One glorious summer in the Roaring Twenties, a Chautauqua show arrives in a small American town led by smooth-talking frontman Walter Hale (Elvis Presley). Excitement spreads as local talent, both young and old, audition for a chance to perform onstage. Talented child performers Carol (Anissa Jones) and Willie (Pepe Brown) impress outspoken piano-playing children's entertainer Charlene (Marlyn Mason) with their song-and-dance routine, but business manager Johnny (Edward Andrews) insists she put the mayor's untalented daughter in the show instead. Meanwhile, Carol's mother Nita Bix (Sheree North) is embroiled in an affair with sleazy drugstore proprietor Harrison Wilby (Dabney Coleman), who turns nasty when she has a change of heart. Walter already has a heap of troubles but things turn worse when a local murder has an unexpected impact on his show.
For those not in the know, Chautauqua shows once toured the US offering a unique combination of education and fairground style entertainment and were described by no less a personage than President Theodore Roosevelt as: "the most American thing about America." Based on the novel "Chautauqua" written by Day Keene and Dwight V. Babcock, The Trouble with Girls was originally set to star Elvis as part of an ensemble headed by Glenn Ford but wound up as the King's penultimate movie. Towards the end of Elvis' film career, producers made a few half-hearted attempts to break away from their tiresomely formulaic nature. None of these ever paid off for Elvis, although The Trouble with Girls is an intriguingly atypical period piece that proves sporadically compelling.
Whilst the studio imposed title change suggests another carefree romp along the lines of Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) or Girl Happy (1965), what audiences got instead was a subdued, nostalgic character piece with interwoven plotlines. Elvis himself breezes in and out of proceedings and has surprisingly little to do with events until the third act. Although the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts with the sudden swerve from light comedy into more dramatic territory undone by a misjudged climax, individual strands prove quite engaging with lively, well drawn characters and a winningly oddball sense of humour. Opening with a stylish switch from sepia tone into glorious colour the moment Elvis steps off the train into town, the charming production design evokes the warmth of early twentieth century Americana, shot in nostalgic fairground hues by D.P. Jacques Marquette. The direction by Peter Tewksbury - who made the superior Disney children's film Emil and the Detectives (1964) - is especially strong, involving viewers in the action even when the plot goes off the rails.
Child stars Anissa Jones and Pepe Brown steal the show from right under the King's nose. Indeed sections of the film are shot from their characters' point-of-view, including one amusingly off-kilter scene with them watching a hillbilly singing trio (Leonard Rumery, William M. Paris and Kathleen Rainey) who later team up with Elvis when he performs "Clean Up Your Own Backyard" complete with groovy, if anachronistic wild camerawork and whiplash editing. Elvis sings surprisingly few songs, although the star's evident disinterest is counterbalanced by his spirited co-stars including spunky Marlyn Mason and Sheree North who grounds the film with her portrayal of a wounded, desperate woman.
Amongst the other pleasures the film has to offer are special guest stars Vincent Price as a flamboyant (what else?) philosopher (sadly he and Elvis share no scenes together and never even met on the set), John Carradine as a ham actor memorably quizzed about the sex life of Romeo and Juliet (!), and Joyce Van Patten who has the funniest scene as a neurotic swimming champion breaking into an onstage rant in front of a bemused audience. Also notable is a chance to glimpse two thirds of the Scooby Gang in the flesh. Not only does prolific voice actor Frank Welker, who played cravat-loving Fred, essay a smale role as part of a college singing group but Nicole Jaffe, yes Velma the bespectacled orange sweater-wearer herself, appears as a ditzy receptionist who takes every opportunity to fling herself at Elvis. Jinkies!