Saturday, April 9, 2011

G.I. Blues (1960, Norman Taurog)

As one who has watched every Elvis picture, I can imagine what a thorn G.I. Blues must have been in the side of Elvis Presley.  Coming off his best critical reception in King Creole, and freshly discharged from the Army, one needs look no farther than the malevolent Hal Wallis to see how the formulaic musical-comedies translated into box-office hits, killing any hopes of serious acting Elvis once had.  Wallis even visited Presley while he was stationed with the 3rd Armored Division in Friedberg, Germany.  Possibly taking advantage of Presley's fear that his career would be over upon his return, Wallis talked shop about the screenplay for G.I. Blues and even had intention of shooting some scenes while there. 

Given the subject matter and surroundings of Elvis at the time, it's difficult (despite the decent soundtrack) to view G.I. Blues as anything other than exploitative.  Coupled with the fact that, without films like G.I. Blues, we know films like Harum Scarum would have never had to happen, we're left with the king of the blind: a perfectly mediocre film that it is impossible to recommend because of the precedent it created.  It's as if Wallis had Presley's return calculated to the last lip curl.

In case there was any confusion as to what Wallis had in mind, Elvis plays U.S. Army SP5 Tulsa McLean, a tank crewman stationed in West Germany, but with bigger hopes of being a nightclub singer (for the fourth film in a row).  Tulsa moonlights as a rock and roll bar singer in hopes to raise enough money to open his own bar when his stint in the Army is over.  The love interest enters the story by way of a wager in which Tulsa must shack up with hard-to-get dancer Lili (Juliet Prowse).  A good life lesson to be had: women don't typically respond well to this when they find out the truth.
The on-screen chemistry in G.I. Blues is rather forgettable, which is probably what the production company had in mind; for the first time, Elvis is the love interest for the gushing fans.  In an early scene, Tulsa's group is trying to perform when another G.I. disrespects him in order to loudly play a song on the jukebox.  The song is Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes" in the most contrived universal inside-joke comparable to the wit of (and targeted to roughly the same age group as) "Hannah Montana".  The charade continues as Tulsa climbs down from the stage to sock the smart-mouth, killing two birds with one stone.  From here on out, many Elvis fistfights would serve no narrative purpose.
The new Elvis is a more family-friendly Elvis.  His look is more clean-cut (gone are the signature sideburns) and the songs are less suggestive.  A real double-standard began its employment as Elvis would no longer swing his hips, instead allowing the female lead to serve as the eye-candy.  G.I. Blues would set up later films like Clambake, as Elvis's character now sings to children and even has to babysit, the latter being a saving grace that allowed Lili to see Tulsa's softer side.  And it worked for America too.  G.I. Blues would set a precedent that would see Blue Hawaii eclipse it in popularity, leaving his dramatic roles in Flaming Star and Wild In The Country in the dust.  The box-office results (and soundtrack success) would lead to the last nail in the coffin, frustrating Presley to no end.  It is no surprise G.I. Blues is routine claptrap that only stands above many other Elvis films because it was the first.  All the more reason to dislike it. -- **/four stars

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