An in-depth look at the movie "Roustabout"

Elvis's sixteenth movie was the 1964 Paramount film "Roustabout." 

Having at one time been a carnival worker, the idea for a picture with a carnival background had been that of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's manager.   However, Colonel was adamant that the movie "not cheapen carnival life....that this was a wholesome way of life in which the participants had a legitimate pride." 

The movie was first announced in May of 1961, but production was delayed until March of 1964.  In the time between there were changes.  Among them were:  that the working title went from "Right This Way Folks" to "Roustabout;" that Elvis's character name changed from Charlie Main to Charlie Rogers; and that the character of carnival owner Maggie Moore changed to Maggie Morgan;  and that the actress chosen to play Morgan changed from Mae West to Barbara Stanwyck.

The writers were Anthony Lawrence and Allan Weiss. 

Anthony Lawrence later worked on the scripts for the Elvis movies "Paradise Hawaiian Style" and "Easy Come, Easy Go" and the 1979 TV biopic "Elvis," starring Kurt Russell in the title role.   Among his other credits are a number of TV series including "The Fugitive," "Hawaii Five-O," "Cannon," "Quincy" and "The Blue Knight."

Allan Weiss was the screenwriter for the Elvis flims "Blue Hawaii," "Girls! Girls! Girls!," "Fun In Acapulco," "Paradise Hawaiian Style" and "Easy Come, Easy Go."  He once remarked that the scripts were written to producer Hal Wallis's specifications:  "Wallis kept the screenplays shallow.  I was asked to create a believable framework for twelve songs and lots of girls."  However true this was, both Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Weiss received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America in 1965 for their work on "Roustabout" as the Best Written American Musical of 1964.

The director was John Rich and this was his first time to work with Elvis.  He came from a strong background in TV, having directed such series as "Our Miss Brooks," "I Married Joan," "Gunsmoke,"  "The Rifleman," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Gilligan's Island."  He was anxious to break into film directing with Hal Wallis.  He wasn't impressed with Elvis's entourage and their constant hanging around and playing practical jokes on one another.  Elvis told Mr. Rich, "...when these damn movies cease to be fun, I'll stop doing them.  And if my guys go, (expletive), so do I."   Elvis and Mr. Rich had gotten off to a shaky start when Elvis cajoled the director into allowing him to do his own stunt fight, which was very uncommon then due to the possibility of the star's being hurt and shutting down production.  When Elvis indeed was hurt in the stunt and required several stitches above his eye, Mr. Rich was afraid to tell Hal Wallis that he'd allowed their star to become injured.  Then he came up with a plan to write into the script the bandage that covered the stitches and thus production wasn't halted and Wallis was appeased.  John Rich later directed Elvis in "Easy Come, Easy Go."   By that time he was disillusioned with Hal Wallis and his methods and had developed a respect for Elvis.  He returned to directing TV series including such programs as "All In The Family," "Sanford and Son," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Barney Miller,"  "Newhart", "Dear John" and "Murphy Brown" among others. He has received many accolades including seven Emmy nominations with three Emmy wins.

On February 26, 1964, Elvis reported to Paramount for pre-production. He started with soundtrack recording sessions at Radio Recorders of Hollywood.  On March 3, Elvis recorded the version of the title song "Roustabout" that was written by Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott.  It was not used in the film.  Instead they used a different song with the same title written by Bill Giant, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye. Elvis recorded his vocals for that second song on April 29, 1964  after the principal photography was shot.  An acetate of Elvis's long-thought-lost Blackwell/Scott song was found in Winfield Scott's basement and RCA first released it as a bonus track on the 2003 ELVIS 2ND TO NONE album.  To differentiate it from the one used in the movie, the title was changed to "I'm a Roustabout."

Elvis became frustrated during these sessions when he wanted The Jordanaires to back him up on a song that he would be seen singing alone in the film while riding a motorcycle down the road.  One of the producers questioned him as to where the  backup singers would be in the shot.  Elvis snapped back, "The same damn place as the band!"

One of the songs in the film, "It's A Wonderful World," written by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, was for a time in contention for an Academy Award nomination as Best Song.

For authenticity in Elvis's sixteenth film, "Roustabout," a real carnival  was employed and set up on land near Thousand Oaks, California.  This was one of the locations used for exterior shots in the movie.  The interior shots used three connecting sound stages (Nos. 12, 14 and 15) on the Paramount lot.  The doors between them were opened up to make them into one huge stage, which was needed to accommodate the set for the big tent scenes.  This was the first time in the history of the studio that they had done this.

To Elvis the only exciting thing about making the movie "Roustabout" was the opportunity to work with the legendary Barbara Stanwyck, who played Maggie Morgan.  Unknown to both of them at the time, her long career of over 90 films was about to take a turn.  For the next twenty years she would be a popular television actress in such series as "Big Valley," "The Thorn Birds" (mini-series) and "The Colbys."  She was born  Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, NY in 1907.  Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her older sister, who was a chorus girl.   Ruby took the stage name of Barbara Stanwyck, dropped out of school in her teens and looked for work as an actress.  She became a dancer in a chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies.  She finally landed lead roles on Broadway, where she met and married her first husband Frank Fay.  They moved to Hollywood in 1928.  There she received tutelage under director Frank Capra.  Of him she once said, "Eyes are the greatest tool in film.  Mr. Capra taught me that.  Sure, it's nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it.  But great movie acting - watch the eyes!"  She was married to actor Robert Taylor from 1939 until 1951.  In 1944 the government listed her as the nation's highest-paid woman, earning $400,000.  She received four Academy Award nominations and in 1982 was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for her contributions to the acting industry.  She was nominated five times for Emmy Awards, winning three of them, and she received four Golden Globe nominations, winning one.  She received Life Achievement Awards from the American Film Institute, the Screen Actors Guild and the Los Angles Film Critics Association and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes.

Another veteran actor in the movie was Leif Erikson who played the gruff Joe Lean.  The son of a sea captain and a writer, he was a big band vocalist and trombone player.  He made his acting debut as a corpse in a Zane Grey Western in 1935.  He was known for his brawny, deep-voiced characters, including that of Big John Cannon in the TV series "High Chaparral."  He served in World War II and was wounded in action twice .  Prior to "Roustabout," he had worked with Barbara Stanwyck in the 1948 movie "Sorry, Wrong Number."

Actor Pat Buttram played the wily villain Harry Carver.  Born in Alabama in 1915, the son of a circuit-riding preacher, he quickly became known for his comedy.   In the 1950s, he replaced Smiley Burnette as the sidekick to western star Gene Autry, with whom he made a number of movies and a TV show.  In 1961 he played a mechanic in the Elvis movie "Wild In The Country."  By 1965 he  became a regular  on the TV series "Green Acres," playing peddler Eustace Haney.  Over the years he also proved to be a talented voice-over actor for many Disney animated movies, including "The Aristocats," "Robin Hood," "The Rescuers,"  "The Fox and The Hound," "Who Framed Roger Rabbitt" and, his last one just before his death in 1994, "A Goofy Movie."  In 1982 he founded the Golden Boot Awards to honor actors, directors, stuntpeople and others professionals who make significant contributions to the Western film industry.

Jack Albertson played Lou, the manager of Mother's Tea House in "Roustabout."  He had recently worked with Elvis in the movie "Kissin' Cousins."  Albertson was born in Massachusetts in 1907 and was a veteran of vaudeville and Broadway.  He was one of the few actors to win an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award.  The Tony Award was for his role as John Cleary in the play "The Subject Was Roses" on Broadway.  The Academy Award was for the same role in the film version.  One memorable film role was Grandpa Joe in "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory."   He is best know to many as Ed Brown in the TV series "Chico and The Man," for which he won an Emmy Award.  Like Pat Buttram, he lent his voice to the Disney film "The Fox and The Hound" and was working in TV and film right up to his death in 1981.

Another familiar face is that of Dabbs Greer, who played Arthur Nielsen.  His long career includes many roles in film and TV.  Born in 1917 in Missouri, he was the only child of a pharmacist and a speech therapist.  He began his career on stage as a child and later studied drama in college, earning his degree and then becoming the head of the drama department.  He moved to California 1943 and became an instructor and administrator as well as an actor at the famed Pasadena Playhouse. He made his film debut in 1948 and has continued to act in TV and movies ever since.   Among his memorable roles are the Reverend Robert Alden in TV series "Little House On The Prairie," his role as a minister on the TV series "Picket Fences" and Paul in the film "The Green Mile."

Cathy, Elvis's character's love interest in the movie, was played by actress Joan Freeman.   Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1942, Ms. Freeman began acting as a child.  Although she has acted in a number of movies, she has had more roles in television series such as "Bus Stop," "Bonanza," "The Virginian," "CHiPs" and, most recently, "The Commish."  One source places her today as retired and living on a yacht with her husband.

Elvis's  movie "Roustabout" was based on the theme of a traveling carnival show.  As such, among its actors were one the world's shortest people, Billy Barty, and one of the world's tallest, Richard Kiel.

Born in 1924, Billy Barty began performing as a child of three and he began acting in movies in the late 1920s.  Among other roles, he played the little brother of Mickey Rooney in the "Mickey McGuire" comedy films.  He also had his own daily children's TV show in California.  He founded the Little People of America in 1957 and The Billy Barty Foundation in 1975.  A champion for knowledge of and acceptance of dwarfs, he once said, "The general public thinks all little people are in circuses or sideshows.  We have doctors, nurses, just about every field covered."   Barty also appeared with Elvis in the film "Harum Scarum. " 

In contrast, Richard Kiel played the 7' 2" strongman.  He is likely best known for his role as the steel-toothed character Jaws of the
films "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Moonraker" and "Inspector Gadget."  Born in 1939, he was a night club bouncer and a cemetery plot salesman before becoming an actor in the late 1950s.  He wrote, produced and starred in the 1991 film "The Giant of Thunder Mountain."  Since writing his autobiography in 2002, his writing career has continued with novels.

In most of Elvis' s 31 feature films as an actor, there are various character actors and actresses who have had small roles in more than one Elvis movie.  Some of them whose Elvis film roles include "Roustabout" are as follows:  Fred the pitcher was played by Steve Brodie.  He also had rolls in both "Paradise, Hawaiian Style" and "Blue Hawaii," playing an antagonist for Elvis to fight with.  Norman Grabowski played Sam in "Roustabout" and later played "Wolf Call" O'Brien in "Girl Happy."  Kenneth Becker played Gregg in "Roustabout" and was also was in "Loving You," "GI Blues" and "Girls! Girls! Girls!"  Joseph Forte was a concessionaire in "Roustabout" and he also played in "Loving You." Mike Mahoney was the deputy  in "Roustabout" and had roles in "Loving You" and "It Happened At The World's Fair." Lance Le Gault, Elvis's long-time movie double, played a carnival barker in "Roustabout."   Kent McCord, Elvis's friend and fellow actor, had an uncredited role in "Roustabout" as he did in "Viva Las Vegas," "Kissin' Cousins" and "Girl Happy."  (McCord found fame in the 1970s starring in the television series "Adam-12.")

Many of the women in Elvis's movies were dancers, models and beauty queens - some of whom played in more than one Elvis film and some who went on to notable show business careers:

Linda Rand played a college girl in "Roustabout" and she was in "Fun In Acapulco" and "Girls! Girls! Girls!" 

Sue Ane Langdon played Madame Mijanou in "Roustabout" and had a  larger role playing Mitzi in the 1966 "Frankie and Johnny."  She has had a long career in film and television, includeing two Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress- TV and winning one in 1972 for her work on the TVseries "Arnie." 

Teri Garr played a carnival dancer in "Roustabout" and she danced in the Elvis movies "Clambake," "Viva Las Vegas" "Kissin' Cousins" and "Fun In Acapulco."  The daughter of a dancer and a Broadway actor, she soon established herself as an actress in both TV and film, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the 1982 movie "Tootsie."  Despite her current battle with multiple sclerosis, she continues to perform.  Among her jobs in recent years was the recurring role of Phoebe's mother in the hit TV series "Friends."

Marianna Hill was Viola in "Roustabout" and played Lani Kaimana in "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." Having lived in several countries, she has to ability to act with various accents and dialects.  She also has taught acting at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute in London.  Her birth name is Marianna Schwarzkopf and she is a cousin to General Norman Schwarzkopf. 

Joan Staley played Marge in "Roustabout" and Jonesy in the "Kissin' Cousins."  She was Playboy Playmate of the Month for November 1958. 

Beauty queen turned actress,  Raquel Welch enjoyed one of her first acting jobs playing a college girl in Mother's Tea House scenes in "Roustabout."  She has had high-profile roles in film and television and on stage.  She has  been nominated twice for a Golden Globe Award, winning one.

Wilda Taylor played Little Egypt, a dancer, in "Roustabout" and also had roles in "Harum Scarum" and "Frankie and Johnny."  Decades before "Roustabout," a dancer actually known as Little Egypt was Catherine Devine, who danced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  Three months after the release of "Roustabout," another professional dancer using the stage name Little Egypt sued Paramount, RCA and Elvis Presley Music for $2.5 million in damages.  She also sought an injunction against showing the film and selling the LP, saying she did not authorize the use of the song nor the name in the film.  The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and had been recorded by The Coasters in 1961.  Miss Egypt lost her lawsuit.

Principal photography for "Roustabout" started on March 20, 1964.  On that day an article appeared in a Las Vegas newspaper that would hurt and haunt Elvis for the rest of his life.  "Would you believe that Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole owe part of their current success to Elvis Presley?" was the title of the piece that went on to say, "These two brilliant Shakespearean-trained actors, winning worldwide acclaim for their performances in "Becket" might not have had the opportunity to star in the picture, were it not for Sir Swivel Hips."  Quoting producer Hal Wallis, the article indicated that it was the profits from the commercially successful, light-hearted Elvis movies that made it possible for Wallis to fund the production of more "artistic pictures."  The article was picked up by the news services and printed throughout the country.  For Elvis it confirmed his fears that he was never going to be taken seriously as an actor.

"Roustabout" opened on November 11, 1964.  As part of the promotion for the film, a special copy of the title song was sent to the theaters.  Instructions to play one side with the song and an announcer saying "coming soon" before the release of the film and then, after the release of the film, play the other side with song and the announcer saying "now playing."  The idea was to inspire ticket sales in much the same manner as Elvis's character Charlie Rogers did in the film.  Today, these promotional singles are sought-after collectibles.

The movie was on Variety's chart for two weeks, peaking at #8 and reaching #28 on the list of films for the year of 1965.  Meanwhile, Elvis was ranked the sixth biggest money making movie star for 1964.