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November 2011

Blue Hawaii

cast: Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury, Nancy Walters, and Roland Winters

director: Norman Taurog

101 minutes (PG) 1961
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Paramount DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Blue Hawaii

There are two perspectives you can use to look at Blue Hawaii. The first is as it must have appeared at the time of its release, in relation to what had come earlier. The other is with hindsight, knowing what would come later. Both perspectives are useful. Elvis had a tendency to complacency. With good reason; when he felt challenged, when he felt his status was threatened, he was well-capable of retaliating with work of extraordinary intensity. As with his so-called 1967 comeback TV special, launched when his career was at its lowest post-Beatles ebb, and designed to vindicate his intensity as a live performer. The problem was that for much of his career his position as the planet's biggest music star remained unchallenged. Whatever slapdash dross he chose to inflict upon his fans sold just as many copies as his best and most groundbreaking work. The unquestioning loyalty of the fans who bought up everything with his name on it meant he had no real incentive to try harder. And because he didn't have to try, he didn't try. Except on a few occasions...

His discharge from the army was one. While he'd been away in uniform, and off the scene, music had changed. The hard visceral first-generation rockers had been overtaken by a new wave of what Jerry Lee Lewis derisively called 'the Bobbys' - Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, all sweet-faced teen heartthrobs purveying cloyingly saccharine romantic Pop rocka-ballads. Faced with something to prove, and a fight to re-establish himself, Elvis came roaring back with the most powerful album of his career. Elvis Is Back (1960) balanced some of the most irresistible pop ever committed to vinyl (Girl Of My Best Friend) with defiant straight rockers (Leiber and Stoller's Dirty Dirty Feeling), assured original takes on standards (Fever), alongside some of his most authentic bluesy tracks (Lowell Fulsom's Reconsider Baby). With the album buttressed by a string of massive singles - Stuck On You, It's Now Or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight, and His Latest Flame, his return to supremacy was undisputed.

Of course there was a disgruntled rearguard action of unreconstructed rockers who complained he'd 'sold out', and there are still those who draw a credibility-line between the pre-army (great), and post-army (not-so great) material, but that division has always been dubious. He recorded poor material alongside the pre-army rock 'n' roll classics, and he recorded great material alongside the dreck that followed. And sure, the next album back-pedalled a little. Something For Everybody (1961), was neatly divided into two suites, with a ballad side and a rocker-beat side, and although it produced little of lasting greatness it's a consistently enjoyable album made up entirely of new specially-commissioned material. Elvis now felt it safe to indulge his own personal project with a gospel album. His Hand In Mine (1960) was not commercial. It was not intended to be. He was following his heart, his inner spirituality.

The post-army movies follow a similar trajectory. G.I. Blues (1960) shamelessly trades on the publicity circus generated by his army experience, but - lest we forget, it was immensely popular and did great box-office, firmly establishing him in the light-entertainment family market. So, with his reputation restored, he deliberately chanced a couple of films without chart soundtracks, designed to satisfy his strong acting ambitions. Flaming Star (1960) was a straight western with Elvis cast as mixed-race Pacer, his loyalties torn between his white father (John McIntyre) and his Native American mother (Dolores Del Rio), in the midst of a tribal war. Then Wild In The Country (1961) saw him as an angry misunderstood writer (with Hope Lange and Tuesday Weld). Neither of them could in any way be considered outstanding. But that was not the point. Both of them - like the gospel album; were personal indulgences that his status allowed him to pursue, although, from the Colonel's purely avaricious point of view, they did disappointing box-office.

By 1961 he was the industry's biggest music star. So what was more natural than for him to do another populist musical? Hence Blue Hawaii, a lavish colourful shallow escapist cruise through scenic beaches, spontaneous dance routines, na lei, waving palms, beautiful girls, and lots of light-touch songs. But - lest we forget, it was one of the year's biggest-grossing movies. Opening on 22nd November, it immediately scored #2 in box-office receipts for that week, to finish as the eighth top-grossing movie of 1961, as well as #14 for 1962 on the Variety national box-office survey, earning $5 million - a lot of money back then. Hal Kanter's screenplay was nominated as 'best written American musical' by the Writers Guild of America. And the soundtrack album dominated the top of the charts - with 20 weeks at #1 in the USA alone during a 79-week arc, selling in excess of three million copies.

Predictably, it topped the UK album chart too, for 17 weeks, placed for a full 65 weeks. Much of the 14-track album - such as Ito Eats and Slicin' Sand only really work, if at all, in the context of the torch-lit beach fish-fry film action. The smoothly undistinguished title-song had first been a hit for Bing Crosby in 1937. No More is stronger, but follows the template established by It's Now Or Never, and Surrender, of adapting classical melodies with new lyrics (originally La Paloma), while Can't Help Falling In Love utilises the folk song Plaisir d'Amour. Yet the romantic potential of both songs is thrown away in the film itself, No More performed sitting on a canoe singing to his no-good beach-bum pals, and Can't Help Falling In Love accompanied by a gift music-box and sung to Maile's grandmother at her 78th birthday party!

One of the movies' potentially strongest songs - Stepping Out Of Line was cut from both the movie and the LP, although its cue remains, and it wound up on the studio album Pot Luck (1962). To those who still like to think of Elvis as a serious rocker, the film is an embarrassment. Nevertheless, Blue Hawaii remains the biggest-selling album recorded during his lifetime, with two of its tracks spun off to become #1 singles in their own right. Subtitled a 'twist special' to cash-in the new dance craze, Rock A-Hula Baby could hardly be termed Elvis at his finest. And while Can't Help Falling In Love has its critics, it remains one of his signature songs. The fact that it returned to the charts in the hands of Andy Williams, the Stylistics (a #1), and UB40 (#1 again), surely proves something about its long-term durable appeal. Elvis himself would feature it - and other songs from the movie, in his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite TV concert and album. As a career move, despite its many rock-purist detractors, Blue Hawaii was in every way a winner.

In the opening sequence - trading on the still-potent G.I. Blues iconography, Elvis is Chadwick 'Chad' Gates, flying into Honolulu International Airport, in uniform, returning home from his stint serving Uncle Sam. He's met by his Hawaiian girlfriend Maile Duval speeding in her red MG sports-car. The Colonel's contract-politics soon determined that Elvis would never be permitted to share billing with a star big enough to detract the focus of attention away from him (Ann-Margaret in 1964's Viva Las Vegas being a notable exception). But Blue Hawaii finds him acting against a strong supporting cast, including Angela Lansbury as his domineering mother, Sarah-Lee Gates.

Although now best-known for her Murder, She Wrote TV detective series, she already had a strong film pedigree stretching back to her 1944 Hollywood debut in Gaslight, as well as Broadway musical success through the 1950s. Daddy, Fred Gates, is played by Roland Winters who had starred in six 'Charlie Chan' mysteries, and had worked in films with Boris Karloff, and Abbott and Costello. Daddy owns the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company. Chad is expected to join the family pineapple plantation business, and climb the corporate ladder. He has other ideas. He prefers to hang out in his thatch beach-hut with his slacker buddies, and with Maile (played by Joan Blackman, best known for her role in TV's prime-time soap Peyton Place). Elvis makes a suspiciously clean and well-groomed beach-boy, drifting cinegenically on a surfboard, with little sign of the erstwhile 'Hillbilly Cat' king of rock 'n' roll. But he's been back for several days before he even deigns to show up for his parent's 'welcome home' 'lanai'-patio party where he performs Rock A-Hula Baby. "What was that?" wails Mom. "Something we may have to get used to," explains Daddy, unconvincingly, "the sound of youth." ... "Daddy, I'm going to have a headache," she complains, "a dreadful headache!"

To establish his independence, Chad signs up as a guide for the Hawaiian Island Tours agency. Mom's still not impressed "Nonsense," she scolds him, "tourists aren't people. They're... they're tourists." His bespectacled moustachioed tourism-boss, Mr Chapman, is played by Howard McNear, a familiar character-actor who would later appear in Billy Wilder comedies Irma la Douce (1963), and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), as well as a couple of other Elvis films. After a walk-out confrontation with his parents, and getting fired by Mr Chapman - "no hanky-panky on this job!" - Chad sweet-talks chaperone Miss Abigail Prentice (Nancy Walters) into commissioning him to escort a gaggle of schoolgirls to Kauai - 'Island of Love' (a location also used for South Pacific as well as Elvis' Paradise Hawaiian Style in 1966). "Mr Gates, are you sure you can handle a teacher and four teenage girls?" Mr Chapman cautions. "I'll sure try," he grins.

But this 'car-full of cuties' have more than scenery on their minds, and inevitable romantic complications occur. One of the girls, Ellie Corbett, is 'troubled', alternately bolshy and flirty, or - to Chad, "Miss over-sexed and under-aged" (played by starlet Jenny Maxwell, she was shot to death during a botched robbery in 1981, aged just 39). "I think you're a mixed-up kid that's too big for her breeches," Chad warns her. "I don't wear breeches," she teases back. "You're getting out of here right now, Miss No-Breeches Bardot!" he tells her. Changing tack, she pouts "Chad, do you think I'm pretty?" He's not up for being tempted, "I think you're pretty forward and pretty stupid."

Hawaii had been America's 51st state only since 1959, yet was already a tried and tested movie location, following Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 South Pacific musical - its soundtrack album still charting on both sides of the Atlantic even as Elvis' LP debuted. While, for Elvis, with America's exotic paradise locations including Diamond Head, Waikiki Beach and Hanauma Bay, there are direct connections from this 'musical luau of the year' to a tranche of poor follow-on beach-party movies that ran through the early 1960s, starring Sandra Dee, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Not to mention other dire pop-centric film musicals of the period. Some of which make Blue Hawaii look positively classy. Even though some aspects of its morality now seem curiously eccentric.

When Maile loses her bikini-top while swimming in the sea Chad near-panics at the prospect of seeing her topless, urging her to stay safely concealed in the water. Her dog finally emerges from the surf with the missing bra in its mouth. It's not hard to see the way such a scene would be played in more recent gross-out comedies! Yet the DVD edition carries a warning about 'mild violence', which refers to another scene in which Chad puts pouty-spoiled Ellie over his knee and spanks her. It starts with Ellie running off in the car and going for the suicide option. Elvis chases her and snatches her, dripping with sea-water, away from 'Endless Sleep'. "You know what you need?" he threatens, "a good old-fashioned spanking." ... "M-maybe I do. Nobody ever cared enough about me. Even for that," she grudgingly concedes. Afterwards - as a result of this act of what would now be seen as 'child abuse', she's gratefully disciplined and suitably better-behaved. Yet it all ends, predictably well, with Chad first placating his parents by proposing to combine his two conflicting ambitions and using his tourist connections to promote the family pineapple business, then with a lavishly-choreographed flower-filled Hawaiian wedding for him and Maile, guaranteed to score with the female rom-com film-watching demographic.

Blue Hawaii is a scenic confection sweet enough to chew on, but in every way it was also a watershed film in Elvis' career. As Elvis-historians Roy Carr and Mick Farren point out, "on its own, Blue Hawaii might have been looked at as a harmless Presley excursion into a kind of singing Cary Grant persona. Unfortunately, this was to be the pattern for Presley's deteriorating work over most of the next decade" (in Elvis: The Complete Illustrated Record, Eel Pie, 1982). And with hindsight, it's easy to chart the disastrous catastrophic career-decline that commenced from this point on. It might not have gone that way. There was still time for things to have worked out differently, and to develop his stated intention of becoming a serious actor in the surly 'new James Dean' tradition.

If only he'd waited, hung out for a proper meatier role... Even taken supporting parts in films in which he was not the sole primary star-attraction. Frank Sinatra had done it. But Elvis had a tendency to complacency. Instead, again, he persisted in working on two minor movie-projects, Follow That Dream (1962), and Kid Galahad (1962), which, at best, must be considered compromises. Although neither of them extended to full-length soundtrack albums - with only an EP apiece, they fail to provide strong acting roles either. A warmly insubstantial comedy, and a softcore remake of a 1937 Edward G. Robinson boxing movie did little to advance his acting reputation. Then it was time to return to the big-musical format, even reprising the Hawaiian location, the cute kids and the obligatory fistfight for Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962). Although it spawned another global #1 hit with Return To Sender, and although it constituted a return to box-office balance-sheet favour for Elvis, already its formulaic construction was becoming obvious, and subsequent excruciatingly bad three-films-a-year sequels would soon devalue the 'Elvis movie' into its own genre, a Hollywood joke, and an embarrassment for its star, with diminishing returns. But that only becomes apparent from the second perspective, with the benefit of hindsight. In 1961, that was something even the most diehard hardcore fans could hardly have suspected.

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