I have decided that watching every Elvis movie is a good idea. There are 31 movies in total. This project will likely drive me insane.
Well. Here it goes. I finally found the energy to write about Blue Hawaii. First, I should quickly reintroduce this project. For no logical reason, I’m watching every Elvis movie in chronological order and blogging about these movies. That’s it. That’s the entire project. Oh, and occasionally I write about One Direction.
So far I have found Elvis’s film career to be profoundly interesting. As I previously noted, his filmography can be divided into three stages: the pre-army films (1956-58), the most popular films (1960-66), and the final films (1967-69). Presley’s film career before Blue Hawaii is arguably the most intriguing period of his career. Three of his early roles (Love Me Tender, Flaming Star, Wild in the Country) are dramatic parts and he only occasionally appears in musicals (Loving You; G.I. Blues). The more creatively daring musicals Jailhouse Rock and King Creole showcase a different side to Presley as a performer, before he got stuck appearing in repetitive musical farces.
But Blue Hawaii marks a significant departure from these first seven Elvis films. It is the first of Presley’s wildly popular musicals that were released beginning in 1961; it is the third-highest grossing Elvis film of all time. Here Presley plays a character who has absolutely no desire for musical stardom. It features plenty of musical numbers that barely progress the plot. It is lighthearted, fun, and mostly harmless. (Unless you choose to overanalyze it, as I am about to do.)
Set in Hawaii, Presley plays Chad Gates, a soldier who is returning home after his military service. (Elvis as a soldier? What a shocking character development.) Chad is eager to reunite with his girlfriend Miley (Joan Blackburn) and soak up the Hawaiian sun with his buddies. He absolutely does not want to start working for the Great Southern Hawaii Pineapple Company, the family business that is also a thinly veiled representation of American imperialism in Hawaii. Chad’s life of leisure, his girlfriend, and his friends (who his mother lovingly calls “that native girl” and “those beach boys”) constantly puts him at odds with his parents.
Because Chad wants to maintain a fun, relaxed life but refuses to work for his father, he naturally becomes a tour guide. This gives him the freedom and independence he desires. Chad ends up leading a teacher and her four teenage students around Hawaii, causing conflict between him and Miley. (More on this later.)
Having Chad work as a tour guide is essential to the film. It is a simple way for Blue Hawaii to endlessly showcase the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape that the average movie goer might not have been exposed to in 1961. (Keep in mind that Hawaii had only achieved statehood in August 1959, exactly two years before Blue Hawaii was released in November 1961. Furthermore, beach films were only just becoming a frequently produced genre.) With this performance, whether he is acting or singing, Elvis Presley is the audience’s personal tour guide and he is tacitly promoting an idea that Hawaii is every American’s paradise now. Songs like “Hawaiian Sunset”, “Island of Love”, “Aloha Oe”, and especially “Moonlight Swim”, which Chad sings as he drives a tour group to a pineapple field, all reflect this.
Blue Hawaii also tirelessly works to introduce Hawaiian culture to non-Hawaiian audiences. It does so through the presence of non-threatening ethnic others who appear in secondary and tertiary roles as police officers, gardeners, and field hands. These characters are safely sequestered in the background. The most visible “safe ethnic others” are Chad’s friends and frequent bandmates. They are introduced to the audience while rowing traditional Hawaiian boats and singing “Aloha Oe”. Because they immediately launch into a performance of “No More” with Chad, we trust these characters. And if our Hawaiian tour guide comfortable with these ethnic others, then we can be too.
We also trust these characters because of their willingness to perform with Chad solely as his backup singers. Even when the bandmates are the intended main act, Chad’s presence pushes them into the background. This is on full display in “Rock-a-Hula”, Blue Hawaii’s most significant musical number. It’s a quintessential Elvis number featuring perfect dance moves, shocked middle-aged white people, and straightforward cultural appropriation. (And you better get used to it, Sarah Lee. It’s the sound of youth.)
Because of the presence of the secondary ethnic others, the impact of US imperialism in Hawaii becomes omnipresent. Hawaii’s white settlers are represented by characters like Sarah Lee Gates, Chad’s mother, who is played by Angela Lansbury. Although Sarah Lee depends on the servant Ping Pong to manage her household and freshen her mai tais, she looks down upon the native Hawaiians, calls them names, and judges their lifestyle. A character like Sarah Lee shows how the native Hawaiians are seen as unequal to the white settlers and tourists. Furthermore, characters like Ping Pong is also used for comedic relief. This is also true of Chad’s friends as seen during the musical number “Ito Eats,” an impressively absurd representation of the ethnic other.
This brings me to the significance of Miley, Chad’s girlfriend. As a half-French, half-Hawaiian woman, she acts as a bridge between native Hawaiians and the white settlers. She is constantly shown to have better character traits than women like Sarah Lee Gates. She is open, caring, hardworking, and driven. So what is she doing with someone like Chad? Without Miley, these two different worlds that are separated by class and race cannot be merged. The film’s plot is thus aimed at ultimately uniting these two characters together in marriage and promoting an idealized America. It doesn’t matter that the union between Miley and Chad comes together rather haphazardly in the film’s final minutes. (No seriously. Chad spends the entire movie unfocused and unable to commit and then he happily skips down the wedding aisle.)
To join Chad and Miley in holy matrimony, a conflict is needed. Enter the tour group from hell. Someone thought it was sensible to put Chad in charge of four impressionable teenage girls and a spinster teacher. (No Elvis movie is complete without a spinster.) Chad goes above and beyond to show the group a perfect tour of Hawaii. Unfortunately on his tour group is miserable Ellie, a 17-year-old brat who is the only person unable to appreciate that she is in Hawaii and that Elvis Presley is her tour guide. She doesn’t care. Miserable Ellie is determined to ruin this vacation for everyone. She sulks and makes rude comments. She considers herself to be an enlightened young woman but in reality she is a horrendous teenager.
Naturally miserable Ellie throws herself at Chad. Then everyone, including miserable Ellie and Miley, thinks the spinster teacher also wants to seduce Chad. Suddenly Blue Hawaii turns into Baywatch: Elvis Edition when miserable Ellie to go into a suicidal tailspin and attempts to drown herself. Chad, bless his heart, offers a unique way to help miserable Ellie get to the bottom of her issues. (Pun intended.)
Thus Chad spanks miserable Ellie and it looks like this.
So, yes. In order to show miserable Ellie that someone cares and to make themselves both feel a lot better. Because that makes sense and there is nothing remotely sexual or twisted about this scene. Nothing at all. And, behold! The spanking works! The very next day Ellie is a pleasant, well-liked creature. Then Miley and Chad make up, decide to start their own travel agency, and get married the very next day. Much to shock and dismay of Mrs. Gates.
So at the end of Blue Hawaii, an insufferable teenager gets spanked into submission and Hawaiian tourism thrives. White American and native Hawaiian cultures are happily merged. And the union of a heterosexual, interracial couple ensures the future success of the United States, imperialism, pineapples, surfing, and shirtless men playing ukuleles.
One last note about Blue Hawaii:
As if I needed another reason to love Angela Lansbury, she makes a number of beautiful facial expressions throughout Blue Hawaii. Let’s appreciate some of them together.