Editors’ Note: In honor of Elvis Presley’s birthday, David Skolnick, Jon Gallagher and Ed Garea look at his career on film.
By David Skolnick
Elvis Presley never envisioned he’d be an actor, even in January 1956, when he became an “overnight music sensation.” But only a few months later he was screen-tested, and his first film, Love Me Tender, named after one of his biggest songs, was released that November. Presley made 31 feature films between 1956 and 1969. Some are quite good. Several are jaw-dropping terrible.
The first “Elvis Formula” film was 1960’s G.I. Blues, which was a box-office success. The plots of the “Formula” films were thin and the acting was weak. In each of those films, Elvis had some sort of exciting job – usually a race-car driver, singer, cowboy or pilot – he’d meet a pretty girl, got in a jam, sang a few songs, danced a bit, entered some sort of race/contest/fight, won that race/contest/fight and the affection of the girl, sang another song and the credits rolled with him and the girl kissing.
After G.I. Blues, Presley’s fifth film, he starred in two non-Formula films, which were more dramatic with interesting plots. Unfortunately, neither 1960’s Flaming Star nor 1961’s Wild in the Country did well at the box office. So Presley’s next film, also in 1961, was Blue Hawaii, an awful Formula movie that was a huge success. Nearly every film Presley did the rest of his career had that Formula. Many are terrible, but there are a few gems in there.
In honor of Presley’s birthday, he would have been 78 today, we pay tribute to the King on the Silver Screen. Here are our favorite and least favorite Presley films.
For the most part, Elvis’ Formula films are enjoyable to me. Something silly like Roustabout (1964), Girl Happy (1965), or Spinout (1966) are fun to watch. But there is very little I like about the worst films and honorable mentions listed below. Let’s start with the best.
Best 3 Elvis films (in no particular order)
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957): A wonderful and entertaining film, this was Presley’s third movie featuring a compelling plot, some good acting and great music. Elvis’ performance of the title track, a number for a television show, is his finest moment in motion pictures.
Elvis is Vince Everett, who’s in prison for a manslaughter conviction. Lucky for him, his cellmate is Hunk Houghton, a former country-and-western singer played by Mickey Shaughnessy, who hears Vince sing. Hunk recognizes talent and serves as a mentor. Upon his release after serving 20 months, Vince looks for work as a singer. He doesn’t have much luck until he meets Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), who not only becomes his producer/manager but his love interest. Who can resist Elvis?
The film is somewhat of an indictment against the music industry. Vince is tired of getting ripped off so he and Peggy create their own record label, leading to incredible success for Presley’s character. Vince’s ego gets out of control, alienating his girlfriend and leading to Hunk, who is eventually paroled, getting so angry that he beats up Vince, who refuses to fight back. During his beatdown, Vince is hit in the throat and there is concern he’ll never sing again. But fear not, he recovers and is a changed man.
The production of this film is top-shelf, particularly in comparison to many of Elvis’ later movies, has a nice story and solid acting. Sadly, Tyler and her husband died in a car crash shortly after the film wrapped up production.
CHANGE OF HABIT (1969): This was Elvis’ last movie, not including his two concert documentaries, and one his most unusual. There are only a few songs in this film, with “Rubberneckin’” being a highlight of the movie.
Elvis is an inner-city doctor, John Carpenter, who falls for a nurse, Michelle Gallagher (played by Mary Tyler Moore, who could turn the world and plenty of other things on with her smile). One problem, Michelle and two other nurses working with Elvis are nuns. They keep that secret to themselves concerned that those in the ghetto won’t accept them if they know they’re nuns. Yeah, I know, but it moves the movie along. She has to choose between her love of God and the King.
The movie is oddly compelling featuring a Billy Jack-esque group of inner-city hippie teens staging a sit-down protest, and a memorable scene in which Elvis cures an autistic child through hug therapy. It’s a change of pace for Presley and one in which he’s allowed to show he had some range as an actor. But it was his last acting job.
LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE (1968): A quirky film that seems to be an effort to make an Elvis version of a Swinging London movie. Presley plays Greg Nolan, a photographer who works two jobs in the same building. One is for a conservative publication and the other is a Playboy-like magazine. The film features some drug references and Nolan appears to have casual sex, including one scene in which he’s in bed with his female co-star. Michele Carey plays that co-star, an eccentric sexy woman who uses different names, is quite flighty and keeps Elvis (sort of) against his will after drugging him at her beach house, guarded by a huge dog.
This is a pretty entertaining movie, though it can drag at times. However, I love it as it’s unique and different, Elvis looks great (as he got into shape for his TV comeback special during this time), and it’s fun to watch. The outfits worn in the film look like they came straight from a late 1960s London clothing boutique, and the actors deliver some groovy lines.
The best part of the film is Elvis singing “A Little Less Conversation,” which went largely unnoticed until it was remixed in 2002 and became a No. 1 hit. The original is better.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964), KID GALAHAD (1962), KING CREOLE (1958)
Worst 3 Elvis film (in chronological order)
BLUE HAWAII (1961): The one that ruined Elvis’ movie career. He made a few quality films toward the end of his Hollywood career. But the box-office success of this ridiculously bad movie resulted in Presley doing way too many awful “Formula” films.
The plot (as if it matters) has Elvis playing Chadwick Gates, recently discharge from the Army, who returns home to Hawaii. His mother (Angela Lansbury, only nine years older than Elvis, is at her all-time worst in an awful over-the-top performance) wants him to work for the family fruit company. Chadwick wants to hang out at the beach with his girlfriend (Joan Blackman) and when it comes to work, his ambition is to be a tour guide for said girlfriend’s business.
I can’t stress how bad Lansbury is in this movie from her horrible fake Southern accent to her overacting. Even Elvis puts in a stronger acting effort in this movie. The storyline is awful, the movie is so dull it’s painful to watch, and it’s as if Hawaii is the star of the movie (it’s in the title so maybe it’s supposed to be). The scenery is nice, but does nothing to save this movie from being a dud.
The lone highlight is a throw-away scene in which Elvis, accompanied by a music box and invisible background musicians, sings, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
HARUM SCARUM (1965): This movie poster reads: “Elvis brings the Big Beat to Bagdad (yeah, it should be Baghdad) in a riotous, rockin’ rollin’ adventure spoof!!!” He actually brings an unwatchable piece of garbage to the Silver Screen.
Presley is as an action-film star kidnapped by Middle Eastern assassins who want him to kill a king. Well, who else could kill a king besides The King? Mary Ann Mobley plays a slave girl who is actually an Arabian princess in an absolutely unconvincing role. It’s so bad that Mobley is probably the best actor in this film.
You can actually see a defeated look on Elvis’ face during this movie. He looks like he knows the film is awful and he’s embarrassed to be in it – and he should. It’s a comedy, but there’s absolutely nothing funny about this film. There isn’t any moment in the film worth seeing. However, this weird song in which Elvis is letting a little girl know that he'll wait for her to grow up before making the moves on her, “Hey Little Girl,” is a new low. Add to that, Elvis is wearing green genie//M.C. Hammer pants. Stop! Elvis time!
THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS (1969): Elvis is the manager of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 that becomes a murder mystery in a small town in Iowa. Dabney Coleman, the town’s pharmacist, is lucky enough to be the murder victim reducing his time on screen in this disaster.
Despite running the traveling show, Elvis isn’t in much of this film either. I don’t know how he worked it out, but Presley is in less than half of this movie. If only the movie was half as long, it would still be a bad, boring but short film. Instead, it’s a bad, boring full-length film.
The lone saving grace is Elvis singing a decent song, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” and an awesome looking white suit straight out of his 1968 TV comeback special.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963), PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966), DOUBLE TROUBLE (1967), STAY AWAY, JOE (1968)
By Jon Gallagher
My assignment was to pick out and write about the three best Elvis movies and the three worst Elvis movies.
I can’t. As an Elvis fan, I just can’t. It’d be like asking a Shakespeare fanatic to pick out his favorite sonnet. Like asking a Beatles aficionado to choose their favorite Fab Four song. Like asking a fan of the Duke to select their three favorite John Wayne (By God!) movies.
On January 8 of each year, we sit around watching Elvis movies, eating ice cream and cake, and even
sometimes opening presents. Now if that’s not a true Elvis fan, I don’t know what is!
Never mind that it just happens to be my birthday as well.
I’m listing several of my favorite Elvis flicks along with my three, shall we say, least favorite, and I’m sure, if he were still with us, the King wouldn’t care.
TICKLE ME (1965) co-starring Julie Adams, Jack Mullaney, and Jocelyn Lane. Elvis plays Lonnie Beale, a rodeo star between gigs. He takes a job as a stable hand at a “fat farm” for wealthy women. He meets a fitness trainer, Pam Merrit (Lane) who has a map drawn by her grandfather (or some other long lost relative) that promises to lead to a treasure. Pam has no interest in Lonnie until the bad guys show up. They attempt to kidnap her, but Elvis is there to save the day (and the damsel).
They break up temporarily but when Pam finds the ghost town where the treasure supposedly is located, Lonnie comes back to help. They’re stranded in the town due to a storm, and then all the fun starts.
Lonnie, Pam, and sidekick Stanley (Mullaney) battle the ghosts in the ghost town in truly comic fashion.
The movie is a musical, of course, but also a very good comedy. Elvis gets to show off his comic talents (my favorite is a double take he does after opening a door with a surprise behind it) and it’s good harmless fun that the whole family can enjoy without resulting nightmares.
The screenplay is a collaboration of Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds, who had also worked together, penning several shorts for the Three Stooges as well as some feature films for the Bowery Boys.
CLAMBAKE (1967) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby, and Will Hutchins. This is probably my favorite Elvis movie. It’s the classic Prince and the Pauper tale with Elvis playing the ultra-rich Scott Heyward. He’s tired of women throwing themselves all over him and not knowing if they loved him, or his money. Will Hutchins plays the broke ski instructor Tom Wilson who trades places with Scott (who just happens to be a good ski instructor himself, I guess).
Enter Diane Carter (Fabares) who is a broke single girl, looking to hook up with a rich guy during Spring Break. She meets Elvis (as Tom) and James J. Jamison III (I thought for a long time that he was the heir to the Daily Bugle, but then I was only 10 when the movie came out) and they compete for her. Jamison is in town to race in the Regatta and is favored to win. Elvis decides to compete with him, finding an aging boater (Sam Burton played by Gary Merrill) who has a boat that he’s not entering in the race. In addition to his skills as a ski instructor, Scott/Tom also shows that he’s a gifted chemist who comes up with a formula for paint that makes the hull of Burton’s boat indestructible. Now Elvis and Bixby are in a race, not only for the trophy, but for the girl as well.
James Gregory plays Dustin Heyward, Scott’s dad and is the highlight of the movie. He does an old Three Stooges gag where he’s looking for some money to pay a cigarette girl, finds a lower denomination bill, pulls it out, crumples it up and throws it away, all without once breaking dialogue.
At the end of this movie, based in Miami Florida, Elvis is confessing that he’s really Scott and pointing out some oil wells his family owns. The oil derricks are set against those beautiful Floridian mountains that have become the subject of so many postcards from the state.
It’s cheesy, predictable, and just plain silly at times. That’s probably why I like it so much.
FOLLOW THAT DREAM (1962) co-starring Arthur O’Connell, Anne Helm, and Joanna Moore. It’s another comedy, with Elvis doing his best Jethro Bodine impression as Toby Kwimper. The Kwimper family – Pop (O’Connell), Toby, Holly (Helm), and two kids are out for a drive when the car runs out of gas. The trouble is, they missed a sign somewhere telling them that this particular stretch of Florida highway is not yet complete. With nowhere to go and no money to get gas, they decide to homestead right there on the side of the road. Local authorities try to get them to move, but hard-headed Pop won’t hear of it and the more they try to get him to vacate the area, the more determined he becomes to stay.
The family is a conglomeration of mismatches. Holly is a 19-year-old orphan, taken in by Pop to help him care for the twins who are also orphans. Pop holds them together with love and good old-fashioned wisdom.
The family starts a business by accident. As they are fishing off the highway bridge, a local businessman stops by and attempts to land the fish that Toby has his hook. The result is a business catering to avid fishermen. When Toby decides to expand the business, he heads for a bank where tellers think he’s there to rob the place. Fortunately, the bank president is the man who stopped by to land the first fish, everyone lives happily ever after.
Oh, wait. It’s not over yet. There’s a social worker who gets upset that Toby won’t respond to her advances and tries to take the kids away. There’s also a couple of gangsters who stop by and set up a casino on the land the Kwimpers are homesteading. It’s a good thing they weren’t the ones in charge of setting up Las Vegas or the neon lights industry might not be what it is today.
The end has an amusing courtroom scene in which Toby proves he’s a whole bushel smarter than that Jethro feller, and…..
Whoa. Gotta watch that country hick in me trying to come out.
Anyway, it’s an entertaining movie, and one of Elvis’ better ones.
KISSIN’ COUSINS (1965) co-starring Elvis Presley (I’ll explain later), Arthur O’Connell, Jack Albertson, and Yvonne Craig. Holy Hillbillies, Batman! I never knew Batgirl looked like that! Elvis plays a dual role in this movie as TV’s Batgirl plays one of his love interests who wears some very skimpy clothes.
The Army wants to put a missile base on Tatum Mountain in Tennessee, but the Tatum family won’t hear of it. It’s discovered that Second Lieutenant Josh Morgan is a distant relative of the Tatums so he and a crew of Army personnel are sent to negotiate a deal.
The problem is, Pappy Tatum (O’Connell) is a moonshiner and he tends to chase away those government revenuers with the business end of a shotgun. He and his family, which includes Elvis playing the dual role of Jodie Tatum, interact with the Army as they try to reach a deal. Throw in a group of female hillbillies known as the Kittyhawks, and I’ll start sounding more like a hick than I did in the review of Follow That Dream.
It’s interesting to see how they handled Elvis playing the dual role given the fact that not a lot of technology existed in 1965 for doing things like that. It’s even more interesting to note that it took just a mere 15 days to shoot the entire movie!
There are some other fun things to look for in the movie. Teri Garr plays one of the hillbilly dancers and One Adam Twelve Kent McCord is an extra. Many have said that the Elvis we see playing Jodie (with much lighter hair) is what Elvis looked like without the black hair dye.
When one of my daughters saw this for the first time, she commented that it was amazing at the end that a bunch of hillbillies could just fall into a perfectly synchronized, perfectly choreographed dance. I reminded her that it was no more unbelievable than when a bunch of street hoods broke into a similar (yet very different) routine in West Side Story. She never made fun of an Elvis movie again (and actually learned to enjoy them).
GIRL HAPPY (1965) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Harold Stone, and Gary Crosby. Break out the blankets for a beach party! Elvis and crew invades the Fort Lauderdale area (not really; the film was shot on soundstages in California for the most part) in an attempt to cash in on some of the success of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funny-jello.
Elvis is the lead singer of a band playing nightclub in cold, snowy Chicago. They put in their final night and get ready to head for Florida on Spring Break when Big Frank (really!) decides to exercise a clause in their contract to hold them over. Elvis and his buddies hatch a scheme. They find out that Big Frank’s daughter Valerie is heading south and they volunteer to head south to act as bodyguards for her. Big Frank agrees, but it’s obvious that he has the connections to put the big hurt on them if anything should happen to his little girl.
Naturally, Rusty (Elvis) isn’t interested in watching Valerie; he’s too busy chasing girls. Eventually, Rusty and Valerie hook up, but then her dad tells her that he’s paying Rusty to keep an eye on her which sends her over the edge. She parties hard, lands in jail and it’s up to Rusty to get her out before Big Frank shows up.
It’s a fun movie that’s more predictable than a third and long situation, and we get to see Elvis in drag. Okay, maybe I could have done without that part, but I liked it anyway.
SPINOUT (1966) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain, Dodie Marshall, Deborah Walley, Jack Mullaney, Will Hutchins, Warren Berlinger, and Carl Betz – Quite a list of co-stars, huh?
Elvis is Mike McCoy in this movie in which he has two jobs. He’s the lead singer in a band but he’s also a racecar driver. He’s also totally committed to being and remaining a bachelor despite the intentions of three different women. One is the daughter of a millionaire (Fabares), one is an author of books for women (McBain), and the third is his own drummer (Walley) who everyone sees as “just one of the guys.” All three hatch plots to marry Mike, while the millionaire (Betz) is only interested in getting him to drive his racecar in an important upcoming race. Berlinger plays a mousy, yet thoroughly enjoyable personal secretary to the millionaire, complete with fainting spells whenever stressed.
After the big race, Elvis has to choose which of the three women he will marry. It gets extra points on the grading scale because of his decision. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but let’s just say it was a little unexpected.
Fabares costars in her second of three Elvis movies while Mullaney has his second stint with Elvis.
STAY AWAY, JOE (1968) co-starring Burgess Meredith and Joan Blondell. I’ve only seen this one twice. I didn’t like this one when I saw it as a kid and when I watched it as an adult, I wondered why I hadn’t trusted my juvenile instincts and why I had just wasted an hour and a half of my time.
I’m not sure of the plot. It had something to do with Elvis being a half-breed or a full-blooded Navajo Indian and he’s involved with a scheme to have the government pay for a herd of cattle. He buys a bull, but the bull isn’t interested in the other cows, but put a rider on his back and he becomes a raging maniac that no one can ride. There’s also something about a brand new car that Elvis has to sell parts from as part of a running gag. The car goes from being brand new to a shell on cement blocks over the course of the movie.
As a kid, I kept waiting for Burgess Meredith to go, “Wah, wah, wah” and the Caped Crusader to come sweeping in from somewhere. As an adult, I realized that would have at least made the movie interesting, but not much more silly than it already was.
CHARRO! (1969) co-starring Ina Balin and Victor French. Elvis got some good reviews for his acting ability in this non-musical, but a 12-year-old Elvis fan isn’t interested in how dramatic the king of rock and roll can be. I saw it later as an adult, but just couldn’t get interested in the plot.
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) co-starring Judy Tyler and Mickey Shaughnessey. Listing this as one of my least favorites probably surprises a lot of people, including myself. Elvis plays Vince Edwards who is convicted of manslaughter after killing a guy in a bar room brawl. While in prison, another convict, Hunk Houghton (Shaughnessey) teaches him how to play the guitar and sing. The movie follows the cutthroat side of the music business with a series of broken promises, the stealing of songs, and the oversized growth of heads caused by the phenomenon of instant success. This is one that I didn’t see until I was an adult, and I thought that just about everyone in the entire movie had a terminal case of overactingitis. That plus the fact that out of all Elvis’ hits, “Jailhouse Rock” is probably my least favorite.
If it was on TV, I’d probably watch it. I just wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.
There you have it! The best of and the worst of and a few in-betweens. If you celebrate Elvis’ birthday by watching any of the marathons of Elvis movies on TV, just remember…. They weren’t trying to win any awards; they were trying to make money (which they always did).
By Ed Garea
Unlike many people, I first came to Elvis not through his music, but through his movies. My older cousin was forever blasting his records whenever we came to visit and her brother and I thought them awful. But one Saturday night, I saw him in Loving You, with Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey. I rather liked the films and began to take a different view of Elvis. It wasn’t until the Beatles arrived in 1964 that I began to become interested in popular music, and I went to see A Hard Day’s Night, which was on a double bill with Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco. The crowd couldn’t wait for the Elvis film to end so they could see the Beatles, but I rather liked it. It was a harmless musical, it was in color, and it co-starred Ursula Andress, whom I had a crush on after seeing her in Dr. No.
I sort of left it at that over the years, watching an Elvis flick when nothing else looked interesting, but when I received my copy of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, watching the rest of Elvis’s movies became a requirement. I can say that I’ve seen them all, so either congratulate or pity me. Following are my three favorites and my three least favorites from his work.
KING CREOLE (1959): For the first and last time in his film career Elvis was working for a top-notch director, namely Michael Curtiz. And he had a top-notch supporting cast: Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, and Dean Jagger as his father. In this musical noir, Elvis has flunked out of school and needs to get a job to help support his father. He becomes a singer at a seedy nightclub and becomes involved with gangsters and a smart moll played by Jones. It was said to be his favorite of his movies and was co-written by Michael V. Gazzo, who later co-starred in The Godfather, Part Two. Curtiz, incidentally, reportedly said that Elvis had a fine future as an actor.
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957): Elvis’s third movie. He plays Vince Everett, a tough guy serving a year on a manslaughter charge. While in stir, his cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy) a former country singer, teaches Vince about the record business. When released he becomes a big success ads a rock star, but learns that he can’t handle the success and the problems it brings. Thoroughly entertaining with an amazing soundtrack featuring songs as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Young and Beautiful,” “One More Day,” “Don't Leave Me Now,” and “I Want to Be Free.”
LOVING YOU (1957): Elvis’s second movie and his most autobiographical. He plays deliveryman Deke Rivers, a handy guy with a song and guitar, who is discovered by down-and out publicist Glenda Marlke (Lizabeth Scott) and her husband, country-western entertainer Tex Warner (Wendell Corey). They gradually promote him to fame and fortune, and while he becomes a teen idol, the combination of both rock ‘n’ roll (controversial at the time) and his troubled past comes in to haunt him. Adding gasoline to the fire is the suspicions of Warner that Elvis is moving in on his wife. A great plot, with intelligent dialogue and good songs, including the title track and “Teddy Bear.”
STAY AWAY, JOE (1968): Yes, Joe, stay away. Stay far away. The absolute nadir of his acting career, it’s described by critic Michael Weldon as an “embarrassing, totally out-of-it comedy.” And that’s putting it mildly. It’s surreal to watch, and when you can’t think it can get any worse, it surprises you and does just that. In the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, and wasting the talents of Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell and Thomas Gomez, whose appearances in this tell you how badly they needed a paycheck.
CHANGE OF HABIT (1969): Elvis’s last move and he doesn’t go out with a bang, but with a whimper. As if the producer, director and writers said “What implausible character can we make Elvis in this one?” they decide to make him an activist doctor treating patients in the ghetto and trying his best to change life for the better. Way to go, Elvis. Now, to make it even more implausible, the producers decide to cast Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara McNair as nuns working with Elvis and also hoping to change life for the better. Now this wouldn’t be an Elvis film if there weren’t some naïve young lady he could charm out of her socks. In this case, it’s Mare herself, who is considering giving up her habit for a shot at Ol’ Liver Lips. Of course, the Church wins out, but Mare does get to meet Ed Asner, who’s also in this movie and who would later co-star on her television show. Barbara McNair is utterly wasted as Sister What-A-Waste, with practically nothing to do but look cute.
BLUE HAWAII (1960): The picture that started Elvis’s slide into mindless musicals. I can only quote high schooler Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a character in the 1985 film Heaven Help Us, who has snuck out with his friends on the class trip to New York to see Pope Paul VI to take in a movie. He gets one look at Elvis floating downstream in a Hawaiian get-up, complete with leis (a multi lei-yered look, so to speak), and says, “Jesus, what did they do to Elvis? Cut his balls off, or something?” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
(Here's an article that appeared August 14, 2012, reviewing 13 of Elvis' movies.)