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The trailers for the 1969 Elvis Presley vehicle The Trouble with Girls hailed it as "a new kind of story" for The King, and it certainly was, mixing music, comedy, Americana and a murder mystery that cast Presley for the first time ever as detective. The change of pace was too little, too late, however. Though Presley's three 1969 releases all offered something different, they weren't enough to revive his by-then flagging film career. Nonetheless, The Trouble with Girls features some charming period comedy and strong supporting performances from reliable character actors such as John Carradine, Vincent Price, Sheree North and Joyce Van Patten.
The film is set in a small Iowa town in 1927 that is the lucky recipient of a tent show on the Chautauqua circuit. These were traveling shows growing out of Christian summer camps that had started in 1874 along the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York. Over time, several communities attracted their own Chautauquas, while smaller towns would host a tent show for a week or so. The programs were a combination of educational lectures, musical performances and sometimes religious revivals and political speeches. The circuit reached its height in the 1920s, providing education and entertainment for otherwise isolated rural communities, but eventually died out as radio, film and, finally, television united small-town America in their own ways.
Elvis plays the recently hired manager of a Chautauqua setting up its tents in Radford Center, Iowa. While sparring romantically with one performer (Marlyn Mason), who's trying to unionize the show, he also tries to help a local widow (Sheree North) whose daughter (Anissa Jones) shows surprising talent. When North's boss (Dabney Coleman) turns up murdered, Presley helps solve the crime, using one of the shows to inspire the killer to confess.
The Trouble with Girls started as a Glenn Ford vehicle at MGM in 1959 with Presley slated for a supporting role. When the production was shelved two of the writers, Day Keene and Dwight Babcock, turned it into the 1960 novel Chautauqua. In 1964, the studio announced a film of that title to star Dick Van Dyke, though it was based on a different book, Gay MacLaren's Merrily We Roll Along. For a time the title passed to Columbia, but it finally came back to MGM, which filmed it with Presley at the end of 1968, this time using the material from the Keene-Babcock novel. The original title was Chautauqua, but during production the producers began to worry that audiences wouldn't know what that meant, so they changed it to the more general and, they hoped, marketable The Trouble with Girls.
From the evidence on and off screen, Presley already seemed to have written off his film career by the time he made The Trouble with Girls. He never met any of the musicians who worked on the five songs he recorded for the film, overdubbing his vocal tracks on his own. In some scenes, he seems to be sleepwalking, letting other performers carry the histrionic load for the film. Only one of his songs was released as a single, "Clean Up Your Own Back Yard," by Mac Davis and Billy Strange. That number peaked at 35 on the Billboard charts. No longer a guaranteed box office draw for MGM, Elvis's second to last film was released as the bottom half of a double bill with the Raquel Welch drama Flareup.
But The Trouble with Girls also has its supporters. Some fans have stated that his work suggests he should have moved into different types of films. Writing in the New York Times, Roger Greenspun was surprisingly positive, calling the film "charming though ineptly titled" and suggesting that it "succeeds so amiably in its parts that the relative weakness of the whole doesn't matter too desperately." Nonetheless, The Trouble with Girls did little to bolster Presley's career as a film star. After one more film at MGM, the medical drama Change of Habit (1969), he ended his acting career. The King turned down later offers like the chance to team with Barbra Streisand for the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born even after live concert tours and the documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) had revived his career.
Producer: Lester Welch
Director: Peter Tewksbury
Screenplay: Arnold Peyser, Lois Peyser
Based on the novel Chautauqua by Day Keene and Dwight BabcockCinematography: Jacques R. Marquette
Score: Billy Strange
Cast: Elvis Presley (Walter Hale), Marlyn Mason (Charlene), Nicole Jaffe (Betty), Sheree North (Nita Bix), Edward Andrews (Johnny), John Carradine (Mr. Drewcolt), Anissa Jones (Carol), Vincent Price (Mr. Morality), Joyce Van Patten (Maude), Dabney Coleman (Harrison Wilby).
C-100. Closed Captioning. Letterboxed.
by Frank Miller