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The working titles of this film were Caf Europa and Christmas in Berlin. The opening titles end with a written statement noting that the picture was produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense. During the sequence in which a disgruntled G.I. interrupts the performance by "Tulsa MacLean," "Rick" and "Cookie" in the rathskeller, the G.I. states that he wants to listen to "the original" and plays "Blue Suede Shoes," one of Elvis Presley's most popular songs, on the jukebox. At the end of the film, after singing "Didja' Ever" at the Armed Forces Show, Tulsa rushes backstage to kiss "Lili." After embracing her, Tulsa looks directly at the camera and asks, "Didja' ever?" before kissing her again. Several contemporary and modern sources incorrectly list Tulsa's last name as "McCauley" rather than MacLean. The Variety and Daily Variety reviews give a running time of 115 minutes for a October 14, 1960 preview screening of the picture. The Hollywood Reporter review, which appeared on the same day of the others, erroneously listed a running time of 97 minutes.
The picture marked Presley's return to the screen after a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, most of which he spent in West Germany as a tank gunner in the Third Armored (Spearhead) Division. As noted by contemporary news items, for Presley's first post-military picture, producer Hal Wallis and Presley's longtime advisor, Col. Tom Parker, decided to capitalize on Presley's service by depicting him as a soldier. From 17 August through August 29, 1959, Wallis accompanied a location crew filming scenes in West Germany, where Presley was stationed, although as reported by modern sources, Presley expressly prohibited any filming of him while he was still on active duty. Footage of Presley's battalion was obtained during manuevers and everyday activities. As noted by the film's pressbook, Presley, who achieved the rank of sergeant before his discharge, was "demoted" to specialist fourth class for the picture.
According to the Hal Wallis papers, located at the AMPAS Library, Michael Curtiz was originally set to direct the picture. It has not been determined why he left the project. In November 1959, Los Angeles Examiner reported that Wallis intended to cast "a native German girl" in the leading role opposite Presley. According to an October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Ursula Andress tested for a role, and the producer's papers reveal that May Britt and Elke Sommer were considered for the role of Lili. A April 20, 1960 entry in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column asserted that Anna Maria Alberghetti had been set for a role, presumably that of "Tina."
Other "Rambling Reporter" items noted that Carleton Carpenter had been cast as "Cookie" but was replaced by Robert Ivers. According to the Wallis Papers, Frank Gorshin had been tested for Cookie, and Russ Tamblyn and Johnny Carson were also considered for the role but the filmmakers decided that they needed someone older than Presley who could be a "breezy conniver with the girls" in order for the character to be portrayed successfully. After his discharge from the army and return to the United States in March 1960, Presley traveled to Hollywood, although production on the film could not begin until the 7 March-April 18, 1960 strike by the Screen Actors Guild was settled. According to April 1960 Hollywood Reporter news items, pre-recording of the film's songs was begun on 22 Apr.
According to news items, three sets of twin boys, ranging from eight to twelve months old, were used to play "Tiger." Studio publicity information stated that director Norman Taurog's thirteen-year-old daughter Priscilla was among the children in the puppet show sequence, but her appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Also unconfirmed is the appearance of Bitsy Mott, one of Presley's security guards, who had been cast in the film as a sergeant reprimanding Presley, according to a June 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item. An October 1960 Cosmopolitan article reported that Juliet Prowse was borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production, and that during filming, Wallis was so impressed by her performance that he purchased part of her contract. Modern sources include in the cast D. J. Fontana and Scotty Moore, musicians who recorded with Presley for many years.
The footage shot in Germany was often incorporated into the picture through process and rear-projection shots, which featured the footage in the background, behind the foreground action filmed at the Paramount Studios. Doubles for the main actors had been used on location. According to the Paramount Collection, also located at the AMPAS Library, German location sites included Wiesbaden, Walhalla, Frankfurt and Rdesheim. While filming on the sky lift in Rdesheim, director of photography Loyal Griggs fell out of a tram car, plunging thirty feet to the vineyards below, but was not seriously injured.
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the film briefly encountered censorship difficulties when PCA official Geoffrey I. Shurlock warned Wallis in March 1960 that the story contained elements that were unacceptable. Shurlock specifically referred to the bet between the G.I.s that first "Dynamite," then Tulsa, would be able to "defrost" or "make out" with Lili, as "the meaning is too clearly sexual and therefore much of the subsequent dialogue and situations seem offensively suggestive." Shurlock advised that the dialogue be changed so that the wager would revolve around the fact that the G.I.s could not "date Lili or make her fall in love with them," which would then render the situation acceptable. Shurlock also counseled that it would be necessary to have "Rick express some regret for the fact that he has fathered an illegitimate child."
In response, associate producer Paul Nathan wrote to the PCA that in light of several recent movies containing "sexual implications," such as "Can-Can and The Fugitive Kind, Wallis did not feel that he should be forced to change the film's storyline. In a meeting with PCA officials on April 27, 1960, Nathan again expressed Wallis' resistance to changing anything in the script, noting that he had "no intention of having Elvis, the idol of the teenagers, engaged in [a sexually charged] relationship with the girl." The PCA emphasized that the reactions of the other soldiers, as scripted, indicated that the object of the wager was seduction rather than romance, but the script and the final film were approved, and the picture was given a Code seal on June 30, 1960. Although some reviews commented that the storyline about an illegitimate child would make the picture inappropriate for younger viewers, the majority of them remarked on the innocuousness of the relationship between Tulsa and Lili.
Modern sources report that Presley was displeased with the quality of the songs, especially after the songs "Tulsa's Blues" and "Dog Face," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were deleted before production began. Most reviews of the film were not impressed by the music, with the Variety review noting that no composer was listed in the studio's official billing sheets, declaring: "Considering the quality of these compositions, such anonymity is understandable." Studio records add that a singing double was used for Prowse in the "Pocketful of Rainbows" number but do not specify who the double was.
Because the song "Tonight Is So Right for Love" was based on Jacques Offenbach's "Barcarolle" from the opera Tales of Hoffman, which was in the public domain in the United States but not in Europe, the song had to be replaced with another song for the European releases of the film and soundtrack. The song "Tonight's All Right for Love," based on a Johann Strauss melody but otherwise very similar to "Tonight Is So Right for Love," was substituted. According to one modern source, the song "Whistling Blues" was recorded for the film, but no additional information has been found about the composition.
A November 1960 Daily Variety article reported that the film had been "heartily endorsed by the Pentagon for its depiction of Army life," and was playing "the Army camp circuit prior to its regular theatrical release." According to a Los Angeles Times article, a "benefit preview" of the film was held on November 15, 1960, with the Hemophilia Foundation receiving the proceeds. A "twenty-man platoon of crack enlisted men from the U.S. Army Armor and Desert Training Center" was to attend the preview as a "tribute" to Presley, according to a October 26, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item.
G.I. Blues marked the screen debuts of actresses Leticia Roman and Sigrid Maier, and was the only film in which Maier appeared. The picture also featured the last film appearance of longtime character actor Ludwig Stossel (1883-1973), although Stossel appeared in a long-running series of television commercials during the 1960s.
G.I. Blues was the first in a long collaboration between Taurog and Presley. Taurog directed Presley in eight more films, ending with Live a Little, Love a Little in 1968 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). Many critics consider G.I. Blues to be the first of the Presley "formula" films, which often featured Presley in a similar characterization as a good-natured but misunderstood charmer, had him interacting with children and presented several new songs.
The picture, which did smash business at the box office, received mostly positive reviews, with critics applauding Presley's more mature appearance. Several reviews commented on the picture's similarity in plot to other Paramount films that had been based on the 1933 play Sailor, Beware! by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson, the most recent of which, a Hal Wallis production, was the 1952 film Sailor Beware (see below). Although there is a passing resemblance in the films' plots, G.I. Blues was not based on Nicholson and Robinson's play, nor on any of the earlier films.
Hollywood Reporter news items noted that, due to G.I. Blues's very successful run in Los Angeles, more theaters were added to the bookings a week after its release in "an unprecedented move," and that the soundtrack album featuring the picture's songs had gone over the "400,000 sales mark" by the end of December 1960.