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Roustabout

Roustabout(1964)

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teaser Roustabout (1964)

Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis Presley appeared in 31 films. Taking into account the two-year absence from his career while he was in the army from 1958 to 1960, he averaged about three films per year -- a considerable output for any star of the time. Many of these films were musical vehicles developed especially for Presley's star image and singing talents. They followed a formula that was first used in G.I. Blues (1960) and then firmly established with Blue Hawaii (1961) in which Elvis played a loner with an unconventional, often adventurous job who was passing through an exotic or popular vacation spot. And, whether the character was a race-car driver, airplane pilot, boat captain, trapeze artist, or rodeo rider, he could also sing. The stories focused on the ups and downs of romance between Elvis, a cocky ladies' man, and the leading lady, a nice girl who tries hard to resist his charms. Elvis disliked the light-hearted fare he was so often cast in and disparagingly referred to these films as "Presley Travelogues." (His four pre-army films followed a different set of conventions, which were based on his 1950s rebel image.)

Roustabout closely followed the formula for the Presley Travelogue. Released in 1964, this musical romance features Elvis as a struggling young singer named Charlie Rogers who has a big talent but an even bigger chip on his shoulder. After a brush with the law, Charlie hits the highway on his motorcycle, where he is accidentally run off the road by Maggie Morgan and her driver, Joe Lean. To help pay for his bike repairs, Maggie offers Charlie a job as a roustabout for her small carnival. Maggie quickly discovers that this brash young man can really pack in the crowds when he sings, while Charlie finds love with Joe's no-nonsense daughter, Cathy. However, Charlie's selfish attitude and cynical view of the world stand in the way of romance, especially after he is tempted by an offer from a rival carnival owner to leave Maggie's small operation, dooming it to financial failure.

Charlie Rogers is edgier than Elvis's usual devil-may-care characters from the Presley Travelogues. Producer Hal Wallis chose to recall Elvis's rebel characters of the 1950s to make Charlie a romanticized bad boy. Whenever he played a character who was angry or troubled, Presley gave his performance a spark and energy that hinted at the serious actor he had always wanted to be. His acting in Roustabout was also elevated by working with costars who were Hollywood heavyweights, including legendary movie star Barbara Stanwyck as Maggie Morgan, veteran actor Leif Erickson as Joe Lean, and comic actress Sue Ane Langdon as fortune teller Madame Mijanou.

Though dozens of Hollywood stars over the years have appeared in light-hearted vehicles designed to showcase their image and talents, the films of Elvis Presley have been heavily criticized. Much of it comes from pop music historians or critics unfamiliar with film industry practices and conventions who blame his film career for the shift away from his original rebel image and rockabilly sound. Subsequent biographers have picked up the refrain, repeating the misinformation and ill-informed opinions. The standard perspective on Presley's career condemns his manager, the colorful Colonel Tom Parker, for forcing Elvis to star in lightweight musical romances, thereby preventing him from fulfilling his destiny as a serious actor. But Parker wasn't the only person involved in handling Elvis's film career. Presley was under a non-exclusive contract to producer Hal Wallis, whose films were released through Paramount. It was Wallis who shaped Elvis's 1960s star image and developed the formula for the Presley Travelogue, not Parker. And, contrary to popular belief, Presley starred in other genres besides the romantic musicals, including dramas, westerns, and even farces, which were made by other producers at other studios. Yet, it was Wallis's continual use of Presley in the Travelogue formula that typecast Elvis as the singing man of adventure who wanders through exotic locales, fun resorts, or vacation spots.

A veteran producer from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who was once under contract to Warner Bros., Wallis understood the value of creating a star image for a performer in order to attract fans, especially if the performer had come from another arena of show business. As the title of Wallis's autobiography -- Starmaker -- suggests, he was adept at constructing and circulating star images and film vehicles for the actors under contract to him, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Dolores Hart, and Lizabeth Scott. Despite Elvis's dislike for his films, Wallis's use of the singer was standard practice for Hollywood, though the Travelogues were undoubtedly more formulaic than most. The producer's success at handling Presley's image and career should be measured, at least in part, by the box office and not by whether Elvis was happy or unhappy at being typecast. Roustabout grossed close to $3 million, according to some sources, which was a good box office take for the period.

During the early 1960s, other rock performers and bands starred in vehicles designed to exploit their popularity. Everyone from Frankie Avalon to Herman's Hermits to the Dave Clark Five was twisting, grooving, rocking, and swinging on the big screen. But, Wallis's productions featured some of the best onscreen and behind-the-scenes talents in Hollywood. Like Wallis, many had worked for the major studios during the Golden Age, and they were skilled at producing slick, well-crafted entertainment on moderately sized budgets. John Rich directedRoustabout, and though he lacked the credentials to be an auteur, he was ably assisted by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who had worked with Hollywood legends Josef von Sternberg, Henry Hathaway, Budd Boetticher, and later Sam Peckinpah. Rich and Ballard's efforts brought energy and life to the material, essential for a film that was supposed to capture the hustle-bustle of a carnival milieu. For example, Rich opted to shoot much of the action in unbroken tracking shots instead of relying solely on rear-screen projection or matte composites in post-production as originally planned. The best example occurs near the beginning when Elvis is shown singing while riding his motorcycle down the back roads of the California countryside. The long tracking shot taken from a camera car looks much more natural and captures the freedom of the road in a way that rear-screen projection could not have.

Likewise the production design by Hal Pereira and costumes by Edith Head exploited a color scheme consisting largely of primaries. The dominant use of red, blue, and yellow heightened the colorful carny atmosphere, attracted the viewer's eye in the carnival scenes, brightened the mood, and gave the film an overall coherent look.

On the screen, Barbara Stanwyck and Leif Erickson added considerable weight to Roustabout, while comic actress Sue Ane Langdon brought out Elvis's flair for comedy. The casting is a good example of Hal Wallis's strengths as a producer, because he knew how to use a diverse set of actors to attract broad audiences. He liked to include stars from previous eras in order to bring older viewers to the theater, and he convinced Stanwyck to play Maggie Morgan by noting that the film would introduce her to young audiences. Though Mae West was originally offered the part, Stanwyck's "tough-talking dame" persona was better suited to the role. Edith Head made Stanwyck a special pair of blue jeans that flattered her trim figure and updated her look.

Like most songs in integrated musicals, the tunes in Roustabout were intended to advance the narrative or further define the characters. Most were composed by Joy Byers, the team of Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, and the trio of Bill Giant, Bernie Baum, and Florence Kaye, who were accustomed to cranking out catchy songs for Elvis's vehicles. Strangely enough, "Big Love, Big Heartache" was co-written by Dolores Fuller, a former actress who became a pop-music songwriter after divorcing the famously bad director Ed Wood. Roustabout did produce one break-out number, "Little Egypt," penned by respected rock 'n' roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Often overlooked even by Elvis's fans, Roustabout is a better-than-average musical vehicle. Sadly, the film did not hold good memories for Presley. Elvis had long wanted to be a serious actor in a movie that did not feature him singing. Though he had appeared in a handful of dramas, westerns, and melodramas earlier in his career, they did not shake up the box office like the Wallis-produced Presley Travelogues. Still, he held out a spark of hope that Wallis would cast him in another type of film. Just after Roustabout was completed, an article appeared in the Las Vegas Desert News and Telegram praising Hal Wallis's upcoming costume drama Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. The article noted in a condescending tone that it was Elvis's frothy musicals that made the financing of Becket possible. When Elvis read the article, he suddenly realized Wallis's strategy. The wily producer had been using the profits from the Presley Travelogues to secure financing for his prestigious projects with major actors. He knew that his chance at a serious role in a major Hollywood production would never come, at least not from Wallis and Paramount.

Just over two years later, Wallis decided not to re-sign Elvis to another contract, because the Presley Travelogue had run its course and could no longer be counted on to pull in a significant profit. Colonel Parker, who had always thought Elvis's films could be made faster and cheaper than Wallis's productions, latched on to less prestigious studios and producers. For the rest of Elvis's days in Hollywood, the Presley Travelogue was reduced to the lowest levels of filmmaking, tainting his entire film career.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: John Rich
Screenplay: Anthony Lawrence; Allan Weiss (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Cast: Elvis Presley (Charlie Rogers), Barbara Stanwyck (Maggie Morgan), Joan Freeman (Cathy Lean), Leif Erickson (Joe Lean), Sue Ane Langdon (Madame Mijanou, Fortune Teller), Pat Buttram (Harry Carver), Joan Staley (Marge), Dabbs Greer (Arthur Nielsen), Steve Brodie (Fred the Pitcher), Norman Grabowski (Sam), Jack Albertson (Lou, tea house manager), Jane Dulo (Hazel), Joel Fluellen (Cody Marsh, roustabout), Wilda Taylor (Little Egypt).
C-102m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Susan Doll

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