He brings warmth and charisma to the role of the chautaqua manager and - perhaps intrigued by a plot that is substantial enough to include a murder - acts well enough to create a character that exists independent of his own image. Yet, paradoxically, there are moments - for example, when he deputises for a gospel group member with laryngitis in Swing Down Sweet Chariot - in which we get as real a sense of Elvis' personality as in the concert movies.
Hollywood never quite knew what to make of Elvis, pairing him with directors like Norman Taurog or Richard Thorpe who had done their best work with kangaroos or chest-beating ape men. But, for all his modernity as a singer, he seemed most at ease as an actor in the past (Flaming Star, The Trouble With Girls, Love Me Tender), in a rural or small town setting (Wild In The Country, Kid Galahad, Follow That Dream) or in well crafted disguised biopics like Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and, later, Roustabout.
I know millions of fans enjoyed him in movies like Blue Hawaii, Fun In Acapulco and Girls! Girls! Girls! - all films I like - but the Elvis they present has been commodified for the masses. Now he's gone, I find his more unusual movies, where you catch a glimpse of the mysterious personality, more rewarding.
The Trouble With Girls took almost a decade to reach the screen and you wonder if it only finally made it because having an available script was a convenient way for MGM to fulfil Elvis' contractual obligations. But no matter. The movie has a proper story - spoiler alert: local woman kills the employee who is sexually harassing her - a superb cast (John Carradine, Vincent Price, Marlyn Mason, Edward Andrews, Dabney Coleman as the murdered sleazeball, Sheree North as the justified murderess and Joyce Van Patten) and, despite a few anachronisms - like the Donald Duck impersonation - a pleasingly sure sense of period and time.
Director Peter Tewksbury had previously made the fine comedy Sunday In New York. He wasn't a hack studio director in the way, say, that Taurog was but somehow inherited the task of making two Elvis films: the bizarre, often hamfisted Stay Away Joe and the 'Trouble With Girls'. In TV, he had become famous for his editing prowess. That's a tad ironic as the biggest flaw in this movie is the failure to edit the long, semi-continuous scene where Elvis and his cohorts try to sober up North. Given too much rope, North overacts terribly, blighting an otherwise convincing portrait of a woman embittered by the petty compromises and empty dreams of small town America.
Apart from that scene, the script - written by Arnold and Lois Peyser from a story by Mauri Grashin, Day Keene and Dwight Babcock - is actually pretty sharp with some nice one-liners ('Y is a crooked letter') and genuinely funny scenes, notably Andrews, as Elvis' sidekick, deciding that things are going so badly he might as well play American football.
The songs fit neatly into the action and even - in the case of the funky Clean Up Your Own Backyard and the melancholy Almost - comment on it. Indeed, with some of the music Elvis joins in with on stage - Violet and The Whiffenpoof Song - this is one Elvis movie that could have a proper soundtrack album, like the Coen's O Brother Where Art Thou? (I'm not saying the songs are of the same calibre, just that the music feels, for once, like part of a consistent, authentic, contemporaneous whole.)
And, for once, Elvis has something to do other than sing and seduce women. He is in charge and Andrews, as the Colonel Parker figure, generally ends up doing his bidding. It's hard to know of this is deliberate, but given the personal resonances in many Elvis scripts, it's not outlandish to wonder if the Peysers - and Tewksbury? - were sending him a message. For whatever reason, Elvis never got to run his own show offscreen as he does here, as the impresario/manager/singer.
Ultimately, I like this so much because it‘s obvious Elvis likes it. It's hard not to share in his pleasure when he joins the gospel quartet - a role he had tried to play in real life, only to be turned down by the Blackwood Brothers - and grooves to Swing Down Sweet Chariot. And, in his dashing white suit and sideburns, he looks fantastic as a professional nomad. Heck, he even smokes little cigars, much like he did in real life.
Shame about the title. The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get It) was a poor attempt to con cinemagoers into thinking this was either the typical formula Elvis flick or a 1960s spoof like Dr Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs. Instead, what Tewksbury - and Elvis - gave us was an entertaining, flawed, small town movie which makes a quiet, unpretentious plea for tolerance (even the mayor says: 'No Klan feeling here') and gives us a better sense of the man himself than, say, Girl Happy or Clambake.
It's good enough that even the professional killjoys at the New York Times - probably the harshest critics of Elvis' movie output - eventually concluded that this amiable movie offered an affectionate, detailed, even-handed, unsentimental portrait of 1920s America and noted, slightly patronisingly, that Elvis 'performs well with a reasonably developed character and he sings well too'. So if you haven't seen this movie at all, what are you waiting for? And if you haven't watched it in a while, watch it again.
The Trouble With Girls - Original The New York Times Movie Review 1969
By Roger Greenspun
Originally Published: New York Times - December 11, 1969
'Trouble With Girls'
'The Trouble With Girls' is a charming though ineptly titled comedy with one fortunate murder, several pleasant songs, Elvis Presley, and a huge cast all of whom, down to the last extra, seem willing to act their fool heads off. The plot, which hinges on what a small-town hard-luck woman (Sheree North) rightly does to a lecherous druggist (Dabney Coleman), deserves little attention. But the situation, a traveling chautauqua making a small-town stand in the mid-1920's, deserves a lot of attention - which it gets in a film that succeeds so amiably in its parts that the relative weakness of the whole doesn't matter too desperately.
Tewksbury began directing features with the very durable comedy 'Sunday in New York' (1964), and he has continued making good, if not especially memorable movies since. 'The Trouble With Girls' is more a director's movie than it is, say, a vehicle for Elvis Presley, but it suggests a director more at home with intelligent observation than with intense vision, a director whose film personality is in part a function of his sense of comic pacing.
The evocation of 1920's Americana is exceptionally even-handed, detailed, affectionate without sentimentality, funny without condescension.
A package of terrific foil-wrapped fireworks, spiffy slang, a talent competition in which six boys play 'America' in unison on kazoos, a female English Channel swimmer's lecture-demonstration showing her audience how to smear axle grease as body protection 'for your longer dips' — so many mementos that serve to enliven the present as much as they recall the past. 'The Trouble With Girls' is an immensely active film that seems virtually to live within the styles and language of its period.
The whole cast is so attractive that even the unpleasant characters (Dabney Coleman and Med Flory) please so far as their roles allow. Marlyn Mason as the not-quite-romantic lead seems to me the best of the women, an excellent comedienne in a film that demands performance more than presence from its actors. Elvis Presley performs too, with a reasonably developed characterization as the chautauqua company manager, and he sings very well. Also singing are several kids, two male quartets, a fine country trio identified on the cast list as The Farmhands, and, brightly, the Pacific Palisades High School Madrigal Singers.
'The Trouble With Girls' is playing at neighborhood theaters as second feature to 'Fiareup'. I saw it at the New Amsterdam on 42d Street, where they were charging less than a dollar yesterday morning and the projection was excellent.
- More articles by Paul Simpson