Tue Jun 23, 2009 12:17 am
My top two (three, really, because the 2001 re-edit and the 1970 original of That's The Way It Is are very much different films) Elvis films would be the two concert documentaries, but for the remaining 31 films I'm pretty much all over the map. I haven't actually watched many of Elvis' films in a while and there're a few I've only seen one or two times, in total, having not seen them at all until many years after I got into Elvis (that'd be Clambake, Tickle Me, Frankie and Johnny, Harum Scarum, the quite-a-bit-better Spinout, and the vastly better Kid Galahad) whereas some other films (Roustabout, GI Blues, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and King Creole, for example) I saw quite often on TV in my youth and it's these that turned me on to Elvis in the first place when I first caught a series of them played back to back in August, 1976. I have only a relative few on DVD -- I resisted buying them in this format for quite a while -- but they to some extent describe the films I tend to favor most: Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, GI Blues, Flaming Star, Blue Hawaii, Kid Galahad, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas, Roustabout, Spinout, Easy Come, Easy Go, and Change of Habit. I desperately wanted Follow That Dream on DVD -- love that film -- but I was holding out for the widescreen version that I believe is now out. I'll undoubtedly eventually fill in all the gaps, though for some of the films I'm missing I'll sure as heck be looking to pay bottom dollar (paying at all for Harum Scarum seems fundamentally wrong).
The '50s films are iconic, of course, and somewhat like the '50s recordings they reside to some degree in their own universe. Love Me Tender was a fine initial entry for Elvis, who acquitted himself well, but it's exceedingly atypical as an Elvis film and is otherwise pretty much just another B-western of the era, Not-That-There's-Anything-Wrong-With-That. I haven't seen it in many years, but I recall Elvis doing a good enough job, especially for a rank amateur, and the supporting cast being pretty solid and seasoned pros, especially Richard Egan. Loving You had more in common with the reality of Elvis' career at the time -- rather autobiographical in some parts -- and showcases the closest Hollywood ever came to depicting how Elvis really was on stage at the time (tamed down, yeah, but not totally neutered). Some classic songs and a good performance from Elvis, who was by now really showing how naturally adept he was at playing the rebel, the moody and surly or angry young man. This onscreen emotion would continue to be one of Elvis' natural strengths as an unschooled actor, even in very lightweight properties a decade later: in films that Elvis basically sleepwalked through, he still created a few convincing moments whenever his character was called on to be angry or moody. The surliness and a natural flair for light comedy and farce were Elvis' natural strengths as an instinctive actor, I think, and should have been exploited more than they were (the latter quality was particularly apparent in Follow That Dream). Of course, Elvis taking some formal acting instruction might have helped, too, if he had scripts that continued to remain worthy. In both Jailhouse Rock and King Creole Elvis took his surly punk archetype to the max, to great effect with (especially in the 1958 film) good support from some fine actors and good production values. Both are great rock 'n' roll films, also blessed with probably the best soundtrack work he ever did, and King Creole was a good film even by comparison to more mainstream offerings of the time.
Elvis, NOT having died while in the Army (sorry, John) turned in an interesting mix of films in the year or two following his exit from Uncle Sam's employ. Everyone by now knows the conventional wisdom that led to Elvis' '60s film career being informed more by GI Blues and Blue Hawaii -- glossy, family-friendly travelogues with (generally) inoffensive ditties popping up every few minutes -- than by Wild In The Country and Flaming Star. I tend to have a place in my affections for all the films Elvis did up to and including Viva Las Vegas. I mean, the candy-confection level surged upward rather rapidly (even Girls! Girls! Girls!, made just a year after his first Hawaiian film adventure, was a pale imitation of the previous year's blockbuster, albeit with a few great songs thrown in) but even the lightest of lightweight properties during this time (in other words, It Happened at the World's Fair) had its moments and the films tended to be somewhat carefully produced and shot.
GI Blues was, as it turned out, the beginning of the end for Elvis' aspirations in films. Not that there'd never be moments of brilliance yet to come, but this is the film that started the trend toward, as Elvis noted in 1969, the film companies remaking the same film and just plonking Elvis in front of different backdrops. It's a pretty irresistible piece, though, and most of the soundtrack is very solid -- some just plain great stuff -- even if more innocuous than what Elvis had served up 'til this point. Besides, it was followed by the very different Flaming Star, and then by Wild in the Country, both of them very different from what would eventually become clear as the established '60s Elvis film formula. Flaming Star is a distinct favorite of mine and is perhaps the only film in which Elvis really did vanish -- as much as someone with his Elvisness and charisma could, anyway -- into a role. At times, at least, it's easy to think of Pacer as Pacer and not as Elvis. The story was fairly advanced and controversial for the day, too (violent, as well, and the racism message was loud and clear, perhaps making it no great surprise that the film was banned in South Africa because Elvis played 'colored') and the supporting actors were among the best Elvis every worked with. I sure wish he'd done more like this. I bet he relished all the fighting, too, especially having graded for his black belt not too long before -- he could have made quite the celluloid action hero, in my opinion, certainly having the physical attributes for it. Wild in the Country isn't a film I've seen much, and I find it all a bit soapy, but Elvis is good in it (not as much so as in the previous film) and it has its moments.
Blue Hawaii was pretty much the death knell for Elvis' more dramatic aspirations, at least for a while, but it's a very effective piece of filmmaking and hit all the high points of what would become the entrenched formula. They didn't skimp on the production, at least nowhere near as much as would soon become routine, and it shows. An excellent soundtrack, too, even if again still further removed from Memphis, the Delta, and Nashville. Elvis' voice, though, was smooth as silk at this time, and suited the material well. I could have done without them trying to emulate this film over and over but this WAS an important and iconic moment in Elvis' career and also spawned a whole slew of similarly-themed beach movies from lesser talents. Just as GI Blues was followed by two atypical films, so was Blue Hawaii followed by Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad, both from a different studio than the glossy travelogues. I enjoy them both, and both also feature very able supporting players. They also have in common a somewhat more rational connection with reality and are far less song-laden. Of the two I vastly prefer the more comedic Follow That Dream, a winner all the way around. It's one of those movies that deserves more attention, and Elvis is very obviously in his element throughout. If Elvis' mid-'60s and later films were more like this one than Kissin' Cousins, he might have had a film career that was accorded a tad more respect and that was worthy of it. Instead, too many of Elvis' later projects revealed a contempt both for the audience and for the nominal star of the film and his musical and cultural legacies.
The year 1962 saw Elvis film and release Girls! Girls! Girls!, perhaps the first real sign that the formula established by the previous two travelogue films was here to stay. It's already a very obvious step down from Blue Hawaii but it's still all good, clean fun with some very good songs ("Return To Sender" being the obvious highlight) and a few that were at the very least serviceable and well sung. It Happened at the World's Fair is another film I haven't seen that many times and it's here that Elvis first really seems too sterile, too squeaky clean (even the haircut, and those sharp early-'60s suits, screams "help, I'm neutered and I can't get up!"). It's already, in my opinion, a slide down from the previous film. The soundtrack's not only short, on the LP, but not especially distinguished, although "One Broken Heart For Sale" is nice and catchy, and wouldn't have been out of place in a regular session that year, and the two Don Robertson songs are beautiful, somewhat along the lines of "Anything That's Part Of You." Elvis was by now solidly a matinée idol.
Fun in Acapulco was, to me, quite a bit more fun than the previous film (maybe even the previous two) and, though hardly deep, didn't seem quite as superficial and polished as others in similar vein. Elvis' songs were staged very well, too, and for me the main attraction of the film (okay, Ursula and Elsa aside) were the Spanish-flavored songs on the soundtrack that really worked every well for Elvis. This is definitely one of my favorite of the '60s soundtracks. If I had to pick just one soundtrack from the '60s, though, it'd probably be that from Viva Las Vegas (I think they missed a great opportunity by not releasing the soundtrack and bonus songs as an LP, too). This film probably has the best production values of any of the '60s films, at least the musical ones ('cos, really, Flaming Star probably wins on that count) and the songs are all beautifully and perfectly staged. The people who made this film -- from lighting techs, director, and camera operators to the editors -- really put some effort into it and it shows. Combine the winning soundtrack with great production and a phenomenally appealing costar who shares real (very real, as fate would have it) chemistry with Elvis, and you have a sure success and a very fine film. Sure, it's still a glossy piece with minimal plot, but it's done so well. Excellent stuff.
Unfortunately, though he remained in good voice, neither the soundtrack (with a couple of exceptions...always liked the upbeat version of the title song, for example) nor the story and film was worth a damn in Kissin' Cousins. Crap. Total drivel. THIS was the REAL beginning of the end, once the powers-that-were got to see that an Elvis film could be sloppily shot in two weeks, or maybe even less, and still turn a profit. Even the songs didn't have to be any good...people would still buy them. I can watch the film, but it really is pretty dire. The quickie nature of it was adopted to some extent for the next few years but was only fully realized again in the execrable Harum Scarum, thank goodness, the film that prevents this one from holding the title of Worst Elvis Movie. Roustabout and Girl Happy were both decided improvements, especially the first. Both featured some very nice songs, even if few were clear choices as hits or anything like it, and I've definitely got a somewhat nostalgic fondness for both films. To be fair, at least with these two it's possible to have such a fondness, because both have redeeming value. The first film is the stronger of the two, in part because it has a more solid soundtrack, in part because Elvis gets to wear leather and be surly again, and in part because it has stronger supporting actors. then again, in Girl Happy you get to see Elvis in a dress, and that didn't happen often (that we know of). Roustabout will always be one of my favorite Elvis films and it does kind of sum up the state of Elvis' celluloid niche by 1964, at a point before it began to descend rather rapidly all the way downhill (that'd be 1965).
Tickle Me is another film I've only seen perhaps twice, and I'm not especially in a hurry to see it again. Sure, Jocelyn Lane...yeah...very nice. Otherwise, apart from having perhaps the best soundtrack of any '60s Elvis film (that's cheating, though), all I really remember of the film is some slapstick and one cool bit wherein Elvis tosses his hat a la James Bond. That's about it. Apparently, this was not the most memorable of Elvis' films. Harum Scarum, on the other hand, is supremely memorable; I just wish I could forget it. The real shame of it is that Elvis looked great -- in the publicity photos, for example, he looks about as ethereally perfect as he ever did -- but the film sucked massively on every level. Sure, I find "Hey, Little Girl" and "Shake That tambourine" very, very catchy (the two songs cut were also arguably better than most of what made it on to the soundtrack), but the entire soundtrack was a waste of talent. There were also some very good fight scenes in the film, and at times the production values as a whole were far better than the film warranted, but this one was a real turkey. The talking camel might actually have improved it. Frankie and Johnny is another I'm not too familiar with and, though the soundtrack included a couple of decent songs and a few more that were at least passable, it's another that I find distinctly unmemorable. Paradise, Hawaiian Style I have seen quite a few more times and, unfortunately, by now it was plainly apparent on screen that Elvis was bored and barely even trying to turn in a decent performance; hey, with such weak properties, why should he even be expected to make an effort? Sure, it'd have been the professionally right thing to do, but it's pretty obvious that he was burned out and that the films were exacting a toll on him. The soundtrack features Elvis in tired, bored voice, too, with mostly substandard songs (not that a few weren't infernally catchy). "This Is My Heaven" and the cut "Sand Castles" were probably the highlights. In all, 1965 was Elvis' low point for films and had to have been, at least professionally his worst year other than the rather obvious 1977.
Elvis needed a change. It didn't come. Well, not right away, anyway. Spinout, though, was at least (mostly) fun again. And Elvis seemed out of the doldrums, at least on screen. The soundtrack, too, was far more infectious than anything since Girl Happy and included some rather good songs (such as the title track, "I'll Be Back," and "All That I Am"), the eventual LP being bolstered by some classic cuts from Elvis' May, 1966 sessions, unfortunately hidden away instead of proudly highlighted (not that Spinout was a sales failure, of course). The change that did come was not, as it turned out, in the form of a film but in the shape of the excellent May sessions that led to the Grammy-winning How Great Thou Art LP and some secular bonus songs that rate among highlights of Elvis' entire career. He showed us that he still had it, but the sad part was that the contrast with his film recordings couldn't have been more stark and it was plainly apparent that a gigantic talent was largely being squandered in Hollywood. Easy Come, Easy Go is probably seen by most as a step backward even from Spinout, but I can't help but like the thing. Elvis should never have made such a film, of course, but some of the interaction with the new archetype (stereotype, here, as was the Hollywood norm) of beatniks and the emerging hippies was priceless and as bad as some of the few songs were I can't help but be hooked by their catchiness (well, the yoga one's pretty dire, but even that engenders its own kind of fascination). Maybe it's because I'm a diver, but I'll always have a soft spot for this one. Double Trouble, on the other hand...a few good moments, but really quite a bad film. What ruins it entirely for me -- more like the final straw, because there's little to like about this one (a few halfway decent songs aside) -- is those little midget brothers. Bleh.
Clambake's another I'm not too familiar with, having seen it perhaps twice at the most (maybe just once). Another unmemorable entry with Elvis in sleepwalk mode with a few really stupid but catchy songs, one incredibly awful song that may be the worst he ever did ("Confidence"), and one classic ballad that he'd do better in the studio, in one take, later in the year. Speedway was better, but still not good. A better soundtrack, though, including one song that would've been again a fine addition to a Nashville studio session (Joy Byers,or perhaps her husband, had a knack for contributing songs of relatively high standard even to Elvis; worst film outings), a situation increasingly not the case for Elvis movie songs.
Stay Away, Joe had great potential -- a few songs (fairly tasty, especially the very short "All I Needed Was The Rain"), Elvis looking absolutely fantastic, and great locations used to good effect -- but it all got kind of haphazard and fell apart (to be fair, many comedies did then and in later years, including those of people like Blake Edwards...losing the plot in the third act is not unusual for comedies). it has its moments, and was a definite improvement over the cheapies he'd been shooting, but it should have been lot better. For me, the party scene that seemed to last about 3/4 of the film's length really began to detract from the whole. Still, at least it was something different, with nice northern Arizona scenery, some funny bits, and Elvis looking too good to be allowed to live. I find "Dominick" catchy, too, much to my chagrin. Live a Little, Love a Little was an interesting piece and I think, overall, it succeeded. It was limited by the script as much as anything, but Elvis looked great (so did Michele Carey...hmm-MM) and the feeling was more hip and modern -- and more mature and 'adult' -- than anything we'd seen from Elvis to date. Good songs, too. A very odd film, really, and especially so as part of Elvis' canon; kinda quirky. But, hey, at least they tried something different. I suspect that whoever came up with the visual theme for the staging of the excellent "Edge Of Reality" was operating under the influence of some interesting substances, though.
Charro! was another missed opportunity, a stab at a spaghetti western that was hampered by an uninspiring script and very obvious made-for-TV visuals. The bad guys weren't all that menacing, either, but the main problem was the script and direction. Elvis looked great, and I have no doubt he could have convincingly filled Clint's boots in a Man With No Name kind of role, but this film was only gritty in a self-conscious way and had no real heart. If Sergio Leone had directed, it may have been a real classic. Everything was in the right place -- Elvis, the Arizona locations, etc -- but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Noble effort, but they missed the mark. If Charro! had been more akin to the depth and realism of Flaming Star, informed by the more recent style of the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone, it might have been a very different and vastly superior film. As with all of the post-Speedway films, though, at least they tried something different that was of a higher standard. The Trouble with Girls was a paradox, of sorts,a film inherently limited in appeal by being an 'Elvis movie' (a hallmark not exactly synonymous with quality these past few years) but one that wasn't too satisfying to Elvis fans because the King was pretty much only making a special guest appearance in his own film. The film was actually very well shot and produced and featured stellar actors in supporting roles, but Elvis is missing in action too much of the time for it to be really satisfying. He looks great, though, and does some nice tuneage -- for me, the film justifies its existence if only for giving us the superlative "Clean Up Your Own Back yard" (nicely shot in the film, too, very unusually in what was a kind of proto-MTV style). it's a very well produced film but ranks lower as an Elvis film. Change of Habit is another mixed bag, a film I have always thought highly of even if it, like Charro!, at some points it reeks of the TV style then current and if its soapiness is not always convincing. Elvis is very good in his part but he'd been better as an actor. Some of the best parts for me are when he reverts to being 100% Elvis, as when he utters "weirdos." Good songs, great look for Elvis '69, and some socially-conscious messages; overall, a very nice film for Elvis to end his Hollywood career with. The title was prophetic, too.