' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Blue Hawaii (1961)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Blue Hawaii (1961)

The opening scenes of “Blue Hawaii” are a picture-perfect tone-setter. I say picture-perfect because the opening credits, set to The King’s lilting rendition of the tune bearing the movie's title, is a montage comprised of clichéd Hawaiian images – blue surf, white beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze – that go to show how the clichéd can still make you dreamy.


From there we move on to Maile (Joan Blackman) jetting down an Oahu roadway – jetting too quickly, it turns out, because a motorcycle cop pulls her over and explains she’s speeding. Well, he calls her by name first and then she proceeds to tell him she’s speeding only because her soldier boyfriend is coming home from service overseas. Never mind then, says the motorcycle cop, transforming himself into her personal pace car and escorting her to the airport. Maile may be in a hurry but “Blue Hawaii” is not, content to function as a tropical postcard (the film was released but two years after Hawaii joined the union), escapism of the most breezy sense.

Consider the motorcycle cop. We won’t give the actor’s name to protect the innocent but suffice it to say his acting is of the most stilted sense, as if he just landed the role the night before and tried too hard practicing his lines in the mirror. Which, hey, maybe he did! Maybe director Norman Taurog noticed him on patrol and asked: “Do you want to be an Elvis movie?” It would have fit the mood just right.

Back to the layabout story. Maile’s soldier boyfriend is Chad Gates (Elvis). She plans on driving him home to his well-to-do parents, his pineapple magnate father and his meddlesome mother (an annoyingly ostentatious Angela Lansbury – yes, Angela Lansbury), but Chad would rather postpone this reunion as long as possible. He diverts them to a secluded beach with a shack where we reckon Chad has spent a lot of time in the past. “It’s a Hawaiian holiday,” he tells Maile. “Haven’t you ever heard of hooky-hooky-day?” This is what passes for humor in “Blue Hawaii.”



Chad seems content on this beach – when Maile exclaims he can’t spend the rest of his life on a surfboard he replies “The G.I. Bill of Rights say I get my old job back and this is my old job” – and, frankly, the movie does too. Of course, a movie about a guy laying on a surfboard and watching the sun rise and the sun set and then strumming a guitar and crooning a casual ditty probably won’t pass muster for a whole 90 minutes. So Chad’s dad wants his son to join the family business and Chad’s mom wants him to refrain from hanging around those ne’er-do-well “beach boys” but Chad, by golly, wants to be his OWN man and make his OWN way in life. Therefore he decides to cash in on the burgeoning Hawaiian tourist industry.

Elvis fans often dismiss “Blue Hawaii” as the moment his film canon jumped the shark. Its box office success – third all-time for Presley behind “Viva Las Vegas” and “Jailhouse Rock” – as well as its easy-to-recreate vibe and values meant that for the rest of his career his movies followed the “Blue Hawaii” template, much to their detriment. There is certainly truth in this viewpoint but, at the same time, harsh as it may sound, I don’t know that Elvis was headed for a transcendent acting career. People will point to “King Creole” and while Elvis was decent in the part and showed at least of semblance of potential, I genuinely think that film gets graded on a curve. This is to say that while “Blue Hawaii” is definite fluff, it’s not quite the harbinger of middling disaster it’s made out to be.


So, too, did the character of Chad Gates stray from Elvis’s image of the young rabble-rouser who burst on to the scene throwing flames with The Sun Sessions. The tuneage in “Blue Hawaii” is decidedly more adult contemporary – “Rock-a-Hula” barely rocks – and his image is more polished. Yes, he aims to defy his parents, but he also brings a dose of levity to young Ellie (Jenny Maxwell), a rambunctious child in a small tour group he escorts around the islands. She is intent on not having fun and then she is intent on getting into Chad’s pants and Chad is having none of it, forced to finally forced to……spank her. Yes, spank her. No, this is not in any way lascivious, rather it is Elvis making like the parental chaperone he is and scolding this unruly teen. It would have been a moment to make Steve Allen – the square talk show host who viewed Presley as a no good ruffian – proud.

In fact, this entire second-half storyline of Ellie & The Tourists threatens to stall out “Blue Hawaii” as it alters its leading man into being a sort of moral policeman while balancing tepid humor, sing-alongs and, of course, the obligatory bar fight. (Not every Elvis movie has a bar fight but it feels like they do.) It’s funny – every time I watch this movie I start to drift off as it meanders toward the end, like napping on a longboard out in the water, and yet I return to it again eventually anyway.

“My French blood,” says Maile at one point, “tells me to argue with you and my Hawaiian blood tells me not to mind.” And while I have no French blood nor Hawaiian blood, well, while my French blood tells me to examine the film analytically and structurally and say it’s not very good, my Hawaiian blood is telling me not to mind.

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