It was March of 1960. The teenagers of the world were rejoicing. Why?
Because Elvis was getting out of the army. Yes, Elvis "the Pelvis" Presley, rock 'n' roll's greatest rebel iconoclast, was finally leaving the U.S. military and taking up his career as the sneering, hip-swiveling rock 'n' roller. Elvis' film career was foremost in the minds of his fans, right along with his music.
Before leaving to serve his stint in Germany, Elvis had made four films, each one fairly good, each one demonstrating a definite talent, a screen charisma, and a very real potential for Elvis' real dream as a performer- to become a respected actor, like his supreme idol, James Dean.
After two years of serving his time for Uncle Sam, for his "comeback" movie, Elvis and his manager Colonel Tom Parker, chose a lightweight musical-comedy called G.I. Blues. “Marlon Brando did a musical early in his career,” Elvis happily chirped at his back-from-the-army press conference. (Famous last words.) Elvis, a genuinely nice guy, also had another reason for his film choice, saying “It was one way I had to show all the guys with whom I served in the army how much I respected them.”
Despite a noble reason, however, G.I. Blues was to be the blueprint for Elvis' future movie career, i.e. a lightweight frilly, frothy musical with a pretty leading lady (dancer Juliet Prowse). The screenplay was fine- if it had been written for Bing Crosby in 1936 or Fred Astaire in 1948 or even Frank Sinatra in 1954. But the kids, Elvis' rock hardcore fans, were waiting to see Elvis snarl and sneer and rebel and fight the authorities, just like he did in his four pre-army films.
The earliest clue to the movie's ultimate fate was Elvis himself, and his appearance. Elvis' world-famous sideburns were gone, shaved off in the military. And he still danced, but he didn't shake those legendary hips like he did before the army got him.
Yes, he seemed to sing, but not like Elvis, now more like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. The songs were okay, but they somehow had lost their bite. He seemed "cleaned up" somehow, instead of the rebeliousness, Elvis was now all groomed, for "the whole family,” a clean, wholesome family entertainer.
Elvis rolled into L.A. by rail with a pack of his buddies on two railway cars hired by the Colonel to start G.I. Blues pre-production in late April of '60. Production finally ended on June 24th.
Elvis reputedly had an off-camera fling with every one of his leading ladies in movies and reputedly again, Juliet Prowse was no exception. (Even though- gulp!- she was the hands-off property of Frank Sinatra himself!)
At one point during production, the film's title was almost changed to Dog Face, an Elvis track that Leiber & Stoller had written for the project. Wisely, the studio execs decided against it and stuck with G.I. Blues.
In G.I. Blues, instead of singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” or “Hound Dog,” Elvis sings “Wooden Heart,” “Frankfort Special,” and “Tonight is So Right for Love.” He sings one of the songs holding a little puppet in his hand, singing to a set of twins he is babysitting.
I mean, heck, there's nothing inherently wrong with singing to set of twins you're babysitting while you're holding a cute little puppet, it's actually kind of endearing, but jeez, this guy is Elvis freakin' Presley, man- don't you get it?
Didn't anybody get it? Didn't the director get it? The producer? The colonel? Any of Elvis' friends? Didn't Elvis get it?
Elvis attended a screening of G.I. Blues on September 12, 1960, with co-star Juliet Prowse; the film officially premiered on November 23, 1960.
Now comes the killer- the start of the domino-effect that killed Elvis Presley and any hopes he ever had to become a "serious actor" a la Dean and Brando. G.I. Blues, despite decidedly mixed reviews, was a box-office bonanza. It rocketed to the #2 spot at the box office and ended 1960 as the 14th biggest box-office draw of the year, earning a robust $3.4 million dollars (a very hefty figure for the time).
Okay, that's fine, so G.I. Blues was a smash, now Elvis wanted to get back to some "serious" business" i.e. starring in some really meaty roles to get back his acting chops. But it was not to be.
Elvis followed up G.I. Blues with Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, each one a serious, dramatic film. Both were big disappointments at the box-office. Wild in the Country was to be the only movie of Elvis’s that actually did not make a profit at the box office.
Then he came back with another colorful, glitzy musical/comedy called Blue Hawaii. This proved to be a huge smash, the biggest money-maker of Elvis' career. Alas, the die was cast.
The pattern was set, and now the studio execs all knew the secrets of success were 1) Elvis making lightweight musicals meant big bucks and 2) Elvis in serious movies meant disappointing box-office grosses. Elvis was to spend the majority of the remainder of his once-so-promising movie career singing to cuties in bikinis, warbling half-baked numbers, getting in fights and, at film's conclusion, getting the girl. And the scripts (with the rare exception of 1963's quite enjoyable Viva Las Vegas) were to get progressively worse and worse and worse.
One of the strange questions about Elvis' film career is: what happened to the Elvis fans of the '50s? Did these loyal fans just readily accept the "new" cleaned-up version of Elvis and continue to support him in these mediocre films? No one can dispute Elvis' huge popularity in the '60s as a movie star, as each one of his films made a bundle at the box-office.
And why didn't Elvis, the biggest star in show business, exert his own authority? “Okay, I’ll make a crummy musical, you guys can make your loot, but let me star in a decent vehicle, huh? I mean, even my worst films make a profit. Come on you guys. I’m dying here! Have a heart!!"
But it was not to be, and Elvis remained quiet, swallowing what must have been a very hurtful dose of lost pride and dignity. Elvis' movie career became a Greek tragedy. The once-promising young rebel was to become a cornball caricature.
Elvis’s film career was to be, by far, his biggest disappointment. His musical career was much lesser after the army too, but he did have a few good songs. And he did revive his career as a live performer in the late '60s and early '70s with his electric shows.
But poor Elvis had dreamt of being Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, Bogart... James Dean. Alas, it was not to be. John Lennon was asked for a quote when Elvis Presley passed away in August of 1977.
"Elvis died in the army" was Lennon's terse reply.
Truer words were never spoken, at least movie-wise.