At one point, the Jesus Movement was so big, Elvis and the Roman Catholic church got into the act. A look back at the 1969 classic that capped an acting career with a guitar mass.
Change of Habit (1969)
Screened at Digger's Dugout at AmericInn
1 October 2016
There may be many lounges throughout the U.S. where Elvis Presley movies are played Saturday nights on giant flat screen TVs, just don't ask me to corroborate that supposition.
But one such screening was recently advertised on my local oldies station. A promoter who helps organize concerts at the city hall auditorium where that signal is licensed also hosts a show playing chronological highlights of Presley's music career. In a sort of celebration of reaching the end of music from the rock 'n' roll king's acting work, he organized this showing of the last movies of his acting career. After this one, it was all concert documentaries.
Change of Habit not only features the last of Presley's acting roles, it's the last of three movies he made that year. He had been churning out motion pictures at the same clip for six years at this point, and the reliability of his marquee value was declining, doubtless due to market saturation and seemingly indiscriminate script selection. In the same year as Habit's release, he also starred in The Trouble With Girls, a 1920s period drama billed on the bottom half of a double feature with Raquel Welch's latest, and a Western called Charro!, the only role of his career wherein he didn't sing on screen (but with a script substantially, and disappointingly to Presley, changed after Clint Eastwood had passed on it).
Within the context of the contemporaneous Presley, Change of Habit's story of Elvis as a doctor working in an impoverished Hispanic and African-American metropolitan neighborhood clinic who accepts the assistance of a trio of undercover multicultural nuns--whom he first mistakes for being unwed and pregnant--can be seen as a corollary to one of his bigger singles that year. The socially conscientious lyrics of "In The Ghetto" cover similar narrative ground to Habit's nuns' (mis)adventures as neophyte social justice warriors. Presley's Dr. John Carpenter being unaware of their vows until after he develops romantic feelings for Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore, for whom the movie was supposed to be a starring vehicle until Presley signed on).
Not long before the gals' arrival to work as nurses, Presley is seen to be something of a party animal, singing amidst a gaggle of young guys and gals. The tune he lip syncs there, "Rubberneckin'," is the groovin' B-side to Presley's last 45 of '69, "Don't Cry Daddy" and arguably the best of his few numbers in the film. The cheesiest has to be "Have a Happy," sung on a merry-go-round to a little girl whom he and Moore help cure of autism (or extreme, angry shyness born of maternal abandonment?).
It's one of the lines by that same youngster, via the puppet she occasionally uses to communicate, which illustrates how flexible movie ratings have become over the succeeding decades. She must have overheard the spiel by Sister Irene (Barbara McNair) to a couple of sullen black nationalist dudes about how she grew up knowing she didn't want to be "just another nigger" because the junior cutie uses the same racial epithet to an adult in a scene that was, it seems, supposed to garner chuckles. One of the local horn dogs who help Jane Elliot's Sister Barbara, showing a fair bit more skin than her habit would allow, move some furniture into the ladies' apartment asks whether he looks "like a faggot," thus equating homosexuality with physical weakness apparently. Another one of the movie's funny bits, that? Those incidents, the pseudo-Black Panthers' veiled threat of violence against McNair if she doesn't get with their party line, and an attempted rape of Moore at knife point by a young man she helped overcome a speech impediment (Elvis and his martial arts training fists come in at the nick of time) would all probably qualify this as PG or PG-13 fare nowadays, or simply be removed.
Amidst all this drama, including Elliot's humorously naïve, but apparently effective, picketing of a local grocery overcharging customers and McNair's dealings with a loan shark known only as the Banker, the sises somehow find time to organize a street party in honor of--I'm not making it up, though the screenplay writers may have--the patron saint of Puerto Rican fishermen. It's at the festival where many of the dangling subplots are resolved and the nuns' do-gooding comes to fruition before their mother superior and parish priest put the kibosh on the trio's experiment in stealth nunnery.
Elliot ends up leaving the convent life, McNair stays, but Moore? Her reciprocal affection for Presley has her torn. Going to church to pray over what to do, she finds the good doc heading up a guitar mass singing his upbeat, non-sectarian gospel ditty "Let Us Pray" with the Blossoms, church lady-looking dames making the liturgy cool for young people. Roll credits!
Catholicism is treated respectfully throughout Habit, though the opening montage of the heroines changing from their professional garb to secular dress could be viewed as lightly fetishistic. The religious setting also allows Moore's theologically confused, though comedically effective, line about a snooty neighbor who thinks some loose women just invaded her block, "She may be Catholic, but she's not Christian."
This serious role for Presley coincided with a renewed, more commercially and critically fecund seriousness about his music career. His NBC TV special the year prior presented him in a setting of vitality rivaling his Sun Records tenure and pre-army draft RCA years. Going from the strength of that performance to a well-received opening night of a Las Vegas hotel residency and hits such as those already mentioned 7-inchers and the epic "Suspicious Minds" gave Presley heightened artistic cachet for a while that his wildly varying run of '60s movies depleted considerably. Had he taken the role first offered to him that Kris Kristofferson would eventually accept in Barbara Streisand's A Star Is Born remake a few years after Change of Habit, Presley could have further redeemed his acting career...and be among the living today had it given him pause regarding his intake of drugs and junk food by that time. Still, there are worse ways to conclude a movie career than Change of Habit.
Though the movie can be had on DVD for under $10 and seen for free by subscribing to at least one video streaming service, I expected a few more attendees for this novel, if low key, event. The friend who accompanied me to split a pizza for supper at Digger's before the flick left before the movie started because he wasn't feeling well. That left me, the promoter/DJ putting on the screening, our lovely young barmaid (generous with the popcorn, too, she) and two daughters of one of my stepfather's cousins to stay for the whole thing. Perhaps five other folks looking to quench their thirst stopped in for a while. I'd like to see Elvis Year By Year's host screen the rest of his musical hero's cinematic catalog in reverse order all the way back to Love Me Tender. But if this evening's turnout was any kind of disincentive, I'd not blame him for leaving Elvis on this final high note of his acting career.
-Jamie Lee Rake
Aaron O'Neal's Elvis Year By Year can be heard Saturdays at noon Central time on WFDL-AM, accessible online via http://www.am1170radio.com/