Aloha, Elvis

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Wikipedia

I have been wanting to see Elvis’s movies since reviewing the new Baz Luhrmann film last month (read the review here), and it just so happens that Amazon Prime has a few, among them 1961’s Blue Hawaii, which came right smack in the middle of the King’s Hollywood career. Watching it was an interesting experience, but we’ll get to that.

Blue Hawaii opens with Maile Duval (Joan Blackman) careening through the streets in a flashy red MG. She’s on her way to meet Chad Gates (Elvis Presley) who’s getting out of the Army after two years in Europe. Maile wonders if Chad has missed her and if he’s changed at all, and is annoyed when her first sight of Chad shows him liplocked with a stewardess. Yep, Chad has to talk fast.

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Chad doesn’t want to go home right away because he has a shack on the beach that he’d rather live in, and he can’t figure out how to tell his dad, who is the president of the Great Southern Fruit Company, that he doesn’t want to take over the fruit business. Go home he does, though, eventually, and when he tells his parents that he wants to do things on his own they don’t take it too well, especially Chad’s mother, Sarah Lee (Angela Lansbury), who is very much into society life despite coming from humble beginnings.

After bumming around for a few days and singing with his band, Chad decides he’s going to be a tourist guide. Maile works for a tourist office and business is booming. Her boss, Mr. Chapman (Howard McNeer), has a tour group headed by a teacher named Miss Abigail Prentice (Nancy Walters), who’s chaperoning four seventeen-year old girls around the islands.

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Maile isn’t too happy about this because every one of these girls are pretty flirty, with the exception of sourpuss Ellie (Jenny Maxwell), who’s bored stiff and would rather imitate a French accent and flirt with drunk married men. It all culminates in a brawl at a luau and Chad spending a few hours in jail.

Mr. Chapman fires him and Maile quits, but the tour isn’t over yet. The group jets off to Kaui, where Ellie tries to seduce Chad and then commit suicide, but nothing ever gets too morose because a movie like this has to have a happy ending.

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I’m so mixed about Blue Hawaii but on the good side. The plot is weak, the comedy can be weak, the characters are mostly weak, but the film keeps things moving at an energetic clip. Elvis cutting up with his band friends is particularly fun.

Then there’s the music. Oh man, the music. The title song was a remake of a Bing Crosby hit from 1937, but the rest of the music was pretty much original and it’s really enjoyable. Though most of it didn’t seem to have a life outside the film, one song is still a firm classic: “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” It’s presented very simply at Maile’s grandmother’s birthday party with Chad singing it to the grandmother while he holds hands with Maile. It’s a sweet moment that belies how big the song became; the filmmakers clearly had no idea at the time.

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On the other hand, it’s hard not to flinch sometimes at what goes on in Blue Hawaii because some of the characters were funny in an annoying kind of way. Like Sarah Lee, who’s not a bad person, just a very silly and stereotypical Southern matron. For some reason she has all her Polynesian help learning French, which they throw around at pretty inopportune times, and she doesn’t care for Maile even though Maile is wonderful and everyone else knows it.

Also wonderful is Elvis, who’s fun to watch. He’s so cute, especially in the brawl scene, where he delivers a karate chop to a guy and then looks at the camera with a goofy grin as if to say, “Whoops, I’m not supposed to know how to do that.” He’s probably one of the least Hollywood-like people in the movies, despite already being a celebrity in his own right.

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And therein lies the movie’s main non-flaw: I couldn’t quite forget I was looking at Elvis, and it doesn’t help that he sings every five minutes. Not that that’s a bad thing, but from an acting standpoint he can’t shake his own formidable persona. When Miss Prentice asks Chad if he can entertain four teenage girls it’s wincingly, ironically funny because this is Elvis we’re talking about here. Come on. The dreamy smiles all the ladies wear whenever he sings were probably not manufactured, and if Elvis had done more than the teeny bit of pelvis-shaking we see in the movie the odds are good they would have been a little less sedate.

In fairness, the fans probably didn’t care too much that Blue Hawaii wasn’t that great of a movie. They went to these films to see Elvis and it didn’t matter how silly things got or how thin the plots were. No one was expecting the King of Rock and Roll to suddenly become Paul Newman. Just seeing him was plenty.

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Actually, I take that back, because naturally the critics had higher expectations. Elvis’s acting got panned pretty badly by the press, some of whom wondered how Presley could still be such a poor film actor after half a dozen movies.

This was no doubt partially due to Colonel Tom Parker, who was all about the money while Elvis wanted to be a serious actor, and none of this helped Presley as a musician or an actor. Parker told Elvis not to question studio decisions, which would have been correct for the time since actors under contract had to do as they were told. However, a guy like Elvis has to be himself or nothing works, and the tight control hurt his film career. He tried, but he knew Hollywood wasn’t really him.

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The other thing is that the movie was made at Paramount, which wasn’t too shabby at musicals, seeing how many they made with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope; however, they may not have known what to do with Elvis. MGM seemed to understand him a little better. I haven’t seen all of Jailhouse Rock yet, just the title song, but other than the fact that Elvis is concentrating on hitting his marks, he looks relaxed, probably because he got to let loose a bit more. For the most part, MGM’s musical game was on point. They understood musicians and understood how to present new styles and established artists to their best advantage.

Overall, Blue Hawaii is a fun movie as long as one expects to see Elvis as Elvis. That’s pretty much all anyone expected and that’s what’s delivered.

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We’ll be jetting off to the continent of Africa tomorrow with Bob Hope. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…


Blue Hawaii is available on DVD or to stream at Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Aloha, Elvis

  1. Funny to see Angela Lansbury here, as I’m about two-thirds of the way through a series rewatch of “Murder She Wrote.” I saw “Blue Hawaii” as a kid, so I don’t remember much. May have to check it out again after reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

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