Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blue Hawaii (1961, Norman Taurog)

It's strange to me that Blue Hawaii, the master film that would be carbon copied for the remainder of Presley's musical-comedy days, is so weightless.  Not only is the film devoid of any consequence or conflict, not much really even happens.  It's like a mumblecore film with songs and people you don't mind actually looking at.

Elvis's Chad Gates is a G.I. returning from "war" (as his mother Sarah Lee Gates (Angela Lansbury) refers to it so to not think he "wasted two years") to Hawaii where he can pick his life back up on the shore.  It begins as a much more interesting tale of arrested development (one that his film career would double as) than the film lets play out (Chad's loyal girlfriend Maile Duval (Joan Blackman) argues "you can't spend the rest of your life on a surfboard' to which Chad responds, "sure I can.  The G.I. Bill of Rights says I get my old job back.  This is my old job.")  There's still a rebel streak in America's new, clean-cut Elvis, but now he only gets into barroom brawls to stand up for underage girls, and the issue his has with his parents revolves around not wanting to be crammed into their box.  Sarah Lee has big plans for her son: to follow in his father's footsteps at the pineapple plant.  Only Chad wants to become his own man.  And does, able to keep his friendship with the beach bums and forge a new career as Hawaiian tour guide.  For the remainder of the film, Chad escorts a young schoolteacher and four teenage girls around the islands. 

Blue Hawaii is a film of scenery (of both the geographic and the female types), and it is a wonder that girls went for this in 1961.  In the opening minutes, Chad is seen locking lips with a stewardess as he disembarks the plane, in plain view of his girlfriend.  Maile then pouts for a moment, before quickly forgiving him, so Chad sings to her "I've been almost always true" a somehow acceptable consolation from G.I.s (or at least Elvis).  Maile then tries on a bikini Chad purchased for her in France; a gift for which Chad admits "oh, I wasn't thinking of you.  I was thinking of me."  Worse, the mother figure is beyond overbearing (when she asks her husband where they went wrong, he answers "offhand, I'd say we got married"-- it's one of the films few intentional gags that doesn't involve people falling into the water or getting sprayed with a hose, and one that would be the beginning of a trend in Elvis films that often trivializes women's desires.)  Worse yet?  Chad rebukes a bratty 17-year-old with a private spanking that, though under the pretense of caring with discipline, she clearly enjoys.  It's odd that in a film franchise so marketed toward girls that this belittlement was accepted. 

And it would be accepted for years to come.  The formula would sometimes change the exotic locale (Fun In Acapulco), and many would end in a wedding-- though it is strange: unlike screwball comedy in which the unlikely pair change just enough to make it work, Blue Hawaii ends with Maile accepting Chad's proposal though nothing has changed.  It is Maile who got over her petty jealousy, while Elvis's Chad comes across as blameless and unchanged.  If ever a film attempts to subtly subdue women, Blue Hawaii is it. 

From Here To Monotony

For a decade that saw Elvis's musical significance wane to nigh insignificant before the '68 Comeback, the soundtrack to Blue Hawaii still became the 26th best-selling album of the 1960s.  No small feat in that many of the tracks ("Aloha Oe", "Ku-U-I-Po", "Ito Eats", etc.) are non-traditional Elvis rockers and are very film (setting, not narrative) specific.

Blue Hawaii is a mostly pleasant (though not harmless) rollick with no consequence, no stake.  It is strange that this is the formula that stuck, but then again, it's not too dissimilar from the formulaic franchises we see today aimed at both women (Sex and the City) and men (The Fast and the Furious).  Of course it is of little consolation, but the relatively vapid Blue Hawaii (and even its followers) seems intelligent by today's inane franchise standards.  -- **/four stars

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