I never gave Elvis Presley much thought until the Christmas of 1961, when my older sister broke down in tears after opening the Blue Hawaii soundtrack album. I got a pair of bongos that same morning, and played along on them to the record. I had seen Elvis the previous year in the western Flaming Star (1960), but he hadn’t made any greater impression on me than Fabian had the year before in Hound Dog Man (1959).
Love Me Tender (1956) is evidence of how clueless Hollywood was when they first decided to put Elvis in the movies. It was ludicrous that the girl would have been pining for Richard Egan, who looked old enough to be her father, when she was married to Elvis. And what were they trying to do to the fans by killing Elvis off in the last scene?
They started to get it right in his next movie, Loving You (1957), which had a lot of scenes set on the outdoor rural stages where Elvis started his career. In the late nineties, when I was living in Charlotte NC, I visited the ruins of the Carolina Theater, which the city was planning to restore. While there, a man who had seen Elvis at that same theatre in the mid-fifties told me that the girl he was with got so excited that she dug her fingernails deep enough into his leg to draw blood.
Elvis wanted to be a real actor, just like James Dean. One scene in Loving You even had him taking a girl to a graveyard where he told the sad tale of his running away from the orphanage and taking on the name of a dead man, whose many friends were mentioned on his tombstone. That’s how badly this lonely boy wanted friends, bad enough to take the name of a dead man so he might inherit some.
Jailhouse Rock (1957) was photographed in black and white in order to give it a truer delinquent feel. The colour in Loving You made it look too much like a family picture. Black and white cinematography made Elvis tougher right from the get go. In Loving You, when a guy picked a fight with him in a soda shop, Elvis knocked him flat. In the bar fight in Jailhouse Rock, Elvis knocked his adversary dead, and served 14 months in prison for manslaughter. In Loving You, he fled the hurt other people caused him. In Jailhouse Rock, he ate the hurt and spit it back. Elvis was such a cad that it was almost funny, taking the offensive even before any offence was given.
Elvis was a role model for young greasers, but he also taught us optimism. If he went to prison in one scene, he was singing on coast to coast television from the penitentiary stage in the next. If a record company stole his song, he would soon be running his own record company.
With King Creole (1958) he backed off from the total hoodlum persona to incorporate some of the vulnerability of the Loving You character. This time, with a top director at the helm and a first class script from a Harold Robbins novel, everything was positioned for the formula to coalesce. And for the most part it did. The cast was excellent: Walter Matthau as the gangster, Carolyn Jones as his moll, Vic Morrow as Elvis’ nemesis, and Dean Jagger as his failure of a father, with director Michael Curtiz taking care that Elvis would hold his own with each of them.
The music was no better than in the previous films. In fact, the pseudo-Dixieland touches made it a little worse. But it was an interesting idea to set most of the numbers inside the nightclub, an innovation to the musical that would later be credited to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).
It took the trials and errors of four pictures to get this far, but they had finally figured out how to make Elvis a viable movie star. Them the worst possible thing happened. Elvis was inducted into the army.
GI Blues (1960) is the first bad Elvis movie, and may well be the worst peacetime army movie of all time. The first time we see Elvis on the bandstand, he is playing some easy listening cocktail instrumental, followed by a lame march. The ballad that follows is so bad that one of the customers plays Blue Suede Shoes on the jukebox, expressing the tastes of many in the audience, who are given something of a compensational bone with the subsequent shots of Elvis from the waist up in the shower.
The message of the movie is for teenagers to serve their country, then come home and get married and start a business. Like the rhyme said: First comes love / then comes marriage / then comes Elvis with a baby carriage.
GI Blues was the official call to American teens to “Grow Up.” The weirdest thing about it was how innocuously they treated the American presence in Germany. This was just one year before the Berlin Crisis, the first face-off between Khrushchev and Kennedy that imperilled all of Europe and resulted in the building of the Berlin Wall.
Released just one month later, Flaming Star proved there was hope for Elvis as a dramatic actor. The singing was dispensed with in the first five minutes, after which followed a solid B western, in which Elvis played a half breed torn between the worlds of his white father and Indian mother. It was best in its depiction of a mixed race family in times of war.
Director Don Siegel is good with Elvis, usually shooting him in mid to long shot, which keeps him placed within the landscape so we believe in him as a character in the story. There are none of those big headed Elvis close-ups that reduce the landscape to a backdrop for portrait cinematography.
For a non-actor to do this well in a leading role (it was written for Marlon Brando), shows how hard Elvis worked to come this far, and he was not ready to take on his most challenging role, the one that, had the picture been more successful, might have established him as a legitimate actor.
The truth is that Elvis wasn’t good enough for Wild in the Country (1961). He had worked hard, but hadn’t really studied, hadn’t learned the difficult things. He could get across simple conflicts, but not the deeply conflicted passions that were the meat and potatoes of more accomplished actors such as Brando and Dean. Or even, for that matter, just about everybody else in the cast. As a serious actor, Elvis would never be more than second rate. Had he not been such a big star, he might have done quite well in smaller roles while widening and deepening his range. Instead, entire movies were built around the few things that he could do well.
When Blue Hawaii appeared, it was as if the previous two movies never existed, with Elvis coming straight home from the army and not wanting a future in pineapples. Director Norman Taurog, who had directed several of the Martin-Lewis pictures as well as the Lewis adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, Visit to a Small Planet, corrected the mistakes he made with his first Presley assignment, GI Blues, setting a template for most of the Presley pictures to come, seven of which he would subsequently direct, with only one of them, Fun in Acapulco (1963), being any good.
The first improvement over GI Blues was the songs. While most were slight, all were fun, and, with a new one coming at you every five or ten minutes, gave the movie a rhythm that it would have otherwise lacked. The second was the locations. The German locales of GI Blues were shot without Elvis by a second unit. Blue Hawaii begins with a splash of postcard shots, followed by Elvis deplaning and getting picked up by his girlfriend. One song later, he is singing and cavorting in the water, friend to the natives and idol of the children. When he takes a job as a tour guide, he is not only showing Hawaii to the five females in his charge, but to everyone in the audience as well.
Although Elvis sings from one end of the movie to the other, there is never a mention of him as a singer. That character, who we saw in Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole, is gone. We lost him two years ago when he went into the Army. Now both he and his fans are adults, and that period, 1958-60, was the last significant interruption to a youth culture that has continued unabated since its revival, in 1964, with The Beatles. Those who came of age with The Beatles never grew up. And those who came of age with Elvis were never again young.
Director Taurog took a break from the next two movies, giving Elvis another chance to do something interesting before the mould was too firmly set. He was relaxed and funny in Follow That Dream (1962), a story about a hobo family that homesteaded on a beach off the side of a new thoroughfare. Despite some intriguing anti-government themes, the picture slogged along at television pace until reaching a political equanimity that reinforced the maxim that individuality was a thing to be prized as long as the individual in question stayed on the right side of the law.
Next up was Kid Galahad (1962), a boxing noir directed by Phil Karlson. Elvis played an idealist who, returning to the small town in which he grew up, walks into a world as corrupt as that in Karlson’s earlier The Phenix City Story (1955). The happy-go–lucky production numbers were as out of place with the melodramatic plot as those in a Hindi movie. Elvis was too soft to hold the centre of such a rough film, but working with Karlson did expand his emotional range some, and he managed to hold his own in a heated scene with Gig Young, and even succeeded in kissing a girl with sincere passion.
Taurog was back with Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) a miserable attempt to recycle some of the stuff that worked in Blue Hawaii. Elvis sings with cute Chinese children and serenades a grandmother as he tries to save his livelihood and choose a suitable marriage partner. His acting is terrible, but the ritualised formula supports him in the same way a drunken priest is supported by the Mass.
The one good production number, Return to Sender, is ruined by his lazy and sloppy lip synching. Stella Stevens is wasted as the nightclub singer/ love interest who is supplanted by the amateurish and unappealing Laurel Goodwin, with whom Elvis has no chemistry. The only one in the cast who is any good is Jeremy Slate, a television actor who also appeared in G.I. Blues as the villain.
Bad as it was, I saw Girls! Girls! Girls! at least a dozen times in the second run theatres in and around downtown, and I enjoyed it every time. I was just an eleven year old kid and couldn’t tell a good Elvis picture from a lousy one. Then I found myself standing in line on the opening day of the new Elvis movie that was filmed in my hometown and there was no place in the world I would rather have been. Elvis is riding the monorail. Elvis is singing to a nurse in the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. Elvis and a little Chinese girl are being chased through the waterways of the Pacific Science Center. Sometimes I wish I could have continued the rest of my life in the idiot pleasure of a crappy movie.
About the Author
Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theatre, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960′s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.