By David Skolnick
Elvis Presley made 31 feature movies – about 20 or so too many – and was the subject of two excellent concert documentaries. While his first few films are hardly Oscar-worthy, most are fun to watch with plots that make sense. Yeah, Presley suddenly breaks out in song in those films too, but Jailhouse Rock and King Creole are good movies.
Though Presley showed some promise as an actor, by 1960, the Elvis Formula started with G.I. Blues, his fifth film. The formula had Presley find himself in some sort of trouble (typically not his fault), meet and pursue an attractive girl, sing a few songs, get into a fight or a race, and end up with the girl.
Following G.I. Blues, Presley made Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, which are decent, but weren’t Elvis Formula films. Of greater importance, the two weren’t box-office successes. Presley’s next film, Blue Hawaii, went back to the formula and is one of his worst films. But it made money and sealed the deal on Presley doing mostly Elvis Formula films the rest of his acting career. Some are a lot better than others. Some are so bad you can’t look away.
On Thursday, August 16, the 35th anniversary of his death, Presley is Star of the Day on TCM, which is airing 13 of those 31 feature films as well as the Elvis on Tour concert documentary.
Here are reviews and “highlights” of the Presley movies being shown by TCM.
6:00 am, It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963): Painfully bad film with Presley as a down-on-his-luck pilot in need of $1,200 to reclaim his repossessed cropduster plane, named Bessie. (I’m not kidding.) His partner, played by Gary Lockwood, lost the money while gambling. The two hitch-hike, get picked up by an apple farmer and attend the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. He ends up with Joan O’Brien, a nurse. Film highlight: Elvis singing “One Broken Heart for Sale.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQC3uqp1Sc8
8:00 am, Kissin’ Cousins (1964): Ever the versatile actor, Presley is a military officer and his identical hillbilly cousin. The only difference in their appearance is as the hillbilly, Presley wears an awful-looking strawberry-blonde wig. Since there are two Elvises – or is it Elvi? – he gets two girls. Military Elvis gets Yvonne Craig (Batgirl) and hillbilly Elvis gets WAG Cynthia Pepper. Film highlight: Singing the title track (largely because it means the movie is over). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn0EdIy_OhI
9:45 am, Girl Happy (1965): I like this one, but can’t explain why. Elvis and his band want to vacation in Ft. Lauderdale, leaving behind their steady gig at a Chicago nightclub. The nightclub owner is a gangster with a daughter, played by Shelley Fabares, also heading to south Florida. The gangster wants the guys to keep an eye on her. It’s Fabares’ first of three movies with Elvis. While he’s interested (and rightfully so) in Mary Ann Mobley, of course he ends up with Fabares. Elvis hated the songs in this movie, largely because they suck. Film highlight: Not even close, it’s Elvis singing “Do the Clam” (co-written by Ed Wood's ex-girlfriend, Dolores Fuller) with an embarrassingly-bad dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58z-eRUFt_E
11:30 am, Harum Scarum (1965): This and Stay Away, Joe are Presley’s worst movies. Presley plays an action-film star kidnapped by Middle Eastern assassins who want him to kill an Arabian king. Presley appears disinterested in this film. If you watch it, you’ll have the same feeling. Mobley doesn’t get him in Girl Happy, but succeeds in this disaster. Filmed on some of the movie sets used in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1925). Film highlight: Elvis singing “Shake That Tambourine” with Billy Barty as a thief. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=114WCqbcdR8
1:00 pm, Double Trouble (1967): Elvis plays a singer who goes to Europe. In real life, he served in the Army overseas, but never performed there because his manager, Col. Tom Parker, was Dutch-born and lived illegally in the United States. The Colonel never allowed Presley to tour other countries as he often traveled with him and would have had trouble getting back into the United States. In this movie, Elvis falls for a teen heiress, played by Annette Day in the only movie she ever made. If you were in a movie this bad, you’d likely never want to act again either. Someone’s trying to kill Day’s character and/or her film career. How quickly was Presley turning out films at this time? This movie was released only 13 days after Easy Come, Easy Go, another Elvis movie, premiered. Film highlight: Elvis singing “Old MacDonald.” He was apparently told it wouldn’t appear on the soundtrack album. This wasn’t the first or the last time someone lied to Presley. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGTdsCEKvEY
2:45 pm, Stay Away, Joe (1968): This should be more titled, Stay Away, Audience. This is an unwatchable piece of garbage. Presley is a half-breed Navajo rodeo rider with Burgess Meredith as his father, who lives in a paper shack on an Indian reservation. The less said about this film, the better. Film highlight: A weird sexual scene with a much older Joan Blondell, talking about being his former lover, followed by an attempted seduction by Blondell’s 19-year-old daughter, Mamie, played by Quentin Dean. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sptxykyrYn8
4:30 pm, Charro! (1969): An atypical Presley movie as he doesn’t sing in the film (though he performs the title track) and the only time he has a beard on the silver screen. He’s a reformed outlaw who has to take on his former gang members to save a town. It sounds a lot better than it actually is. Film highlight: There really isn’t one, but here’s a link to the entire film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpqQUsxRuyM
6:15 pm, The Trouble with Girls (1969): Presley is the manager of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 that ends up in a small Iowa town. The town’s pharmacist, played by Dabney Coleman, is murdered. Marlyn Mason is Elvis’ love interest. Presley is in less than half of this film, which is quite bad and exceptionally boring. Film highlight: An underrated Elvis song, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_FXWyC8L_E
8:00 pm, Elvis on Tour (1972): His last movie, Elvis on Tour is more than just a concert film. It shows Elvis behind the scenes and being interviewed as he embarks on a U.S. tour. Presley comes across as someone who loves to sing, but is tired of touring. It’s a very honest and compelling look into what was essentially Presley’s last great musical moment – his 1972 tour. He looks pale and has put on weight, but he’s great. This is an absolute must-see. Film highlight: There are so many. I’m a bit biased as “Burning Love” is my favorite Elvis song. It was his last Top 10 hit, released in 1972. Presley’s not too familiar with the words, as it was released around the same time he was touring. Notice that he’s holding a paper with the song’s lyrics and still doesn’t get all the lines correct. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZLdV9qDziY
9:45 pm, Jailhouse Rock (1957): One of Elvis’ best. He’s in prison on a manslaughter conviction. His cellmate recognizes Vince Everett (Presley) has musical talent and serves as a mentor. When Everett is released, he looks for work as a singer. He becomes a success thanks to a producer and his love interest, played by Judy Tyler (she and her husband died shortly after the film wrapped up production). Presley does a solid job. Film highlight: The iconic “Jailhouse Rock” performance Everett does for a television special. It doesn’t get much better than this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gj0Rz-uP4Mk
11:30 pm, Viva Las Vegas (1964): Elvis often played a race-car driver and here’s one of those films, though this is better than most even with a weak plot. It was his most commercially-successful film in terms of box-office revenue. The chemistry between Presley, who plays Lucky Jackson, and Ann-Margret, who plays Rusty Martin, his love interest, is exceptionally good. That probably because the two were more than just friends off-screen. Rusty, a swimming instructor (an excellent excuse to get Ann-Margret into skimpy bathing suits), pushes Lucky into a hotel pool causing Lucky to not be so lucky and lose the money he needs for an engine for his car. Lucky becomes a waiter to raise some cash, and then enters the hotel’s talent show to win the money needed for the engine. Lucky and Rusty sing and dance with Lucky getting very lucky at the end with Rusty. Film highlight: Ann-Margret’s legs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=01wG4tSIG88 There’s also a weird dance number with Ann-Margret followed by Elvis singing “C’mon Everybody.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiJ7uQfogKA
1:00 am, Speedway (1968): This may sound crazy, but Presley plays a race-car driver in this film. His manager, played by Bill Bixby, is somewhat of a creative accountant meaning Elvis owes the IRS a bunch of money. Nancy Sinatra is an IRS agent, and of course, everyone who works for the IRS looks like her. Plot? Don’t worry about it. No one making the film worried so why should you? Sinatra is the only person to ever have a song on an Elvis movie soundtrack album. (Even Ann-Margret who sings in Viva Las Vegas and slept with Presley didn’t get that.) Film highlight: Sinatra sings “Your Groovy Self.” Her lip-syncing is awful and, at times, she dances like Davy Jones from the Monkees. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66NgaGxs5VM
2:45 am, Spinout (1966): You’re not going to believe it, but Presley plays a race-car driver. He’s got three love interests, but Shelley Fabares is one of them so it’s game over for the other two. Film highlight: Elvis singing the title track surrounded by girls dancing poorly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22VHM2VMmHo
4:30 am, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968): A quirky, strange film that is one of my favorite Presley movies. He plays Greg Nolan, a newspaper photographer, who meets Bernice, an eccentric, attractive woman, played by Michele Carey, at the beach. He ends up at her home and is drugged by her, and kept against his will at times by her very large dog. Nolan loses his newspaper job – there’s no future in that business anyway. He lands two jobs as a photographer in the same building. One is for a conservative publication and the other is a girlie magazine. Presley’s character comes off as hip, having what appears to be casual sex and there are some drug references. It’s no Easy Rider, but still one to see. Film highlight: It’s definitely Presley singing “A Little Less Conversation.” This and “Rubberneckin’” in his final feature film, Change of Habit, are my two favorite Elvis movie songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bscxdX2iuK0