King Movies: Stay Away, Joe

Stay Away, Joe (1968)

Elvis Presley, Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell, Katy Jurado, Quentin Dean, L.Q. Jones, Thomas Gomez, Henry Jones, Sonny West, Anne Seymour, Susan Trustman, Charlie Hodge and Joe Esposito

Director Peter Tewksbury

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (102 mins)


All images © MGM and/or current ownership

Charlie Lightcloud (Meredith) is a Navajo Indian who lives on a reservation in Arizona. He is visited by a Congressman who plans to give Charlie a herd of cows and a bull in the hopes that Charlie can successfully expand the herd, giving birth to a whole new program that will benefit all the Indians in the area. Charlie is confused until it is explained to him that his son, Joe (Presley), thought up the whole idea. Soon Joe is coming over the horizon with the herd and the bull; which he rides into the corral.

Joe has been away for awhile so, to celebrate his return and the new government program, a big “hoop up” is thrown. Much beer is drank and many girls are kissed and, when hunger strikes the revellers, they accidentally cook and eat the stud bull. Charlie’s wife – Joe’s stepmother – Annie (Jurado) is furious. Joe knows where he can get a bull and heads into town. He stops at a bar owned by Glenda Callahan (Blondell). Glenda flirts with Joe but he is too busy ogling Glenda’s 19-year-old daughter, Mamie (Dean). Joe gets an idea. He trades in his horse for a new convertible Plymouth Fury and takes the car to Callahan’s, giving it to Glenda and telling her he will meet her at a hotel in Flagstaff. Once Glenda unwittingly leaves Joe finds himself free to make time with Mamie and throw a party. A livid Glenda returns and tries to shoot Joe dead.

Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez, Buzz Meredith, EP and L.Q.

Joe borrows a bull from Hike Bowers (Warren Vanders) but the bull seems to be more interested in sleeping than breeding. Joe combats this by driving into town with his buddy, Bronc (Jones), picking up some girls and some booze and wondering why the bull won’t pitch woo with the heifers. Disgusted, Annie starts selling off the herd in order to raise money to make improvements to the run down shack the family lives in. The Lightcloud daughter, Mary (Trustman), is engaged to marry a prosperous lad name of Lorne Hawkins (Angus Duncan) and Annie wants the house decent for the impending visit of Lorne’s mother (Seymour).

Mamie wants to run away with Joe and “get to know him better” so Joe picks her up on his motorcycle. Meanwhile, Lorne and his mother come to see the Lightcloud home which Annie has fixed up; although the “fixing” consists of papering over holes in the walls and floors. Joe comes home with Mamie – and a gun-toting Glenda, who commences to shoot up the place trying to kill Joe. Joe destroys the taped-together home trying to get away. Mrs. Hawkins faints dead away and Annie is mortified, feeling this will wreck Mary and Lorne’s chance for happiness.

Joe goes to see Hike and fights him because of the defective stud bull Hike loaned him. In the prerequisite misunderstanding, Hike explains that Dominic, the bull he gave Joe, is not a breeding bull but a savage bucking bronc that “ain’t never been rode”. In order to raise money to try again to build a herd, Joe takes Dominic on the rodeo circuit, betting that no one can ride him. This proves lucrative and Joe buys fresh stock with his winnings, solving the family’s problems.


The end of his time in Hollywood was approaching when Elvis Presley released this, his 26th film, on March 8, 1968; Stay Away, Joe was made after but released before Speedway. “King Movies” were for all intents and purposes irrelevant by this point and stood out garishly from other significant and impactful movies released at the same time. There are a couple of things, though, that make this King Movie different from the other films in Presley’s oeuvre. Firstly, it was based on a novel. More on that later. Secondly, Presley plays a Navajo Indian, joining 1960’s Flaming Star, in which he played a half-Kiowa, as the only times he played someone of another race. Additionally, it’s worth noting that in this film King plays a character who doesn’t have a significant other, something of a rarity in his movies. If I’m honest, Stay Away, Joe has little to recommend it but there are parts of the film that make it enjoyable. This can be said of all of his “lower tier” films; most all of them contain intangibles that help them maintain their watchability so many years later.


The Michigan-born, Montana-raised author Dan Cushman published the novel Stay Away, Joe in 1953. In the book, Korean veteran Big Joe Champlain – the son of Louis, a métis originally from Canada – returns from overseas and learns of the government plan that has resulted in Louis being given a herd of heifers in an experiment that it is hoped will provide Indians on the reservation with a means to maintain an income. This is basically the story that made it to the screen.

It may come as little surprise that some commentators – of the time and today – consider the novel “inaccurate and unfair to Indians”. But according to a thesis written by University of Montana graduate student Brent D. McCann, Indians on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana “found in it realism they had never seen before in print”1. It makes me wonder who has declared the work inappropriate if Indians who live on a reservation have a fondness for the book and have said they see a “familiarity” and “a lot of history” in it. People interviewed by McCann recall reservation life of the Fifties and have said that the book illustrates accurately the “paternalistic role” the government took concerning reservations and the characters are said to be rooted in reality. A cattle rancher interviewed went so far as to declare that Cushman “had to be right in there living with them, partying with them and drinking with them because it’s all true”.

I was happily surprised to find my copy in the little book store in our favourite small town.

Cushman’s novel was first produced as a Broadway musical called Whoop-Up. It opened in 1958 and starred Sylvia Syms and the songs featured lyrics by Norman Gimbel, a lyric writer who penned many English words to the songs of Tom Jobim. A later CD edition of the score for this unsuccessful production features songs performed by Connie Francis and Rosemary Clooney.

A script was developed from Cushman’s novel by Michael A. Hoey (1934-2014). The son of character actor Dennis Hoey, Michael was a minor player in Hollywood in various capacities through the years. He worked as a producer on projects like Palm Springs Weekend and the Fame TV series. Hoey directed and wrote The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and also directed episodes of Fame and Falcon Crest, served as an editor on television and the big screen and also wrote several movies including one of my favourite King Movies, Live a Little, Love a Little.

Prolific western writer and director Burt Kennedy was initially scheduled to direct this film but he escaped in pre-production and Peter Tewksbury took the reins. I spoke of director Tewksbury in my review of Sunday in New York. There is not much to see here as Tewksbury was a director of little note, though he was back behind the camera for what may be the nadir of King Movies, The Trouble With Girls, released the year after our film.

The Lightclouds

Burgess “Buzz” Meredith was something of an iron horse who enjoyed a career in Hollywood that spanned 65 years and included over 180 acting credits. By the time he appeared in our film, Meredith had appeared in dozens of movies such as Of Mice and Men (1939) and had appeared throughout the run of the TV series, Batman, as the Penguin. He also appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone that has been ranked the 11th-best television episode ever; “Time Enough at Last”. Meredith went on to make perhaps more notable films in the second half of his career than the first; The Day of the Locust (1975; Oscar nom), Rocky (1976; Oscar nom) and Grumpy Old Men (1993). He made his last appearance in the latter film’s sequel and passed away in 1997, aged 89.

Joan Blondell was a staple of pre-code Hollywood. She made over 60 films between 1930 and 1942 on her way to over 160 credits. She was once nominated for an Oscar and appeared memorably in Grease (1978) before passing away on Christmas Day, 1979. She was 73. María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García – Katy Jurado – was born in Guadalajara in 1924. Here she joins another Mexican-born actress, Dolores del Rio, in being one of the few actresses to ever portray Elvis’ mother, or stepmother in this case. Katy came from a prosperous family that included her lawyer father as well as singers and a cousin who was once president of Mexico. Her godfather was actor Pedro Armendariz. While studying to be a bilingual secretary, she was spotted by Mexican film producers and tapped for work in pictures. She married – at 15 – fellow aspiring actor Victor Velázquez, aged 28. After working in Mexico through the “golden age” of that country’s cinema, Jurado supported her family by working as a movie and a bullfight critic. She was on the job at the bullring one day when she was spotted by Budd Boetticher and John Wayne. Neither knew she was an actress but Boetticher cast her opposite Gilbert Roland in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Though she knew her English lines only phonetically, she was then signed to appear in one of the greatest westerns ever made, High Noon (1952). By the time she made our film, her star had faded somewhat and she would make few more American films, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and The Children of Sanchez (1978) among them. Somehow, Ernest Borgnine tricked her into marrying him. They were wed from 1959 until 1963.

Glenda (Blondell) protects her daughter, Mamie (Dean) from Joe.

Thomas Gomez is another actor in our film who is of Spanish descent. In fact, Gomez was the first Spanish-American to be nominated for an Academy Award when he was so honoured for his work in 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse, directed by Robert Montgomery – one of five movies Gomez made that year. Thomas may be best known for his appearance in Key Largo (1948) as part of Johnny Rocco’s crew. Two years after Stay Away, Joe, Gomez made his last film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. In 1971, Gomez was in an auto wreck and spent 3 weeks in a coma before expiring. Stay Away, Joe was the last of three King Movies to feature veteran western actor L.Q. Jones. I spoke about the resilient Jones in my review of both Love Me Tender and Flaming Star. The mysterious Quentin Dean was 23 when she appeared as a 16-year-old temptress in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. She made three more films in the next two years and then wrapped her brief career with an episode of TV’s Lancer. 34 years later, she died of cancer in Los Angeles. Precious little is known about her between those two points in time.

You can also spot Charlie Hodge, Joe Esposito and San Diego’s David Cadiente (1937-2010) in our film. Actor and stunt man Cadiente I recognize from his work in Ride the Wild Surf and he also boxed in Kid Galahad. He is the father of veteran stunt man Jeff Cadiente. Mary Lightcloud, Joe’s sister is played by pretty Susan Trustman. Trustman spent many years on Another World before making her first film, Stay Away, Joe, when she was 26. Afterwards, she appeared in a total of 4 episodes of television before packing in the business and marrying prolific producer Jerry Leider in 1968; they are still married today. Susan Trustman made only one more movie years later when Leider used her in his Razzie Award-nominated Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) starring Tim Daly and Sean Young.

Pretty Mary works at the bank in town.

The Look: In 1968, Elvis Presley was 33 years old and looked better, perhaps, than he ever had. For the next three years, he would continue to look better and better. In Stay Away, Joe, he is in great shape and has a strength and maturity in his facial features. He is costumed in sturdy, rugged western wear, denim and cowboy hats and shirts. King and the rest of the cast were costumed by Lambert Marks who also worked on notable films like Girl Happy, Spinout and Point Blank and later White Line Fever and Paradise Alley. This is one of the interesting things about this film; it has all the inanity of the lower echelon of King Movies but features a man who looks like the coolest guy alive, one who could conquer the world – as he was just beginning to, again, and would for the next couple of years.


King Moment: Emblematic of the idea that Joe Lightcloud wants all the women is the way he plants a seed in the mind of Frank Hawk, played by Mike Lane. Sonny West plays Jackson He-Crow – in fact, every time I see Sonny I refer to him as Jackson He-Crow – and Jackson is dancing with big Frank’s girl, Billie-Jo Hump (Marya Thomas, also with Frank in Dirty Dingus Magee). Joe wants Frank to get angry with Sonny and start a fight – which he does, allowing Joe to make time with Billie. King does well slyly suggesting to Frank that “if a guy did that without music, they’d throw him in jail!”.

The real comedy, though, comes not from Presley but from his co-stars. Hung-over the morning after the whoop-up, Meredith as Charlie stumbles out onto the porch and says “I think I’m going to die”. My kids and I would always bust out laughing. And when Lorne’s mother, the delightful Anne Seymour, says she hopes to see the family again even after the debacle at the Lightcloud home, Gomez as Grandpa gives her props with “you got lotta guts, lady”. So, Stay Away, Joe is not totally bereft of funny moments.

“I think I’m going to die.”

The Music: “Stay Away”, “Stay Away, Joe”, “All I Needed Was the Rain”, “Dominic”, “Goin’ Home”

Stay Away, Joe begins the final act of Elvis’ movie career and these films are marked by a greatly reduced number of songs. In fact, Presley’s final six narrative films do feature songs but – as opposed to earlier in his career- they have little to do, really, with the action on-screen. They are simply there because many had come to expect their inclusion.

Courtesy The Ultimate Elvis Channel by Leon

The opening titles of this film are misleading. Featuring startling aerial photography of Sedona, Arizona and the surrounding area, these credits include the song “Stay Away”, written by prolific Elvis songsmiths, Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett utilizing the tune of “Greensleeves”. Apparently, Elvis had requested this ancient melody be adapted for him and it was the last song recorded for the film, committed to tape at RCA Studio B in Nashville on Wednesday, January 17, 1968. The song was rebuilt in the studio from a slow, languorous dirge to the robust finished article. It’s a delightful recording of some quality and class which places it decidedly at odds with the action of the film. “Stay Away” ended up as the B side of a song that Elvis cut at the same session, Jerry Reed’s “U.S. Male”. “Stay Away” itself charted, reaching 67 – it was Top 40 in Ireland!

Odd, too, that this classy song plays over the opening while the actual title track is on the opposite end of the spectrum from “class” and appears later in the film. Recorded October 1st, ’67 in Nashville, “Stay Away, Joe” is a goofball song that I knew well early due to its inclusion on the Camden budget LP Let’s Be Friends (1970) which I owned on cassette. How silly were these budget releases? Not only did a ridiculous song like “Stay Away, Joe” kick off the record, but the first pressings of the album incorrectly utilized take 17 of this song as opposed to the master. On take 17, you can hear Elvis almost burst into laughter no doubt due to the inane lyrics. Driving around with my friends in my 1983 Ford Escort, I would play this tape and chuckle at the words; “Choctaw, Chickasaw, gonna drink a-hearty”.

An excellent release from FTD that features many outtakes from the recording sessions for this film’s soundtrack.

I also own on vinyl the very first Camden budget release, 1968’s Elvis Sings Flaming Star, an album on which the third track from this film was included, “All I Needed Was the Rain”. This is actually an excellent tune that was pointlessly inserted into Stay Away, Joe. Remarkable to think that here is a King Movie that contains a song even more ridiculous than “Stay Away, Joe”. The infamous “Dominic” has often been pointed out as the absolute nadir of Elvis Presley’s recording career. In a nutshell, it represents the horrible depths to which the “plot device songs” had plummeted. In the film, the prize bull Joe gets from Hike Bowers to replace the one that was eaten proves to be so lazy that he does not want to mate with the heifers. I have even read the ridiculous suggestion that the bull is homosexual. Anyways, to encourage the bull to get to work, Joe sings this song; partly to Dominic and partly to two girls. Famously, Presley was disgusted at having to record the song and pleaded with his producer, Felton Jarvis, to promise never to release the recording. It was eventually – long after both Elvis and Felton were dead – first seeing the light of day on the Double Features series of Presley soundtrack releases. I’ve seen the title spelled with and without the “K” at the end and have gone without as Elvis-specific sources seem to omit it.

“Goin’ Home” was recorded at the sessions for Stay Away, Joe but was not used in the film. Here’s another excellent tune written by Joy Byers who provided other great songs for Presley around this same time. So, like many King Movies, this soundtrack contains some real hidden gems, movie songs I will often defend, and it contains real dogs, songs that can never be defended and shouldn’t really even be discussed. For the first time since Wild in the Country, another film that relied little on songs to tell its tale, no LP or EP was released from Stay Away, Joe though there was, inexplicably, an EP released in Australia in 1987. Now, there’s a rarity. Discogs has only 2 for sale.

Image courtesy Discogs.

Meanwhile in Elvis World: One of the many paradoxes in Elvis World are the films he was still contractually obligated to make after his triumphant return to live performance with his legendary 1968 television special. The Singer special is an historic document that depicts a man shedding the debris of an epic slump and reclaiming his place at the head of the vanguard. And yet he still had to appear on screen singing to a bull with more sub-par films to come. While Stay Away, Joe was released in March and the Singer special aired in December, there still would have been lingering in the minds of many the image of Elvis Presley as Joe Lightcloud. The fact that these two things happened in the same year is fascinating.

Cilla visits her husband in Arizona. Photo © Elvis Australia

Sunday, September 10th, 1967, could be cited as the day Elvis Presley emerged from the doldrums. On that day in Studio B at RCA’s Nashville location, Presley planned to cut some sides and was ready to run through “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?”, “From a Jack to a King” and others. The song that may represent the greatest pivot point in music history was also to be tackled; Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man”. Reed is one of my favourite artists – you can read about him here – and his debut album had been released in February. During the summer of ’67, the single of one of the album’s tracks, “Guitar Man”, had burrowed its way into Elvis’ brain.

If you know Jerry Reed, it should come as no surprise that, at the session, there was no way to achieve the Jerry Reed sound without Reed himself – so, he was summoned. Seems the story is true that Jerry was fishing at the time but when he heard the King was calling he made his way to the studio. He arrived looking – and no doubt smelling – like a man who had been fishing for a week; “Lord, have mercy, what is that!”, Elvis is reported to have said. It had been the musicians themselves who said that Jerry should be called as he achieved his unique sound by employing his own tuning. From the first couple of takes, Elvis was excited and Reed took over the session, coaching and encouraging the other musicians. The recording of “Guitar Man” is a seminal moment in Elvis History. He was back making music that he loved, music that mattered. It makes me proud that Jerry Reed holds such an exalted place in Elvis lore.

This fine era of Elvis recordings is well represented on this 2011 release from FTD.

Business intruded, though, after the band had run through many successful takes of “Guitar Man”. Reed was bullied into a corner and an attempt was made to coerce him into giving up part of the copyright to his song. The musicians watched the exchange in awe, never having seen anyone fight back against Elvis’ publishers so stubbornly. A dark cloud descended on the rest of the session though some success was claimed. Back home, Elvis spent time at the Memphian Theatre and at his new ranch riding horses. After having glimpsed the future with Reed and “Guitar Man”, it must’ve been demoralizing to return to Nashville on the first of October to record the songs for Stay Away, Joe. But Elvis Presley would soon be free. Free to once again scale the heights and free to once again pursue that feeling of blissful abandon he had experienced in the studio with the Atlanta wild man, Jerry Reed.


There was optimism from the outset with Stay Away, Joe. After all, it was a story based on a novel about Indian ingenuity coming up against government bureaucracy. There was a mature vibe to the proceedings, a cast of some quality and Elvis rose to the occasion, hoping that this might be his Hud. But it was not to be. The fault lay in either Hoey’s script or Tewksbury’s direction – neither was a veteran and neither would ever make a mark in the job they fulfilled on this picture. Perhaps it was a combination of both.

Add Joan Blondell to the list of Old Hollywood legends Presley worked with.

Here’s your herd, make it grow. Shoot, we ate the bull. That’s basically all that happens during the first 33 minutes of the film. Within the next 14 minutes, there is a second wild party going on. The last 6 minutes of the film depicts a second bonkers, McLintock!-type brawl. Throw in the three songs that are sung during the action – say, another 6 minutes – and that’s 59 minutes of a 100-minute movie accounted for with elements that are not exactly story-related. The viewer does get a sense that they are seeing what it was like when Elvis and his boys roughhoused on the lawn at Graceland but this does not a movie make.

One thing I will say for this film; it helps to prove my point that any film, even the most asinine, benefits from being shot in the out-of-doors. Filming took place in Arizona in the fall of ’67. The Lightcloud homestead is in picturesque Sedona and the town scenes were shot in pretty Cottonwood. Perhaps a good film is not exactly hurt by a studio shoot but I would say that a poor movie is made all the more watchable when it is made on location. Nothing worse than a lame movie shot on phoney, claustrophobic sets.

Sonny West scores a speaking role in Stay Away, Joe

Stay Away, Joe is frantic and excessively manic. It is like the guy at work who’s a good joe but he’s always talking too loud and slapping you too hard on the back. Like the neighbour’s excitable dog that is cute and fun but jumps all over you and lunges at you, trying to stab you in the face with its snout. You may not get the same relaxing, warm feeling from this King Movie that you do from others but it is not without its charm.


Sources

  1. McCann, Brent D. The Dan Cushman Reader. The University of Montana. (2001)
  2. Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Back Bay Books. (1999)

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