when I was trying to build up some content on my new Elvis website to start attacking some traffic. So I informed Erik I wanted an opportunity to update the reviews before he used them. He agreed and our partnership on “Elvis: The Movies” was underway.
Erik was finishing up another project, so I didn’t hear from him again until March 20, 2017, when he announced he was ready to start working “for real” on our book. Feeling a little giddy about the whole thing, I responded, “I know there’s plenty of text on my website, but if you think you need something more to make the book complete, I’d be happy to write up something new. Just give me the subject(s).” He came back with, “What about a story on the 1956 screen test?” Suddenly, I realized my involvement in the project wasn’t going to be as minimal as I first thought. I worked up the screen test article, and later many others, all of which were needed to bridge gaps in the book’s narrative of Elvis’ Hollywood career.
In July I sent Erik my edited reviews for Elvis' first seven films, and he got to work selecting pictures to accompany those pages in the book. From then on, whenever Erik sent me work to do, I moved it to the top of my “to do” list.
In early August, Erik emailed me page proofs of the book’s first 50 pages. It was when I viewed them that I first really understood how awesome this book could be. In the layouts, Erik had placed dozens of amazing Elvis pictures, most of which I had never seen before. Starting then, I resolved never to question Erik’s page layouts and use of pictures. My job was to concentrate on the text.
From the beginning, Erik said that he wanted “every word” in the book to be mine and that no page would be printed until I had given it my final approval. From the time he began sending me page proofs to consider, it became my responsibility to make sure the English mechanics and grammar of all the text was accurate and consistent. It’s not completely true that I wrote every word in “Elvis: The Movies.” Erik wrote many of the picture captions, with the understanding that I could edit or rewrite them as I saw fit.
As they arrived, I read each set of page proofs closely and provided Erik with a list of changes that needed to be made. After he made the corrections, the page proofs came back to me again. It was not uncommon for me to examine pages three times before giving my final approval.
From August through September, Erik and I communicated almost daily to complete the sections for each Elvis movie. Finally, on November 5, 2017, Erik emailed me the book’s entire 432 pages for a last go-over. After I gave my final approval, Erik responded as follows:
“It’s been a long road Alan, but finally we are ready to get the book printed. All the pages are sent to the printer, and we will have the books back in about two weeks. Will send you some books right away when they are done. I’ve also VERY excited to see the final book. The sixties (and Elvis) are so important to me. The movies were what we Elvis fans got in most of that decade, and I was always so thrilled when a new Elvis movie came to my hometown of Oslo. The first one for me was G.I.Blues, and I saw it ten times the first week. Your reviews take me back to those happy days, and I’m so happy that we are doing this book.”
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of December 8, 2017, a rust-colored DHL truck backed into my driveway. The driver brought two heavy packages, each containing six copies of “Elvis: The Movies,” to my door. I pulled out one book and spent an hour or so just turning the pages slowly.
Let me give you a run-down of what, despite my involvement in it, I consider the best book ever published about Elvis Presley’s movies. It measures 9 ¾ by 11 ¾ inches with 432 pages on thick glossy paper, which contribute to the book’s weight of five pounds. Its text features reviews of Elvis’s 31 theatrical films, his 2 stage documentary films, and “This Is Elvis,” a documentary film released after his death. Also included are 17 other articles dealing with various aspects of Presley’s Hollywood career. None of those background articles are available on this website or anywhere else. Taken together, the book’s 51 articles run over 65,000 words.
But at the heart of “Elvis: The Movies” are the photographs from Erik Lorentzen’s files. Amazingly, there are over 500 pictures of Elvis Presley in this book, 155 of which are full-page pictures. How many of them have never been published before, I couldn’t say for sure, but it must be a high number. The pictures jump out at you from everywhere. In fact, of the book’s 432 pages, only 10 pages do not have at least one picture of them! And two of those pages are the Contents pages at the start of the book.
Erik tells me that he only had 700 copies of “Elvis: The Movies” printed. I suppose later it could be reprinted if demand was great enough, but more than likely the 700 copies are all that will ever exist. So I suggest you purchase a copy of this mind-blowing book when you find one available. You won't be disappointed.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
LOVE ME TENDER (1956)
Elvis Movie #1
Twentieth Century Fox | 1956
"Twentieth Century Fox was uncertain whether to feature Elvis in the film as a singer or as an actor. So they tried to have it both ways."
I was in the second grade in 1956 and so wasn't paying attention when Love Me Tender opened in theaters around Thanksgiving time that year. It wasn’t until six years later that I first saw Elvis’s debut movie when it aired on TV. Having previously seen several of Presley's later movies in the early 1960s, Love Me Tender seemed then a rather odd Elvis film to me.
First of all, it was a traditional Western, one of only three Elvis would make. (Flaming Star and Charro! were the other two.) It was also the only movie in which Elvis played second banana. Oh sure, he received top billing, but in the film itself he was clearly a supporting actor to Richard Eagan's lead. In fact, it was 20 minutes into the film before Elvis made his first appearance, trudging along behind a horse and plow. In retrospect, it's obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was uncertain whether to feature Elvis in the film as a singer or as an actor. So they tried to have it both ways. As Clint Reno, Presley had a dramatic role as a hotheaded, jealous husband. Hedging his bet, however, director Robert Webb inserted four songs, all in a brief window in the middle of the film.
Swiveling Hips Out of Place
"Love Me Tender," performed on the porch of the Reno ranch house, somewhat fits the time period. While Elvis's fans no doubt loved them, however, the shaking shoulders and swiveling hips as Elvis sang the other three numbers ("We Gonna Move," "Let Me," "Poor Boy") seem ridiculous in a film set in 1865. But then, the film's obvious goal was to capitalize on Elvis's exploding popularity as an exciting stage performer. Variety acknowledged as much in its November 21, 1956, review of the movie. "For the benefit of the hordes of teenagers who’ve made a national figure of rock 'n' roll singer Elvis Presley and who’ve been buying his RCA Victor platters by the millions, Twentieth-Fox has whipped up a minor league oater (and oncer) in which to showcase one of the hottest show biz properties around today."
That being the case, Variety's reviewer didn't spend much time evaluating Elvis's acting ability: "Appraising Presley as an actor, he ain’t. Not that it makes much difference. The presence of Presley apparently is enough to satisfy the juve set." Watching the film years later, I was struck by Elvis's voice as he delivered his lines. His high-pitched, strident, sometimes hayseed tones stood out in contrast to the measured voices of his more experienced fellow actors. In analyzing the cast, Variety at least gave Elvis credit for enthusiasm. "Eagen is properly stoic as the older brother, while Miss Paget does nothing more than look pretty and wistful throughout. Mildred Dunnock gets sincerity into the part of mother of the brood, an achievement. Nobody, however, seems to be having as much fun as Presley."
A Film With Major Consequences
As simple as Love Me Tender is, however, it had a major impact on the future Hollywood career of Elvis Presley. Because of his presence in it, the movie was considered a "juve" film, since it expected to draw a primarily adolescent audience. It was for that reason that it opened over the Thanksgiving weekend, when teenagers would be out of school a couple of extra days. When Elvis came along, "juve" movies were rare in Hollywood. The major studios believed that the teenage crowd, even if it came out in force for a film, would not be strong enough to fill the theaters, especially for evening showings during the week. With the cost of making movies rising, studio execs had been reluctant to take on risky "juve" projects.
Twentieth Century Fox decided to take a chance with Presley, however, because it felt the low-budget Love Me Tender would clean up with the teenage crowd and draw some adults as well. According to a Variety article a month before the film opened, "Twentieth figures there’s a good deal of curiosity value in Presley among the older folks." There was another reason Hollywood was willing to take a shot at "juve" films in the mid-fifties. On the day Love Me Tender opened nationwide, Variety reported a feeling in the film industry that, "the return of the films with juve appeal is an absolute necessity if the young audience is to be weaned away from the tv sets."
What happened during the first week Love Me Tender was in theaters changed the industry's attitude about films aimed at teenagers. "We did two weeks' business in one," a Twentieth Century exec told Variety. The adults stayed away, but Hollywood learned that if the incentive was there the teenage crowd could fill the theaters and put a movie over the top. According to Variety, the industry then started "to develop players and subject matter to bring out the juvenile audience sector." In this respect, Elvis and Love Me Tender opened Hollywood's door for other rock 'n' roll entertainers. And what did it mean for Elvis Presley? Forget the supporting roles and trying to appeal to adults. He would be brought front and center in future films, which would feature his rock 'n' roll music and lots of it. That would be the formula for his next three films. And even when Elvis returned after his army stint, the lessons learned from Love Me Tender were not forgotten by Hollywood. In the end, it was a simple movie that had major consequences for the film career of Elvis Presley.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
LOVING YOU (1957)
Elvis Movie #2
Paramount | 1957
"Elvis's acting had clearly improved over his first film, and any doubts industry executives might have had about his ability to carry a film faded away."
Loving You was one of the 10 Elvis movies made before I became a Presley fan in 1962. It wasn't until several years later that I finally got a chance to see the movie on TV. While viewing the film recently, I was struck by the differences between it and Love Me Tender, which had been released a mere seven months before. Of course, Loving You was filmed in color and so is much more visually striking than Elvis's first film. But it's how Elvis is presented that is the fundamental difference between the two films.
It took 20 minutes for Elvis to make his first appearance in Love Me Tender; he shows up driving a hot rod only four minutes into Loving You. And he's singing just six minutes after the opening credits, while it took 50 minutes for him to pick up a guitar in his first movie. And while Elvis's four songs in Love Me Tender were bunched together in the middle of the movie, he sings 10 times evenly spaced throughout Loving You. After "Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do" at the six-minute mark, he adds "Party" 11 minutes later, and a medley of songs less than two minutes after that. Then come "Lonesome Cowboy" and "Hot Dog" before the film is 30 minutes old. The interval to "Mean Woman Blues" is about 10 minutes, with "Teddy Bear" just five minutes after that. There are still other numbers, but you get the picture. Hal Wallis had decided the way to feature Elvis on film was to have him sing early and often. When high box office receipts validated Wallis's strategy, it set the formula for most of Presley’s later movies.
Elvis Debuted Greasy, Black Hair
Elvis's physical appearance in Loving You had also changed. He seemed to have added a few well-placed pounds on the lean frame seen in Love Me Tender. The most notable change, however, was in his hair, now greasy and black instead of wavy and brown as in the earlier film. The black hair better suited his character’s sullen, bad boy look, but the "greasy, kid’s stuff" seemed a bit overdone at times. At one point in the movie, his hair is so stiff that it projects straight out over his face like the bill of a cap.
Early in Loving You, Tex Warner (Wendell Corey) is shown reading an issue of Variety. That show business weekly gave Loving You extensive coverage in 1957, including pre-production, bookings, and box office results.
Variety previewed Loving You at the Capital Theatre in New York on June 20, 1957, and its review appeared in its July 3, 1957, issue, six days before the film's official release date. The review opened with the following two-sentence summary: "Elvis Presley returns in a picture tailor-made to his talents. It’s a rock 'n' roller with a good story-line that shapes as a juve trade natural."
Variety's reviewer (identified only as "Hift") opened with a brief dirge for rock 'n' roll before handing Elvis a compliment … well, sort of. "Though the rock 'n' roll craze perhaps passed its peak, there's little question that a sizeable part of the citizenry will welcome Elvis Presley back for his second screen appearance. An easy guess that customers will be young in years appearance. An easy guess is that have to be if they're to match the rock 'n' roller’s own lungpower in the picture itself." (Honest, that’s the reviewer's language!)
Hift praised producer Hal Wallis for starring Elvis in a simple story that can be believed. The story, he said, has Elvis doing what he does best, "shout out his rhythms, bang away at his guitar and perform the strange, knee-bending, hip-swinging contortions that are his trademark and that, for unfathomable reasons, induce squealing noises from his young fans." Hift was obviously trying to do what many other writers had to do in 1956 and 1957: review a phenomenon in the entertainment business that he simply didn't understand.
The reviewer did admit, however, that Presley's acting had improved since his first movie. "It’s not a demanding part," he explained, "and, being surrounded by a capable crew of performers, he comes across as a simple but pleasant sort." Herbert Baker and Hal Kantor's script was judged as simply "okay," with its "folksy humor," "sentimental strains," and "corny aspects." Kantor's direction "consciously pitches the proceedings to the teenage mentality."
Co-Stars Scott, Corey, and Hart Given Some Credit
Co-stars Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey were credited with "delineating definite characters and doing well in the laughs department." Hift singled out newcomer Dolores Hart for special praise. "The young actress conveys a very pleasing personality and handles her chores with charm. She ought to be seen again." (And, of course, she was, in King Creole the following year.) The review downplayed the film’s seriousness but predicted financial success. "It’s all highly exploitable stuff," Hift wrote. "Film shapes as a bangup attraction for the hinterlands and should be a crowd-pleaser in the keys where Presley is still a draw with the youngsters … There'll always be those who'll find the whole Presley phenomenon either laughable or even disgusting, yet these probably won't be those who'll go to see the film anyhow. It's surely not a critics' picture, but, from the looks of it, it's boxoffice. And who's to quarrel with that in 1957?"
Hift closed his lengthy review with praise for Elvis's manager. "Col. Tom Parker gets credit as Technical Adviser, and take that literally and seriously. He's an expert property developer."
Publicist and Parker Have Similarities
Speaking of the Colonel, I wonder if he noticed any similarity between Lizabeth Scott's role in Loving You and his own role as Elvis's manager. I did. As an ambitious publicity gal, Scott's character generates a series of phony publicity stunts to promote Deke Rivers, Elvis's character. She even lies to him about her activities on his behalf, and gets him to sign a personal contract giving her 50 per cent (sound familiar?) of his future earnings. She is, as the Variety review called Parker, "an expert property developer."
Finally, according to Scotty Moore’s book, Elvis deserves the credit for getting all of his side-men in this film, after they all were left out of Love Me Tender. Scotty, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana are seen frequently as members of the hillbilly band backing Deke Rivers throughout Loving You. Black even has a couple of lines, while Fontana has his own brief scene taking a poster off a wall. The Jordanaires are on stage with Elvis for the nation-wide television show at the movie's conclusion. And, of course, Elvis's parents are shown sitting in the audience during the movie's final production number.
Loving You was a big step forward in the Hollywood career of Elvis Presley. His acting had clearly improved over his first film, and any doubts industry executives might have had about his ability to carry a film faded away. In the future there would be a few attempts to feature him as a dramatic actor, but in the end, box office receipts always dictated a return to the music-based formula first used in Loving You.
While making Loving You, Elvis went out with Yvonne Lime, an actress in the movie. Yvonne revealed what it was 'really' like to date Elvis in the movie.
He was the perfect gentleman, devoted to his mother, and liked to sing religious songs at parties. His rock 'n' roll image, long hair, and sideburns were explained away as a case of nonconformity.
In 1956, Lime made her big screen debut in The Rainmaker, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.
In 1957, Yvonne was chosen to co-star with Elvis Presley in Loving You in which she played the role of Sally. Elvis and Yvonne developed more than a professional interest in one another ─ and they dated some during the filming.
On Easter weekend of 1957 she even went to visit him at Graceland. The girl recalled that Elvis was a very nice young man and that she had a fun time making the film.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis Movie #3
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1957
“Film is packed with the type of sure-fire ingredients Presley followers go for, and it’s likely a considerable portion of the populace, particularly the cats, will find this Metro release in their alley.”
I was only eight years old and not an Elvis fan in 1957, so I first saw Jailhouse Rock sometime during the mid-1960s when it was re-released in theaters. It was a strange experience for me. I had become an Elvis fan a few years earlier and had become very familiar with Elvis’s soundtrack recordings from the movie. Often I tried to imagine what Jailhouse Rock would be like and how the music would fit into it. Of course, the movie was quite different than my teenage imagination pictured it. Still, on first viewing, I found the film amazing, especially compared to the type of movies Elvis was doing in the mid-sixties. Jailhouse Rock is still one of my favorite Elvis movies.
Jailhouse Rock today is considered a classic early rock ’n’ roll film. It’s interesting, though, to go back to the fall of 1957 and see how some of the nation’s top film critics reviewed Elvis’s third movie when it first opened. Variety’s review of October 16, 1957, noted that the film was clearly aimed at a receptive audience. “Film is packed with the type of sure-fire ingredients producers know Presley followers go for,” observed Variety, “and it’s likely a considerable portion of the populace, particularly the cats, will find this Metro release in their alley.”
It’s All Presley Front and Center
In 1957 most reviewers recognized Jailhouse Rock as a step up in Presley’s Hollywood career. Unlike his two previous movies, this one was built entirely around Elvis. He makes his first appearance just 15 seconds after the opening credits and is front and center in nearly every scene throughout the movie. Judy Tyler, the female lead, isn’t seen until 26 minutes in, and the other main actor, Mickey Shaughnessy as Hunk Houghton, is off camera for a half hour in the middle of the film. For the first time, the success of a major motion picture was placed squarely on the shoulders of Elvis Presley.
That being the case, reviewers zeroed in on Presley’s work in the film. The New York Times was unkind in its November 14, 1957, review. It started out by taking a shot at the star’s diction. “Uh got wars [wires] ’n’ letters from all over the wurl,” the Times quoted one of Elvis’s lines from the film. The reviewer then went on to criticize Elvis’s weak characterization as follows. “Elvis stays front and center, of course, muttering his lines sheepishly, and wooing Miss Tyler by collapsing like a rag doll and hooking a chin on her shoulder.”
Other reviewers, though, at least gave Elvis credit for improving his acting over his previous movies. Variety’s reviewer noted that, “Presley is still no great shakes as an actor but gets by well enough, although role isn’t particularly sympathetic.” “I liked the kid,” wrote Hortense Morton in her San Francisco Examiner review on October 31, 1957. “Frankly, I think Presley will turn into quite an actor. It isn’t going to happen tomorrow or next year. But, it will happen.”
Elvis even had to act while singing in Jailhouse Rock. Since his character of Vince Everett starts out as a novice singer, Elvis had to deliver his initial songs in deadpan voice. It isn’t until the film is over half over that a first real Elvis performance, “Treat Me Nice,” is heard.
The New York Times credited the film’s musical soundtrack, although the reviewer couldn’t resist making fun of Elvis’s signature body language. “The sound technicians must have closed in, for this time most of his singing can actually be understood. And in two numbers, ‘Treat Me Nice’ and the title song, done as a convict jamboree, Elvis breaks loose with his St. Vitus specialty. Ten to one, next time he’ll make it—finally getting those kneecaps turned inside out and cracking them together like coconuts. Never say die, El!”
Reviewers Questioned “Bad Boy” Role for Elvis
By late in 1957, many parents and critics were losing patience with rock ’n’ roll. Continued reports of riots at rock ’n’ roll events across the nation had convinced many community leaders that instead of hoping the teenage music would fade away, they should take some action to make it go away. In the face of such public opinion, some reviewers questioned the wisdom of making a film like Jailhouse Rock.
The Los Angeles Times saw Jailhouse Rock as further damaging the reputation of rock ’n’ roll in general and of Elvis Presley in particular. The following appeared in the paper’s November 14, 1957, review of the film.
“Why a popular teen-age idol like Presley and the contemporary musical rage of rock ’n’ roll must be associated and identified with crime, greed, profanity, vulgarity and brutality is beyond imagination. If Screenwriter Guy Trosper, Producer Pandro S. Berman and MGM want to capitalize on the tremendous popularity of Presley, more power to them; if they want to wax rich on teen-age dollars, none can object. However, it would seem to be wise to do something FOR the rock ’n’ rollers and not something TO them. The kids flock to see and hear Presley sing. Yet in this picture the leading character plays a vicious, rude and unpleasant individual.”
Elvis’ Riot-Producing Power Overestimated
The implied fear that Jailhouse Rock would lead to more teenage riots appears to have been just another overestimation of Elvis’s negative influence on young people. There’s no doubt the film’s main audience of adolescents warmed up to Elvis’s “bad boy” character in Jailhouse Rock. That is not evidence, however, that the film resulted in a surge of teenage hooliganism in the final months of 1957.
I’ve watched Jailhouse Rock many times through the years, and what I find most appealing about it now is its humor. The idea that a heel like Vince Everett could come out of the penitentiary and within a year become the millionaire idol of the nation’s youth is too fantastic to believe, even today. In 1957 the concept must have seemed completely ridiculous. Against the background of such a bizarre premise, the humorous scenes work in Jailhouse Rock, whereas they wouldn’t have been effective in a more serious plot like that of King Creole, Elvis’s next movie.
The “definitive scene in Elvis’s career” - that’s what Steve Pond, author of Elvis in Hollywood, calls Jailhouse Rock’s sidewalk scene, the one in which Vince Everett forcibly kisses Peggy Van Alden. Pond also rates Elvis’s words in that scene, “That ain’t tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me,” as “maybe the best line in Elvis’s movie career.” Personally, I always find myself laughing as I watch that scene. Certainly the incident steals the movie, but it is so melodramatic that its appeal is more amusing than serious.
A Film With Humor and Charm
Other humorous scenes in Jailhouse Rock include Elvis slapping the Geneva Records executive in his office; Dean Jones as a DJ reading a horsemeat commercial using “Treat Me Nice” as background music; and the Hollywood movie love scene, in which Elvis and Jennifer Holden are suddenly overwhelmed with passion on the sofa.
Jailhouse Rock was certainly a step upward in the acting career of Elvis Presley. Still, it was not a serious acting challenge for him like King Creole would be. Of the two, however, it is Jailhouse Rock that I most enjoy watching. Its implausible premise and humor give the film a charm that is unique among all of Elvis’s movies. Now, when they colorized it … ah, but that's a horse, or rather a film, of a different color.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
King Creole (1958)
Elvis Movie #4
Paramount | 1958
I’ve watched King Creole a dozen times or so over the years since I first saw it on TV in the mid-1960s, and so a certain opinion of the film had become fixed in my mind. The script, the music, and the acting all came together to produce a remarkable picture, the likes of which Elvis never matched in his career. There is a dark side to the film, however, that has always disheartened me a bit. In subsequent viewings of the film, however, I’ve tried to put aside all previous judgments and evaluate King Creole objectively. In doing so, I began to notice strengths and weaknesses in the movie that evaded me before.
Historically, Elvis’ acting career clearly took another step forward and upward in 1958, as it had with each successive film after his weak debut in Love Me Tender two years earlier. Variety’s review of May 28, 1958, gave Presley measured praise for his acting work. “Hal Wallis has attempted to take the curse off Elvis Presley, for those still resistant to his charms, by giving him an extraordinary backing in ‘King Creole,’ a solid melodrama with plenty of action and color. The Paramount presentation shows the young singer this time as a better-than-fair actor … In all fairness, Presley does show himself to be a surprisingly sympathetic and believable actor on occasion.” Writing in Billboard on May 26, 1958, Bob Bernstein noted that, “Incidents and characters of the original novel are distorted, but the plot stands up well and the dialog is salty. As Danny, Presley exhibits improved histrionics and provides many moving and tense moments.”
"Elvis Presley can act!"
Howard Thompson of The New York Times seemed amazed that Elvis had it in him. “As the lad himself might say, cut my legs off and call me Shorty! Elvis Presley can act,” Thompson declared in his review of July 4, 1958. “It’s a pleasure to find him up to a little more than Bourbon Street shoutin’ and wigglin’. Acting is his assignment in this shrewdly upholstered showcase, and he does it, so help us over a picket fence.” Variety even liked Elvis’ music in the film. “Presley does not modify his performance from previous appearances while singing one of the other of his rock-and-roll numbers,” the reviewer explained, “[but] he also does some very pleasant, soft and melodious, singing, unlike most of his better known work.” Billboard agreed: “Presley sings … with verve and welcome variations of style against brass backing unusual for him.” Of course, by this time in his career, it was already clear that any Elvis Presley picture was going to feature his singing. Even with its dramatic plot, King Creole does a fair job of incorporating Presley’s songs into the storyline.
However, even this Elvis fan has to admit that he sings too much in a serious film like this one. In particular, there’s the corny scene in the “five-and-dime” that has Elvis singing as a distraction while his hoodlum accomplices stuff goods in their leather jackets. And in his first nightclub appearance, the viewer is expected to believe that in the less than two minutes it takes him to sing “Dixieland Rock,” the club audience goes from complete indifference to total, swinging-in-the-aisles rapture. “Put his name up in lights!” announces the club owner after just one song.
Music breaks up slow storyline
What all of Presley’s singing does accomplish, though, is to periodically break up what is a slow moving plot. Take Elvis’ music from King Creole, and what you have left is a serious dramatic story that moves steadily forward, but with very little action until the film’s final 20 minutes. The bottom line, though, is that 50 years later, King Creole is still considered by most critics and Elvis fans alike as his best film. Why did it work so well for a young man who was still essentially an actor-in-training? It was more than Elvis’ acting job, good as it was. A number of factors came together to make King Creole an effective vehicle for Presley. First, it was a near perfect role for Presley at that time in his career. Danny Fisher was a developing character that presented a challenge. It was natural for Elvis to conjure up that smoldering look and attitude that made his character believable. It helped, also, that Danny Fisher’s love life played a minor role in the film. Nellie (Dolores Hart) pursued him and Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) confused him, but his relationship with neither caused the struggle inside him. As his later films were to demonstrate, it’s hard to develop a character with girls hanging all over you. King Creole also stands out because of the story it tells. It contains many twists and turns, and arrives at an unpredictable ending. Adapted from a Harold Robbins novel, the script is not formulaic, like those of so many of Presley’s other movies.
Elvis surrounded by talented crew and cast
Last, but certainly not least, in King Creole Elvis was surrounded by a talented supporting cast, both in front of and behind the camera. Variety praised the crew as follows: “Director Michael Curtiz and cameraman Russell Harlan have worked wonders with low-key lighting and adroit camera angles … The black-and-white camera work by Harlan is in the realistic vein and Warren Low’s editing does a fine job of matching New Orleans-locationed exteriors with studio setups, as well as keeping the pace of the picture even and consistent.”
Surrounded as he was by so many talented professionals in the cast, it is little wonder that Presley was inspired to upgrade his own performance. Howard Thompson handed out praise to all in the New York Times. “Matching, or balancing, the tunes are at least seven characterizations that supply the real backbone and tell the story of the picture. Walter Matthau plays the hero’s murderous gangster enemy; Dean Jagger, the boy’s weak, fumbling father; Jan Shepard, his sister, gently paired off with the hero’s boss, Paul Stewart; Dolores Hart, a smitten shop-girl, and Vic Morrow, a nasty young thug. Good as all these people are, it is Miss Jones, as a toughly sensitive fallen gal, who steals the acting honors.” In Billboard, Bernstein also handed out special praise to the veteran actress. “Carolyn Jones is a knockout as a fallen thrush who would like to love him; their aborted romance gives the pic its finest scenes.”
Elvis peaked as an actor at age 23
As good as King Creole is, it sadly marks the pinnacle of Elvis Presley’s acting career at age 23. He was a natural as an angry young man, but as he matured in age, he was never able (or allowed, as some claim) to find his niche as a serious actor. Oh, he tried a few more dramatic roles, but once Hollywood discovered the formula that would earn the greatest financial return from Elvis Presley, it was the end of his dream to be a serious actor. At least we have King Creole to remind us of what might have been.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
G.I. Blues (1960)
Elvis Movie #5
Paramount | 1960
"As the story rested simply on whether or not Elvis’s character could spend the night with Juliet Prowse’s character, the plot offered none of the emotional suspense that Presley’s previous films at least attempted to develop."
G.I. Blues got off to an early start. “Paramount is staking $2,000,000 on a bet that Elvis Presley will be more popular than ever following the end of his military stint next March when he resumes picture-making.” So stated Hazel Guild about Presley’s first post-army movie in her Variety article of September 2, 1959.
The film’s star still had six more months of army service ahead of him. Still, Wallis had it all worked out in his mind. He already had a title—G.I. Blues—for what he visualized as a “comedy drama” about G.I.s stationed in Germany. Elvis’ work on G.I. Blues would begin in April 1960 and last eight weeks, according to Wallis. The film would be released later that fall. Wallis told Guild that either Norman Taurog or Michael Curtiz would direct. (Taurog got the nod.)
Military theaters get early shot at film
While in Germany, Wallis received complete cooperation from the army and, in particular, the Third Armored Division, Elvis’ outfit. An acknowledgement of the army’s cooperation appeared prominently in the opening credits of the finished movie. Also, in a very unusual move, Paramount allowed military camp theaters to begin showing G.I. Blues on October 23, 1960, a full month before the film was released nationally in commercial theaters.
National reviewers, while generally agreeing the movie was trivial stuff, felt G.I. Blues had a chance to play well to American audiences. Variety’s review was the first one out on October 19. It assessed the film’s chances as follows: “G.I. Blues restores Elvis Presley to the screen in a picture that seems to have been left over from the frivolous filmusicals of World War II. On the logical assumption that the teenage following that catapulted Presley to the boxoffice top a few years back has grown older, wiser and more sophisticated in its tastes, the rather juvenile Hal Wallis ‘comeback’ production may have to depend on younger, pre-teen age groups for its chief response. But if the Paramount release is to get by at the boxoffice, it will need the support of Presley’s formerly ardent fans.”
Under the headline, “Elvis - A Reformed Wriggler,” Bosley Crowther’s review of G.I. Blues appeared in The New York Times on November 5, 1960. “Well, it’s not a question of how you like it,” he judged, “ —you older, quieter people, that is—you who will naturally like the pretty color and the occasional pleasant scenery of this film. It’s a question of how those squealing youngsters, Elvis’ erstwhile fans, are going to take to a rock ’n’ roll singer with honey in his veins instead of blood.”
A Tale of Two Presleys
Crowther spent a good part of his review comparing the new screen Presley with the one of two years before. “Honest, you’d hardly know Elvis—the pre-Army Elvis, that is—in the sweet-natured, morally straight young soldier now to be seen on the Victoria’s screen. Gone is that rock ’n’ roll wriggle, that ludicrously lecherous leer, that precocious country-bumpkin swagger, that unruly mop of oily hair. Almost gone are those droopy eyelids and that hillbilly manner of speech. Elvis has become sophisticated. He’s a man of the world—almost. To be sure, he still sings a brand of music that, to many adult ears, is downright Greek, while he whomps a guitar clamped to his pelvis and rhythmically cracks his knees. And he still gets off solemn aphorisms which are not likely to be attributed to Voltaire, such as ‘Ef people got t’know each other better, ever-thin’ll be better all around’.” In the end, Crowther decided he liked the new Elvis a little better. “His hairbrush haircut is trim and tidy, his G.I. uniform is crisp and neat and his attitude is cheerful,” Crowther observed. “Elvis is now a fellow you can almost stand.”
Evaluating G.I. Blues five decades later
Over five decades after those reviews were written, I sat down to watch G.I. Blues once again. When I was a young Elvis fan in the 1960s, I enjoyed this film, as I can honestly say I enjoyed most Elvis movies back then. Now, though, I was viewing it for the first time in at least 10 years, and, as I did so, I sought to assess the roll of G.I. Blues in the developing film career of Elvis Presley. As Presley’s fifth movie, G.I. Blues had both similarities and differences with Elvis’ previous film, King Creole. Hal Wallis and Colonel Parker both learned from the 1958 movie that having Elvis sing often on screen made good business sense. Wallis learned that it brought Presley’s core fans into the theaters in droves. Parker learned a full soundtrack album could sell as well, if not better, than a standard studio LP. The strategy validated itself when it was reprised in G.I. Blues. The film fared well at the box office, and the soundtrack album of 11 songs had a long run near the top of the LP charts.
The big difference between this and Presley’s previous films was the complete lack of dramatic elements in his new movie. Elvis’ pre-army films, especially King Creole, had emotional storylines that, at times, challenged Presley’s aptitude for acting. Not so with G.I. Blues, which identified itself as a comedy in its opening scenes. As the story rested simply on whether or not Elvis’ character could spend the night with Juliet Prowse’s character, the plot offered none of the emotional suspense that Presley’s previous films at least attempted to develop. And, while G.I. Blues had some humorous moments, overall it failed to deliver as a comedy. At that point in his career, Elvis simply didn’t have the comedic chops to carry such a film. (He would fare much better two years later in his next comedy, Follow That Dream.)
Rating G.I. Blues on the entertainment scale
Since G.I. Blues is so unpretentious in its plotting, its worth as a film depends solely on its entertainment value. Does it have elements that please viewers and leave them happy and satisfied? Let’s start with the star himself. Elvis certainly looks good in this film. He obviously had physically matured during his two years in the army. Gone for good is the greasy pompadour (although, as a military veteran, I can testify that no soldier would ever have been allowed to have as much hair on the top of his head as Elvis had in G.I. Blues). I liked how Elvis smiled often during his musical work in the movie. His pelvic contortions of the fifties were replaced with less energetic twisting hips, shaking shoulders, and facial contortions. (Certainly, the gyrations of his earlier years would have seemed out of place in G.I. Blues.) Just on appearance, then, Elvis fills the bill, despite being given no real acting to do.
As for the music, which both the Variety and Times reviewers panned, to me it was overall pleasing and varied. To be sure, Elvis’ musical numbers do lack the excitement seen in his previous movies. (“Presley sings them all as a slightly subdued pelvis,” observed Variety.) Still, Elvis’ voice was strong and clear, and impressive soundtrack LP sales indicate the songs were pleasing to many filmgoers.
Juliet Prowse showed legs and acting ability
The female lead, as often happened in Presley’s career, received better reviews in the film than did Elvis. Variety noted, “Miss Prowse is a firstrate dancer and has a pixie charm reminiscent of Leslie Caron. She deserves better roles than this.” I have to admit that when I watched the film years later, I was more taken with her work in G.I. Blues than I had been in previous viewings years before. It’s difficult to take your eyes off of her legs during her two dance numbers, and she makes a believable transition from ice-hearted to vulnerable woman in the film. I found Tulsa and Lili’s day out together, during which their affection for each other builds, to be the most pleasant segment in the film. In terms of on-screen chemistry in Elvis films, I would rate the Presley-Prowse match second only to Elvis and Ann-Margret.
So, yes, despite G.I. Blues being a step backward in Elvis Presley’s dream of becoming a serious actor, I found enough entertainment value in the movie to rate it in the upper third of his films. Unfortunately, the commercial success of both the movie and its soundtrack album solidified the formula for many disappointing films to come. Within a few years, Elvis would find himself trapped in a Hollywood vortex of increasingly feeble films, the origins of which can be traced back to G.I. Blues.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Flaming Star (1960)
Elvis Movie #6
20th-Century-Fox | 1960
"Flaming Star has Indians-on-the-warpath for the youngsters, Elvis Presley for the teenagers and socio-psychological ramifications for adults who prefer a mild dose of sage in their sagebrushers."
Flaming Star was the second of three serious Western films made by Elvis Presley. For my money, it was the best, far better than either Love Me Tender or Charro! It was another small step forward for Elvis in his goal of becoming a serious actor. (Remember, he was only 25 years old at the time and still learning his craft.) Unfortunately, after Flaming Star, box-office conscious Hollywood would offer Elvis few future opportunities to develop his acting talent.
Twentieth Century Fox pushed the film hard in the pages of Variety. In a full-page ad on November 2, 1960, the studio listed Flaming Star as one of their four main offerings for the upcoming Christmas season. That was followed up with a double-page ad for the film on November 16.
Variety reviewed the movie in its issue of December 21, the same day that it was released nationally. Variety’s reviewer, noting that the movie appealed to a much wider audience than previous Presley films, predicted box office success for the David Weisbart production. “‘Flaming Star’ has Indians-on-the-warpath for the youngsters, Elvis Presley for the teenagers and socio-psychological ramifications for adults who prefer a mild dose of sage in their sagebrushers. The plot—half-breed hopelessly involved in war between white man and Redman—is disturbingly familiar and not altogether convincing, but the film, attractively mounted and consistently diverting, will entertain and absorb the audience it is tailored for. There’s good business in store for the 20th-Fox release.”
I first saw Flaming Star on television during the summer of 1967. Due to the scarcity of Elvis songs, it had never been one of my favorite Presley movies. Watching it again after the passage of many years, I was pleasantly surprised that the movie’s overall impact and Elvis’ performance in it were much better than I had remembered them.
Sceenplay “taut” and “gripping”
Tension on several levels is developed early on, and the story moves along quickly with lots of action, some of it very violent for its time. Variety called the screenplay “taut, plain and gripping,” and A. H. Weiler, in his New York Times review of December 17, 1960, judged it overall a generally pleasing film. “‘Flaming Star’ is an unpretentious but sturdy Western that takes the time, the place and the people seriously,” Weiler noted. “Although it is not electrifying, ‘Flaming Star’ makes a neat and satisfying adventure.”
As for Elvis, he never looked better in any of his films either before or after Flaming Star. Lean, tough, and handsome, he was given plenty of opportunity to show off his athletic build while running around shirtless late in the film. “Physically, he is thoroughly believable,” stated Variety, “and athletically he is well-endowed for the part’s masculine demands.”
While praising Presley’s appearance, Variety was less laudable about his acting ability in Flaming Star. “The role is a demanding one for Presley. The film relies heavily on his reactions as an explanation for its dramatic maneuvers and thematic attitudes. But, at this stage of his career, Presley lacks the facial and thespic sensitivity and projection so desperately required here … And one other thing can be said for Presley’s approach—he’s never guilty of over-acting.” In the Times review, Weiler gave Elvis passing marks. “Although he is not called on to carry a histrionic load,” he wrote, “Presley, thanks to fine makeup and the color cameras, is a passable red youth … He sits a horse well and is properly brave and stoic, even to the point where he sees the ‘flaming star’ of death.”
Like in his first Western, Love Me Tender, Elvis’ character dies at the end of Flaming Star. This time, though, he rides off into the hills to perish discreetly off camera. Variety’s review termed the ending “contrived,” but Weiler saw some meaning in Presley's final ride into the closing credits. “The warfare destroys all but one of the Burtons in an unhappy ending that seems to underline the sadness of the period when the Indian began to vanish.”
Elvis’ singing limited to one scene
Only in his later Western, Charro!, did Elvis sing less on screen than he did in Flaming Star. As Pacer, he sang only one time, other than the title song over the opening credits. “A Cane and a High-starched Collar” was gotten out of the way within minutes after the opening credits ended. The film than settled down into a straight, action Western the rest of the way. Elvis recorded two other songs that were intended for use in Flaming Star. The film’s double-page ad in Variety on November 16, 1960, promised theater owners that the film would feature “Elvis singing the song his fans will love most—‘Flaming Star’—and 3 others!” Scenes with Presley singing “Britches” and “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” were filmed, and a preview of the four-song version of the film was shown at the Academy Theater in Inglewood, California, on November 25, a month before general release. According to the “Behind the Scenes Notes” in RCA’s 1995 Double Features CD release, “Apparently, there was laughter during the ‘Summer Kisses, Winter Tears’ segment where Elvis was singing to Indians around the campfire—hence its hasty deletion!” The “Britches” scene suffered the same fate.
While viewing the film’s final two-song version, it’s easy to identify where the two dropped songs were originally placed. From a dramatic point of view, pulling those two musical sequences was the right call. One only has to go back and observe how several Elvis singing scenes effectively chopped up the dramatic story line of Love Me Tender to realize what similar damage Flaming Star’s narrative would have suffered with the same treatment.
Flaming Star suffered by comparison
Although Flaming Star was a step forward for Elvis, in the end the film delivered a body blow to his aspirations of becoming a good actor. It opened in theaters on December 21, 1960, exactly four weeks after G.I. Blues was released on November 23. Hollywood execs, along with Colonel Parker, were able to compare side-by-side the performance of the light, song-filled comedy with that of the serious, song-sparce Western. The contrast was stark. That holiday season G.I. Blues reached as high as number two in Variety’s weekly list of top-grossing films and finished 14th in the publication’s list of annual box-office ratings. Flaming Star, by comparison, peaked at number 12 in the weekly listings and finished far down among the year’s top grossers.
The 11 songs in G.I. Blues fed sales of the film’s successful soundtrack album, which, in turn, led to multiple viewings of the film by the Presley faithful. It was a double-punch combination that spelled success for both Hollywood and RCA. If Colonel Parker hadn’t known it already, the G.I. Blues - Flaming Star face-off must have convinced him that his boy’s future in Hollywood was in song-filled comedies. Wild in the Country was already in the works, but after that there would be no more of this “serious actor” stuff in Elvis Presley’s future. At the box office, Flaming Star proved that his fans did not share Presley’s most cherished dream.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Wild In The Country (1961)
Elvis Movie #7
20th Century Fox | 1961
"For the easygoing, less discriminating patron of the cinematic arts, ‘Wild in the Country’ should be acceptable as a slickly-produced, glamorously-cast hunk of romantic fiction that won’t trouble the mind."
As Glenn Tyler in Wild in the Country, Elvis Presley took on the most challenging dramatic role of his film career. Only during a couple of short musical scenes was Elvis able to take a break from his role’s histrionic demands. For Presley, the role must have seemed a logical step forward in his dream of becoming an accepted dramatic actor. Unfortunately, the major film critics, who had given Elvis passing grades for improvement in his previous films, were nearly unanimous in their opinion that Elvis’ reach exceeded his grasp in Wild in the Country.
On the surface, it appeared this character was right up Elvis’ alley. After all, he was playing another angry, young man, something he had done with moderate success in five of his six previous movies. But portraying Glenn Tyler was much more challenging than Danny Fisher in King Creole or Pacer in Flaming Star. Each of those characters developed in a straight line, while Glenn Tyler continually vacillated back and forth between anger, understanding, self-pity, and tenderness.
Story’s plot called “nonsense”
According to the film’s reviewers, Elvis had two strikes against him from the start. The premise of the film was simply not believable. Writing in The New York Times, on June 10, 1961, Bosley Crowther lamented, “In this seamy, sentimental lot of nonsense … our nemesis plays a kid who has all the education and social presence of an underprivileged resident of Tobacco Road … Nonsense, that’s all it is—sheer nonsense.” Variety’s review of June 14 was equally critical of the film’s storyline. “Dramatically, there simply isn’t substance, novelty or spring to this wobbly and artificial tale of a maltreated country boy (Presley) who, supposedly, has the talent to become a great writer, but lacks the means, the emotional stability and the encouragement until he comes in contact with a beautiful psychiatric consultant (Hope Lange) who develops traumas of her own in the process … It is difficult to accept the character as a ‘potential literary genius’ and, for that matter, the lovely and sophisticated Miss Lange as a lonely, learned widow with surprisingly few male admirers but a penchant for resurrecting lost, young, boyish souls.” In the Times, Crowther obviously felt Elvis should have stuck with a less challenging role. “Apparently the good, clean Elvis Presley who returned from the Army to the screen in ‘G.l. Blues’ was not what the teen-agers wanted the guitar-playing lover-boy to be,” Crowther wrote tongue in cheek, considering the financial success of that movie. “And so, in ‘Wild in the Country’ … Elvis is back as a problem for himself, the parole board and us.”
Reviewers panned Presley’s acting
It is not surprising that Elvis’ acting in Wild in the Country impressed neither reviewer. Variety offered conditional praise. Considering the creaky plot Presley and Lange were given, the show biz publication allowed that, “It’s a credit to both that they do as well as they do. Presley, subdued, uses what dramatic resources he has to best advantage in this film.”
In keeping with his reputation for brutal honesty, however, Crowther announced that Elvis’ acting ability had headed in the wrong direction. “Mr. Presley, who did appear to be improving as an actor in his last picture [Flaming Star], is as callow as ever in this. The few times he sings are painful—at least they are to our ears—and his appearance is waxy and flabby. Elvis has retrogressed.”
Elvis sings so infrequently in Wild in the Country that it’s hard to believe Crowther’s sensitive ears were so offended. The informal duet with Lange, as the two drive along a country road, fits smoothly into the storyline, but the film’s other two numbers, “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell” and “In My Way” do seem to have been gratuitously inserted to capitalize on Presley’s fame as a singer. That’s especially the case with the former number, the music for which just happens to be playing when Elvis turns on the radio in his uncle’s truck. The source of Glenn Tyler’s musical ability, which has nothing to do with the film’s story, is briefly credited to his long dead mother having taught him how to play the guitar.
Co-stars fared better than Elvis
As usual to that point in his career, Elvis’ co-stars in Wild in the Country received better reviews than did the film’s star. Variety rated the other performances as follows: “Miss Lange, for the most part, plays intelligently and sensitively. Tuesday Weld, steadily improving as an actress, contributes a flashy and arresting portrait of a sexy siren enamored of Mr. P. A third romantic entanglement is portrayed adequately by Millie Perkins, who returns to the screen after an almost 30-month absence since her debut as ‘Anne Frank’ … There is an especially fine supporting performance by William Mims [Uncle Rolfe]. Philip Dunne’s direction is responsible for several vivid, engrossing sequences. But the whole canvas is not stable or uniform. Some of the key scenes seem rushed, some of the lesser ones protracted.”
Call me a “less discriminating patron”
Variety’s 1961 review opened with a slightly pompous and clearly condescending paragraph aimed at the average viewer of Wild in the Country. It reads in part: “For the easygoing, less discriminating patron of the cinematic arts, ‘Wild in the Country’ should be acceptable as a slickly-produced, glamorously-cast hunk of romantic fiction that won’t trouble the mind when one leaves the theatre. What with Elvis Presley’s name to grace the marquee … the Jerry Wald production for 20th-Fox appears to be on safe commercial ground. But all this Simoniz cannot quite make a new car out of an old Model T.” Call me a “less discriminating patron,” then, since I’ve rather enjoyed Wild in the Country on the several times I’ve viewed it over the years. Certainly, it was a stretch for Elvis as a serious actor. And the film itself is rather depressing, what with nearly every character in the end either dead, having tried suicide, romantically rejected, or just plain angry with everyone else. Still, I can’t get away from the fact that I’m an Elvis Presley fan. Is it pride I feel each time I see him attempt so much in Wild in the Country, even though he came up short, according to the critics?
If there’s one thing this movie reveals about Elvis Presley, it is that if he really wanted to be a serious actor, he needed to be willing to get some professional training. The on-the-job training route he chose simply did not produce results. Still, Wild in the Country is a mere footnote in his film career. His future in Hollywood was determined six months earlier with the financial success of the less challenging G.I. Blues. The door on his hopes of being accepted as a dramatic actor would be slammed shut by the phenomenal success of his next movie, Blue Hawaii. Wild in the Country will live on for Elvis fans as a testament to his courage as an actor in reaching for that golden ring, which, in the end, proved just out of his grasp.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Elvis Movie #8
Paramount | 1961
I didn’t become an Elvis Presley fan until 1962, so I didn’t see Blue Hawaii during its original theatrical run in late 1961. However, sometime in 1964 or 1965 the film was re-released in theaters, and so my first viewing of it was on the big screen. Because of its tropical panoramic photography, Blue Hawaii is one those films that is best seen in a movie theater. Among the Elvis fans I’ve known through the years, it’s seldom mentioned as a fan favorite, but it was certainly his most successful film at the box office. Also, since that financial success effectively locked Presley into doing similar movies in the future, it can lay a claim to being the most important film in Elvis’ career.
For Paramount, producer Hal Wallis returned to the format that had worked so well for him and Elvis in G.I. Blues the year before. It was a formula of musical comedy laced throughout with plenty of Elvis tunes. The success of Elvis’ first post-army film and the relatively low box office returns of 20th Century Fox’s two dramatic vehicles for Elvis—Flaming Star and Wild in the Country—brought into focus Presley’s natural place in the picture business.
Variety’s review of Blue Hawaii on November 29, 1961, noted that Elvis was settling into his proper place in the Hollywood firmament: “‘Blue Hawaii’ restores Elvis Presley to his natural screen element—the romantic, non-cerebral filmusical—one which he has departed for more dramatic doings in his last few films. It is this sort of vehicle which the singing star seems to enjoy his greatest popularity, the kind his vast legion of fans seems to prefer him in, and Hal Wallis’ production for Paramount should enjoy wide-spread box office success over the short haul.”
A phenomenal success at the box office
In limiting the film’s success to the short run, Variety’s reviewer underestimated Blue Hawaii’s drawing power. It rose as high as number two in the magazine’s weekly chart of top-grossing films, and finished at number eight in its list of top-grossing films of 1961. Unlike its two 20th Century Fox predecessors, Blue Hawaii is unpretentious from the start. From his first appearance, Elvis voices a series of corny lines and exhibits exaggerated facial expressions. His first song comes when the car radio just happens to be playing the instrumental background music for it. However, Elvis’ campy character calms down quickly and becomes more believable as the film moves forward.
Variety judged the story line to be light but workable. “Hal Kantor’s breezy screenplay from a story by Allan Weiss, is the slim, but convenient, foundation around which Wallis and staff have erected a handsome, picture-postcard production crammed with typical South Seas musical hula-balloo,” noted the review.
Presley’s most musical film
Other than his two documentary films, no other Presley movie features as many songs as Blue Hawaii. In all, there are 14 of them, starting with the title number over the opening credits and ending with “Hawaiian Wedding Song” during the film’s final scene. A dozen others are interspersed throughout the movie.
There’s not a single clunker among them, and all are well delivered by Elvis, whose voice was never better at age 26. Presley also shows great range in the music, which includes ballads, love songs, Hawaiian numbers, and a couple of uptempo rockers. The highlight, of course, is “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which would become one of the songs most identified with Elvis throughout the remainder of his career.
The film’s soundtrack album became the most successful LP of Elvis Presley’s career. Soon after the movie opened, the soundtrack shot to the top of Billboard’s album chart and stayed at the number one position for 20 weeks. As happened with G.I. Blues, the Hawaii film fed sales of the soundtrack LP, and the album spawned repeat ticket-buyers for the film. The frequent crooning of Elvis’ character, Chad Gates, is offered without explanation. In his previous films, Presley’s characters were usually portrayed as professional singers, or at least having had some musical background. In Blue Hawaii, though, no such foundation is provided for Chad Gates’ singing. The songs seemingly come out of nowhere, but since Elvis is expected to sing, none of the songs seem out of place.
Presley did well with unchallenging role
Elvis’ acting ability was certainly not challenged in Blue Hawaii, but he handled his modest duties with enthusiasm and humor. At age 26, his physical maturity had put him beyond the “angry young man” role he had played in all but one of his previous seven films. Here he plays an adult tour guide to a group of teenage girls. Even his romance with co-star Joan Blackman lacks the passion of youth seen in his previous films. Chad Gates is an energetic young man, though, who always seems to be in a hurry and participates in water sports and a night club brawl. All in all, he comes across as a thoroughly likeable fellow, and it’s a role that Elvis seemed to enjoy playing.
Variety’s reviewer handed out the usual kudos to Presley's supporting cast. “Romantic support is attractively dispatched by Joan Blackman and Nancy Walters, with stalwart comedy air proved by Angela Lansbury, Roland Winters and Howard McNear. In a somewhat over-emphasized and incompletely-motivated role of an unhappy young tourist, pretty Jenny Maxwell emotes with youthful relish and spirit.” For me, though, Angela Lansbury’s performance stands out and nearly steals the film from Elvis. The “Behind the Scenes” notes in RCA’s 1997 “Blue Hawaii” CD soundtrack release claim that Lansbury regards her part in Blue Hawaii as a “real low point in her acting career.” However, her strong comedic role as Elvis’ mother produces most of the humor that is so important to a film like this.
Visual elements add to film’s charm
In addition to his fellow actors, Elvis was well supported by a crew that produced the elegant visual elements in Blue Hawaii. “Enhancing the production,” Variety noted, “are Charles Lang Jr.’s picturesque photography, Warren Low’s snappy editing and Walter Tyler’s colorful sets and natural backdrops.” Edith Head’s costumes and the inclusion of several traditional Hawaiian ceremonies also contribute to the pleasing visual backdrop of the film.
In Blue Hawaii Hal Wallis struck gold with Elvis Presley. It was the signature film of Elvis’ career and established him at the time as a major Hollywood movie attraction. Unfortunately, Blue Hawaii also locked Presley into the musical comedy genre. And although he would have some future successes with such films, the elements of that format never again came together for him as they had to produce the phenomenal success that was Blue Hawaii.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Follow That Dream (1962)
Elvis Movie #9
United Artists | 1962
"The backwoods innocence, lack of education, and inherent honesty of the hillbilly stereotype are all used effectively to create humor and a little drama in the film."
OK, I’m going to say it right up front. Follow That Dream is the best film in which Elvis Presley ever appeared. I’ve always felt that way, and every time I see the movie I become more convinced of it. Now, I don’t claim to be a professional film critic, and being an admitted Elvis fan probably clouds my judgment somewhat. Still, the elements in Follow That Dream—the script, the humor, the setting, the acting of the entire cast, the message—all come together to create a highly entertaining film. I never tire of watching it, and to me that’s the test of a good movie.
The film is a “romantic, musical, hillbilly comedy.” The hillbilly element is the most pronounced. Only Granny is missing as the Kwimper jalopy rolls down the highway in the opening scene. The backwoods innocence, lack of education, and inherent honesty of the hillbilly stereotype are all used effectively to create humor and a little drama in the film. Variety’s review of Follow That Dream on March 28, 1962, rightly praised the film’s writer and director for their work in shaping the movie. “Scenarist Charles Lederer has constructed several highly amusing scenes in tailoring Richard Powell’s novel, ‘Pioneer, Go Home,’ to fit the specifications of the screen. And director Gordon Douglas has made capital of the screenplay’s better moments, translating the comedy of the typewriter into amusing and fast-paced visual terms.”
Subtly amusing scenes abound
The amusing scenes, which are spaced nicely through the film’s first 90 minutes, are not over-powering, but rather subtle in nature. For instance, when Toby and Holly go to town hoping to borrow $2,000 from the bank, they search for a parking meter with time remaining. The humor is not in their search, nor even in them finding one with 15 minutes left on it. It’s in their naïve belief that 15 minutes will be enough time to obtain the loan.
Other amusing scenes include the confusion in the bank when Toby’s attempt to borrow money is mistaken as a bank robbery. The on-going gag of the Kwimper’s “john” and the conflict between the family and the gangster gamblers add to the film’s subtle humor.
Variety judged Follow That Dream to be a good setting for Presley’s type of acting. “Presley buffs figure to take very kindly to the David Weisbart production,” read the review, “which displays their hero in good form in the kind of vehicle in which the record shows him to be salable—the light romantic comedy with songs.”
In reality, though, the role of Toby Kwimper was quite different from those in Elvis’ previous eight films. Presley had usually played an aggressive, often angry, young man in his earlier movies. Here he portrayed a slow-taking, calm country boy, with a mix of innocence and down home intuition. Using a vacant, questioning facial expression and a slow, monotone voice, Elvis gave a relaxed and believable performance. “Presley conveys the right blend of horse sense and naiveté in his characterization,” Variety noted.
Above average for “Presley pix”
To the film as a whole, Variety assigned a passing grade. “There are lags and lapses in the picture, to be sure, but, by Presley pix standards, it’s above average.” By 1962 the idea that “Presley pix” were a genre unto themselves and not to be judged by the same standards as other films had already formed in the minds of the nation’s movie reviewers. After giving lengthy reviews to Presley’s first seven films, The New York Times didn’t even bother to review Blue Hawaii the year before, and Times film critic Bosley Crowther, ever a Presley detractor, devoted a mere 100 words to Follow That Dream in the paper’s August 9, 1962, edition. His dismissive review read as follows:
“Fan us with a palm frond—and a ragged one, at that. Elvis Presley, who was seen in ‘Blue Hawai,’ now appears on the Florida coast as a combination Sir Galahad and Li’l Abner in ‘Follow That Dream’ … Judging by this laboriously homespun and simple-minded exercise about just plain folks, somebody must have decided that the Presley films have been getting a little too glossy lately. In any case, compared to yesterday’s serving of cornmeal mush, ‘Blue Hawaii’ was caviar.”
Personally, I wonder if Crowther even bothered to view the film. Certainly his review reveals nothing he couldn’t have seen in the movie’s trailer. However, since he belittled Follow That Dream compared to Blue Hawaii (which his paper ignored some months before), let’s further explore the relationship between the two films.
Follow That Dream vs. Blue Hawaii
Follow That Dream didn’t approach the commercial success of Blue Hawaii. It spent only two weeks on Variety’s National Box Office weekly survey, peaking at number five, while the Hawaiian film finished at number eight among the top-grossing films of 1961. The reason for that was clearly the lack of Presley songs in Follow That Dream. The startling success of Blue Hawaii revealed once and for all that Elvis filmgoers preferred his music to his acting. Rarely did 10 minutes of screen time pass between any 2 of Presley’s 14 musical numbers in Blue Hawaii, while an average of 30 minutes separated Elvis’s 5 tunes in Follow That Dream.
While acknowledging that Presley’s vocals were adequate, Variety judged them as disruptive to the movie’s flow. According to the review, Elvis “delivers five songs with vocal competence but nary a wiggle. The songs, four with a beat and one slow ballad, hamper the comic momentum of the story and are hardly distinguished ditties but, with EP doing the warbling, are apt to enjoy a commercial destiny on wax beyond their natural potential.”
Variety’s reviewer obviously didn’t realize that the Presley faithful had already demonstrated with Blue Hawaii that they preferred lots of Elvis music, regardless of its effect on the film’s “momentum.” Why, then, in their first Elvis film, did United Artists decide not to follow the successful music-crammed formula that Paramount used in Blue Hawaii? The answer, of course, is that Follow That Dream was already in the can before the Paramount film opened in November 1961. In fact, when Blue Hawaii was released, Elvis was already working on Kid Galahad, another United Artists project that mirrored the format of Follow That Dream.
Elvis showed natural comedic talent
United Artists apparently was still operating under the mistaken belief that viewers flocked to the theaters to see Elvis act. And while that concept hampered Follow That Dream at the box office, at least in retrospect, the studio has the honor of producing the vehicle that features Elvis Presley’s finest acting job. His unexpected, natural comedic talent helped carry the film through its first 90 minutes. The picture then enters a decidedly dramatic interlude in a courtroom scene to determine custody of the Kwimpers’ adopted children. Presley’s speech to the judge is the actor’s finest dramatic moment in his film career. I marvel at the sincerity of Elvis' delivery every time I see it.
Elvis’ films of the early 1960s generally benefited from the work of competent co-stars, and Follow That Dream was no different. Variety handed out the following kudos.
“Arthur O’Connell scores as the big daddy of the clan, and is principle pawn in a running gag involving an overly-pressurized outhouse john. There’s a heavy streak of earthy humor in the film. Anne Helm is decorative and able as the Elvis-a-vis, or Daisy Mae to his Abner. Joanna Moore, whose Georgia drawl brings a touch of lingual authenticity to the premises … is effective as a welfare worker interested only in her own welfare. Especially chipper supporting work is contributed by Howard McNear [bank vice-president] and Simon Oakland [Nick the gangster].”
Elvis Presley’s work for United Artists in 1962 was the high water mark of his movie career. Follow That Dream was his best film, and Kid Galahad, which followed it, was nearly as good. The ghost of Blue Hawaii was already pushing Presley’s Hollywood career in a self-destructive direction, but Follow That Dream remains as a shining example of what Elvis could have been as an actor had he insisted that content rise above box office potential in his future films.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Kid Galahad (1962)
Elvis Movie #10
United Artists | 1962
"The last thing you might think Elvis Presley is qualified to do is act a diffident amateur boxer who turns out to be a tiger in the professional fight ring."
With the release of Kid Galahad in the late summer of 1962, the nation’s film reviewers were finally conceding that Elvis Presley had made the transition from detestable rock ’n’ roller (in their eyes) to established movie star. In its review of Presley’s tenth movie on July 25, 1962,Variety acknowledged him as one of the “screen’s most salable staples.”
The reviewer went on to note that Elvis’ “following doesn’t seem to have diminished appreciably over the years in spite of the subtle alteration of his public image from the swivel-hipped, sideburn-adorned hound dog howler into the mellowed, mannerly matinee idol that he is today.”
Certainly in his first two films for United Artists, the studio felt confident enough in Elvis to hand him two roles that were both out of the ordinary and challenging for him. The previous year, Presley played a subtle comedic role as a hillbilly in UA’s Follow That Dream. In Kid Galahad he was back with another atypical role, this time as a professional boxer. In previous films he had often been portrayed as a tough bar room and street brawler, but as Walter Gulick, a G.I. turned prizefighter, his pugilistic talents were on display openly and often.
Lead New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, a frequent critic of Presley in the early 1960s, thought Elvis was woefully miscast in his latest screen vehicle. “The last thing you might think Elvis Presley is qualified to do,” according to Crowther in his March 7, 1963, review, “is act a diffident amateur boxer who turns out to be a tiger in the professional fight ring. And you might well persist in that opinion after seeing him in ‘Kid Galahad’.”
Alternating light romance with dramatic scenes
Kid Galahad’s screenplay alternates between light romantic comedy and dramatic episodes. In his previous films, Elvis’ characters almost always initially resisted the romantic wiles of female pursuers. Here, though, his Walter Gulick is stricken by love at the first sight of Rose Grogan, played by Joan Blackman, who also played his love interest in Blue Hawaii. In that film she had an active role. In Kid Galahad her job consists mostly of staring seductively into Elvis’ eyes.
As in Follow That Dream, a crew of gangsters moves into town, leading to Kid Galahad’s few serious moments. The film’s best dramatic sequence finds Elvis coming to the rescue after his trainer, played by Charles Bronson, gets his hands broken by a couple of mobster heavies.
Of course, Kid Galahad contains the standard Presley musical numbers designed to draw his faithful followers to the box office. And, as usual, those tunes disturbed the film critics, who, being too old to like Presley’s style anyway, saw them as disruptive to the story line. In the Times, Crowther complained of Elvis’ “expressing himself at odd moments in conspicuously unpugnacious songs, brought up from what seems a ruptured larynx.” And showing why he should have kept to evaluating films, Variety’s reviewer made an odd recommendation to RCA Victor. “Elvis sings some half a dozen songs, the most commercial of which figures to be ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is,’ a sentimental ballad with juke potential.”
Presley rose to challenge of his co-stars
The presence of Gig Young and Charles Bronson, two polished pros, in Kid Galahad challenged Presley to step up his own performance. Director Phil Karlson is on record as saying that Elvis held his own with his two male co-stars. Variety didn’t quite see it that way but gave Presley credit for knowing his limits as an actor. “Presley’s acting resources are limited, but he has gradually established a character with which he does not have to strain too much for emotional nuance—the soft-spoken, unaffected, polite, unspoiled, forthright and ultimately two-fisted country boy.”
In playing a boxer, however, Elvis’ greatest challenge in Kid Galahad was his physical appearance. Variety described Presley as “surprisingly paunchy” in the film, and the Times’ Crowther comically contended that Elvis’ physique was woefully miscast.
“Mr. Presley is certainly no model for a statue of Hercules, and his skill at projecting an illusion of ferocity is a very low degree. The expanses of flesh that he exposes when he gets into boxing togs are a fair indication that most of his muscles have come from punching a guitar, and his pout when he clouts a rival bears no resemblance to a killer’s slit-mouthed sneer … No, we’ll have to agree that Mr. Presley does not make a very convincing pug.”
Critics disagreed on director’s skill in Galahad
Despite its limitations, Bosley Crowther saw some charm in Kid Galahad. “Somehow this clique-ridden picture … makes a moderately genial entertainment,” he wrote. “It’s not explosive, but it has the cheerful top of a lightly romantic contrivance that ranges between comedy and spoof. For this we can thank the other actors who played their roles ardently and Phil Karlson, who has directed at a brisk and deceptive pace.”
Conversely, Variety’s review criticized the director’s work and that of some of his actors. “Phil Karlson’s direction has some unaccountable lapses of perception, although the fault may lie partially with the limitations of several of his players from whom he apparently was unable to extract the desirable reaction.” Elsewhere Variety made it clear who it judged to be the weak link in the chain of actors. “Gig Young labors through the trite, confusing part of the mixed up proprietor of the upstate boxing stable,” according to the show biz publication.
Crowther, however, praised Young and the other supporting actors. “Gig Young is attractively wicked as a Catskill hotel-keeping heel who tries to lead the young boxer to slaughter,” maintained Crowther. “Lola Albright is charmingly solicitous as Mr. Young’s disillusioned girl and Joan Blackman is pretty and submissive as the last who falls for Mr. Presley’s songs.”
I have to agree with Crowther’s assessment of Gig Young’s work in Kid Galahad. In fact, in addition to Presley, Young, Albright, and Blackman, the rest of the Cream Valley characters are played with charm by Charles Bronson as Lew the trainer, Ned Glass as Lieberman the Jewish nightspot owner, Robert Emhardt as Maynard the cook, Michael Dante as Joie the boxer, and Liam Redmond as Father Higgins. They form a pleasant family of characters that I never tire of revisiting each time I return to Cream Valley in Kid Galahad.
Financial success predicted for Galahad
Though its review was decidedly critical throughout, Variety nevertheless predicted box office success for Kid Galahad.
“The story may be old, the direction not especially perceptive, the performances in several cases pretty poor, but United Artists’ ‘Kid Galahad’ is apt to be a moneymaker in spite of all this. It will be a special favorite with the youngsters who: (1) like Elvis more than most other people, (2) are that much less familiar with this workhorse plot than older audiences are.”
In closing his Times review, Crowther was much kinder. “For a film about a singing prize-fighter (which is silly enough) it will do,” he concluded. Kid Galahad will do for me as well. Through the years it and its United Artists predecessor, Follow That Dream, have risen to the top of my “Favorite Elvis Movies” list. Sadly, they also mark the apex of Presley’s Hollywood career. Most later Presley films would follow the “Blue Hawaii formula,” and as they did so, the allure of future Elvis movies began to fall off dramatically.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Girls, Girls, Girls (1962)
Elvis Movie #11
Paramount | 1962
"Essentially, Presley plays himself in the breezy sea session. He handles the role capably, though one would hardly expect a hardened fisherman to be as soft, smooth and white as the one Presley depicts."
It’s hard for me to be objective about Girls! Girls! Girls! Although it was Elvis’ eleventh movie, it was the first one that I saw. It was running in theaters when I first became an Elvis fan at age 13 in 1962. The movie’s soundtrack album was the first Presley record I purchased. Every time I view the film or listen to its music, it brings back pleasant memories of my teenage years, when my relationship with Elvis first began.
Hal Wallis took Elvis back to Hawaii to film the location scenes for the film. Such colorful scenery was a staple of Elvis’ movies in the early 1960s. It's interesting, though, that the Hawaiian setting of Girls! Girls! Girls! was never mentioned in the film. In fact, it wasn’t until years later, and after viewing the movie several times, that I learned the picture’s locale was Hawaii. Up until then, I had assumed it took place somewhere on the California coast.
Girls! Girls! Girls! is very much in the mold of Blue Hawaii, Presley’s blockbuster hit for Wallis and Paramount a year earlier. The formula was simple: unpretentious light musical comedy with plenty of Elvis singing. There was one major difference, however, and Variety took note of it in the following opening paragraph of its review of Girls! Girls! Girls! on November 7, 1962.
“‘Girls, Girls, Girls!’ is just that—with Elvis Presley there as the main attraction. Apparently, from the grosses racked up by the performer’s earlier pix, he remains generally a salable attraction. This new effort hinges on the popularity of the entertainer.”
Elvis no longer paired with experienced actors
In most of his previous film vehicles, Elvis had been surrounded by strong supporting casts. King Creole and Kid Galahad are two examples of how experienced co-stars helped enhance Presley’s performance and provide his films with some credibility. With Girls! Girls! Girls!, however, Hollywood began counting on Elvis to carry the entire weight of his films. Laurel Goodwin, playing Elvis’ love interest, was a newcomer, and even the film’s two name actors, Stella Stevens and Robert Strauss, were given very little to do. Ending the strategy of using Elvis as part of an acting ensemble meant that Presley movies from then on would be aimed basically at his loyal fan base and not to a wider audience.
Variety noted that the dramatic elements inserted in Presley’s two previously films for United Artists (Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad) had been abandoned in Paramount’s latest Elvis project. “Hal Wallis’ production, directed by Norman Taurog, puts the entertainer back into the non-dramatic, purely escapist light musical vein. The thin plot … has him the romantic interest of two girls. Hackneyed tale is of poor boy fisherman who meets rich girl who doesn’t tell him she is rich but who, naturally, falls in love with him. Presley, on the other hand, is far more interested in recovering a sleek sailboat originally built by his father but then forced into other hands. All the usual elements, including a dastardly villain who turns out to be a wolf, but not in disguise, are present.”
Stella Stevens, Elvis Presley, Laurel Goodwin
There really are no serious dramatic scenes, or even moments, in the film. There are a couple of short fight scenes—Elvis wins one and loses one. There is no explanation at all for why Ross Carpenter, Elvis’ character, suddenly gives up his dream to own the boat he and his father built, nor why he fully embraces the rich girl who has been pursuing him. Throughout the film he had strongly opposed both actions.
Elvis uses too much greasy kid’s stuff
The most interesting scene in the movie comes toward the end, when Presley’s and Goodwin’s characters leap from a sailboat into a motorized launch in high seas. The jump is precarious enough, but a violent collision between the two boats nearly occurs when the launch turns directly in front of the sailboat. It was probably one of those unplanned, accidental scenes that sometimes occur during filming. Since stunt doubles were undoubtedly used in the scene, Presley and Goodwin were never in danger.
For Girls! Girls! Girls! Elvis had obviously trimmed down considerably from his bulky appearance in his two previous films. Also, he seemed to have gone overboard on the Brylcreem for his latest film. Not even a South Seas hurricane could have moved a hair on his head.
To my mind, Elvis plays a rather irritating character in Ross Carpenter, who alternates between a pleasant fellow and an immature, angry young man. Variety, though, saw the role as the kind Elvis played best. “Essentially, Presley plays himself in the breezy sea session,” judged the reviewer. “He handles the role capably, though one would hardly expect a hardened fisherman to be as soft, smooth and white as the one Presley depicts. The character has little depth, but he is pleasant.”
Elvis’ songs come fast and often
On the music side of things, Variety observed that Elvis was given a “plethora of songs regardless of whether they fit smoothly into the action.” In fact, counting the light final production number there are 12 Presley tunes in the film. They average about nine minutes apart, with some being separated by as little as two minutes. Of course, one of the film’s highlights is Elvis' performance of “Return to Sender,” a Presley classic and still one of the tunes most associated with him.
Variety’s reviewer noted that “Wallis edited out five minutes from the film previewed, taking out two songs, which quickens the pace of one drawn out section.” One of those dropped songs was undoubtedly “I Don’t Want To,” since a snippet of that number can be seen in the film’s theatrical trailer. Presley is known to have recorded three other songs for the film that were not used—“Mama,” “Plantation Rock,” and “Where Do You Come From?”
Elvis relied heavily on the early 1960s dance craze, the Twist, while performing three uptempo tunes in Girls! Girls! Girls!. Besides dating the film to that time period, the twist movements seem out of character for Elvis, who had risen to fame a mere six years before with unique stage gyrations of his own creation.
Co-stars Goodwin, Stevens, and Slate did good supporting work
Variety offered the following analysis of Elvis’s co-stars in Girls! Girls! Girls! “Most striking thing about the picture is the introduction of new Paramount pactee Laurel Goodwin, who makes an auspicious film bow. Youngster has the cute, homespun potential of a Doris Day. Stella Stevens, however, is wasted in a standard role as a sultry torch singer who has given up every really nailing the guy. She does her best but, aside from singing three songs (her first singing in a film) in a style suitable for the character, there just isn’t enough for her to do. Jeremy Slate plays the villain with a combination of crass charm and broad comedy. His is a solid performance.”
The blueprint for Presley films was set
As a repackage of Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! didn’t reach the heights of it predecessor, but it did well enough at the box office to convince studio executives that they had nailed down the blueprint for an Elvis Presley film. It was a formula they would see no need to tinker with in the future.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
It Happened At The World's Fair (1963)
Elvis Movie #12
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1963
"Hollywood had recently decided to fashion Presley films solely for his sizable flock of faithful followers, and the producers of It Happened At The World’s Fair bought into that strategy."
The “Century 21 Exposition,” also known as the “Seattle World’s Fair,” was the scene of It Happened At The World’s Fair, the only Elvis movie to be filmed in my home state of Washington. The fair ran for six months in 1962 from April-September. I was 13 years old that summer when my family made the trip across the state from Spokane to Seattle to attend the fair. I was unaware of Elvis Presley’s upcoming presence there, and even had I known of it, I wouldn’t have been impressed. My conversion to Elvis fan wouldn’t happen until later that year.
The Pacific Northwest provided a different kind of scenic backdrop from previous Presley films. The rural shots featured Mount Rainier, a peak in the Cascades south of Seattle. The mountain is seen several times early in the film as Mike Edwards (Elvis) and Danny Burke (Gary Lockwood) ride in the back of “Uncle Walter’s” truck on the way to Seattle. The peak is also visible in a couple of scenes later in the movie.
Of course, the film’s main background is the Seattle World’s Fair itself. Location shooting was done there, no doubt by design, in September after local schools had opened. Using such a setting seemed unwise to Variety, when its review of It Happened At The World’s Fair appeared in its April 3, 1963, issue. “The fact that the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 is long gone won’t help any at the gate,” the reviewer pointed out.
"Hippiness is a thing called Elvis"
Such details, however, would not have concerned most who purchased tickets to see It Happened At The World’s Fair in 1963. They were there to see one thing, as Variety noted: “Those for whom hippiness is just a thing called Elvis figure to welcome this Metro morsel with almost the same box office ardor with which they have greeted the more recent of Presley’s musicalized films … However, this is apt to be tedious going for all but the most confirmed of Presley’s young admirers.” Hollywood had recently decided to fashion Presley films solely for his sizable flock of faithful followers, and the producers of It Happened At The World’s Fair bought into that strategy.
Certainly, this vehicle had the thinnest plot of all Elvis movies to that point. In fact, the film’s dramatic hook keeps changing. At first, it hinges on how Mike and Danny will retrieve their airplane, which had been impounded due to unpaid debts. Later, though, the main problem resolves around the disappearance of “Uncle Walter,” causing Presley’s character to take little Sue-Lin under his wing. Finally, toward the end, the pilots unknowingly become embroiled in a plot to fly smuggled goods into Canada. While the sub-plot keeps changing, a first wolf-like and then smitten Elvis searches for some way to win the heart of Diana Warren, a nurse he met at the Seattle World’s Fair.
According to Variety, the picture faltered after a promising start. “Screenplay springs off to a fairly bright start, thrusting ‘bush pilot’ Presley and sidekick Gary Lockwood into several situations, airborne and earthbound, that have a fair humor content. But it isn’t long before the plot begins to be brushed aside by one vocal after another, until the story has taken a back seat to the songs.”
Why is he singing?
In Elvis’ Hollywood career, it was not uncommon for his musical numbers to disrupt the storyline. Even King Creole, generally considered Presley’s best dramatic work, suffers somewhat from too many songs. However, in It Happened At The World’s Fair we start to see what would become standard in many of Elvis’ later movies. That is that no attempt is made to tie Presley’s singing to the underlying story. He just bursts into song for no apparent reason, other than that 12-15 minutes have passed since his previous song.
“The 10—count ‘em—10 tunes he sings may be cause for rejoicing among his more ardent followers,” noted Variety, “but, stacked up proportionately against the skinny story in between, it seems at least three too many. Admitting the slim scenario by Si Rose and Seaman Jacobs, so many warbling interruptions upset the tempo of the yarn and prevent plot and picture from gathering momentum … None of the 10 songs are very memorable, but they’re a good bet to sell a lot of wax for Presley and RCA Victor.”
The reviewer certainly had this “ardent” Elvis admirer pegged. Admittedly in the theater I sat in constant anticipation of Presley’s next song, and judged It Happened At The World’s Fair as a whole based on the quality of the accumulated tunes. My memory retains two judgments from my first viewing of over 50 years ago. First, I was a bit embarrassed for Elvis when four old, balding trailer-park dudes provided vocal backing for him on “One Broken Heart For Sale.” I also remember being very impressed with the closing number, “Happy Ending,” as Elvis and Joan O’Brien (turns out they were stand-ins) led a marching band through the Seattle World’s Fair grounds.
Elvis looks sharp in his new suits
As for Elvis, he certainly looked trim, fit, and handsome in his role as a smartly dressed flyboy-playboy. He looked dashing in his pilot outfit, complete with leather jacket, hat, and scarf. For most of the film, though, he walked about the Seattle World’s Fair clad in a couple of obviously new, neatly tailored suits. He didn’t even take his suit coat off, or even loosen his tie, while trying to seduce Yvonne Craig early in the film. Neither was any part of his suit removed during a fight sequence with gamblers, although he walked away from the brawl with loosened tie and soiled coat. As in his previous film, Elvis’ hair in It Happened At The World’s Fair was greased permanently into place. (Thank goodness his hair returned to a more natural look in his next film!)
Also, as in his previous film, Elvis’ role in It Happened At The World’s Fair was not dramatically challenging. “Presley effortlessly executes his customary character,” stated Variety, “red-blooded wolf on the crust, clean-cut nice guy at the core.” It appears, though, that a double performed most of the physical scenes—climbing fences and sprinting here and there among the Seattle World’s Fair exhibits.
"Miss O’Brien is easy to look at"
Following another trend, this Elvis movie was short on name co-stars. Love interest Joan O’Brien had a promising career going and may have blossomed into a major actress had she not walked away from acting in 1965 to concentrate on raising a family. “Miss O’Brien is easy to look at,” was all Variety had to say about work in It Happened At The World’s Fair. The reviewer also offered brief praise to the other actors. “Lockwood, as his gambling chum, makes a good impression. Little Miss Tiu is tiu precious for words. Everyone else involved does about as well as can be expected.”
Just nine months after It Happened At The World’s Fair was released in April 1963, Colonel Parker made the following observation about Elvis’ films: “Anyway, what’s Elvis need? A couple of songs, a little story and some nice people with him.” It was becoming more and more obvious that the expectations of Hollywood producers had become just as low for Presley’s films. I have to admit, though, that “a couple of songs, a little story and some nice people with him” was plenty enough to entertain me as I sat in the theater and watched It Happened At The World’s Fair in the spring of 1963. I was there to see and hear Elvis and was not disappointed. For this Elvis fan, it was good entertainment then, and it remains so today.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Fun In Acapulco (1963)
Elvis Movie #13
Paramount | 1963
"Fun in Acapulco was the sixth Presley film produced by Hal Wallis. None of them were pretentious, instead offering up basic and solid entertainment in a scenic, romantic-comedy format."
It was a difficult time for hard-core Elvis fans in late 1963 when Fun in Acapulco started playing in neighborhood theaters. The Beatles had just invaded American culture, and, suddenly, there was a challenge to Presley’s rule as the King of Rock ’n’ roll. Even my own brother had gone over to the long-haired dark side. We long-time, loyal Elvis fans (I had been one for a whole year!) looked to our champion to answer the challenge from across the pond. The Beatles were everywhere in the media, and within months they would be in the U.S., appearing on the Sullivan show and touring the country. Elvis, though, was appearing nowhere. His only forum from which to counter the assault on his throne was the big screen.
Hoping for some rock ’n’ roll fireworks from Elvis, then, I viewed Fun in Acapulco at a local theater during the 1963 holiday season. What a disappointment! The Beatles, who had been inspired by Elvis, were playing some serious rock ’n’ roll, and here was Elvis, singing Mexican tunes.
Hollywood had recently figured out my demographic group. Like most Elvis fans then, I went to his movies to hear Presley sing. The plot, the drama, the acting—they all meant nothing to me. It would take me many years to finally realize that by 1963 Elvis had left his rock years behind him, and that Fun in Acapulco was a good movie, perhaps the best among Hal Wallis’ scenic, heavily musicalized features of the early 1960s.
The Times offers a positive review
In fact, that was the judgment of Howard Thompson in his review of Presley’s latest feature in The New York Times on February 20, 1964. The Times had ignored Elvis’ two previous films, but Thompson’s assessment of Fun in Acapulco proved to be the most positive review any Elvis movie had or would receive from the Times. Thompson opened with: “Compared with the Beatles, Elvis Presley sounds like Caruso in ‘Fun in Acapulco,’ which opened yesterday in neighborhood theaters. And he certainly looks better. In fact, this attractive travel poster for the famed Mexican resort is far and away his best musical feature to date. It’s a pleasant, idyllic movie that never takes itself seriously and moves briskly under Richard Thorpe’s direction. The excellent color photography and the balmy atmosphere of the resort—the luxury hotels, the beaches and the quaint byways—were positively eye-popping.”
The other major film reviewer of the day was less effusive but still predicted box office success for the film. In it’s review of November 20, 1963, Variety provided the following general assessment of Fun in Acapulco: “Elvis Presley’s latest appearance under the Hal Wallis-Paramount banner shapes up as a comfortable commercial attraction and should profit by the fact that it’s his first release in more than six months. Presley fans won’t be disappointed—he sings ten serviceable songs and wiggles a bit to boot. However, the ground covered by the plot doesn’t help to increase his star stature and, for those who are not devotees, the main attraction may turn out to be the Technicolorful scenery of Acapulco.”
Fun in Acapulco was the third Wallis Presley production to feature an exotic background. It took some skillful editing to pull this one off, considering that all of Elvis’ work was filmed in Hollywood. Scattered throughout the picture are scenes of Elvis acting against moving backgrounds that obviously had been previously filmed in Mexico. Two examples are the bicycle ride with Raoul and the sports car drive with Dolores, the lady bullfighter. Still, the illusion of being in Acapulco is maintained effectively through the use of landscape photography, background music, costumes, and local ceremonies.
Film plot better than most Elvis movies
Producers had given up on dramatic narratives for Presley movies. Still, in the Times, Thompson saw some sense in Fun in Acapulco’s story. “As for the plot,” wrote Thompson, “this production is pegged on a snug, reasonable situation that has Elvis afraid of heights after a circus trapeze accident in the States. As a lifeguard-troubadour, he trains a thoughtful eye on the 136-foot diving cliff, la Quebrada. Will he try it? Well, one guess, anybody.”
Early on the film certainly attempts to build tension around a mysterious event in the past of character Mike Windgren—his fear of the high diving board, his resistance to having his photo taken, and so on. The details of the circus accident that killed his brother are revealed too early, however. The screenplay would have served the film better had it maintained the suspense until near the story’s end. Still, once the cause of the fear is known, the story allows for a logical progression of steps for Elvis’ character to regain his courage. The plot, then, was the best among Presley’s recent films over the previous couple of years. Variety, however, felt Elvis was ready for more serious stuff. “Presley has come a long way and is deserving of better material than has been provided in this Allan Weiss screenplay,” its review suggested.
Again, his part in Fun in Acapulco was not a challenging one for Elvis. He seemed to have settled comfortably into the musical comedy role that Hal Wallis had fashioned for him. “Mr. Presley has never seemed so relaxed and personable,” wrote Thompson in the Times. Physically, the 28-year-old Elvis looks attractive, fit, and trim. He appears stripped to the waist in numerous scenes—the circus flashback, several lifeguard scenes, and the big dive from the cliff. And, despite those scenes revealing decidedly slender arms, Elvis is still able to flatten his much more developed fellow lifeguard, Alejandro Rey, in the movie’s one fight scene.
Elvis sings and performs well on screen
Musically, through the years I’ve come to appreciate Elvis’ work in Fun in Acapulco. The 11 songs used in the movie required a great vocal range on Presley’s part, and he delivered solid performances on all of them. (In retrospect, the only clinker in the bunch, “There’s No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car,” foreshadowed the weak musical material that would come Elvis’ way in future films.) Most of the numbers were nicely staged by Charles O’Curran. In particular, “Bossa Nova Baby” is one of Elvis’ best movie musical performances, second only among his uptempo film numbers to “Jailhouse Rock,” in my opinion.
In general, 11 songs would be disruptive to the flow of any movie, but, since Elvis played a professional singer in Fun in Acapulco, most of the tunes fit nicely into the story. “The songs, in native rhythm, come thick and fast,” noted Thompson. “The melodies and staging are generally bright and imaginative.” Variety’s reviewer was slightly less impressed. “There are 11 songs, including the title ditty, which are pleasant within the context of the picture but don’t show much promise as potential popular numbers on their own.”
In Ursula Andress, Hal Wallis brought back something missing in Presley’s two previous films—a name co-star. The Bond girl is certainly eye-catching but finds little of substance to do in the story. And, inexplicably, Elvis reveals more skin in the film than Miss Andress. Variety assessed the picture’s supporting cast as follows: “The other three-fourths of the central romantic quartet are Ursula Andress, Elsa Cardenas and Alejandro Rey, fine-looking specimens, all. Others of note in the cast are Paul Lukas as an ex-duke-turned-chef and young Larry Domasin as a business-minded urchin more or less adopted by Presley.”
Raoul nearly steals the show
Domasin, whose presence in Fun in Acapulco I found irritating back in 1963, I now find entertaining as Raoul, Elvis’ Mexican manager with dozens of cousins. Thompson noted that Domasin “almost steals the show.” At one point, Raoul negotiates a fee of 1,500 pesos for Elvis’ character to perform at the Tropicana. The young manager then proposes that he and his client split the fee down the middle, fifty-fifty. I wonder if that scene gave the film’s technical adviser, Colonel Parker, any ideas.
Fun in Acapulco was the sixth Presley film produced by Hal Wallis. None of them were pretentious, instead offering up basic and solid entertainment in a scenic, romantic-comedy format. Judged in that group of Elvis movies, Fun in Acapulco ranks near the top, even a notch above Blue Hawaii. If Presley had continued making films of this quality, his standing in Hollywood would have remained respectable. Unfortunately, the substandard film Kissin’ Cousins was on the way with adverse consequences for his career.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Kissin' Cousins (1963)
Elvis Movie #14
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1963
“This new Elvis Presley concoction is a pretty dreary effort, one that certainly won’t replenish the popularity of Sir Swivel. A few more like this and Cuhnel Parker may have to press the panic button.”
In order of filming, Kissin’ Cousins was Elvis Presley’s fifteenth movie. (Viva Las Vegas was actually filmed before Kissin’ Cousins but released afterwards.) It was a watershed picture for Presley, not only because it marked the near halfway point in his career output of 31 theatrical films, but also because it signaled a radical change in how the star’s pictures were made.
In terms of budget, production time and promotion, all of Presley’s first 14 movies were fairly standard for Hollywood films featuring lead actors the stature of Elvis. However, while it took over seven weeks in 1963 to film Viva Las Vegas, Kissin’ Cousins was shot soon afterwards in less than half that time. The haste produced a picture which disappointed critics when it hit theaters in April 1964. Variety opened its review of March 4, 1964, with:
“This new Elvis Presley concoction is a pretty dreary effort, one that certainly won’t replenish the popularity of Sir Swivel. Presley needs—and merits—more substantial material than this if his career is to continue to flourish as in the past. A few more like this and Cuhnel Parker may have to press the panic button.”
Parker ordered Presley films be made PDQ
Unbeknownst to Variety, Parker had already pushed the panic button. Supposedly concerned about the high production costs of Viva Las Vegas, Parker insisted that Elvis’ next film be shot much faster and with strict budget controls. As to be expected, cutting corners noticeably cut the quality level of the film.
Howard Thompson reviewed the film for The New York Times on April 2, 1964. Thompson, who just a few months earlier had given Presley one of the best movie reviews of his career, couldn’t hide his disappointment with Kissin’ Cousins. “With the flavor of ‘Fun in Acapulco’—and that it was—fairly fresh,” noted Thompson, “Elvis Presley’s movie status takes a nosedive in his latest, ‘Kissin’ Cousins.’ Yesterday’s new arrival … is a broad, meandering rehash of ‘Li’l Abner.’ For Pete’s sake, El! … On the whole, Sam Katzman’s production is tired, strained and familiar stuff, even with double-barreled Presley. Come on, lad—at least one of you. Spruce up or leg it back to Acapulco.”
For Elvis fans only
The basic Elvis film formula was still used—light musical comedy, light on plot but heavy with girls and Elvis singing. Clearly, though, MGM and director Katzman had given up entirely on drawing a general audience and aimed this production solely at Elvis’ core crowd. Variety’s review concluded that the producers may have misjudged the patience of even Elvis’ most loyal fans:
“Presumably, Metro is counting heavily on the support of ruralities to bring home the boxoffice bacon. The ammunition is Elvis in a dual role, a bunch of songs, a backwoods setting and a bevy of decorative young females in a minimum of wardrobe. But producer Sam Katzman and staff have forgotten several ‘little’ things like a well-developed storyline and characterizations that are at least remotely related to life. Without these vital ingredients, ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ is a commercial long shot, city or country.”
Elvis, an Army tank gunner in G.I. Blues four years earlier, is an Air Force officer in this one. (He’d join the Navy for 1967’s Easy Come, Easy Go.) The caravan of Army vehicles early in the film provides some decent backwoods scenery, but most of the picture is played out against tacky studio backdrops.
"Them dang Kittyhawks"
With the first appearance of the “Kittyhawks,” a roaming pack of wild, man-hungry women, the movie gives up any similarity to real life and enters the realm of cartoon stuff. And that would be okay had the producers taken a little more pride in their work. Director Gene Nelson depended too much on “wreslin” scenes for laughs, and the several musical production numbers have the feel of rehearsals instead of the polished performances seen in most previous Presley movies. In one sequence, a female dancer clearly stumbles and falls to the ground near the end of the number. Certainly any serious director would have re-shot the scene, but apparently doing so in Kissin’ Cousins would have cost precious time and money. And the editing in the film’s final number, when Josh and Jody alternately turn to face the camera, is painfully amateurish.
Well, having registered my disappointments with Kissin’ Cousins, I have to admit that I nevertheless found the movie moderately entertaining, both back in 1964 and in recent viewings. Since the movie was designed to appeal solely to Elvis’ fans, perhaps it should be evaluated on how well it accomplished that goal. I can’t speak for all Elvis fans, but to this Elvis fan the most important ingredient in an Elvis movie is—the music! In Kissin’ Cousins, Elvis’ nine numbers are a mixed bag.
Even Thompson in the Times agreed that Elvis started out well musically in Kissin’ Cousins. “The freshest and most promising part of the film is the opening sequence, as Elvis (One) meets his suspicious relatives and warbles three really nice tunes, as natural and right as rain,” observed Thompson, referring to “Smokey Mountain Boy,” “Gold in the Mountains,” and “One Boy, Two Little Girls.”
Pre-fabricated songs infected soundtrack
The rest of the numbers are not as appealing, however. A disturbing trend, only touched upon in previous Presley films, was expanded in Kissin’ Cousins. That is providing songwriters with a situation or bit of dialogue from the script and having them write a song to fit it. “Catchin’ on Fast,” “Barefoot Ballad,” and “Once Is Enough” appear to be three such pre-fabricated ditties.
Variety even criticized the whole notion of how Elvis’ musical numbers were inserted in the film. “At the root of the failure of ‘Kissin’ Cousins’, is the business of bursting into song out of context in the middle of a scene. This used to be reasonably acceptable to audiences, but now it is beginning to evolve into an anachronism. Smoother, slicker, more convincing techniques for lapsing into song are necessary in the modern musical.”
According to Variety, another weakness of the film was “the synthetic, two-dimensional pivotal character, the one portrayed by Presley. The star’s character must be appealing. It must have depth and substance to enable his young fans to relate to him.” All that the reviewer could say about Elvis’ acting work in the film was, “Presley does as well as possible under the circumstances.”
Fresh off sharing billing with Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas, Elvis found himself surrounded by a group of character actors and unknowns in Kissin’ Cousins. Arthur O’Connell (Follow That Dream) and Yvonne Craig (It Happened At the World’s Fair) were each appearing in their second Elvis movie.
Beverly Powers—“some fancy cleavage”
Variety assessed the supporting cast as follows: “Arthur O’Connell is excellent as the patriarch of the mountain clan, but what a mountainous waste of talent. Glenda Farrell is good as his hick wife, and delivers one musical number effectively. Jack Albertson (as Captain Salbo) handles a comedy role capably, and Donald Woods (as General Donford) a straighter assignment with pro finesse.
“The film features three luscious females—Pam Austin, Cynthia Pepper and Yvonne Craig. Miss Craig gets the biggest play and, with a racy, cuddly performance, makes the strongest impression. Miss Austin sort of vanishes inexplicably about halfway through the story. Evidently she is the femme lead on the cutting room floor. Beverly Powers (as Trudy) chips in some fancy cleavage to the cause.”
In Variety’s list of “Big Rental Pictures of 1964,” Viva Las Vegas pulled in $4.67 million to finish at number 11, while Kissin’ Cousins ended up at number 26 with $2.8 million. However, the much lower production costs of the hillbilly film provided a greater profit margin than the flashier, costlier Vegas picture. Hollywood had learned its last lesson on using Elvis Presley. After Kissin’ Cousins, the philosophy would be: “Do it on a dime, fast as you can, and for Presley fans only.”
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Viva Las Vegas 1964
Elvis Movie #15
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1964
"Viva Las Vegas is a classic in its presentation of its two energetic, young musical stars. Everything else in the film is secondary to the screen rapport between Elvis and Ann-Margret."
Certainly Viva Las Vegas is one of the most remembered of Elvis Presley’s 31 theatrical films. That’s due to two factors. The first is the pairing in the lead roles of Presley and Ann-Margret, two of Hollywood’s hottest film commodities in 1964. The second is the film’s theme song, which through the years has served as the unofficial anthem of the booming entertainment center in the Nevada desert.
While not considered a critical masterpiece, Viva Las Vegas is a classic in its presentation of its two energetic, young musical stars. Everything else in the film is secondary to the screen rapport between Elvis and Ann-Margret. With camera angles accentuating the attractive physical features of both, it is difficult for the average viewer to focus on other aspects of the movie.
When reviewers considered Viva Las Vegas on its release in 1964, however, they were obliged to look beyond the film’s stars in forming their assessment. Their appraisals varied, and so the movie received mixed reviews. Variety’s review appeared on May 20, 1964, and The New York Times printed its analysis the next day.
Variety’s reviewer, identified only as “Tube,” acknowledged that the “sizzling co-star combination” guaranteed box office success for the film. On the screen, however, "Tube" judged Viva Las Vegas to be a “pretty trite and heavy-handed affair, puny in story development and distortedly preoccupied with anatomical oomph.”
A pleasant, musical romp
For the Times, however, Howard Thompson gave the picture a pleasant, if not glowing, review. “Coming on a balmy day, with no pretensions of art,” Thompson wrote, “’Viva Las Vegas,’ the new Elvis Presley vehicle is about as pleasant and unimportant as a banana split. And as fetching to look at, it might be added. By now, after some rocky beginnings, the Presley movie formula has leveled off to a series of musical romps that are extremely easy to take.”
The difference between the two reviewers was that Variety’s still operated under the impression that Presley should be making more serious films, while Thompson at the Times understood that Elvis and his Hollywood handlers had come to the realization that light, musical comedy was the star’s box office niche in pictures. So, while “Tube” kept looking for dramatic substance in Viva Las Vegas and found only a “hackneyed yarn,” Thompson sat back and allowed the unassuming and visual narrative to have its way with him.
“This time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer happily teams him with Ann-Margret, a perfect musical foil with her galvanized dancing,” Thompson noted. “The story … as directed by George Sidney, tools along rosily. All this, from the pen of no less a writer than Sally Benson, unfolds against the stunningly picturesque background of the famed desert resort, photographed in excellent color. Miss Benson’s script snugly combs the entire area, from the neon-spangled clubs, casinos and hotels to Boulder Dam Lake. And the picture winds up with a wing-ding of an auto race across the countryside. Whatever it isn’t, ‘Viva Las Vegas’ remains friendly, wholesome and pretty as all get-out.”
Auto race one of most exciting passages ever put on film
Even “Tube,” who seemed disappointed with most of the film, was impressed with its car race sequence. “This depiction of an auto race is one of the most exciting passages of its type ever put on film,” the Variety reviewer gushed. “The driver’s eye-view position in which the audience is placed as the cars whoosh over the swoops and dips of the desert highway engenders a genuine sensation of giddiness in the spectator—much like that generated by a roller coaster ride in Cinerama.”
One puzzling element of the race sequence involves the fate of Cesare Danova, Elvis’ romantic and racing rival in the film. Danova’s character, Count Mancini, receives sympathetic play through much of the film, but when he is involved in a horrific crash near the story’s end, no one seems to care beyond a “that’s-a-shame” shrug from Elvis as he drives on to victory. (Somehow the Count survived the crash. He appears, apparently uninjured, in the wedding scene ending the film.)
Elvis and Ann-Margret shared musical spotlight
Of course, with two versatile musical talents available, Viva Las Vegas is packed with song and dance numbers throughout. Elvis sings seven solo tunes, and Ann-Margret performs two songs, along with showcasing her dancing talent several times. The two also combine for a vocal duet and a couple of dance numbers. It was the only time in Presley’s film career that he shared the spotlight with a performing talent of comparable skill. Reluctantly, this Elvis fan must admit that Ann-Margret held an edge over him in their musical performances in Viva Las Vegas. Choreographed dancing was never Elvis’ strength, and while he was lively enough on his feet in this film, he couldn’t quite match his co-star’s energetic dancing style.
Variety parceled out the performing kudos as follows: “Neither EP nor A-M fares too well histrionically, but then this isn’t the kind of vehicle that demands high-powered emoting … A few of the musical specialties have some merit and sparkle. The title tune gives Presley his meatiest and most commercial sounding material. His co-star’s best number, although not her most sensually torrid, is the ‘My Rival’ routine in which she laments the competition of his would-be profession. They pair up most successfully on ‘The Lady Loves Me,’ which has the earmarks of a fairly popular wax entry.”
Too much emphasis on female physical assets
For other reasons, though, Ann-Margret received some scolding from “Tube.” He thought the starlet’s physical assets were overstressed in the film: “Any excuse to stare at a derrierre in motion seems good enough for director George Sidney and cameraman Joseph Biroc. The provocative pulchritude of Ann-Margret and assorted other chicks and chorines makes the sexy scrutiny downright pleasurable to the male eye, but there is a certain lack of tastefulness or subtlety about the film’s obsession with peeping at anatomical contours and epidermis simply for the sake of peeping.”
Of course, norms for such arousing displays in films have changed in the past 50 years. Today the worst that can be said about Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas is that she was just too darn cute.
Elvis and Ann-Margret shared no classic romance (at least on-screen) in Viva Las Vegas. In fact, the stubbornness of their characters was more reminiscent of a volatile teenage romance. The only real amorous stretch in the film was the day the two starry-eyed young lovers spent together flying, waterskiing, and nightclubbing. It was enough, though, to link the two young entertainers together in the public consciousness for decades to come. There will always be speculation concerning the personal relationship between Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, but Viva Las Vegas will always be ready to testify to the magic they created together on-screen back in 1964.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Elvis Movie #16
Paramount | 1964
"Decked out in black leather and sporting a perpetual sneer, Elvis’ character had the bad boy look down pat. And he talked tough, too."
I was nearly 17 overall and three years into my life as an Elvis fan when Roustabout arrived at the Fox Theater in Spokane during the holiday season of 1964. My brother and I went to see the movie one Saturday afternoon. The anticipation of hearing Elvis sing a new set of songs triggered feelings of both optimism and angst in me as I viewed his latest feature that day. It was Presley’s third film that year. For Elvis fans like me, Kissin’ Cousins proved to be a major disappointment, while Viva Las Vegas had been magnificent. Which one would Roustabout resemble?
In the final analysis, Roustabout can be placed somewhere in the middle between Elvis’ best and worst feature films. The carnival setting was new, but Elvis reprised the basic role that had worked best for him in the past. In six of his first seven movies, Elvis had played the angry, young man. He played that part best in 1958’s King Creole, and his last previous role as a troubled youth had been in Wild in the Country in 1961. As Presley moved into his late twenties, he was given more adult roles, but here he was at age 30 playing another immature ruffian with a chip on his shoulder.
It takes a long time for the viewer to warm up to Charlie Rogers, Elvis’ character in Roustabout. As a tea-house singer in the film’s opening sequence, he heckles a group of college boys in the audience, then later uses karate to chop them up in the parking lot. (It is the first of four Elvis fight scenes.) Rogers comes on pretty aggressively with three different females in the film. (His best line: “You could get a little closer. I give off a lot of body heat.”) His boorish approach twice gets his face slapped. Each time he flashed that angry sneer he perfected in King Creole and a few of his other early films.
"You’re a cruel boy, Charlie!"
Decked out in black leather and sporting a perpetual sneer, Elvis’ character had the bad boy look down pat. And he talked tough, too. After disposing of the college boys, he is advised to flee before the police arrive. “It might mean trouble,” he’s told. “So what else is new?” responds a defiant Elvis. “You’ve got your religion; I’ve got mine,” the self-centered hooligan later tells Barbara Stanwyck of her character’s love for the carny life. “You’re a cruel boy, Charlie,” she responds, summing up Elvis’ attitude for most of the picture. Of course, he softens up later on, and the film ends with Elvis on friendly terms with all the carnies who had come to hate him earlier in the story.
The New York Times passed on reviewing Roustabout, but Variety printed its assessment of the film on November 11, 1964. The reviewer belittled the picture, while nevertheless predicting its financial success: “Elvis Presley-starrer, ‘Roustabout,’ is a gaudily-staged, tritely-scripted film looming as a box office smash, based on lure of Presley name and co-billing of Barbara Stanwyck and expensive quality of the Technicolor, Techniscope frame provided for 11 Presley songs.”
Variety had a problem with the film’s unimaginative story. “Hoary script by Anthony Lawrence and Alan Weiss is loaded with clichés outdated in Tom Swift days,” the review read. “Cliches are too numerous to enumerate. Carny is failing financially because payments cannot be met on note held by bank. Presley’s singing brings in customers and prosperity, but he deserts to another show after fight with [Leif] Erickson and misunderstanding with Miss [Joan] Freeman. Involved is lost wallet for which Presley is blamed, dark-haired vamp (Sue Ane Langdon) who pants after Presley, and ever-present phony spirit of carny camaraderie. Almost too inane to consider is showdown fight between Presley and Erickson, and musical finale with enemies and friends smiling happily.”
Miss Stanwyck’s talent wasted
Granted, the dramatic hook in Roustabout is weak, but, then, that had been standard for Presley flics for the past several years. Still, the characters are able to generate a bit more tension than can be found in most Elvis movies of the mid-sixties. The first third of the film is concerned with building up Charlie’s reputation as a heel. Miss Stanwyck’s character kicks-in mid-film to deal with the carnival’s financial woes. The incident of the lost wallet, coming about an hour into the story, turns everyone against Elvis, who winds up getting his face punched four times over it.
Variety’s review declined to comment on Elvis’ performance in the film but did commend the work of several co-stars: “Good cast tries its best to cope with nonsense but it’s losing battle. Miss Stanwyck’s talents—she’s had four Academy Award nominations in distinguished career—are totally wasted. Miss Freeman hasn’t much to do except wring her hands when father and boyfriend get in fights, but does it prettily. Standouts in smaller roles are Pat Buttram as owner of rival carny and Steve Brodie, obnoxious customer in baseball-tossing game.”
Brodie indeed comes off well as the baseball pitcher whose tosses continually drop Joan Freeman into a water tank. When Elvis intercedes on behalf of the freezing girl, “Freddie” threatens to “break his spine.” Of course, a fight ensues with Elvis the one-punch loser. Elvis movie fans will remember Brodie in Blue Hawaii, where he had an almost identical role as an obnoxious tourist whose bullying antics led to a nightclub brawl.
Elvis’ 11 tunes a mixed bag
As for the musical soundtrack, which so concerned me on first viewing Roustabout back in 1964, it turned out to be a mixed bag. Since Elvis played a singer in the film, all 10 songs he performed, with the possible exception of the finale, fit nicely into the flow of the story. His four carnival stage numbers, “One Track Mind,” “Hard Knocks,” “Little Egypt,” and “Big Love, Big Heartache,” all effectively feature a spotlight on Elvis against dark backgrounds. The staging of the “Little Egypt” number is the musical highlight of the film.
Variety praised the music in Roustabout as follows:
“Composer-conductor Joseph J. Lilley’s score and featured songs are best part of Hal Wallis pic, with Presley delivering latter in the pleasant, tuneful style he has developed. ‘I Never Had It So Good,’ ‘One Track Heart,’ and ‘Hard Knocks’ all have hit possibilities. Production numbers staged by Earl Barton and vocal accompaniment by The Jordanaires, add to plus value of music.” (“I Never Had It So Good” is a mystery. It’s not even close to the title of any song Elvis performed in Roustabout.)
Roustabout has developed some charm over the years
Roustabout was not as big a hit as its predecessor, Viva Las Vegas. As Elvis’ co-star, the well-respected Barbara Stanwyck brought some legitimacy to Roustabout, but at the box office she could not expand on Presley’s core audience like Ann-Margret did in the Vegas film. I recall being a little disappointed with Roustabout when I viewed it on its release in 1964. All these years later, however, I’m not as focused on its music as I was then, and so I find the overall movie to be solid, if light, entertainment. But then, my positive assessment of the film these days may also be based on something I now know about Roustabout that I didn’t know in 1964—the declining quality of most Elvis movies that would follow it.
Alan Hanson's ELVIS: THE MOVIES
Girl Happy 1965
Elvis Movie #17
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1965
"The saving grace is the steady stream of tunes, as rhythmical as they are unoriginal, belted out by the star and the other youngsters."
When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released Girl Happy in the spring of 1965, it signaled the beginning of a third phase in Elvis Presley’s Hollywood career. In his first seven movies, starting with Love Me Tender in 1956 and ending with Wild in the Country in 1961, 20th Century Fox and Paramount fashioned musical dramas designed to develop Elvis’ acting talent. Blue Hawaii opened a second phase of Presley pictures in 1961, when Hal Wallis and other producers began cutting back on dramatic content and featuring Elvis in light, musical comedies set in colorful locales. Girl Happy, however, was the first of a dozen straight Elvis pot-boilers, low-budget, formulaic productions designed to keep money flowing to Elvis and the studios. With the thinnest of plots, these films were aimed solely at Presley’s loyal followers, who needed only to see their favorite on screen and hear him sing. As the lead-off feature in this phase, Girl Happy was arguably the best of the bunch.
Variety’s reviews of past Presley films had generally encouraged the star to take on more challenging roles. However, in it’s review of Girl Happy on January 27, 1965, Variety seemed to concede the star had chosen a different, less challenging direction. “Elvis Presley … has another musical winner in this Joe Pasternak production,” conceded the paper’s reporter. “A story line unburdened by anything but lightness and a dozen song numbers belted out in singer’s customary style provide the type of pleasant fare which Presley’s fans have come to expect. Film, lavishly produced in a glamorous background, shapes as a money entry.”
Trade pubs praised Girl Happy
And, if the “Trade Raves” that Metro included in a full-page Variety ad were not too far out of context, other reviewers agreed on the substantial entertainment value of Girl Happy. The Film Daily: “Romantic musical with bounce and spirit. Good box-office. It is fashion for fun and frolic.” The Hollywood Reporter: “A picture with a sharp, trim, bright decoration, lively action. Should do the customary brisk Presley business.” Motion Picture Daily: “A snug fit for the Presley talents. He seems to enjoy the picture as much as his audiences will.”
As for this reviewer, I found Girl Happy much more engaging during a recent screening than I had remembered from my first viewing on its release in theaters decades ago ago. Elvis plays an aggressive, scheming, sexually-charged young rock musician, who does whatever it takes to reel in shapely Mary Ann Mobley, including manhandling her at one point. (No doubt a turn-on for some of Elvis’ female fans.)
Film picks up after slow start
The film takes some time to hit its stride. Presley’s fellow band members, Gary Crosby, Joby Baker, and Jimmy Hawkins, all excel in over-acting from the get-go. The Seadrift Hotel looks tacky compared to sets in previous Elvis flics, and the same word applies to the song “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce,” as well as the distress call that has the musicians popping their heads up out of the bushes whenever Elvis yells, “May Day!”
At about the midway point, however, Girl Happy suddenly morphs into entertaining stuff. It happens when the heretofore devious Elvis falls for Shelley Fabares, the girl he had been keeping an eye on for her father. “You’re very nice and very special,” she tells him, awakening his conscience in what is the only really serious moment for Presley’s character in the film.
When Mobley ambushes Elvis in his hotel room, it results in a humorous back-and-forth, in which Elvis tries to keep the two girls from seeing each other. That’s followed by a touching scene, in which Fabares learns her father has been paying Elvis to keep her out of trouble. A nightclub fight supplies great action, followed by an equally entertaining sequence at the town jail. Finally, there is a sentimental conversation in which Big Frank finally softens to his daughter’s pleas for independence.
Mature Elvis keeps his clothes on
Elvis looks great on screen, as usual, although at age 30 his maturity is starting to show in his face. Strangely, Presley’s physique remains hidden throughout the picture. He is shown sunning himself both poolside and on the beach wearing long sleeve shirt and full-length pants. He even wears a jacket while water-skiing. Elvis doesn’t appear to be over-weight in the film, so the decision to keep him covered is a puzzler. There is certainly plenty of female skin revealed on the screen.
Music was a prime ingredient in all the Presley pot-boilers of the mid- to late-sixties, and as with all of them, Elvis’ songs in Girl Happy present a mixed bag. The title tune is a catchy one, although it sounds a bit odd due to its original recording having been speeded up. Elvis’ voice is crystal clear on his three ballads, “Do Not Disturb,” “Cross My Heart,” and “Puppet on a String.” To my ear, though, the uptempo numbers, “Startin’ Tonight,” “The Meanest Girl in Town,” and “I Got To Find My Baby,” all have the strained sound of manufactured rock ’n’ roll. They don't have the natural feel of pure rhythm and blues that Elvis was capable of delivering, even at age 30.
Evaluating Presley’s movie soundtrack numbers is subjective, of course, and Variety’s reviewer had his own opinion. “As usual, songs and production numbers highlight the action,” he noted. “Perhaps the two top numbers are ‘She’s Evil,’ in which star is backed by his three-man combo and Shelley Fabares, femme lead, and ‘Wolf Call,’ which Presley reprises for a romantic climax.” New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson evaluated Elvis’ vocal work as follows: “The saving grace is the steady stream of tunes, as rhythmical as they are unoriginal, belted out by the star and the other youngsters. That’s one thing—for those who care—you can always count on in a Presley frolic.”
Elvis handles acting responsibilities well
With no other big names in the cast, Elvis had to carry the primary acting load on his own. His experience playing light comedic roles was evident, and he shouldered his burden well in Girl Happy. “Presley undertakes his role with growing naturalness,” was Variety’s judgment. Variety handed out kudos to the supporting players as follows: “Miss Fabares is cute and pretty in an undemanding role, and star gets strong support from Gary Crosby, Joby Baker and Jimmy Hawkins (as his combo) both musically and in the comedy field. Mary Ann Mobley as a charmer has her moments. Harold J. Stone gustily socks over the father role and Fabrizio Mioni and Peter Brooks play students. Jackie Coogan amuses as a cop.”
To many critics, and even some Elvis fans, Girl Happy ushered in a period of steady decline in the quality of Presley movies and in the Hollywood stature of the star himself. However, many Presley fans, including this one, still find viewing the film an entertaining experience. The bottom line is that Girl Happy placed a respectable #25 in Variety’s list of “Big Rental Pictures of 1965.” Evidently, there were quite a few other people back then who felt Elvis Presley was still capable of delivering solid motion picture entertainment.