It appears that G I Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) gets a hard time these days. The first film that Elvis Presley made after his two-year stint in the army, it is really quite unlike any other film within the Presley canon. It neither fits with the rock n roll musicals of the 1950s, nor with the endless stream of beach movies that Presley made, starting with Blue Hawaii. Instead, it is the nearest Presley got to making a classic Hollywood musical of the style popular during the 1940s and early 1950s. There is relatively little that is “rock n roll” about the film and, in fact, one could quite easily imagine a young Sinatra or Gene Kelly in the title role of a narrative about a soldier who finds himself making a bet that he can’t get together with a dancer, but then regretting the bet as he falls in love with her.
The plot is old hat, and variants of it had been the basis of romantic comedies and musicals for years. The music, meanwhile, does include some rock n roll-light numbers, but the instrumentation within the film always reminds us of the 1940s musicals. Within the film (but not the soundtrack LP) horns and strings are overdubbed on the original Presley studio recordings, presumably to both give them a more adult sound and also to make them palatable to an older, Hollywood musical-style audience. Take the music played over the credits, for example: a swinging instrumental version of the title song. It’s more Nelson Riddle than Elvis Presley. Likewise, the music that Juliet Prowse dances to in the Cafe Europa is jazz and swing-based, with there being nothing rock n roll about it, other than the fact that much of it is built upon phrases from the Presley songs within the film. The adding of horns to the likes of “G I Blues” and “Shoppin’ Around” makes them sit in a weird place musically, and oddly resembles the ill-fated attempt to add a big band sound to “Heartbreak Hotel” on one of Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Brothers TV show back in 1956.
This is also one of the very few Elvis films to allow the co-star to perform a couple of numbers as well. The casting of Juliet Prowse as Elvis’s love interest was a shrewd move. Her first film had been just six months before the release of G I Blues and had been Can-Can in which she starred alongside Frank Sinatra. She had also appeared on Sinatra’s TV show, and thus she was firmly associated in America with the “old school” of musical and not the new. And yet she had also provoked controversy (and thus linking herself with Presley’s previous rebellious, dangerous persona), when she had danced for Kruschev and he had declared her as “immoral”, and event that made newspaper headlines.
While many Elvis fans refer to the film as the one which started the never-ending series of bland musicals that Elvis made through the 1960s, it seems rather unfair to put the blame on G I Blues instead of the people behind the films that came after. 1960 was the year in which Elvis was marketed to a new and wider audience. His first single after the army, “Stuck on You” was a mellower shuffle sound, similar in style to the earlier “All Shook Up”. The album “Elvis Is Back” contained its fair share of rock n roll and blues, but it also contained some beautiful ballads and a cover of songs by both Johnny Ray and Peggy Lee. Presley also appeared on the Sinatra TV Show, even singing a duet with “The Chairman of the Board” himself. His first full-length gospel album was also released. Alongside all of these, G I Blues was marketed at both the teenaged fans as well as an audience beyond it.
But why was there a thought to even place Elvis in an old-fashioned musical? Where was the logic? The old-style musical had, after all, been dying rapidly as the 1950s wore on…until 1958 when Gigi practically came out of nowhere and won 9 Oscars. 1956 and 1957 had seen just a couple of old-school musicals released. 1958 saw South Pacific and Gigi released within just a few months of each other, with then saw a number of old-style musicals follow: Porgy and Bess, Lil Abner, The Five Pennies, The Gene Krupa Story and For The First Time in 1959, with 1960 catching the tail end of the mini-cycle with Can-can and Bells Are Ringing. What wasn’t known at the time was that the musical revival was to be short-lived, although the one in the mid-60s with MY Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Funny Girl etc would last longer and, in many ways, be the traditional screen musical’s last hurrah. But it is clear that both Can Can and G I Blues were counting on riding the wave of the short-lived musical fad. It’s no coincidence that Gigi, Can Can and G I Blues were all set in Europe, as was For The First Time and Seven Hills of Rome from the same period. Of course, to todays audiences Gigi and G I Blues seem oceans apart in style, budget and accomplishments – and they are – but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a plan to make G I Blues appeal to fans of both Elvis and the traditional musical that was back in favour.
As a film, it still holds up well. Presley shows a knack for comic delivery, and is remarkably charming in the lead role – and there is obvious chemistry between him and Prowse. The script is better than that for most Presley musicals of the 1960s. If the film falls down it is through Taurog’s rather bland direction, especially the unimaginative staging of the musical numbers, which often consist of Presley simply singing into the camera while holding on to his guitar. But these are relatively minor flaws for a film that was quite clearly attempting to do something different: in this case revive the struggling traditional Hollywood musical through Presley. The format was never to be repeated – the next musical, Blue Hawaii, was a beach movie, pure and simple, and one that was all about Elvis from start to finish, with no big-name co-star to detract from Presley himself. There was no big band instrumental over the credits this time, but Elvis singing the title number. There was to be no mistaking, this was an Elvis film and not a Hollywood musical.