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Elvis Presley's Hollywood films can be neatly divided into two distinct categories -- those he made before he went into the army and those he made after his discharge. The colorful musical comedy Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) falls into the latter.
In the musical dramas made during the 1950s before he was drafted, Elvis played characters patterned after his rebellious, hip-swiveling persona, dubbed "Elvis the Pelvis" by the press. With the exception of Clint Reno in Love Me Tender (1956), these characters were talented but brooding young singers whose provocative new sound was misunderstood by the older generation. In the final act, the misunderstanding was cleared up, and the path was paved for the character's successful show business career. Any similarity to Elvis the Pelvis was purely intentional.
Presley took time out of his career to serve in the army from 1958 to 1960, which garnered him the most positive press of his lifetime. Upon his discharge, Elvis's management team, including personal manager Colonel Tom Parker, film producer Hal Wallis, and William Morris agent Abe Lastfogel, took advantage of the good publicity to deliberately tweak Elvis's image. From the beginning of his one and only client's career, Parker's goal had been to reach a broad mainstream audience. The controversy over Elvis's rock 'n' roll music and "gyrating" performing style during the 1950s had gotten in the way of that. Now, the stage was set to expand the singer's audience by maturing his image from rebellious rock 'n' roller to confident mainstream entertainer. The pomaded ducktail haircut with long sideburns, the crazy wardrobe, and the nervous energy of Elvis the Pelvis disappeared, replaced by the conservative look and confident air of a Hollywood leading man.
Parker, Wallis, and Lastfogel agreed that a career as a movie star was the pathway to the broadest audience possible, so the singer abandoned live performances and made no television appearances after 1960. He also changed his singing style, moving toward a smooth pop-rock style that was easily adapted into Hollywood musicals. With the release of his first post-army film, G.I. Blues (1960), for producer Hal Wallis, Elvis's new screen image emerged -- a handsome ladies man with an independent streak and a cocky air. Though still fiery and still sexy, the new Elvis was definitely more conventional.
Elvis had been under personal contract to Wallis since 1956, and the veteran producer had established the singer's pre-army image just as he was instrumental in shaping the post-army Elvis film. Wallis was working as an independent producer during the 1950s, and his films were released through Paramount, but he had been one of the best studio producers during the Golden Age while under contract at Warner Bros. Wallis really understood the power of the star system in keeping fans content at the box office, and he knew how to establish a screen persona for an actor or actress to showcase their natural charms to their best advantage. Wallis made two types of films as an independent producer, vehicles for the stars under contract to him and serious dramas to garner awards and prestige. Elvis's movies for Wallis were strictly the former, much to Presley's disappointment.
By the time Girls! Girls! Girls! opened in November 1962, the formula for the post-army Elvis Presley vehicle had been firmly established by Wallis and his production teams. Elvis was generally cast as a singing race-car driver, airplane pilot, or boat captain who was passing through an exotic or scenic vacation spot. As footloose loners, Elvis's characters were always hoping for romance but rarely looking to settle down. The leading lady in each film turned out to be that one girl who could change his mind, fulfilling the goal of most musical romantic comedies. The exotic or vacationland setting magnified the sense of romance and adventure and became a key part of the formula. As Elvis grew disenchanted with his Hollywood career, he bitterly referred to his movies as the "Presley Travelogues." Elvis particularly disliked the Travelogues because they were integrated musicals in which the songs are interwoven into the narrative so that they advance the plot, add to the character development, or create the mood of a scene. In these types of musicals, the characters can burst into song at any time in contrast to backstage musicals in which the production numbers are confined to stage settings. Elvis cringed whenever he read the scripts and found his character belting out tunes on a Ferris wheel, in a race car, or even on horseback. This type of musical requires a strong suspension of disbelief, and Elvis was one of those viewers who declared them too "unrealistic" for his tastes.
Shot in Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! was Elvis's third film with Wallis that followed the formula for the Presley Travelogue. Elvis stars as Ross Carpenter, who runs a charter boat business with his adoptive family. Ross likes the freedom of the high seas and prefers to live on the sailboat that he and his father, now deceased, had built from scratch. When his adoptive parents retire to Arizona, Ross hopes to buy back the sailboat, but an arrogant tuna-boat operator named Wesley Johnson (Jeremy Slate) beats him to it. Johnson hires Ross to captain his fishing fleet as a chance to earn enough money to buy the boat. To bring in more money, Ross performs at the Pirate's Den, a local night club owned by Robin Gantner (Stella Stevens). Soon, Robin is angling to land the singing boat captain as her own private catch. Her competition for Ross's affections is good-girl Laurel Dodge (Laurel Goodwin), who eventually wins his heart with a selfless act.
Most of what has been written about Elvis's musical vehicles from the post-army era is harsh and overly critical. Musical historians who bemoan his evolution from raucous rockabilly singer to smooth pop-rock stylist erroneously blame his Hollywood movies for a decline in his music and career, and unfortunately, they have set the tone for most of the writing about Presley's film career. However, their assessment is rarely objective and often not even accurate. Add to that Elvis's own dislike of the Presley Travelogues, and it's easy to see why these latter films earned such a bad reputation. Few consider his films within the context of established Hollywood genres and conventions, which helps to better judge their strengths and weaknesses.
Most of Elvis's films from the 1960s were vehicles tailored for the star persona that Wallis and his production team constructed for Presley. This was standard practice for stars from other arenas of show business who had no training in acting -- from Fred Astaire to Doris Day to Esther Williams to Frankie Avalon. In this context, the storylines for Elvis's romantic fantasies are no more ridiculous than those from other musical vehicles. Musical comedies are romantic fantasies; the whole point of the narrative and the music is to secure the union of the leading couple in romantic bliss by the final reel. And, to this end, Elvis's movies were quite successful. Also, most of the songs from the films were written to be part of the narrative with only a few intended to stand alone as single record releases. "Song of the Shrimp" from Girls! Girls! Girls! does not measure up to "Heartbreak Hotel" or "It's Now or Never," but it services the narrative of the film as it was intended.
Girls! Girls! Girls! does boast a couple of solid pop-rock songs that enjoyed airplay outside of the film, including the title tune, which had been written by legendary rock 'n' roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for The Coasters in 1960. With an excellent rock 'n' roll saxophone solo by Boots Randolph, Elvis's version is sexier. Also, "Return to Sender" by Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott became a million-selling single and one of Elvis's most beloved tunes. The film's other strengths include the attractive location photography and bright color palette, which were showcased by color cinematographer Loyal Griggs, who had shot such 1950s classics as Elephant Walk (1954), Shane (1953), and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954); he was adept at integrating location exteriors with studio interiors without losing the exotic quality of the setting. Griggs does his best to blend location work and studio scenes in Girls! Girls! Girls!, though some sequences look better than others. Veteran director Norman Taurog, who was a favorite of both Elvis and Hal Wallis, coaxed an acceptable performance from his star, who could sometimes be stiff when he was not interested in the material. Taurog also kept the action moving through his command of classic Hollywood moviemaking.
Musical comedies depend on the chemistry between the leading man and his costar, but unfortunately, neither Stella Stevens nor Laurel Goodwin brought out the best in Elvis. With no spark between Elvis and either female costar, the romance in the movie fizzles instead of percolates. Presley is at his most charming in the film when performing with child actors Ginny and Elizabeth Tiu, two Asian sisters who play the young daughters of Ross Carpenter's friends in Paradise Cove. In his films, Elvis's characters often sang to children, mothers, or grandmothers, which was part of the strategy to attract the family audience in addition to his legions of fans.
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, Girls! Girls! Girls! does mark an interesting if sad note in Elvis's film career. Elvis was not under exclusive contract to Wallis, and from 1960 to 1962, he starred in several films for other producers at other studios. Presley had always wanted to be a dramatic actor, and he looked upon these films as his opportunity to really learn how to act. He starred in the western Flaming Star (1960) and the drama Wild in the Country (1961) for 20th Century Fox, but these films did not do as well at the box office as his next Presley Travelogue, Blue Hawaii (1961), for Wallis and Paramount. Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, insisted to Elvis that his fans only wanted to see him in musical comedies. Elvis then starred in the musical drama Kid Galahad (1962) and the comedy farce Follow That Dream (1962), which were distributed through United Artists. Girls! Girls! Girls! followed, pulling in twice as much as Kid Galahad. The box office seemed to bear out what the Colonel and Wallis had been telling Elvis all along -- that his appeal to fans was in musical comedies. For the next six years, Elvis churned out nothing but Presley Travelogues at the alarming rate of three per year. At the end of his film career, he starred in the western Charro! (1969), the drama Change of Habit (1969), and even a sex farce, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968), but by that time, he was so eager to leave Hollywood that this change of pace made little difference to him.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt and Allan Weiss
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Editor: Stanley Johnson
Art Director: Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Music: Joseph J. Lilley
Cast: Ross Carpenter (Elvis Presley), Robin Gantner (Stella Stevens), Laurel Dodge (Laurel Goodwin), Wesley Johnson (Jeremy Slate), Kin Yung (Benson Fong), Sam (Robert Strauss), Chen Yung (Guy Lee), Madame Yung (Beulah Quo), Mai Ling (Ginny Tiu), Tai Ling (Elizabeth Tiu).
by Susan Doll