Aloha from Hawaii

Elvis Presley didn’t like his own movies, except maybe Flaming Star and King Creole. He idolized “angry young man” actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and always hoped that with the right coaching, he might be able to count himself among their ranks. And maybe he could have. King Creole certainly shows impressive flashes. It’s entirely likely that if the proper director or producer had taken the young singer under wing and pushed him along in the right direction, Elvis could have picked up where James Dean left off, or at least gotten close. We’ll never know, unfortunately, because while Elvis dreamed of being the next Dean or Brando, his manager (the eternally villainous Colonel Parker) and studio executives saw him as little more than a bubblegum sweetheart and refused to cast him in anything but family-friendly Frankie Avalon roles.

In fact, compared to Avalon’s smoking and sexual hijinks in his own series of beach party movies, Elvis was even tamer than the former Mousketeer. Quite a blow for the man who was banned from television and sent upstanding citizens into fits of moral outrage. Odd that the one-time rebel of rock-n-roll ended up making beach movies that were far more wholesome than the beach films of family-friendly Mousketeers Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Their beach party films dripped with skimpy bikinis, women thrusting their groins into the camera, Frankie smoking cigarettes (and in a brief moment in the first of the beach party films, a doobie — they were called doobies back then, man), Candy Johnson convulsing insanely to go-go music, and more frustrated sexual energy than you’d find in a dozen nudie films. Elvis, by contrast, went in the opposite direction, from notorious sex-soaked bad boy to all-American good guy and friend to all children.


It’s nothing new to sit back and bemoan the memory of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, that someone so “dangerous” to the public and so important to the development of contemporary music and culture is these days dismissed as little more than a sweaty, overweight sideshow freak in a sparkly jumpsuit. Imagine if people constantly drummed up the image of John Lennon not as a rock ‘n’ roll saint and visionary, but as a wife-abusing lout who abandoned his son and protested the Vietnam war by checking in to an ultra-posh New York hotel and sleeping late. Unfortunately, everything about Presley was larger-than-life, and that includes his eventual fall from grace and into Graceland, making the circus version of Elvis in his later years impossible to forget. Not that I’m implying that it should be forgotten. It’s part of Elvis, after all, and I’m not so serious and humorless a fan that I can’t appreciate the quirks and tacky glamour of the Vegas era. “Suspicious Minds” is a great song, after all.

Elvis’s film career never became what he hoped it would. As The King himself grew more and more disillusioned with the lot forced upon him by Parker and the studios, he let his frustration show in his performances. Why put forth much of an effort in something so insipid as Harum Scarum? Elvis’ dreams and spirits were crushed into a finer powder with each movie, and there was no way he could hide his lack of enthusiasm from the camera. Thus Elvis came to be regarded in time as a subpar actor, which is an unfair assessment of his potential. One needs only to look at his early performances where he was allowed to flex a dramatic muscle instead of being strung along by pratfalls from one musical number to the next. There was a good actor in Elvis, and no one was ever interested in bringing out that part of him — not when they could put him in a funny hat and have him sing with clowns.


You’d think that the king of rock ‘n’ roll would have a little more pull behind the scenes. Sure, Beatlemania was a gathering storm, but Elvis was still a big draw, and he’d just come from the Army. Unfortunately for the King, Colonel Parker didn’t have faith in him, especially since he’d been away serving for Uncle Sam the last couple years. Would people still remember they were nuts over Elvis? Better not to risk alienating people, Parker’s thinking went. Better to ease Elvis back onto the scene and see where he stood. Well, he still stood at the top of the heap. Absence had made the heart grow fonder, and Elvis was still the biggest name in show biz. The teens loved him, and since he’d done his time in the army, even the old fogies had to grudgingly grant the King his due. Cartoon villain Parker felt it was best to cater to Elvis’ more widespread appeal — all the better to make Colonel Parker a bundle of cash. This wasn’t time to turn Elvis back into a censor-outraging bad boy. The money was to be made by marketing him to as many demographics as possible, milking every last dollar out of the poor kid’s popularity and not really worrying about what it did to him in the long run.

And since Elvis entrusted every business decision to Parker, he soon found himself signed away for a multi-picture deal with no real say in the material. And studio executives didn’t want anything from Elvis except singing, dancing, and slapstick silliness. He was a singer, so he had to sing, and musicals had to be goofy. There you had it. About the only issue Elvis was able to force was making sure every script had at least one fist fight where he could show off his judo skills. Elvis left the Army as a nut for the martial arts. If he was going to be in stupid musical comedies, at least he could judo the hell out of someone every now and then to work out some aggression.

Although they’re the product of short-sightedness, lack of respect for Elvis, and reek of hackwork, not all of Elvis’ movies are awful. Most actually are rather fun, at least early on before he felt completely defeated. In fact, there for awhile it looked like Elvis might even have a fighting chance to become the actor he wanted to become. GI Blues was pretty goofy, but not awful, and his next two films, Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, were both grittier than one might expect given the rest of Elvis’ filmography. In Flaming Star, Elvis only had to sing twice. But then came Blue Hawaii, and his fate was sealed.

Can’t Help Falling in Love

You can’t really blame Blue Hawaii though. It’s just that Elvis was so popular in this type of role that it became all he ever got. Blue Hawaii is an enjoyable bit of fluff film, and it was Elvis’ highest grossing film and soundtrack of all time. Elvis and Hawaii just fit well, and he’s helped along by breathtaking photography, exotic South Seas locales, a competent supporting cast, a (relatively) witty script, and a host of good songs.

Elvis plays Chad Gates, a former beach bum just returned from his stint in the Army and looking to finally flex some independence after spending most of his life under the domineering eye of his Southern aristocrat mother (Angela Lansbury) and with the comfort of his captain of industry father’s wealth. However, Elvis is more interested in palling around with his Hawaiian surf buddies down by the beach bungalow than he is establishing his career in his father’s pineapple canning company. And he’s more interested in wooing half-Hawaiian Maile (Joan Blackman) than he is in meeting any of the uppercrust white girls his mother keeps pushing on him. But his resistance to his parents’ plans for him isn’t mere youthful rebellion — he simply wants to prove himself on his own, without his family’s money or nepotism.

With Maile’s help, Chad begins a career as a tour guide around Hawaii. The plot is an excuse for two things: Elvis songs and gorgeous tropical travelogue shots. Even so, that doesn’t mean the script is as throw-away as the scripts would be in later Elvis films. Elvis gets to fire off a lot of one-liners, and he shows a knack for comedic timing and delivery. Elvis delivers each line with a zest and wink that we wouldn’t see in another Southern performer until Bill Clinton won the Presidency. We also get one of the more believable Elvis romances. The relationship with Maile is established in the beginning of the film and continues to evolve throughout the story. This is different than the usual where Elvis would meet a woman in one scene and be smooching her just a scene later. But the real meat of the plot is the conflict between Chad and his parents. Neither of his parents are awful people. The tendency in teen drama like this is to make the parents such broadly drawn caricatures of evil and oppression that you can’t do anything but cheer for the young protagonist to overcome their backward thinking. But Chad’s parents, played wonderfully by Roland Winters and a wildly over-the-top Angela Lansbury, are basically likable, if morally flawed and narrow-minded people.

His dad doesn’t want to do anything but fix his son up with a nice job. He couldn’t care less who the boy hangs out with or who he dates so long as the financial future of his son is secure. Lansbury’s Sarah Lee Gates is a little less sympathetic than the father, but she’s also more entertaining. She’s a spoof right out of Faulkner or Williams. Her only concern is prying Chad away from his native friends and installing him in the circles of upper crust white society on Hawaii. She has a streak of racism in her, but ultimately her motivation isn’t a lack of respect for other races so much as it a fear that her son won’t be accepted by others in the upper class social circles because he dates a Hawaiian girl and goes surfing with local boys. Considering the movie it’s in, it’s rather a nuanced juggling of a race and class message.

Chad however doesn’t see people as a particular race or class. He sees them only as people, and what he sees is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of the whites who consider themselves better than the natives. His mother, for all her preaching about Southern morals and sophistication, drinks herself silly every night. And a drunken guy at a luau who tries to force himself on a one of a group of girls Elvis is in charge of (because there always has to be a group of girls) finds himself on the receiving end of some of that judo Elvis loved. And while the whites in the movie favor inheriting money and comfort, Chad, Maile, and their Hawaiian friends are fonder of making it on their own and proving themselves without having a financial windfall handed to them. In essence, they embody the hard work ethic of the South that Chad’s mother seems to have forgotten.

Elvis’ exchanges with his parents also contain one of my favorite examples of how you can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy. When his dad resorts to the “my house, my rules” argument to get his son to start acting in line with their plans for him, Elvis leaves home and tells them off in the most polite way imaginable, even ending his goodbye with an earnest, “I’m sorry, sir.”

Of course, whatever social messages are imbedded between the musical numbers are easily swept away by the cinematography. I’m a big fan of the travelogue portions of films from this era. They tackled each locale with wide-eyed awe, and I’m not cynical enough to consider the wonders of the world boring. Blue Hawaii‘s cinematography is lovely, taking full advantage of its lush island setting and leaving no famous feature unfilmed. Casting Elvis as an aspiring tour guide is the perfect excuse for wandering all over the islands and indulging every forest, mountain, cove, tiki resort, and pineapple field. We also get plenty of aloha shirts, hula girls, colorful bikini and sarongs, and other early 1960s tropical fashion.

The songs in Elvis movies have a reputation for being even more throw-away than the scripts. They weren’t churning out Sun Studios hits, after all. This was gutless Hollywood music, and since Elvis has to break into song at the drop of a hat (sometimes with less than a minute gone by since his last musical number), bad songs made for a bad movie. Blue Hawaii however has more than it’s fair share of memorable songs, something that wouldn’t happen in many of the subsequent films, where you were lucky to get even a single decent tune. I like old exotica music a la Martin Denny and I like Elvis, so combining the two may be a bit ironic (since one was old folks’ music and the other was the raging voice of youth) but it’s pleasing to me. “Blue Hawaii” is a wonderful ballad that would be covered but damn near everyone, and “No More” is another great song similar in spirit to “Now or Never,” only with Polynesian influences instead of Mexican. The runaway hit here is “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which ranks as one of my top five Elvis songs of all time. Other songs are a wonderful blend of exotica and Elvis’ unmatchable singing. Only the calypso-influenced “Ito Eats” is not worth listening to, but at least that one is accompanied by a heavyset guy making funny faces and stuffing his face full of food.

The King is in fine form, both in the musical numbers and the film itself. He’s looking lean and handsome and, well, like Elvis. One need only compare his appearance in this, his first beach film, to his appearance in his final beach film, Clambake, to see how quickly he started to go downhill once The Beatles hit the stage and people started losing interest. Here, he’s frequently shirtless and wearing those tight little swimming trucks that were so popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Why? Because he could. He’s also putting a lot of energy into his role, and the charisma that made him such a phenomenon oozes through. The supporting cast gives him the support he needs. Joan Blackman is competent as his girlfriend. The guys who play his Hawaiian friends mostly have to sing, goof off, and have a hukilau.

Nancy Walters plays a beautiful schoolteacher accompanying a gaggle of teenage girls Elvis has to chaperone around the islands, and she does well even if she’s there ultimately to do nothing more than set up the unannounced walk-in that leads to the wacky romantic misunderstanding. To the film’s credit, at least the comedic misunderstanding is cleared up quickly. Other movies would have stretched that out to be the entire plot. The group of girls are mostly interchangeable except for late Jenny Maxwell (she and her husband were both murdered during a robbery in 1981) as the spoiled rich girl who must learn self-respect and respect for others. She also has to hit on Elvis and end up getting spanked by him. You know, in the admonishing way you’d spank a spoiled rich girl in a bikini to teach her a lesson, not in the kinky way.

The King of Shrimpin’

MGM figured that if people liked Blue Hawaii then they might as well cast Elvis in films exactly like Blue Hawaii, playing characters exactly like his character in Blue Hawaii, for the rest of his career. Blue Hawaii itself was an enjoyable, lighthearted romp through America’s Polynesian paradise. It showcased an Elvis still energetic about acting and featured songs worth remembering. Although the exotica music movement of the 1960s highlighted by such conductors and performers as Martin Denny could be seen in a way to be diametrically opposed to the brash rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis, the merging of the two in Blue Hawaii probably did more to increase the popularity of exotica than any number of tiki bars and mai tai’s could have done on their own. Likewise, the film version of Elvis took his hard life, low-income roots and blew them up to giant proportions while conveniently leaving out most of what made him seem offensive to parents. The result was an Elvis parents could almost handle, one who sung show tunes about shrimp fishing and ice cream socials.

And if Blue Hawaii was popular, then why not repeat a winning combination and shuffle the King off to the South Seas again as soon as they could get the tickets? It would only be a matter of time before we once again saw Elvis frolicking on the sands of Waikiki in those little swimming trunks. Elvis managed to pack three more movies into a single year when 1962 saw him star as a good-natured buffoon in the little-talked-about Follow That Dream, take on the role of a boxer in a remake of the 1937 Edward G. Robinson film Kid Galahad, and mount a not-entirely-triumphant return to surf and sand in Girls! Girls! Girls!

For his return to Hawaii, Elvis plays his usual character: a young guy looking to make it on his own. In this case, he’s Ross Carpenter, captain of a charter fishing boat owned by a kindly Eastern European couple. Ross harbors dreams of one day having enough money to be able to purchase the sleek sailboat he and his late father built together, which was later sold to the same Eastern European couple. They are kind enough to let Ross take the boat out for a spin whenever he wants and even live on it, but when one of the couple falls ill, they must move to a dryer climate and sell off their boats — including Ross’ dream. A rude businessman comes into the picture as a potential buyer, and Elvis woos a young woman who he doesn’t realize is rich enough to buy the boat for him — not that his pride would ever allow him to accept such an offer. Any attempt to do so simply triggers one of the patented “I gotta make it on my own” speeches that were de rigueur for Elvis movies. That’s about as much of a plot as you could hope for in a post-Blue Hawaii Elvis movie. Every movie cast him as a down-on-his-luck outcast with a tough exterior and a heart of gold, who just needs to devise one ingenious plan to make his humble dreams come true.

Girls! Girls! Girls! wastes no time getting Elvis to sing. The opening credits see The King perched precariously on the front of his speeding fishing boat, snapping his fingers and belting out the theme song with full accompaniment by the phantom band that seemed to follow him around in all his movies to provide back up music to his singing, no matter how rustic and remote the setting for the song may be. The song isn’t especially bad, but it’s not especially good either, which describes most of the songs in the film. Only “Return to Sender” stands out among the crowd of otherwise forgettable tunes, including the terrible “Song of the Shrimp,” a heartfelt ballad about a little shrimp who valiantly gives his life up in order to make a bowl of shrimp creole taste just right. Elvis does a lot of the “finger snap and wiggly hand shake” stuff this time around, and it’s odd once again seeing him perform for delighted middle aged onlookers when he was previously considered so taboo by the same. It’s almost as if their smiles aren’t smiles of appreciation, but are instead victorious sneers generated by the fact that they won. They took Elvis and tamed him.

Elvis sings a lot, as he tended to do, even more so than in Blue Hawaii. At least in that film, they’d always put a couple lines of dialogue between songs. There are times here where Elvis goes from one musical number to the next without so much as a word in between to break things up. When he’s forced to take a job as a nightclub singer to help raise money to buy back his boat, he gets to sing even more. It’s in the nightclub setting that he comes into frequent contact with a former flame with a huge chip on her shoulder, played by Stella Stevens. She has absolutely nothing to do here other than snap at Elvis, pout, and, well, I guess that’s about all she has to do here. Her character has no point. There’s no spot in the movie where she has a sudden realization or does something that redeems or even explains her character’s presence. She just shows up from time to time to nag Elvis for a while, then walks off.

The focal point of Elvis’ attention is Laurel Goodwin as Laurel Dodge, a rich girl pretending to be poor so she can find true love — too bad she never met up with Elvis’ character from Clambake (where he plays a rich boy pretending to be poor in order to find true love). Laurel’s acting job is adequate and her character has more meat to it than Stella’s, but she’s still pretty boring. I guess the producers of an Elvis film wanted to fill them with beautiful ladies to attract the guys, but not make them so interesting that female audience members couldn’t turn up their noses and think, “What does he see in her?” Incidentally, for a movie called Girls! Girls! Girls! and featuring a theme song about how Elvis runs wild chasing the skirts, there are only two in the movie, at least up until the finale when girls come out of the woodwork for no reason other than it’s the big film-closing musical number.

Another of the problems with Girls! Girls! Girls! comes from the attempts in all of Elvis’ films to bring him down off the mountain and pass him off as just a regular Joe with regular Joe problems. Elvis came from this background, and he has enough charm and natural charisma that you’re willing to go with the flow and accept him as a down-on-his-luck fisherman who just needs a break. But every time he opens his mouth to sing, Elvis’ voice comes out. This is not the voice of a struggling musician, and Elvis’ real life is the perfect example of why this just doesn’t work. He was poor and struggling, but when he opened his mouth and started singing, it wasn’t long before he skyrocketed to fame. It’s hard to imagine a guy that can sing like that performing for a crowd of twenty in some dockside nightclub. Wouldn’t word eventually get around that a guy with a voice that could make him the next king of rock ‘n’ roll was performing down at the wharf?

But I guess part of the fun with Elvis movies is believing that he can have normal problems just like the rest of us. Hey! If Elvis has girl troubles and works a crappy job for a jerk of a boss, then my life must not be so bad either! Sure I may not have his hair, or his looks, or his signing voice, or his undeniable charisma and Southern Boy charm, but other than that we’re a lot alike.

But these are the least of Girls! Girls! Girls! offenses. First and foremost on the list of crimes is the inclusion of the Chinese family who inhabit Ross’ beloved Paradise Cove. What you have here is an attempt by the filmmakers to provide the film with believable, human characters that don’t pander to the Hollywood stereotype of Asians, which at the time was confined primarily to Suzie Wong types and Japanese kamikaze pilots. Their hearts were in the right place when they tried to create a sympathetic Asian family who treat Ross like their own son. Unfortunately, their hearts were in the right place but they were still woefully wrong-headed in their approach, not unlike Elvis who, despite his appreciation for blacks and their music, never did much to promote them as the source for his inspiration, keeping them in his shadow or making food at Graceland. His heart was in the right place, but a man in his position could have, should have, done more.

Rather than learn anything about what actual Chinese families and customs might be like, the scriptwriters apparently turned to the age-old nonsense of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. Thus, every moment of dignity is undermined a scene later when “oriental” music begins and two little girls do that thing where they smile big, waggle their head, fold their arms in front of them, and shuffle around taking those tiny little baby steps. You never saw Bruce Lee do that. And did Chinese Americans really address everyone as “honorable mother” or “honorable father” or “honorable king of rock and roll who just wants to make it as a fisherman?” It’s telling that almost all the Asian actors who appear in the Paradise Cove scenes were extras (no one is going to shell out for stars like Nancy Kwan) in 1961’s Flower Drum Song, another attempt by non-Asian filmmakers (or playwrights, I suppose) to accurately portray Asian culture.

Both Flower Drum Song and Girls! Girls! Girls! get points for trying, especially since it was such a rarity to see any film at all that attempted to deal with Asians as something more than laundromat owners or cooks, but a little more attention to reality and a little less to the pageantry of musicals would have made for a much better experience. Nothing on display in Girls! Girls! Girls! is so outrageous as to send someone into a fit of anger, but there are definitely some moments where you have to roll your eyes. The film mercifully avoids the “flied lice” linguistic humor, but there are enough “ah so!” moments in the film to really make a lad wince. On the flipside, where else are you going to hear Elvis Presley sing in Chinese and watch him do the little walk?

Elvis’ acting is about par for the course. The material doesn’t work for him as well as it did in Blue Hawaii, and from time to time we get glimpses of his weaknesses in front of the camera. He still oozes charm and sex appeal though, and since his heart was still in the game in this point, that’s enough to carry him to an enjoyable if not shining performance. This movie also lacks the top-notch supporting cast of Blue Hawaii, but no one here is awful. Jeremy Slate as Wesley Johnson, the scummy businessman who buys Elvis’ dream boat out from under him, is as rotten as a character can be without actually being evil. As far as smarmy businessmen jerks go, he’s got it nailed. Stella Stevens and Laurel Goodwin we’ve covered already. Stella went on to appear in the Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers alongside Dean Martin.

Goodwin all but disappeared shortly after her role here. She made a couple more movies, appeared in “The Cage” episode of Star Trek, and that seems to be about it. Benson Fong and Beulah Quo as Mr. And Mrs. Yung lead the Asian cast (which also consists of Guy Lee, who starred as the horribly named Ping Pong in Blue Hawaii, and child actors Ginny, Elizabeth, and Alexander Tiu). Scenes between the adults are not bad. It’s only when the kids come running on screen that the film breaks out the Chinese pajamas and goofy music.

Norman Taurog’s direction this time out is fairly uninspired. Competent but uninspired — a description that seems fitting for an Elvis movie. There’s very little of his sweeping love affair with Hawaii as seen in Elvis’ last Polynesian adventure. The direction attempts to reflect Ross Carpenter’s (remember, that’s who Elvis plays!) bum situation. Frankly, I’d prefer if the film opened up a little and wasn’t so studio-bound, but I guess with so many films being produced so quickly, they had to cut costs somewhere, and the somewhere this time out was the scenery. Though the promotional material references Elvis being back in Hawaii, there’s little on display to clue you in to the location. Most of the action takes place on board a boat, in a nightclub, or down at the docks. It might as well be New Orleans with all the seedy wharf nightclubs and shrimp boat fishing. Only the sequences set in Paradise Cove have any Hawaiian feel to them. It’s a lovely mix of Hawaiian tropics and Chinese decor, but one location can’t make up for all the dull nightclubs and office interiors. The boating scenes aren’t anything to write home about either, and they look as if they were concentrating mostly on simply not falling off the boat. The camera bobs and shakes dramatically with the waves, which is why for key scenes we get everything acted out on a set with rear projection of the ocean.

There’s no brilliant movie here, that’s for sure, but while it may lack the qualities that make a film impressive, Girls! Girls! Girls! is still just entertaining enough. Elvis looks good, the story is okay, and everything is pretty breezy despite the film’s flaws. Even if Elvis harbored dreams of becoming a real actor, everyone else involved with the film never attempted to make anything other than a goofball musical comedy. So that’s exactly what you get here. There are better examples of the genre, but there are also examples that are a whole lot worse. That may not sound like much of a ringing endorsement, but if you’re looking for nothing more than silly fun in the sun, this movie will deliver. Big points get awarded for the finale, Elvis Presley’s Cavalcade of Girls, which sees Elvis return to Paradise Cove for a show-closing musical number in which girls from all over the world, wearing everything from hula skirts to Capri pants to slinky cheongsams come out to go-go dance with The King.

Paradise Lost

It would be some time before they’d send Elvis to the Hawaiian well for a third time, and by then it was more of a desperation move to revitalize interest in the films. By the mid-1960s, people weren’t being as kind to Elvis’ films as they were in the beginning. Sure, they were still popular with the kids, but critics lost their patience somewhere around Harum Scarum and had to admit to themselves that Elvis had yet to become the next James Dean, and it was very likely that he wasn’t going to be doing it any time soon. James Dean, after all, died before he could make a movie like Kissin’ Cousins. Although Elvis movies made money, each subsequent film seemed to get saddled with a smaller and smaller budget. Producers figured that if people were going to see them anyway, why waste money on big budgets when you keep things inexpensive and reap even bigger profits off Elvis singing about shrimp and papayas. By the end of things, Elvis movies and Battle for the Planet of the Apes were no doubt sitting together in threadbare recliners wondering what went wrong.

The decline in the quality of Elvis movies was matched with a general decline in the popularity of The King. See, there was this ragged bunch of mop tops who blew across the Atlantic and took music by storm, becoming the only musical act that could go toe to toe with Elvis’ classic popularity. When The Beatles broke, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll must have felt a little like the King of England looking at a Parliament that now held most of the power. And while The Beatles turned in ground-breaking, often puzzling samples of cinema that were big on experimentation and the avant garde, directed by younger and more inventive filmmakers, the old folks behind Elvis decided it was time for more of the same old, same old. A Hard Day’s Night came out in 1964, and Magical Mystery Tour hit theaters in 1967, leaving Presley’s return to the beach for one more go-round sandwiched in between what most everyone considers two of the most influential music-related movies ever made and leaving Presley himself looking outdated and, well, corny. The Beatles were aided by more caring and careful keepers who obviously learned lessons from the Elvis films.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style was producer Hal Wallis’ attempt to capture lightning in a bottle for a third time. Elvis first romp around the islands of Hawaii was a huge success, the most successful Elvis movie of all time. His second Polynesian adventure wasn’t exactly a pretty film, it was different enough from Blue Hawaii to remain interesting. By 1966, however, everyone figured it was time to trot the Blue Hawaii suit out again, but with a smaller budget, stupider jokes, and awful songs.

The lack of appeal in the island photography — we’d seen it all before and better executed in Blue Hawaii — isn’t half as shocking as the lack of appeal of Elvis photography. The never-ending fluff of his films had finally started taking its toll, and the Elvis we see here is most definitely not the fine looking specimen we saw back in Blue Hawaii. This Elvis is a little overweight, with much of it being in his face. His hair is awful. In many of his scenes he has a glazed look in his eyes that says he’s just as disappointed with the movie as you are. The Elvis that drove everyone wild, the Elvis that revolutionized the world and became one of the biggest icons in history, is here reduced to making bug eyes at a bunch of wacky dogs and singing about papayas to a precocious little girl. The better Elvis movies were always bubblegum, but they allowed some of Elvis charm, appeal, and energy to shine through despite the lightweight material. With Paradise, Hawaiian Style, the decline is painful because there’s so little Elvis in what Elvis is doing.

The tell-tale sign of Elvis’ physical decline comes in comparing bare-chested bathing suit shots. In Blue Hawaii, Elvis can hardly keep his shirt on. We frequently see him cavorting about in the waves sans shirt, sunning himself on a surfboard, whatever it takes to get him half naked. When Elvis puts a shirt on, it’s usually a sharp “aloha” deal. And he’s always wearing those tiny little swimming trunks. Paradise, Hawaiian Style knew better than to show what happened to Elvis. We see him without his shirt one time, and when it happens it looks like he’s wearing swimwear with a built-in girdle. It only lasts a second, and rather than linger on the King’s form, they have him rush in and wrap himself in a towel while he puts on clothes. I should also mention that Elvis’ hair is doing something really weird and disagreeable. Sensing perhaps the defeated spirit of its owner, the King’s trademark pompadour is looking particularly floppy and disheveled.

As difficult as it is to believe, Elvis plays Rick Richards, a decent guy just looking to make it on his own. This time out, he’s an airline pilot freshly fired for an incident in which he did the right thing and was wrongly punished. After returning to Hawaii, he hatches a plot to open a helicopter tour company with his pal, Danny Kohana (James Shigeta). This is a lot different than the plot of Blue Hawaii, in which he returns to Hawaii and looks to start his own island tour company that is based entirely on the ground instead of in helicopters. Helping the boys out is the lovely Friday (Suzanna Leigh), whom Danny has said is married so Elvis won’t ignore his duties in favor of tomcattin’ about with the secretary. Much ado is made about the fact that Friday is actually an ace pilot and mechanic herself but still relegated to “women’s work,” but just as the movie comes up with something interesting if not terribly original, it fumbles about and never really goes anywhere with it.

Complications arise when Elvis agrees to chopper a load of dogs to a kennel club show for some snooty lady. I’m sure scriptwriters Anthony Lawrence and Allan Weiss thought it would be really funny to stick the guy who sang “Hound Dog” into a helicopter with a bunch of dogs, then have him sing to them and hurl doggie biscuits around. And maybe it is kind of funny in an obvious sort of way for a little while. But then the scene keeps going. And it keeps going. And before too long we start to wonder if the entire film is going to be comprised of nothing but lovely scenery shots intercut with shots of a pudgy-faced Elvis yelling, “You pooches settle down!” Eventually, the cockpit shenanigans cause Elvis to loose control of his whirlybird and force a car off the highway — a car which just happens to belong to the local FAA commissioner. Elvis is grounded until his friend Danny has a wreck and needs rescuing. Will Elvis break the rules, save his friend, and then give an impassioned speech about how he values friendship more than his pilot’s license, thus convincing the FAA to only give him a warning? Will he get in a fight where he’s forced to use some judo? Only time and Paradise, Hawaiian Style will tell.

There’s a lot wrong with this movie. But since I’m a generally positive guy and can’t, in the end, say that I didn’t find Paradise, Hawaiian Style to be moderately enjoyable despite itself, I’ll begin instead with what the film does right. First of all, the island scenery is lovely as always, though not as lovely as it was in the better photographed Blue Hawaii. That film simply seemed to have more vivid color and director Norman Taurog showcased a better eye for sweeping cinematography there than Michael Moore does this time out. Still, Hawaii is a gorgeous island, and you’d have to work pretty hard not to go up in a helicopter and come down with some sumptuous shots. The fact that Elvis is a helicopter pilot even gives the film added incentive to fly about photographing lush tropical jungles, beaches, and lagoons.

The supporting cast is by no means an assembly of big names, but very few of them are bad performers. Co-star James Shigeta is probably best known as the Japanese businessman who gets executed by that evil Hans in Die Hard. He was also in Flower Drum Song, since there’s apparently a law that all Asians in an Elvis film must have had at least something to do with Flower Drum Song. More recently, he did voicework on Disney’s Mulan and had a part in Takeshi Kitano’s cross-over film Brother. His character, like the Asian family in Girls! Girls! Girls! is another attempt by an Elvis movie to portray Asians not as exotic others, but as regular folks just like us. It’s a much better effort this time around, as Danny is never presented to us as anything other than a pilot and father — and a man in a bi-racial relationship, no less. At no point does he walk onto screen accompanied by the crashing of a gong, the whisper of flute music, or that snippet of “oriental” music they usually play. At no point does he refer to anyone as “honorable so-and-so,” refer to his ancestors, or do martial arts (them’s for Elvis to do). He’s just a regular guy with a rich speaking voice.

Inevitable love interest Suzanna Leigh is also not bad in her role as the frustrated female pilot forced by society to do bookkeeping and answer the phones. She had herself quite a career in horror and scifi films, including roles in The Deadly Bees, Lost Continent, Lust for a Vampire, and one of my favorite European caper films, Deadlier than the Male. Her character has about as much to do as any female character in an Elvis movie, which means she’s just a place holder up until the point Elvis finally grabs her and gives her a kiss. The other woman in Elvis’ life is Marianna Hill, who plays his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lani Kaimana. Elvis always has two women in his life: His destiny girl, and the girl he’s with who may not be terrible but certainly has some irksome character traits. Marianna fulfills the latter role. She also had a small uncredited role in a previous Elvis film, Roustabout, which also had small roles for Teri Garr and Raquel Welch.

Filling out the cast is Danny’s adorable daughter, Jan. By adorable, of course, I mean adorable in that same way stepping on a sea urchin is adorable. In the history of annoying child stars being crammed down our throats by a movie, she’s nowhere near the worst of the bunch, but her loud kid singing really got on my nerves. Young actress Donna Butterworth actually does a fairly good job of playing the character, but the inclusion of a cute kid and a helicopter full of funny dogs really signals just how low this film will sink. Cute kids in movies just irritate me, even if they’re not awful performers. So apologies to Donna. You’re not a bad actress, and you’re among the most tolerable of cute kids in movies that don’t need cute kids. But those things still annoy me.

If you’re gonna watch an Elvis movie, you better enjoy listening to Elvis sing since he’ll do a lot of it. Paradise, Hawaiian Style rarely takes a break from the musical festivities. This is another one of those movies where we sometimes get one musical number immediately followed by another musical number without any dialogue in between. This wouldn’t be so bad if the songs here were as good as the songs in Blue Hawaii, but like all aspects of the film, even Elvis’ singing only serves to remind us how much better that film was than this one. The songs range from forgettable duds to embarrassing dogs — especially the one he sings to the dogs. That one was strictly for the dogs. “Queenie Wahine’s Papayas” doesn’t make things any better. One could convince oneself that Elvis is singing a thinly veiled song about breasts, which almost makes the song bearable. But then, one has to remember a couple things. First, he’s singing the song to a ten-year-old girl, which makes thinking of it as a subversive ode to parts of the female anatomy rather creepy. Second, I don’t know about you, but I can’t say as I’d find papaya-shaped breasts to be especially titillating. I guess as far as “tropical fruit as boobs” goes, a papaya at least beats a pineapple, though I’m sure there’s at least one webpage out there dedicated to women whose breasts are covered in rough spines and sprout rigid leaves from the nipples. Ultimately, we’re just going to have to chalk up “Queenie Wahine’s Papayas” as one of those songs that goes well with “Song of the Shrimp” and that song from Clambake about how they’re all gonna bake some clams. What was it with people making Elvis sing about food? That’s for Weird Al Yankovich and Shonen Knife.

Director Michael Moore (no, not that Michael Moore) does a passable job, though the film is definitely worse for the lack of Norman Taurog’s involvement. Moore doesn’t have the taste he does, and the resulting film seems a tad grubbier. Moore was an accomplished second unit director, which is one of the many great uncelebrated responsibilities in making a film. Second unit directors do a ton of work (in some cases shooting even more of a film than the director) and rarely get any recognition. Moore started his career as an assistant director on the apocalyptic sci-fi classic When Worlds Collide, worked as the same on the epic Ten Commandments, and then served as assistant director on five Elvis movies: King Creole, Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Roustabout, and Fun in Acapulco. Those were all OK films as far as Elvis fare goes, and with Taurog (who was directing another Elvis movie, Spinout, that same year) not involved with Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Moore was a natural choice to replace him. He does the best he can with the limited budget and an uninterested star. The experience seems to have soured him on being the lead director, because after a few more films, he went back to a long and successful career as an assistant director and second unit man, including work on Patton, Rooster Cogburn, the Indiana Jones trilogy, and Never Say Never Again.

In fact, Paradise, Hawaiian Style was very much a second unit film. Not only was Moore a second unit director bumped up to head honcho duties, but cinematographer W. Wallace Kelley was the second unit photographer for Blue Hawaii under Charles Lang Jr. Lang went from Blue Hawaii to doing cinematography for films like How the West was Won and How to Marry a Millionaire (which came out the same year as Paradise, Hawaiian Style). Kelley, on the other hand, continued to work with Michael Moore on a number of Moore’s directorial efforts throughout the 1960s but never really worked on anything held in high regard. His short-comings as a full-fledged cinematographer account for a portion of the film’s failure to match Blue Hawaii in terms of beauty, though Paradise, Hawaiian Style still has some nice moments — how can you not when your star is the Hawaiian Islands? But not all the blame can fall on Kelley, just as not all of it can fall on Moore. When you’re short-changed in the budget department, technical aspects of the film are the first to have their corners cut. Elvis spends a lot of time standing in front of a projection of Hawaiian scenery instead of going on location. Paradise, Hawaiian Style‘s cheaper look has less to do with it relying on second unit guys and more to do with the fact that, well, it was cheaper. You can’t have Blue Hawaii again if you’re not willing to pay for it.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style strives for most of its running time to be Return to Blue Hawaii. It never succeeds, but like a scrappy little brother who discovers the one thing he can do better than his older, more talented brother the film does manage to do one thing better than Blue Hawaii, and that’s throw a finale. Blue Hawaii ends with Elvis’ lavish and respectable Hawaiian wedding. Paradise, Hawaiian Style, on the other hand, ends with a completely gratuitous tour of fire twirlers, hula dancers, waterfalls, and all sorts of “Polynesia, Martin Denny Style” type of celebration. It comes out of nowhere and has no logical explanation, but as with all problems in this film, who really cares? Anything that leaves me with a shot of Elvis singing his heart out surrounded by an army of hula girls with palm trees and South Seas beauty in the background makes up for any missteps we may have endured along the way.