“If you’re not tough in this world you get squashed, honey.”
Elvis plays it tough with a serious chip on his shoulder in this Hal Wallis Production released through Paramount which teamed him with one of the all-time great leading ladies of cinema, Barbara Stanwyck.
Directed by John Rich and photographed by Lucien Ballard, the film kicks off with Elvis singing in a roadhouse with Jack “The Man” Albertson emceeing. The place is full of college students who look to be in their late twenties despite being denied any booze from the server implying they’re all underaged. And DAMN! That’s Raquel Welch sitting front and center. Study hard boys. Sadly she’s only in the opening scene and wasn’t the household name just yet that she’d become by the end of the decade.
We’re about five minutes in so let’s cue Elvis to sing a song and then get in to a fistfight with three college hooligans he’s insulted. It’s a short fight Jack Reacher style. Two down and the third runs because The King uses “that karate stuff.” That’s the end of this job and he hits the road on his Japanese motorcycle in black leather attire with his guitar strapped to the side.
Time for an up-tempo number on the open highway, “Wheels On My Heels.” Destiny soon enters when Elvis speeds up on a jeep carrying cute Joan Freeman accompanied by her father, Leif Erickson and tough as nails Stanwyck. While Elvis tries to get a look at Joan in the passenger seat, Leif, runs him off the road and the stage is set for the next 80 odd minutes. Stanwyck owns a run down carnival and she feels responsible for Leif’s damaging The King’s bike and ruining his guitar. He’ll have to hang around the carny while his bike gets fixed. May as well hire him on for the duration of his wait.
Elvis is more than willing as it’ll allow him to flirt and make a play for Joan. If he isn’t too careful it’ll be palm reader Sue Ane Langdon turning up the heat on him. She makes it quite clear she’s available but Elvis has his sights set on the girl next door type I guess. While he’d dodging Sue Ane and bickering with Leif he may as well sing a song on the Carnival runway.
Sue Ane was another familiar face of the 1960’s appearing in numerous TV shows like McHale’s Navy and films including the comedy gem, The Rounders. She even turned up again opposite Elvis in 1966’s Frankie and Johnny.
That song on the runway proves to be a goldmine for Barbara. While she may be verbally sparring with Elvis every 8 minutes or so she knows a good thing when she sees it and realizes Elvis is bringing in the crowds doing songs like One Track Heart and Hard Knocks. Considering her Carnival operation is bordering on bankruptcy, Elvis might prove to be the main ingredient to get banker and the eventual Reverend Alden on Little House On the Prairie, Dabbs Greer, off her back.
That is as long as she can keep Elvis from running off for more money to Pat Buttram’s big time operation more akin to a giant sized amusement park ala Disneyland. Buttram has one of those great voices which suited him well opposite Gene Autry in westerns early on. My earliest memory is probably his playing Mr. Haney on Green Acres. Children may recognize his voice best from his vocals in Disney’s 1973 hit Robin Hood as The Sheriff of Nottingham.
Considering this is an Elvis movie of the mid 1960’s the die was already cast by the film’s credited Technical Advisor, Col. Tom Parker. Meaning Elvis sings a song, kisses a girl and gets in a fistfight.
Now do it all over again repeatedly for the balance of the movie no matter the title. Sad but far too often true. I couldn’t help but think that Buttram’s slippery Carnival King was somehow a reflection of Parker himself. Even more so if you’ve seen the latest bio-pic, Elvis, with Tom Hanks portraying the villainous long time manager of Presley.
The formula doesn’t really matter as Roustabout remains quite possibly my earliest memory of seeing an Elvis movie as a kid on afternoon television meaning I’ve a soft spot for it. By extension it’s most likely my first viewing of a Barbara Stanwyck film and little did I know it at the time but she’d become one of my all time favorite leading ladies. Even here with her silver hair at the age of 57 she retains the spunk and fearlessness that she injected into so many of her performances early on.
Still to come is a showdown with Noir heavy, Steve Brodie, teasing girls in the communal shower with cohort Billy Barty, a motorcycle ride inside the Wall of Death, and a few punches exchanged with Leif before things settle down to a happy ending that we can all see coming from the moment Elvis begins flirting with Miss Freeman. The actress was making the rounds of TV shows during this period with turns on episodes of Wagon Train, The Outer Limits and Bonanza among others. Classic film fans may know her best as the girl Don Knott’s tries to impress in his 1967 comedy The Reluctant Astronaut.
Truthfully this Elvis character is pretty much a self centered S.O.B. but with the love of a good woman he’s sure to change.
Roustabout was one of three Elvis movies to hit the big screen in 1964. The others being Viva Las Vegas and Kissin’ Cousins. While The King would hang in making predictable fare for the balance of the decade, 1964 proved to be the final year that Stanwyck would have films released theatrically. The other being The Night Walker that reunited her with ex-husband, Robert Taylor. It’s almost criminal to know she never made another theatrically released film.
While I’m not about to tell you I’m an Elvis fan of the first degree I am a fan in general even if the films always leave me wanting more as a whole. Truthfully I generally look at his movie career as a missed opportunity despite some bright spots early on. I will say I just traveled halfway across Canada and back spending about 40 hours in a car with about 10 of those tuned into Elvis radio on Satellite. I even caught an interview with Barbara Eden (I Dream of Genie) who reminisced about her time on set with Elvis in what I believe to be his finest film, Flaming Star. She pointed out that she’s likely his one and only leading lady who never got an onscreen kiss.
Flash! Keep your eyes peeled for Richard Kiel as the Strongman on the runway. He was years away from the Bond series as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker but he was already well versed with a toga thanks to his appearance in Arch Hall Sr.’s Eegah! opposite Arch Hall Jr.
If you’re looking to see Roustabout it shouldn’t be too hard as it’s been available on home video for as long as giant sized VHS machines have sat atop giant sized televisions via Paramount Home Video.
Long Live the King (1935-1977)