Those of us who're into Elvis' music and other parts of his considerable musical and cultural legacy should probably hate this movie. After all, it was the first symptom that something fundamental had changed in Elvis' career after his two years in the US Army. This film, obviously inspired by recent events in Elvis' life, gives us a sanitized King who's family-friendly and anything but the threat to society's moral fabric that he was perceived as being a few short years before. At 25, Elvis was now vetted as suitable for family consumption. Not that that's a bad thing. The March, 1960 recordings that produced some of Elvis' biggest hits ("Are You Lonesome Tonight" and the phenomenally-successful "It's Now Or Never" among them) featured some of the best material that he'd ever recorded, but generally confirmed a shift -- or perhaps really a broadening -- in focus. Maybe the two years in the Army and his first real exposure to the world beyond his own country had matured him, especially given that he'd suffered through the loss of his mother during that time.
Still, the version of Elvis that "GI Blues" presented went a step further than just maturity. If it'd been a one-off deal there'd have been no problem -- the problem was that they kept trying to remake the film, as Elvis himself complained. And the problem with THAT, when you come down to it, is that the man was capable of much, much more. Certainly, he was able to act more effectively than we'd see in later properties like "Clambake" and "Double Trouble." The two films that followed this one, the great "Flaming Star" and "Wild In The Country," ably proved that. Then along came the box-office smash "Blue Hawaii," giving Elvis his biggest film receipts since "GI Blues" and cementing to a great extent his Hollywood future. As if the loss of a potentially great and certainly charismatic acting talent weren't enough, the focus on the bottom line led inexorably to weaker and weaker soundtracks. It didn't take long before Elvis was, with a few exceptions, turning out substandard recordings that would eclipse in volume and sales the still-great studio work that he too seldom did during the '60s. As catchy as I find some of these movie songs, and despite the redeeming qualities to be found in many, the sad fact is that most of what he recorded for the movies was far, far below what he was capable of even on a bad day. Take the movies, but leave the man his music. That is the real tragedy of Elvis' movie career, I think, and the reason why we should cringe at the thought of "GI Blues," the movie that started it all.
But I can't do that. I really can't hate such a good-natured film. Even this early in his '60s formula-movie days the music is watered-down to a great extent but most of the songs are still of high quality and some are exceedingly catchy or well done (e.g., the title song, the beautiful "Doin' The Best I Can," "Shoppin' Around," and even the sometimes-maligned "Wooden Heart"). The soundtrack sold like hotcakes -- over two years on the US charts! -- and the movie did huge business. Yes, indeed, Elvis was back! It's not the movie's fault that it became a turning point and one with, ultimately, dire consequences. Elvis' performances is, as befits the material, not as gritty or edgy as that of his previous role (in 1958's classic "King Creole") and this is more a straight musical-comedy of the kind that'd sustained Hollywood for decades. There are a few twists, though, such as the acceptance of one of Elvis' bandmates having fathered a child out of wedlock, and Elvis gets to show off his comic skills to great advantage in several scenes, including those that center upon that baby, 'Tiger.' Actually, it's the scenes with 'Tiger' that I always remembered above all else from when I first saw this movie back in the '70s. I like some of the things that indicate a self-awareness in the movie: Elvis' line at the movie's end, delivered to the camera, is most obvious, but the whole "Blue Suede Shoes" jukebox scenario's pretty funny and Elvis makes two references to "All Shook Up" during the narrative. Elvis does get to flash a couple of looks of anger and even arrogant confidence across his face a couple of times -- he was utterly convincing, just with a look, at portraying such emotions -- but for the most part he's a fairly happy-go-lucky sort in this film. He radiates charm throughout, echoing the sentiments of his "Love Me Tender" costar, Richard Egan: "That boy can charm the birds right out of the trees." Elvis' male and female co-stars all do a competent job throughout, and someone evidently thought enough of Juliet Prowse's long-legged dancing routines to include two of them in the film.
The producers shot scenes while Elvis was still in Germany but used a double for his long-shots. All of the German scenes that we see are either projected behind the principals or are scenes shot on location with other people, while Elvis was still over there finishing his tour of duty. They obviously put a lot of thought into storyboarding the film and getting costumes and everything else sorted out so that location shots would match soundstage scenes. This was not a quick and nasty 'quickie' film -- that would come later, beginning with the filming of "Kissin' Cousins" in 1963.
"GI Blues": it's a nice, entertaining movie, so it does its job. No heavy themes or messages, just the kind of thing that lets you spend a little time in the land of escapist, lightweight, boy-meets-girl stories. It has its place. It's just a pity that its place turned out to be right at the pivot point in the career of the most exceptional vocal and stage performer of the century.