Why Roustabout remains a cult classic

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
February 20, 2021

Elvis' 16th movie is hardly the kind of film that's going to change the world. At first glance, Roustabout is formulaic enough to understand why, in 1964, the New York Times flatly refused to review it. Many critics lamented the way this musical comedy 'totally wasted' the talents of Barbara Stanwyck, the acclaimed star of such classics as 'Ball Of Fire' and 'Cattle Queen Of Montana' (a performance that especially impressed Elvis). Yet despite a clichéd plot - hard-hearted business types try to shut down struggling carnival - and some below par songs - Roustabout has, if anything, improved with age.

For a start, it's nice to see the sneer back on Elvis' lip. Allan Weiss's original script had Elvis' anti-hero Charlie Rogers drummed out of the Army for running under fire. But producer Hal Wallis decided that was going too far. 'Wallis wanted everything kept pretty shallow', Weiss noted. The producer felt he had defined the template for success and didn't want to break it. (When the formula stopped working - with Easy Come Easy Go - he abandoned Elvis' movie career) Around the time 'Roustabout' was filmed, Wallis patronisingly told a journalist that: 'To do the artistic pictures, it is necessary to do the commercially successful Presley pictures'.

Elvis Presley on the set of Roustabout

That remark stung Elvis who, Jerry Schilling told me, challenged the producer: 'Mr Wallis, when do I get to do my Becket?' Presley and director John Rich never saw eye to eye. But the suspicion that Elvis' movies were subsidising Wallis's pitch for an Oscar (which Becket won, for best screenplay, penned by Edward Anhalt, whose previous credits included Girls! Girls! Girls!) may have fuelled the star's disaffection with his director. When Rich said the Jordanaires could not accompany Elvis as he sang on his motorcycle because: 'where would we put the backing singers?' Elvis replied: 'Same damn place you put the band'.

That kind of cynical sharpness - seldom glimpsed in Elvis movies since King Creole and Jailhouse Rock - gives Roustabout an unusually astringent flavour, particularly early on. Sure, Elvis does the usual things - fights, wins the girl, sings and saves the day - but on his journey to that inevitable destination he discusses world trade, rides on the 'Wall of Death' and develops a rapport with Stanwyck's carnival owner that suggests, in braver hands, the movie might have been improved by a bittersweet May-December romance.

The watered-down script doesn't explain why Rogers is such a heel - except that he sprang, like an orphan, from a swamp near Shreveport, Louisiana - but Elvis' alienation though more synthetic than in, say, 'King Creole', seems reasonably authentic, infusing the entertaining Poison Ivy League with the marvellous pause on the line 'those sons of the… rich'.

As he did in 'Jailhouse Rock', Elvis stifles his own charm, looking surly enough to justify the introduction by tea house owner Jack Albertson who warns customers: 'That charming exterior conceals the instincts of a Mau Mau'. Elvis proves Albertson right a few minutes later. When a college kid tells him he's seen more action in a zoo than in the crummy joint Elvis sings in, he fires back: 'From which side of the cage pal?' Cue fisticuffs and the inevitable - for an Elvis movie - stint in the 'big house' as Angela Lansbury called it in Blue Hawaii.

With a concern for realism that didn't extend to most aspects of the nine Elvis movies he made, Wallis fretted over the 'dye and goo' in his star's hair and urged him to train to become 'lean, hard and strong' and not 'pudgy'. Surely even Wallis must have realised that not every glaring deficiency in these movies could be attributed to Elvis' hairstyle and physique.  With leather jacket, jet-black hair (not too gooey), sneer and tons of attitude - warned of trouble he replies, 'So what else is new? You've got your religion, I got mine' - Elvis is just bad enough to make this musical comedy work. Any nastier and he would unbalance the story, making the road to his inevitable sugar-coated redemption even more implausible.

Perhaps the presence of Stanwyck - mercifully preferred to Mae West - lifted Elvis out of the torpor which would later mar such movies as Paradise Hawaiian Style. Certainly their scenes - especially when she urges him to start 'living from the waist up' - have an emotional resonance that, alas, his romance with Joan Freeman lacks.

Elvis Presley in Roustabout

Though the characters and situations are not unclichéd, the ensemble of central characters creates genuine dramatic tension and the dynamic between the four principals is more complex than in most Elvis musicals.

As Freeman's father and Stanwyck's guilt-ridden manager (his drunken negligence killed a customer), Leif Erickson is as furious with himself as he is at Elvis' rebellious lothario.

Stanwyck cannot silence his self-doubt or ease his guilt. Indeed, her deepening commercial reliance on Elvis' charisma inflames matters. Freeman is torn between a father and a lover doomed by mutual misunderstanding. Only when Elvis does come alive from the waist up, by sacrificing his money and career for the greater good, does the grumpy Erickson conveniently relent.

Maybe it's because Colonel Tom Parker used to be a carny but the background - and the inside jokes about non-paying customers being 'lot lice' - feels more authentic and purposeful than usual. Lucien Ballard's sumptuous photography makes the most of the setting. Pat Buttram, as ruthless carnival mogul Harry Carver, is one of the most entertaining Parker surrogates to share the screen with Elvis.

Buttram heads a strong supporting cast. Sue Anne Langdon is memorably flirtatious as a fortune teller, Albertson is on fine form, Joan Staley is superb as the waitress at 'Mother's Tea House' hung up on Elvis who gets quizzed by college student Racquel Welch, who is making her movie debut.

One odd aspect of 'Roustabout' is the number of actors who had already - or would go on to - star in more than one Elvis flick. Albertson had bossed Elvis in Kissin' Cousins, Steve Brodie had already boorishly provoked a fight in 'Blue Hawaii' before doing so again at Stanwyck's carnival. Langdon would have a comic cameo in Frankie And Johnny, while Norman Grabowski, after attacking Elvis in 'Roustabout', helps him break into jail in Girl Happy. Even Buttram had appeared uncredited as a mechanic in Wild In The Country.

And then there are the songs. At the time, they were dismissed as the worst batch yet for an Elvis film but the best of them remain plenty listenable. The Giant, Baum and Kaye theme is incredibly catchy (slightly better than Otis Blackwell's rejected I'm A Roustabout), while It's A Wonderful World, One Track Heart and Wheels On Heels have their charm. A few songs reek of the conveyor belt, but three numbers stand out: Little Egypt, Poison Ivy League and the haunting Big Love Big Heartache.

For all these reasons, 'Roustabout' has more cultish resonance than any other Elvis movie from this era. The 'Wall of Death', where Elvis rides his motorbike around a drum-shaped wooden cylinder, inspired Peter Ormrod's 'Eat The Peach' (1986), a compelling, eccentric comedy about dreams and relationships which takes its title from T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock ('Do I dare to eat a peach?).

Roustabout made $3.3m at the box office. Elvis would not rebel on celluloid again until Stay Away Joe (1968). Wallis would make two more largely forgettable Elvis movies - 'Paradise Hawaiian' Style and 'Easy Come, Easy Go' - and this self-proclaimed starmaker's retreat would crush Elvis' dream of making it as an actor.

The choice Elvis, Parker and Wallis faced in picking roles and movies has been over-simplified. Peter Guralnick seems to suggest that Wallis and Parker were right not to push Elvis.

Yet the appreciation of some shrewd judges - from Don Siegel and George Cukor to Walter Matthau and Sidney Lumet - suggests more artistic ambition might have paid off.

By 1967, even Weiss, Wallis's hired scriptwriter, had grown depressed by the sight of his star sleepwalking through the films, squandering 'that extraordinary ability'. Schilling probably summed it up best when he told me: 'He didn't have anything against doing musical comedies, he just didn't want have to do ten of them, one after the other'. If Wallis really wanted Elvis to work out and forget about his hair and focus on the task in the hand, couldn't he have given him a more interesting job to do?

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