Can’t help falling in love with Elvis for the Beach Party Blogathon.
As far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t be a party, beach or otherwise, without Elvis. Even though Elvis fans have mixed feelings about Blue Hawaii as one of the movies that steered his career almost exclusively into fluffy formula films instead of more dramatic roles he was capable of, it’s a movie that’s impossible to dislike because it’s so fun, colourful and entertaining. The plot is simple as can be. Elvis plays the heir to a pineapple empire, who has just returned from military service. All he wants to do now is relax on the beach, go surfing (not that you actually see him do any in this movie) and hang out with his island musician buddies and his girl Maile (Joan Blackman). He resists the life plan his parents (Angela Lansbury and Roland Winters) have for him, which involves pulling him away from those friends and molding him for an executive position in the pineapple company.
To make his own way, he gets a job as tour guide for the travel service where Blackman works, and he does a fine job impressing his batty boss (Howard McNear) and showing a glamorous teacher (Nancy Walters) and her four teenage students around the islands. He does such a good job that his attention to his clients is mistaken for romance and makes Blackman jealous. Matters are complicated further when he fights to protect one rude and difficult student (Jenny Maxwell), and gets thrown in jail. After some more misunderstandings, he finds a compromise that puts his desire for freedom and fun in the sun to work for his parents’ company.
The concept of Blue Hawaii hit producer Hal Wallis’ sweet spot: good clean fun, a Bing Crosby-style setting and soundtrack for his star, and yet another picture drawing on Elvis’ recent real-life Army stint. Blue Hawaii is a feast for the eyes because of Elvis’ and Blackman’s good looks and the gorgeous wardrobe design (I want to make so many of the fabulous dresses seen in this picture). Most of all it serves as the perfect travel ad for Hawaii, featuring a variety of appealing sights–plantation, resorts, shoreline, sea, city and suburbs–as well as glimpses of island culture by way of a luau and a big wedding scene.
Hal Kanter, director of Elvis’ Loving You (1957) adapted the screenplay, originally called Hawaii Beach Boy. Kanter knew Elvis could handle more serious acting and wanted to include the plot twist that Elvis was adopted and the kindly pineapple executive Jack (John Archer) is actually his father, but it was a step too far from fun and sun for Blue Hawaii director Norman Taurog. Taurog was uncomfortable enough with the rebellion involved in having Elvis go directly from airport to beach and not see his parents for four days.
Elvis’ G.I. Blues (1960) co-star and one-time girlfriend Juliet Prowse was supposed to play Maile, but her demands for perks, expenses and star billing were too much for Wallis to approve. As she was supposed to come work on loan-out from Fox, her walking off this project in protest got her suspended at her home studio. The role was offered to Pamela Tiffin (who was later in the beach movie For Those Who Think Young, 1964) but she was advised to turn the role down, since an Elvis movie might set her career back. Accounts conflict on whether Joan Blackman and Elvis disliked each other or had a romance, but they made a great on-screen couple, and made Kid Galahad (1962) together. Jenny Maxwell was great as the pouty, smart mouthed and suicidal brat Ellie; after failing to get the title role of Lolita (1962) her career soon faded.
Lansbury plays an airheaded snob and overprotective mother, and is totally delightful at it. In a constant tizzy and fluster about her boy’s safety, his future, his choice of lower class girl, native buddies, his involvement in music and his swivelling hips, she makes the most of every overreaction, dead faint, exaggeration of her heritage and mispronunciation of Hawaiian names. She’d been working on Broadway and was also advised not to take the part but eagerly accepted the chance to be in an Elvis movie. And just like in The Manchurian Candidate, she was nowhere near the right age to be playing this man’s mother.
Blue Hawaii ’s 14 songs were recorded in a marathon session in L.A., March 21- 23, 1961, and were the most ever included in an Elvis movie. The title track “Blue Hawaii” was originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1937 for Waikiki Wedding. The beautiful “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was based on a 18th century French melody, and was the hit single from the movie, climbing to #2 on the charts. Dolores Fuller wanted to play the role of the elegant teacher but Hal Wallis said no, he wanted her for her songwriting skills; she co-wrote “Rock-a-Hula Baby,” the second single from the soundtrack album, and a moderate hit that just missed the top 20. Every big sequence in the movie has a song to go with it, and each song fits the plot, whether it’s a serenade to Blackman’s grandma at her birthday bash, a song meant to sell the sights to his tour group, or just some ditty that follows on a joke made at a buddy’s expense. Elvis does a fabulous job with all the vocals which helped make Blue Hawaii Elvis’ biggest selling LP. It entered the charts on October 23, 1961, remained there for 79 weeks total and sat at #1 for 20 of them.
After the studio session, Elvis flew straight to Hawaii and took part in a benefit concert to raise money to build the memorial to the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. His reception at Honolulu airport by over 3000 hysterical teenagers prompted fellow benefit performer Minnie Pearl to marvel at the sheer pandemonium and also fear for his safety. The Hawaii portion of the shoot happened March 27-April 17 in several locations that showcased the sights and beauty of the islands. In their downtime, Elvis’ gang and some of the actors had such wild parties that Hal Wallis ordered a 10 p.m. curfew and separated the male and female quarters. Some lucky guests got to enjoy special hotel dining room entertainment — impromptu country jams with Elvis and the great Patti Page, who was married to Wallis’ dance director Charles O’Curran. Look closely and you’ll see Page as an extra in the movie’s wedding scene, sitting in the canoe.
At the end of April shooting moved to Hollywood for scenes that included (amazingly) the beach party scene, and that phase wrapped on May 1. Blue Hawaii finally came out in November and was a massive hit, grossing over $4 million. As one of his biggest films, it set the audience-pleasing Elvis formula of fun, loads of songs, smiles and romance, some action and not too much drama. However you feel about that, you just can’t help falling in love with this movie as an example of the ultimate beach movie or good-time Elvis musical.
Elvis! Elvis! Elvis! The King and his Movies by Peter Guttmacher
Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave by Thomas Lisanti
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick
This post is part of the BEACH PARTY BLOGATHON hosted by Silver Screenings & yours truly, Speakeasy.