Elvis is the manager of a Chautauqua show in The Trouble with Girls (1969), Presley's penultimate movie role. The film is not so much an Elvis movie as a movie with Elvis in it. It deserves credit for breaking away from the increasingly worn-out formula, but in the end the film is only fair. It's also a little strange, with a script set in 1927 but with stylistic elements grounded in late-'60s pseudo-hipness.
Chautauquas were touring shows, like carnivals, offering lectures, performances, and exhibits. They had the pretense of class and culture, offering up a wide array of opera and ballet stars, Shakespeare readings and lectures by leading intellectuals. But there was also an element of P.T. Barnum to these shows; a helpful site quotes Sinclair Lewis stating Chautauquas were "nothing but wind and chaff and . . . the laughter of yokels," though Theodore Roosevelt defended them as "the most American thing about America." Chautauquas were popular until radio and talking pictures (and the Great Depression) spread to America's rural outskirts.
The Trouble with Girls is like a proto-Altman film, with various story threads built around a Chautauqua's visit to a small town in Iowa. Manager Walter Hale (Elvis) fights with pretty shop steward Charlene (Marilyn Mason); single mother Nita (Sheree North) has an unhappy affair with low-life married druggist Harrison Wilby (Dabney Coleman at his slimiest); Nita's pint-size daughter, Carol (Anissa Jones, "Buffy" on Family Affair) joins the children's pageant along with token black kid Willy (Pepe Brown), and so on.
Like most movies made in the 1960s but set earlier in the century, The Trouble with Girls looks anything but authentic to its period. Elvis, with sideburns at their most colossal, looks like he just stepped off the stage in Vegas, and his few songs are shot with the hand-held, anything goes attitude of Woodstock. Conversely, the film tries hard to capture the feel of small town life in the 1920s, with particular attention to its eccentricities. In these scenes the film is somewhat like The Road to Wellville (1994). Joyce Van Patten, for instance, turns up as a marathon swimmer passionately discussing the benefits of axel grease over goose fat, before climbing into the town's murky-looking pond.
Peter Tewksbury, who had previously directed Elvis in Stay Away, Joe (1968), seems obsessed with point-of-view shots, which dominate the musical numbers especially. The effect is amusing and spirited during one number, where Jones and Brown watch a performance by local farmers, but mostly it only calls attention to itself and is greatly overdone.
The film is quite lavish by late-career Elvis standards. Though shot almost entirely on the MGM backlot, the film abounds in period props and costumed extras. (The picture looks to have cost around $3.5 million.)
While The Trouble with Girls isn't likely to top the list of any Elvis retrospective, and it is true he doesn't play an especially active role in its story, Elvis is onscreen more than others have suggested, and the integration of his and the other characters is generally well done. Though mostly Hale argues tritely with Charlene over union matters, Elvis does flex his acting muscles in a scene with Sheree North, which hint at the kind of parts he should have been playing at this point in his career.
Elvis only sings a couple of songs, but "Clean Up Your Own Back Yard" is one of his best. However, an uncredited Thurl ("Tony the Tiger") Ravenscroft's familiar singing (in the amateur quartet) is heard almost as much as Elvis is.
The cast, unusual for an Elvis movie, includes horror movie icons Vincent Price and John Carradine. The latter is well cast but wasted as a Shakespeare monologist; in the second of his two brief scenes the actor is heard but not seen performing Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Price, also well cast, gives a spirited lecture on morality, which in turn plays a big part in the story. Price is billed as a "Guest Star" in the credits, along with Joyce Van Patten. Van Patten is misidentified in the film's trailer, however, which lists her name over an image of Nicole Jaffe, the mostly voice-over artist best know as the original voice of Velma on Scooby-Doo. (And, is it turns out, she kind of looks like Velma, too.)
Susan Olson (The Brady Bunch) has an unbilled but juicy part as an auditioning child. And isn't that Walter Brennen standing next to Sheree North during the opening titles?
A Word About the Title and Running Times References to the picture often refer to it as The Trouble with Girls (and How to Get Into It), but that was used in prerelease advertising only. The onscreen title is as above, though both are basically meaningless given the story. On the other hand, the IMDB lists The Trouble with Girls with a 97-minute running time, while Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide lists 104. However, Warner Home Video's DVD runs 99 minutes, so an alternate version of the film may exist.
Video & Audio
As with the other five Elvis titles in this batch -- It Happened at the Worldfs Fair, Harum Scarum, Spinout, Double Trouble, and Speedway -- The Trouble with Girls is a fine transfer, not up to the others, but mostly very good. The Panavision-lensed, 16:9 enhanced image is so good you can see the spit flying from Vincent Price's lips during his big speech. The mono sound is likewise crisp and clean. An alternate mono French track is offered, along with lots of subtitle options: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Indonesian.
The only extra is an Elvis Trailer Gallery for four later titles, all 16:9 enhanced: Spinout, Double Trouble (1967), Speedway (1968), and The Trouble with Girls (1969). All four are in good shape.
The efforts by Elvis's management to move his film career in a different direction was simply too little too late. Though not half-bad, The Trouble with Girls only exemplifies just how clueless Hollywood studios were to changing tastes and emerging styles.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.