Jenna Does Elvis #4 – Wild in the Country (1961) / Blue Hawaii (1961)

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While I’d been pretty much enjoying myself over the past several films, there’s been one looming in the distance, like an ominous storm cloud slowly moving towards me: Blue Hawaii. The one Elvis film to rule them all. The movie that set the formula for all Elvis films after it, and supposedly marked the beginning of a steep decline in quality.

But first, Wild in the Country:

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Wild In The Country (1961) | 114 min.

Ah yes, I can just see the wheels inside The Colonel’s head turning in this one—’how can we take the bad boy image of Jailhouse Rock, and mix it with the character depth of King Creole, but with the older woman love interest from Loving You, and with the one-man-against-the-world plot of Flaming Star, and on top of it all, have it appeal to fans from both the city and the country?’ Put it all in a pot and stir, and you get this film.

This one starts as I’ve come to expect most Elvis films start—with Elvis beating a man unconscious with his bare fists as another man looks on and laughs. Elvis then runs into the woods past a whole bunch of animals. Like, it’s a whole running sequence where he passes chickens, then sheep, then deer, and then a swimming raccoon (!) and then he’s just straight-up wandering into rivers, so this is some serious running away. Doesn’t last long though, because the next scene, he’s in a courthouse in front of a parole board. The laughing man turns out to have been his father, who immediately sells him out as a “trouble child” who “drinks, makes rambunctious remarks, and reads books”. “Comic books?” “No, your honor, books.” Whoa, this is some seriously bad shit.

Anyhow, long scene short, the board votes to give him one more try, but he’s on parole, so one more mistake and it’s all over, Glenn (Elvis’ name is Glenn Tyler in this one). They release him to his uncle Rolfe Braxton, who volunteers to give him wholesome work, fair pay, along with room and board. Turns out, Uncle Rolfe runs a bootlegging distillery, and Glenn’s room is basically just a dusty closet with a bed. “I love that smell,” Rolfe remarks while showing Glenn around. “Smells like cardboard, alcohol, and money!” Uncle Rolfe also has his daughter Noreen (Tuesday Weld) in toe, who has an infant child, an MIA husband, and eyes for ol’ Glenn. But Glenn has a sweet, wholesome girlfriend named Betty (Millie Perkins) who believes in him and loves him, despite his bad boy exterior (and in spite of her father’s judgment).

On top of it all, Glenn also has to have meetings with Irene Sperry (Hope Lange) a court-appointed counselor who quickly finds out that Glenn is not only misunderstood, has mommy issues, and is intelligent, but he’s also secretly a very talented writer! That’s right, Elvis is the next goddamn Jack Kerouac, people. Glenn draws from his troubled life experience and pours his heart and soul out on the page, and Irene starts to go mad for him because he reminds her of the young, talented husband she used to have before he died tragically.

The rest of the film follows Glenn as he tries to decide between marrying his girlfriend, his cousin, or his therapist. Are you still with me? Pay attention now—he’s also avoiding the local rich kid jerk who, it is revealed, lied about all of Glenn’s previous crimes and set him up just out of spite!

Don’t get me wrong, Wild In The Country is actually pretty good movie. It really kind of is made up of the best parts of all of his other films. Elvis is really giving it his all, there’s rarely space-filler music, the main characters have depth and are believable, and  the plot is convoluted yet grounded. The overt Freudian themes are a bit too much, but hey, it was the ‘60s—they loved that stuff.

The movie is really at its best when it’s just focusing on the character development, and screenwriter Clifford Odets most likely deserves the credit for that. Glenn is actually pretty sympathetic—he’s a down on his luck kid with an abusive father, a tragic mother, and everybody in this entire town seems to be out to get him. The therapist sums him up pretty accurately as “emotional and talented,” which is a type Elvis plays pretty well. However, unlike King Creole, Elvis kind of actively screws himself up in this  one—he’s kind of bipolar. The second Glenn gets frustrated, he goes off and bangs his cousin, or gets drunk, or tries to bang his counselor, or self-destructs in some way that always seems to come back at him. 

I thought his cousin Noreen was also a well crafted character. As a young single mother with a ‘husband’ overseas who most likely doesn’t exist, you feel bad for her because she’s clearly stuck in a lower caste. Probably her lowest and most compelling moment is when she tells Glenn that she knows he has plans to be famous and above her, but anytime he falls back down to the gutter, she’ll be there waiting for him. Ouch. 

Irene Sperry and her commitment to her ethics (as far as turning down men goes) was pretty refreshing too. Though by the end of the film, she starts to fall apart once her emotions take hold, and it’s a bit of a let down. But she at least gets some dramatically lit hotel scenes with Elvis that are shot with heavy shadows to convey the clandestine nature of their rendezvous. Nicely shot, even if their romance is a bit cheesy.

Overall, not a bad film really. Byzantine plot for the content, but good characters, and a really bizarre abrupt ending that makes you feel like even the crew were tapping their watches trying to get it to end already. 

Best song: A really endearing version of “In My Way” that Glenn sings to his cousin Noreen. It’s a sweet scene—she’s drunk, sitting on the stairs, reminiscing about how Glenn’s mother used to teach her guitar. I really like how sequence was shot through the bannister, a move which frames the characters in such a way as to show both intimacy and isolation.

3 out of 5 stars,
2 out of 5 Elvises

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Blue Hawaii (1961) | 102 min.

Ah yes, Blue Hawaii.

First off, this movie has it all—Elvis in an army uniform, Elvis with a lei,   Elvis kissing every woman, Elvis swinging his hips, Elvis singing Hawaiian songs, Elvis singing Elvis songs, Elvis surfing, Elvis in a white suit, Elvis shirtless, Elvis with an orange fake tan, Elvis being a good guy, Elvis making non-stop innuendo, Elvis brawling, Elvis in jail, Elvis with a dog, Elvis on a horse—I mean, this movie has EVERYTHING. In fact, it’s officially the most Elvis-y Elvis movie I’ve seen so far—a full five-Elvis film.

Let’s get right to the plot. Coming home from a stint in the army is guess who, Chadwick Gates (Presley). And who’s that racing a hotrod convertible to the airport to meet him? Why it’s main love interest Maile Duval (Joan Blackman). Chad decides the best way to greet your girl after being away for years is to make out with a nameless stewardess in front of her to make her jealous, so that’s pretty much what Chad’s about. He is also from a rich family that owns a pineapple planation, and expects to take over the family business. He’s much more passionate about lazing on the beach and surfing with his buddies than he is about pineapples though, so after a couple of bland musical numbers and Maile losing her bikini top in the surf, Chad finally goes home to face the music. As lame as Chad is, his uptight, moneyed parents aren’t all that inspiring either—his mother Sarah Lee (Angela Lansbury) is an airhead and his father Fred (Roland Gates) is your typical stoic. So Chad decides he’ll go out in the world and make something out of himself—you know, like leech off of his girlfriend’s job at the tourism board and become a tour guide.

Chad’s first assignment is to show a teacher and her group of teenage girls around the islands. Turns out the teacher is an attractive younger-than-expected woman named Abigail Prentice (Nancy Walters) who likes to say things to Chad like “Mr. Gates, do you think you can satisfy a school teacher and four teenage girls?” Chad is thrilled, and Maile is immediately jealous.

Also, the teenagers are all charming and cute, except for Ellie, who is a sour nasty teen-angst horndog. No really, she’s a nightmare. Ellie ends up a real thorn in Chad’s side as he takes the girls from site to site—when she’s not trying to shit all over everything he does, she’s desperately trying to make out with him. Eventually, he ends up in an all-out club brawl when Chad tries to stop a creepy married middle aged man from hitting on Ellie, who rather bafflingly was actively encouraging him. Even the guy’s wife doesn’t seem to mind he’s actively trying to make it with a 14 year old but, okay, 1960s. Elvis goes to jail and everything for this pain-in-the-ass girl, who just spends the whole time whining that he got in her way.

Later on, Chad ends up with Ellie in his hotel room trying to come onto him, but just as he’s about to kick her out the phone rings—his girlfriend Maile is suddenly in town and is coming to see him. And then two more teenage girls wander into his room looking for Ellie, so he hides Ellie. And then the teacher Abigail comes in, so he hides the other girls so it doesn’t look suspicious. Then Abigail starts to seemingly hardcore hit on Chad, to his sudden embarrassment. As Abigail kisses him, Maile of course sees this through the window and storms off. This kiss also causes Ellie to run out of the room, steal a car, and head off into the night. Chad has to go track her down and—as if this couldn’t get any creepier—when he finds her on the beach he straight up spanks her to teach her a lesson. It works, and Ellie is a good girl from now on. Also, Chad gets married to Maile. Cue the music.

So, the first thing you might notice about Blue Hawaii is there’s no plot. Instead of a convoluted Wild In The Country deep psychological love triangle life decisions kinda film, you have Elvis spitting out cheesy one-liners and singing constantly. Seeing as Hawaii had just become a state only a couple years earlier, this movie must have been a product of some sort of government program to promote the Hawaiian tourism board, from the glamour shots to the constant namedropping of every tourist attraction, to being forced to follow Elvis giving a buncha teenagers an actual tour of Hawaii. My theory is that Hal B. Wallis must have had money in a Hawaiian travel agency or something.

Blue Hawaii is not a good movie. It starts out kind of fun—Chad’s a womanizing beach bum running him his rich family and the suit-and-tie lifestyle, got it, on board. But unfortunately it just unravels so quickly between the music turning from in-context to plain old space-filler, and the checklist of every single Elvis thing that could possibly happen happening. Not to mention the aforementioned weird creepy teenager stuff (I can’t tell you how unsettling the spanking scene is). It’s also just shot kind of boringly, considering the exotic location. The only really memorable location is the final wedding scene–shot on the well-manicured grounds of the late Coco Palms hotel.

That said, Elvis seems to have rejuvenated a bit of his old swagger. Though, seeing how scattered he is in this movie, you get the sense that it’s probably a product of uppers rather than actual enjoyment. In that sense, this movie reminded me of a blander Help!—a movie the Beatles barely remember shooting because they were so high the entire time. But anyhow, Blue Hawaii is pure formulaic nonsense. I’m now definitely afraid of what’s to come.

Best song: It’s gotta be “Rock A Hula Baby.” Elvis’ hips are back in full form. Was he probably stoned out of his mind? Sure thing, but hey, at least he’s channeling it down into his pelvic region.

2 out of 5 stars,
5 out of 5 Elvises

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6 Responses to Jenna Does Elvis #4 – Wild in the Country (1961) / Blue Hawaii (1961)

  1. Jane landis says:

    Makes me kinda wish that the Beatles had done more movies! Imagine the plot lines: four poor scruffy young lads from Liverpool give up their errant ways to become pop sensations.

    • Jenna Ipcar says:

      One thing I’m appreciating about Elvis movies is they keep finding different ways to put him in the same situation. You’ve got boxing Elvis, sailor Elvis, writer Elvis, racecar Elvis… it’s great.
      I’d definitely pay to see The Beatles roll their eyes through more themed movies… though I guess Brian Epstein had a soul so he didn’t force it down their throats ala The Colonel. TOO BAD.

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