Frankfurt Special’s Got a Special Way To Go

“G.I. Blues”, from G.I. Blues, the movie loosely based (very loosely) on Elvis Presley’s own time in the service, where he was stationed for two years in Germany.

G.I. Blues was directed by Norman Taurog and came out in 1960, the year Elvis got out of the army. (He mentioned the upcoming picture he would be doing in the press conference he gave at Graceland directly upon his return home from Germany. Again, with those press conferences! It started early!). Presley was home again, Frank Sinatra hosted a TV special to welcome him home, movies were lined up, everyone was thrilled to have him back. The PR blitzkrieg that was Elvis’ time in the Army had paid off. When Presley was drafted, there was a lot of talk initially about having Elvis “do his time” as an entertainer-slash-ambassador – but Presley (and the Colonel) nixed that. He would serve just like any other man in the Army. While there were so many photo ops to be had (Elvis getting his inoculation shots, Elvis getting weighed, Elvis getting his head shaved, Elvis getting inducted), the general feeling was that here was a regular American boy doing his duty like a regular American should.

There was nothing “regular” about Elvis Presley serving in the Army, and everyone obviously knew that, but the way it was set up was a coup of the highest order. The Colonel had made it clear that there would be no new recordings while Presley was in the Army, and no concerts. The Army would not be permitted to “use” Elvis for any concerts they wanted to have. He was over there to do a job. He was not allowed to perform for anyone (although there were some impromptu things that happened), and so the pictures came flowing back from Germany of Elvis in uniform, Elvis looking at a map spread out on the hood of a jeep, Elvis eating over a campfire, Elvis on maneuvers in the snow.

All of this was highly engineered, and yet – from Elvis’ point of view – he was fully immersed in Army life. Let’s not forget his mother had just died before he shipped out. He was in the first year of mourning. There had to be moments where he didn’t know what end was up. His father and grandmother flew over to live in Germany while Elvis was there, so at least he had family there. He made lifelong friends in the Army (most notably, Joe Esposito – who was with him until the end, there when Elvis died, etc.) So although Elvis Presley disappeared from the American scene at the very height of his newfound fame, for two years he still seemed omnipresent, and even more fascinating and intriguing and AWESOME than if he had been back in the States, doing his thing as an entertainer. Elvis was in the Army! OMG, look at him in uniform! There is the now-famous heartbroken letter written by a couple of girls to President Eisenhower, begging the President not to cut Elvis’ hair. “if you cut his side burns off we will just die! You don’t no how we fell about him, I really don’t see why you have to send him in the Army at all, but we beg you please please don’t give him a G.I. hair cut, oh please please don’t! If you do we will just about die!”

Girls, I actually do “no” how you “fell” about him, but
1. Do you honestly think Ike will be the one standing there with the electric razor?
2. Too late, girls!

So for Elvis’ first movie Stateside, Hal Wallis was no dummy and had started developing G.I. Blues before Elvis even returned. Second units were sent over to get footage of Germany, and Army shit, and all that, to give the movie some realism.

I’ll do a proper review of it once NYFF ends, and my time is freed up again, but G.I. Blues has an insouciant energy, led off by Elvis Presley, and while it is not a good match with Juliet Prowse (her dancing, though: wow), the film somehow becomes about more than a romance. (Thank goodness, because there is no chemistry between them). It is a myth-making, myth-affirming kind of film.

When Elvis had left for the Army, he had made four movies: Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole (all of them excellent). The last three in particular are extremely interesting, in terms of their serious attempt to not only tap into Elvis Presley’s appeal, but explain it. Perhaps that is a fool’s errand, but the movies are fascinating because it was the first time a “rock and roll star” had made a movie about what it was like to become a “rock and roll star”. I think 8 Mile, which has most often been compared to Rocky and other underdog-sports movies, is far more in debt to Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. It is a direct descendant of those movies. It has the same seriousness at the heart of it, although it is also a vehicle for this new strange phenomenon named Eminem. Black rappers had made movies before, but nothing like 8 Mile existed. It was that, and the critical raves it received, that pushed Eminem over into the cross-generational, cross-racial, cross-everything, appeal that he had. Eminem himself describes having a 60-something-year-old woman ask him for his autograph, and it was the first time that had ever happened for him. That was when he knew, “Okay, something strange has just happened …” His demographic had been contained, although manic and feverish, to rap fans, black kids, and white kids. Ages 12 to 18. With 8 Mile, all of that changed.

So Elvis’ first four movies, with the exception of the period piece Love Me Tender, his debut, which (as I have mentioned) was a smart smart move, were a conscious myth-making effort. You can feel the seriousness behind them, something that lacks in the later movies in the 60s, when Elvis’ persona was established, and Hollywood showed no interest in messing with it, tampering with it, upending it, or even explaining it. (He still survives those movies quite well, but that’s in spite of them – many of them, anyway).

Returning to the United States, the frenzy was even more out of control than when he had left. He took the train to Memphis from New York, after getting off the boat, and at every stop along the way, thousands of people were waiting at the station. Again, this was engineered – there was no reason that he couldn’t have either flown down to Memphis, or returned in a more private way – but what would the PR use be in that? Elvis emerged at every stop along the way, waved to the crowds, signed autographs, and the whole thing had the feeling of a conquering hero returning. Again: a PR coup of the highest order.

Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole had invested in helping to create the myth of the Elvis Presley phenomenon, and they were very successful in that regard (then and now – they still work). But it was 1960 now, it was a new Elvis: leaner, more manly, coming into his own as an adult, and perhaps most important (and most surprising): he had revealed the side of him that wasn’t at ALL an anti-social rebel. He wasn’t a conformist, obviously, but all of his comments about the Army were respectful, humble, and smart. He did not bellyache (at least never in public), and he did not play up his role. He was just one of the boys, just tryin’ to do a good job, sir. So that new element in his persona suddenly expanded his appeal probably tenfold. Grannys were in love with him, and tough old gents chewing on cigars declared he was a good boy. The teenagers now had a run for their money, in terms of loving Elvis Presley. I suppose it’s difficult to re-capture what that must have been like, and how important it all was, and hell, I wasn’t even there at the time. But I think if Elvis’ time in the Army had been different (if he had been sent out as an entertainer for those two years, for example), then his fame would have a very different feeling now. Something about his time in Germany solidified him in the American imagination in a way unprecedented. He was “one of them”.

So Hal Wallis was very smart. Clearly we need to do a movie that immediately capitalizes on this new lean Elvis Presley. Put him in G.I. clothes, make him clean cut, put him overseas, see him doing the things in the Army that everyone had imagined him doing (fixing the wheel on a jeep, horsing around in the shower with his barracks buddies, eating in mess hall), throw in a little romance with a girl, and let the Myth-Making continue. Hal Wallis knew enough to not live in the past. Colonel Parker never wanted to live in the past. He was always about what’s next, what’s next. Perhaps not in a long-term way, but to sit around and try to RE-CREATE the pudgy teenager bumping and grinding on the Milton Berle show would not only be bad form, but wouldn’t work, in the end. Elvis Presley must not remain a static image. Keep it movin’, keep it movin’, always movin’ … Who is he now? Who is he now? Okay, let’s capitalize on that, capture that, utilize that.

G.I. Blues is still fun to watch today, because it is a moment in time when Presley came roaring back onto the scene, as though he had never left. Thinking of the slouching sulky boy in King Creole, singing “Trouble” up on the bar, and then comparing it to Presley in G.I. Blues is indicative of the sea change that had occurred. In G.I. Blues, the Presley persona no longer lives in lonely isolation, he is surrounded by buddies at all times, and he is a man far more comfortable in the world at large. He is not in opposition to the Establishment … but part of it. This may seem like it must have been a great loss, but that would be missing the point entirely. Elvis Presley was never “in opposition” to anything. As Lester Bangs put it perfectly, in his blistering powerful obituary for Presley: “Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled.” That’s it. And to do that as PART of the “establishment” (meaning: white, born-again Christian, male) is really what the revolution was all about. People missed that about him at the time, people assumed he was a scowling Marlon Brando in The Wild One, looking to knock over the pillars of society. Elvis wasn’t interested in knocking anything down. He did anyway, but he didn’t mean to, ma’am. I just move this way because it’s how I feel, ma’am. The interesting thing about how Establishment he is in G.I. Blues is that he still seems to do it on his terms, which is radical in and of itself. You can be part of the Establishment, and still look to get laid, still have fun, still be … you know … Elvis Presley. It would take some time before all of this really became clear, but in G.I. Blues, you can see the fluidity and flexibility of the Presley team at the time, including Hal Wallis, Colonel Parker, all the others. They didn’t try to re-make Jailhouse Rock because that Presley was no longer in existence. A new boy had returned from Germany. Let’s look at THAT instead.


There are some dumb numbers in G.I. Blues (the “pocketful of rainbows” song is really just not my cup of tea at ALL), but I love “Frankfurt Special” in particular. Not the song so much, but what he does with it as a performance.

He is lip synching, first of all (and Elvis never worried too much about lip synching accurately – he was a lazy lip syncher- his focus was more on getting the FEELING across). But he is acting this song, and there’s a joyousness to it that can’t be denied, but also is interesting in and of itself. It seems to capture who he was when he was doing his thing, in whatever material, wherever he was. The cramped set is perfect, too, because it just highlights the fact that he cannot be contained. He’s too big for a small space. So let’s put him in that small space and watch him strain to get out of it (something Steve Binder created to such a genius level on the 1968 comeback special, with the informal sit-down sessions). Presley here is not “just” singing the song. Notice how many funny moments he gets into it (the “treat you like a brother” line, which he sings straight out, and then has a little moment to himself, thinking: “Uhm, yeah, that doesn’t sound so hot, actually”), the dynamic between him and the other guys feels real, and watch for the funny moment when he looks down at his jiggling leg and tries to stop it for a second. Nobody directed him to do that. That’s all him. There are also Elvis’ sudden smiles when it seems he’s thinking to himself, “Hey! I’m having so much fun! Look at me having so much fun!” This was always an element in Elvis’ performance style (you can see it from the get-go on those 1956 TV performances), and there is an abashed quality to it – that could be nauseating in lesser hands. Or could be indicative of FALSE humility (ie: “I don’t know why all these girls are screaming, oh, shucks …”) But Presley didn’t have false humility. He had actual humility. However, he also discovered from almost the first moment he performed live that girls went nuts when he raised his damn eyebrow. So what the hell, he raised his damn eyebrow. Then the girls would scream, and sometimes – even in live performances – he would start laughing at the response. He’s enjoying his own power, in a way that seems fun and easy, rather than controlling and off-putting. Like my brother said in his essay Elvis and Death: “See, he is truly the first public male perhaps EVER who took joy in turning women on. In fact, that was his GOAL. He knew he could do it and so it was almost a responsibility.”

This is a lot of words to describe that particular element of Presley’s “thing”, but that just goes to show you that it is not easily replicate-able, and also not easy to quantify. It is HIM, that’s all I can say, and the moments he has below where he looks around, grinning at how much fun everyone is having merely because he is singing … are charming. Being “charming” is so out of style that the word barely has meaning anymore.

But that’s what’s going on in “Frankfort Special”.

He’s in his element. The song seems to work ON him (another thing that was so important about Presley). The chords, the movements of the song itself, the melody … all suggest to him how he should move. It was an organic exchange, he probably didn’t think about it all too much. It’s a bit more engineered here, of course, because it’s a film, and you have to be able to repeat things – but that’s just more evidence of Presley’s strange charming power as a performer, especially here, in 1960, when he seems released. Because he IS released. Watch the final moments of the song. The slowing down of the melody seem to force him to collapse, and swoon into the girl visible in the window behind him. This all may seem so obvious, so “of course that’s how you should play it”, but there’s no “of course” about it at all. This is Elvis Presley. This is why people loved him. Music makes people feel a certain way. We aren’t above it. It’s a powerful thing that works ON us. It worked on him too.

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6 Responses to Frankfurt Special’s Got a Special Way To Go

  1. kellyofsiam says:

    Hello. As I get older I forget a lot of stuff…I may have written to you about this before…don’t recall. I do recall, however, watching Elvis on the Dorsey tv show along with the Berle & Sullivan shows. My dad had a small band & was a big fan of the Dorsey brothers. My main claim to fame & this is true…my older cousin Randy Greenwalt was the Lieutenant in charge of Elvis’s platoon in Germany…I was in middle school…none of my classmates believed me.
    They did when I showed them a picture of my cousin & Elvis.

    In GI Blues he sang “Wooden Heart”…last year I watched a British documentary series about digging up trenches from the first war…in one they found a book of songs from the German army…tracing the Id tags they discovered the dead German was a music student..also that the book had a song that was the tune to the song “Wooden Heart.” So I seem to think I have some connection through Elvis & my cousin to this long dead soldier.

  2. sheila says:

    Kellyofsiam – Great story!

  3. Bybee says:

    Elvis’ expressions in those last few seconds of Frankfurt Special are so cute.

    Gotta go watch the part where he sings Wooden Heart. That’s one of my ultimate Elvis guilty pleasures.

  4. sheila says:

    Bybee – I agree about those last few seconds. There’s a symphony of expressions that happens there – funny and charming and natural.

  5. bethann says:

    I have always stood by the notion that he really didn’t ‘get’ what he did to the girls. Others have argued that he did know and he would purposefully do his ‘whatever — grin, shake, groan, wink’ to get the girls going. And on stage, I still stand by that notion. Forgive him for he knows not what he’s doing, to paraphrase.

  6. bethann says:

    And it is true that he never took himself too seriously b/c with a following such has his, he probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did without the self depreciating humor. Some days I like to think of him as an alter boy. It just makes reading essays such as yours so much better.

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