Elvis – The Florida Films


   Elvis Presley made three films set in Florida. Of the three, only one, Follow That Dream, was actually shot in the Sunshine State. Girl Happy and Clambake, except for some second unit work, were shot in California with west coast beaches substituting for the pristine Florida beaches. You know how the thinking goes, put a couple of strategically placed Palm trees around and who can tell the difference? Well, maybe some will not, but some folks will recognize in Clambake that Florida has no mountain ranges that we clearly see in some shots.

   ELivs333   Made in 1961, Elvis spent about three weeks filming Follow that Dream on a small barren island called Pumpkin Island in Yankeetown, Florida. Elvis and the crew stayed in Crystal River at the Port Paradise Motel, a short drive away. The motel is still there today. A pre-production crew converted the desolate island, filled with wild underbrush, to a sandy beach front after carting in tons of white sand as was needed for the film. The making of an Elvis movie was the biggest thing to happen in this area, and Florida, since the creation of swamp cabbage putting this small town on the world map. Some scenes were also shot in neighboring towns of Inglis, Ocala and Inverness.

   Based on the satirical novel, Pioneer, Come Home, by Richard Powell (Say it With Bullets, The Philadelphian) it follows the adventures of the Kwimper family who packed  up all their belongings and left their home for sunny Florida. The family is made up of Pop (Arthur O’Connell), Toby (Elvis) and a mix of “adopted” kids ranging from nineteen year old Holly (Ann Helm) and two young twins (Robin and Gavin Goon). After their car runs out of gas on an empty stretch of unfinished highway the family soon settle in on the beach front property building a shack to live in and even open up a business catering to the local fisherman.  When it is discovered that the land lies outside the jurisdiction of local government officials, Pop Kwimper plans on settling in for good claiming squatters rights. It’s his land! Troubles follow when gangsters (Simon Oakland and Jack Kruschen) settles in nearby opening a small gambling casino after realizing the law has no power over the land. Additionally, a land developer (Alan Hewitt) and his girlfriend, Alisha Claypoole (Joanna Moore), want them off the property. They willing enough to go as far as taking Pop and Toby to court to have the orphaned twin boys taken away from them.

   The film was a change for Elvis. His pre-war films were all dramatic roles of varying quality. After his return to civilian life, he made the light weight, but appropriately timed G.I. Blues, celebrating his discharge from the Army. Elvis, however, wanted to do some serious films like his idols Marlon Brando and James Dean. His next two films Flaming Star and Wild in the Country were attempts in that direction. There were fewer songs and a more serious Elvis. In the western, Flaming Star, Elvis played a half-breed who isn’t doesn’t fit into either world especially after fighting breaks out. Directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Flaming Star proves that Elvis, given the chance, had the ability to become a serious actor. Flaming Star did well at the box office, but Wild in the Country has the distinction of being the only Elvis film to not make a profit. It also has the distinction of having only two songs, one being the title song sung during the opening credits. Neither film did as well as G.I, Blues the lightweight romantic comedy.

   Before heading to Florida, Elvis had one more stop to make…Hawaii.  Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager was not interested in Elvis stretching his thespian wings. His only interested was in Elvis making money for both him and himself. That’s exactly what Blue Hawaii did. It made lots of money, more than any other Elvis film. It warmed the cockles of the Colonel’s greedy heart and his pockets since he was getting something like fifty percent of everything Elvis made. After two dramatic roles, Elvis didn’t mind doing another romantic comedy. Sadly, it would become a harbinger of things to come.

   Directed by Gordon Douglas, Follow That Dream is fairly average, though for Elvis it’s one of his better films. He did a scene toward the end that takes place in a courthouse where he appeals to the judge to allow them keeps the two young boys. It gave Elvis the rare opportunity to show he had the chops to do some serious acting when given the chance. The film also shows off the fact Elvis had a talent for deadpan style comedy. The courtroom scenes were filmed in Inverness at the Old Citrus County Courthouse, a quaint building that is now a museum.  Many of the extras sitting in on the trial were actual residents. Other than the courtroom scene other interior shots were all filmed back in Hollywood.

   Elvisff   Elvis had affairs with both Anne Helm and Joanna Moore, on and off the screen, during the making of the film. In between he manages to squeeze in six songs. During the shoot, Helm developed a big crush on Elvis even writing poetry about him. On July 30th, 1961 Ann accompanied Elvis on a pre-arranged trip to Weeki Wachee Springs where the Colonel, in his full husker mode, had arranged for a special ceremony filled  with mermaids who were quickly annointed the Elvis Presley Underwater Fan Club.[1]

Weeki   For Yankeetown and Inverness with populations back then of approximately a little over 400 and 8,000 respectively, having Elvis and Hollywood invade their little communities was the biggest event to ever happen. A portion of nearby State Road 40 was even  renamed Elvis Presley Blvd.

   During this period, ten-year old future rock and roller, Tom Petty,  who lived with his family in Florida had an uncle, Earl Jernigan, who worked with local Florida film crews whenever a film was being made in Florida.   Jernigan, who married Petty’s mother’s older sister, was from the north and distanced himself from his wife’s crazy, cracker, redneck family (Petty’s words, not mine). Subsequently, Petty did not know his uncle very well. However, his aunt, one day asked if he would like to go to Ocala with his cousins and meet Elvis Presley who was filming there. His uncle introduced him to Elvis and they shook hands. For young Tom Petty, it was the beginning of a transformation to a rock and roll future.[2]

Elvis-Wearing-Long-Sleeve-Shirt-at-Pool-Girl-Happy   Released in 1965, Girl Happy was Elvis’ next Florida film. There are some wonderful pristine beach scenes, all second unit work, however, unlike his first film, it was shot entirely in Hollywood and the surrounding area except for the second unit work. The producer was Joe Pasternak, known for making one of the first, if not the first, of Florida’s spring break films, Where the Boy Are (1961). Pasternak thought spring break and Elvis would make a good combination. Female cast members included Shelley Fabares, in her first of three films she would make with Elvis, Mary Ann Mobley, in her first of two Elvis films (the other was Harum Scarum) and Florida born, Chris Noel.

   The plot is simple. A Chicago underworld mob boss (Harold J. Stone) hires Elvis and his band to watch over his daughter (Fabares) when she heads to Fort Lauderdale on spring break. At first, their impression is this is going to be easy, but of course it’s not. Overall, it’s a typical mid-60’s Elvis vehicle though if you’re comparing it to some of his other MGM  films of the period, it ranks as one of the better films thanks to some sharp funny dialogue. The music though is sadly mediocre. A couple of decent tunes (Puppet on a String, Girl Happy) but one can clearly see that Elvis was out of touch with the hip teen audience of the day. While most teens were listening to The Bryds Turn, Turn, Turn, Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, The Beach Boys Help Me Rhonda, The Beatles Ticket to Ride, The Temptations My Girl, The Rolling Stones Satisfaction and James Brown’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,  Elvis was belting out tunes like The Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. Still, the film made a ton of money and the Elvis movie train, steered by Colonel Tom Parker, regardless of the quality, the music or the disconnect with the youth culture, rolled on.

girlhappy   Elvis’ band consisted of Gary Crosby, Joby Baker and Jimmy Hawkins. Other than Elvis, the only real musician in the band was Bing’s son, Gary. The band’s guitar playing was as cheesy looking as was the rear projection shots we see of Florida during the Spring Fever number where Elvis’ shares singing duties with female co-star, Shelley Fabares.  She had a sweet voice and a big hit of her own in 1962 with Johnny Angel.

Johnny_Angel_Shelley_Fabares   In 1967, another MGM vehicle, called Clambake would be Elvis’ last Florida themed film. Once again the film was shot mostly in MGM’s studio with California beaches substituting again for Florida except for some rear projection second unit scenes. Here Elvis is the son of a millionaire who want to be just a regular guy. He switches identities with poor boy Will Hutchins and meets Shelley Fabrares, in her last of three Elvis films (Spinout was her other Elvis film), who herself is out on the prowl looking for a millionaire to marry.


Elvis and Fabares Do the Clam

   The plots were just getting dumber as was the music. Clambake ranks down toward the bottle of Elvis films scraping the bottom with Harum Scarum.[2] Again while the youth audience was turning on with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors Light My Fire, The Young Rascals Groovin’ and Sam and Dave’s Soul Man, Elvis was telling everyone to Do the Clam. The song and the new dance were a pathetic attempt to cash in on the dance craze of the sixties. He sings only seven songs in the film. The only good one is his version of the Cindy Walker written, You Don’t Know, Me first recorded by Eddy Arnold. The great Ray Charles would do an excellent soulful version which landed at number two on the Billboard charts.  The Clambake soundtrack was padded with five “bonus” songs to fill out the skimpy album including some nice versions of Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man and Jimmy Reed’s bluesy Big Boss Man. Elvis never made another film in Florida or with Florida as a back drop.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Nash, Alanna,  Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him Harper-Collins, New York, 2010

[2] Zanes, Warren, Tom Petty: The Biography, Henry Holt & Company LLC. 2015 Pgs. 26-27

[3] Harum Scarum premiered in New York as part of a double bill with Gihidrah, The Three-Headed Monster. Possibly the worst film of Elvis’ celluloid career with a soundtrack to match.  Vincent Canby in his New York Times review wrote, “It is hard to imagine a more perfect blending of witlessness than this double bill of ‘Harum Scarum,’ the latest Elvis Presley vehicle, and ‘Gihidrah,’ an all-star Japanese monster film …”


Morelli, Keith, 50 Years Ago, Elvis Brought Hollywood Glitz to Inverness, Tampa Tribune, July 22, 2011

Guralnick, Peter, Careless Love: The Making of Elvis Presley Little, Brown & Co. Boston, New York, London 1999



3 comments on “Elvis – The Florida Films

  1. Beth says:

    As a native Floridian, I find this very interesting. Another giveaway re: location is the variety of palm tree. The tall skinny palm trees are not native to Florida. I don’t think they’re native to California either, but that’s where they tend to be seen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Greco says:

    Hi Beth, yeah I heard about the palm trees not being native to Florida. Problem everyone now thinks of palm trees and Florida as going together. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. dykewriter says:

    funny I never thought of Clambake as having a specific location,despite several Elvis movies were almost more state tourism promotions


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