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July 16, 2007

Miss Barbara Stanwyck's 100th Birthday: Roustabout

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John Rich - 1964
Paramount Region 1 DVD

According to several sources, the part of Maggie Morgan, the carnival owner in Roustabout was originally offered to Mae West. Aside from the part being a supporting role, it should be no surprise that West turned down this opportunity for a "comeback". In Myra Breckinridge, West received top billing, playing another version of her on screen persona. That Barbara Stanwyck took the role may have been as a favor to producer Hal Wallis as well as an admission that at age 57, her choices of roles in theatrical films was limited. However the casting worked, Stanwyck also shares the film with Leif Erickson, the co-star of the Wallis production, Sorry, Wrong Number. In her second to last theatrical film, Stanwyck could be viewed as doing a warm-up for her role as the matriarch of television's "The Big Valley". The role of Maggie Morgan probably could have been taken by one of Stanwyck's peers without any major difference to the film. Stanwyck's performce is primarily as testament to her sense of professionalism.

Lifelong movie fan Elvis Presley was reportedly happy to share the screen with Stanwyck. As a Presley vehicle, the film is fairly entertaining, although any attempts to make Presley more in tune with 1964 America seem to confirm Bob Dylan's lyrics that something was happening, but neither Elvis, Tom Parker nor Hal Wallis seemed to know exactly what that was. Roustabout was filmed around the time that Beatlemania took over the United States in March of 1964. By the time the film was released in November, A Hard Day's Night would help make Presley, as well as Presley movies, look like squaresville.

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With the screenplay written during the peak of the folk music revival of the early Sixties, Presley's character of Charlie Rogers is introduced as a controversial folk singer. This being a Hal Wallis production, Presley's role is a variation on the short tempered loner of Loving You. Singing to an audience of college students, Rogers sings a protest song about . . . legacy students! The song, "Poison Ivy League" is closer to Tom Lehrer than Bob Dylan. There is the punning mention of "the sons of the rich" in this song. Offended students including perennial lunkhead Norman Grabowski gang up on Rogers, who is advised by the police to leave town. Riding his motorcycle, wearing a black leather jacket, I kept on expecting a replay of The Wild One with Presley in the Brando role, and one of the actresses to run up and ask Elvis what he was rebelling against. (And of course the patented Elvis sneer with the response of "Whaddya got?")

Driving Stanwyck and screen daughter Joan Freeman in a jeep, Leif Erickson causes Presley to get into an accident, damaging the motorcycle. Presley falls in love with Freeman, gets talked into working for the carnival by Stanwyck, and keeps on getting on Erickson's bad side. Elvis works initially as a roustabout, doing the various jobs needed to get the carnival set up and running until Stanwyck discovers that her new hire can sing, and even better, attract crowds to the carnival. Rival carny owner Pat Buttram decides that if he can't buy out Stanwyck, he'll try to get her new singer. Presley does one carnival related song about hula girls "shaking their grass". Better is his cover of Leiber and Stoller's "Little Egypt". In the Elvis filmography this is one of the more watchable films although television veteran John Rich maintains a sit-com style of two-shots and group shots.

The role of Maggie Morgan was essentially thankless. The billing Stanwyck received belies the relatively small part she has in Roustabout. Taking on the burden of running a carnival, and adding to it unwavering loyalty to the alcoholic Erickson, this is Stanwyck at her most self-effacing, with the possible exception of her last big screen role in The Night Walker. At least compared to some of the films her contemporaries were doing, Stanwyck was able to end her screen career with a modicum of dignity.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 16, 2007 12:30 AM


I like this Elvis movie too. It's not great, but it is watchable. I think all the motorcycle stuff keeps it interesting.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 17, 2007 04:09 AM

The motorcycle stunts from Roustabout also inspired the Irish film Eat the Peach, about a couple of guys who build their own "wall of death".

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 17, 2007 10:17 AM