Blue Hawaii

- the movie that Elvis fans hate to love!

- Spotlight by Harley Payette

Blue Hawaii is one of Elvis' most successful films. Produced by Hal Wallis and directed by Norman Taurog it reached #2 of Variety's weekly list of Top Grossing films.

After the 1960 dramas of Flaming Star and Wild In The Country, Blue Hawaii was a return to the musical fluff first seen in GI Blues. While Elvis craved dramatic interest and acting challenges the general public thought otherwise.

Released this week FIFTY YEARS AGO in November 1961, 50 years later EIN contributor Harley Payette takes an in-depth look at Blue Hawaii and wonders if this film really was the beginning of the end - or perhaps first class family entertainment.

Blue Hawaii is the movie that Elvis fans hate to love. It’s the movie that sowed the seeds of Elvis’ Hollywood demise and pulled him away from his roots. Yet is a movie of considerable charm more than 47 years after its original release.

Blue Hawaii tells the fairly innocuous story of Chad Gates (Elvis) the son a of big pineapple company executive. Chad has just returned from the army and wants to make it on his own without, or with a minimum of, help from dad (Roland Winters). Being the boss’ son is just too easy for Chad.

Chad decides to make his own way in the world as tourist guide with the help of his girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman) who works at a local service. Eventually, Chad gets fired from the firm after his participation in a public brawl.

The brawl was not Chad’s fault and he rebounds by starting his own guide service. He mends fences with dad by getting dad’s pineapple company to use his service for its employees on company sponsored outings. Chad marries Maile and everyone lives happily ever after.

I definitely can understand a lot of the bile that has been aimed at Blue Hawaii over the years. The movie, with its fluffy story and many disposable songs, does not challenge Elvis much as an actor and only mildly as a singer.

Elvis’ early movies were often filled with top flight music that often challenged Elvis and brought him into contact with other revolutionary young players like Jerry Leiber or Mike Stoller. Blue Hawaii yielded the greatest percentage of filler fluff yet for an Elvis movie.

As an actor, Elvis had grown continuously in his first several movies and the characters he played had grown more complex each time. This culminated with the characters in King Creole and Flaming Star who had to face down moral conflicts in an immoral world. Elvis’ character in Blue Hawaii, like his character in GI Blues the year before, is a simple fellow. Like Tulsa McLean he’s relatively smart and imbued with leadership qualities. However, his ambition is extremely modest and seems to have few distinguishing character traits beyond a mild sense of humor and penchant to lapse into song occasionally. He has no noticeable character flaws. At least Tulsa was a womanizer. Not Chad, he’s a true blue one woman man- who doesn’t even really hint at owning a libido. He really could be any of one of a million bright innocuous young men across the early ‘60s US landscape or at least how those young men saw themselves.

This gets at the movie’s biggest flaw for Elvis fans, the complete sanitization of Elvis’ image. No longer is Elvis the irrepressible voice of the American underclass. He is a member of "one Hawaii’s finest families." Facing adulthood his biggest problem is that things will be too easy for him.

This is as far away from the world that Elvis stepped out of when he walked into Sam Phillips’ studio in 1954 as you can possibly imagine.


(Right:"It sure ain't Rock'n'Roll - but I like it!"; Elvis and producer Hal Wallis at Hanama Bay)

Chad’s milieu is the rich and the upper middle class. His beach boy friends are not white but much of their existence is dedicated to revolving around the rich white man’s son. What’s more, Chad’s mother is concerned that these boys are not good enough for him; they’ll bring him down to their level.

Elvis’ appearance conforms to his milieu. His hair is no longer tousled and overlong for the era. It’s perfectly cut short with his legendary sideburns shorn. His clothes are relatively modest, clean and conform with the upper class Hawaiian motif.

Even his perfectly tanned skin seems like someone has placed a protective sheen on it. It is not insignificant that while Elvis is at the absolute peak of his physical beauty, he is not sexy in the movie. Neither is his co-star Joan Blackman.


(Right: Joan Blackman & Elvis - brotherly love?)

In one of his (painfully) few insights, Albert Goldman accurately stated that Elvis and Blackman relate to each other like a brother and sister in the movie. (This is in contrast to Kid Galahad, done only months later where Blackman, in particular, burns with confident sexuality.)

In a famous scene, where he spanks co-star Jenny Maxwell, Elvis even steps away from the youth culture that made him an icon. No longer a young-Turk trying to buck an unfair system, he’s now the guardian of common sense and traditional values.


Elvis:"I got a feelin' this is gonna make the both of us feel an awful lot better"

The transition is there in the music as well. There is no twang in voice and no mumbles. The music is all perfectly clean pop. Except for the gospel undertones in "Can’t Help Falling in Love" there is nothing of the roots of Elvis Presley in any of the songs save his taste for mainstream pop. There’s no blues, no rockabilly, country and western and certainly no rock n’ roll. Nothing in the film even hints at the edge.

Yet despite these flaws and the movie’s sluggish pacing, it’s very hard to dislike Blue Hawaii. In fact, the virtues that made the film a massive hit and its soundtrack an even bigger hit are just as easily perceived as the movie’s flaws, even nearly 50 years later.

First of all, Blue Hawaii is gorgeous to look at. The Hawaiian scenery includes sites like Diamond Head, Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Park and the now (sadly) extinct Coco Palms Resort in Kauai. Director of Photography Charles Lang captures the lushness and grandeur of all the locations. Particularly, if you’re one of the millions who’ve never been to the Islands, the locations seem especially inviting.

The stunning physical beauty is not limited to the settings. Edith Head’s colorful costumes complement not only the stunning Hawaiian scenery but also the smart interior sets. In the film’s best moments like the "Hawaiian Wedding Song" finale, Head and Taurog create a prism that allows the movie to temporarily become a musical painting.


Accentuating the great outfits are the people wearing them. All the women are extremely pretty and a deeply tanned and healthy Elvis is, as previously mentioned, at the height of his masculine attractiveness.

In many ways, the movie has the same appeal as TVs Baywatch. When it’s freezing cold outside in the middle of winter (when this movie was released) and you have nowhere to go, it’s fun to watch beautiful people in a perfect climate partying and taking in some of the world’s scenic wonders. Plus, you’re enjoying these things with Elvis Presley. For female fans, it’s a dream date. For guys, you’re hanging out with the world’s coolest wing man, or you put yourself in Elvis’ place. It’s classic wish fulfillment.

I think Blue Hawaii gives a little more than Baywatch. There’s the fluid assurance of early ‘60s Hollywood including the era’s bottomless array of great character actors. Here Roland Winters, Howard McNear, Steve Brody, and especially, Angela Lansbury all provide sharp comic moments. Hal Kanter’s screenplay (based on a story by Allan Weiss), pedestrian storyline and a handful of lame and too tame slapstick moments aside, contains some genuinely funny dialogue. Lansbury as Elvis’ mother gets most of the best laughs. Perhaps her funniest moment comes when she bemoans Elvis’ night in the local jail as a trip to the “Big House.”

Then there’s Elvis himself. His portrayal of Chad Gates is hardly what one would call great acting, but he’s a picture of complete self-containment. He rules over this little environment like a musical Cary Grant, a perfectly charming guide on a winter trip to the Islands. He may not be dangerous, but he’s still cool.

Finally, there’s the music. While the music in Blue Hawaii, as a whole, does not rank with the best music of Elvis’ career, it is among the best featured in his 1960s movies. Elvis was seldom in better voice, beautifully navigating the passage between his lower and upper extremes with total confidence. His voice is almost breathtaking in its melodic purity.

While his singing never falters, there are a lot of holes in the material. "Almost Always True," "Slicin’ Sand" and "Rock a Hula Baby" are sitcom rock (although the latter’s tongue in cheek intent is obvious in the film). "Ito Eats" is one of those embarrassing situational songs for which Elvis’ movies would become infamous. "Moonlight Swim" and "Ku-U-I-Po" are so light-weight, a ceiling fan could blow them away.


Still, there’s a lot to like in this group of 14 songs that formed the biggest selling album Elvis had during his lifetime. The deeply spiritual romantic ballad "Can’t Help Falling in Love" gets better with every listen and is one of Elvis’ finest performances, although the version here is shorter and less assured than Elvis’ studio masterpiece. "Hawaiian Wedding Song" is also gorgeous and remains a big fan favorite. A less obvious highlight is Tepper and Bennett’s "Hawaiian Sunset" a lovely melodic appraisal of the Islands that could have been a standard had it been written 15 years earlier. "Island of Love" touches some of the same ground. Both are kind of extensions of the title tune which Elvis does just as well as Crosby. "Beach Boy Blues" is a funny little blues parody. And while Elvis’ immaculate version of the Island traditional "Aloha Oe" is not a major artistic statement, it is a perfectly realized performance that extends the theme of the project. This all may be pop music, but it is first rate pop.

Director Norman Taurog’s staging of this material is not always bursting with invention. Often Elvis sits in one place singing a song and the camera focuses on him either from a distance or close up. Taurog and Kanter have Elvis sing several songs in a concert type setting. (Despite his obvious facility with performance, no one suggests Elvis should stop wasting time on the tourist business and pursue a career on stage. I guess in the Elvis film universe everyone can sing like this.)

Many have argued that it was a waste to have Elvis sing the deeply romantic "Can’t Help Falling in Love" to his girlfriend’s grandmother and they’re right. (Although it is not so much of a waste as the decision to have Frank Sinatra sing "Time after Time" to Jimmy Durante in It Happened in Brooklyn). For all that though, Taurog has his moments.


There’s Elvis in jail cell packed with beach boys, mugging to "Beach Boy Blues." There’s the charmingly amateurish, almost free form, dance "Slicin’ Sand" number, with the characters dancing in a circle and kicking sand on each another, it’s just the kind of thing you might see at a real beach party attended by real people, not professional dancers. (A close up, near the end of the number, capturing an obvious grimace on Elvis’ face is disturbing, though, as it may capture Elvis’ true feelings about the project.)

(Right: Elvis grimaces as he slices! - One too many retakes?)

"Island of Love" takes us on a pastoral tour of Kauai. Taurog drops the movie’s pretense of using the music to forward the narrative or having Elvis perform in a concert type setting, using no close ups, the director uses a simple voice over as we see the sites while the characters ride through the scenery on horseback.

Taurog’s finest moment though is the "Hawaiian Wedding Song" finale. Head has Elvis dressed in a dazzling white outfit with a red sash around his waist and red lei around his neck. Blackman is equally striking in a purple gown and yellow lei. As the pair approach each other on opposite sides of a small bridge, the rest of the cast and extras surround them in a resplendent array of colors.

After they meet on the bridge, Elvis goes into the opening phrases of "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" and Blackman and cast answer him in Hawaiian. Once the song gets going, Elvis and Blackman walk down a path and eventually step onto a raft where they float down a salt water stream running through the center of the hotel grounds.

It’s a beautiful shot of continual motion as Taurog’s camera and the cast trail the raft to the conclusion of its short trip. Elvis and Blackman step back onto solid ground where a group of girls lift a flower arc over their heads, as the musicians flail away at the song’s climax, and Elvis plants a big ol’ kiss on Blackman for the fade out. It’s not Busby Berkeley, but the scene has a kind of romantic grandeur that would be a highlight in almost any movie. Taurog helmed many of Elvis’ weaker movies, but Blue Hawaii was their best pairing.

When Blue Hawaii hit theaters in 1961 most fans responded to the film’s virtues and forgave its flaws. It made the top 20 films of the year for both 1961 and 1962 and the soundtrack album sat at the top of the charts for almost half a year. Ironically, such spectacular success, coming on the heels of the relative failure of two serious dramatic outings, spelled the end of Elvis’ attempts to become a serious film actor. Receipts showed the public preferred the light entertainer to the serious rebel artist. This is another reason many fans dislike the movie.

The film’s success was not limited to its era, though. Over the years, it has been one of his most frequently repeated films on television and it has seldom been out of print on video or DVD. The soundtrack album has been equally enduring.

That continuing success is at the heart of the conundrum about this movie. Just as many people love it as hate it. Many fans may even have a foot in both camps. This is because it really is all those bad things that people have claimed it to be over the past four decades. Yet, freed of symbolism and its role in Elvis’ career, it’s an entertainment that can really hit the spot on a dreary January afternoon.


Spotlight by Harley Payette.
-Copyright EIN March 2009

Click here to comment on this article

Go here to our recent spotlight "Aloha From Oahu, Hawaii. In search of Oahu Elvis" by Sanja Meegin

Also check out Harley Payette's previous fascinating spotlights.

Click here for . .

Flaming Star - an in-depth look at the movie

The Real Failure of Elvis' Movie Career

Burning Love - a classic or self parody?

Elvis' Best movie performances

'Love Me Tender' Special Edition DVD review

Elvis' Musical Legacy, A Complete Body Of Work

Elvis That's The Way It Is - the original vs the recut.

Thoughts On Elvis in Vegas

The Schism Between Elvis' Stage & Studio work.

A Kick Upwards for Elvis' Movies

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