Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Elvis Movies, And Why

Look at this travesty. Elvis looks bored in the poster! And it's painted art!

On Elvis Presley’s Birthday, I like to celebrate it as if it’s my New Year’s Day. You probably already know this. So instead of rehashing my rationale, I’m going to drop a little pop culture knowledge on your head and tell you my Top 5 Favorite Elvis Movies, and Why.

I want to make it very clear that there are three categories of Elvis movies. There are the handful of movies where he was trying, really hard, to be a good actor. Most of them are listed below. Then there are the chunk of movies where he was going through the motions, and maybe he was having a good time, and maybe he wasn’t, but they are all of middling quality. A great example of this type of Elvis movie is Blue Hawaii. It was his first time to visit, and he was, if nothing else, excited about the locale. Then there’s the handful of movies where he’s either doped up, mad at the Colonel, exhausted, or some combination of the three. The best example of this is Clambake. It’s just bad all around, and you can tell Elvis doesn’t want to be there. Another great example: anytime after G.I. Blues that we see Elvis singing or dancing or acting with kids. Dead giveaway.

It’s a sad bell curve, to be sure, but let’s talk about why my Top 5 are in my Top 5. Your Top 5 will undoubtedly look different in you’re any kind of Elvis fan, but what I most like to see in an Elvis movie is either (A) Elvis in his full, charismatic glory, or (B) Elvis trying to leverage that charisma into his acting. Either/or is fine with me, provided we get what we came for—that trademark snarl, the cheerful but kinda dangerous charm, the voice, and sometimes, a great delivery on that dialogue.

He's made worse movies. See above.
Roustabout (1964)
This was the second film Elvis made in 1964, right in the middle of his two movies a year contract that Colonel Parker had him locked into. Right away, a big chunk of what’s missing here is Ann-Margaret, and it shows. Elvis is tense, irritable, and basically the opposite of the guy he played earlier that year in Viva Las Vegas. In fact, the movie is a weird throw-back to the earliest Elvis movies, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. He’s the guy who uses his music to pick a fight with the local toughs, and dispatches them with—wait for it—karate chops! Oh, yeah. He’s that guy.

He ends up working for a traveling carnival (as a roustabout, see?) but the kind-hearted carnival owner sees something in him and gives him a shot at becoming an act for the show. Like I said, very by the numbers, but Elvis plays the part with some genuine anger he didn’t have in the 1950s and that makes this one of the most watchable of the middling movies.

“Poison Ivy League” is one of the songs on the soundtrack, and it’s one of the last hits Lieber and Stoller wrote for him. It’s quaint, and not quite as good as other songs they wrote for him, but the lyrics are clever, and there’s no cutesey music for Elvis to get through, which is always a plus.

Some folks like Charro better. Not me.
Flaming Star (1960)
Everyone agrees the only reason to see Love Me Tender is because it’s Elvis’ first movie. A great western, it ain’t. And Elvis was disappointed that the movie had his music in it, because he wanted to take the acting seriously. Studio heads intervened, and one of the most iconic Elvis songs was created to prop up the movie.

Flaming Star is Elvis’ second attempt at a western. Again, he’s not singing, aside from the opening number, because he’s too busy being a half-breed caught between his adopted family and the Kiowa uprisings. Again, we’ve got surly Elvis emoting and really trying to brood, and when you consider that the movie and his role was initially offered to a young Marlon Brando, well, it makes good sense.

Flaming Star is a much better western than it has a right to be, and Elvis does a bang-up job in it. However, the real problem is that it’s so hard to take Elvis seriously in a western. No matter how serious Elvis is taking himself. Fans (meaning young girls) didn’t like the movie because Elvis wasn’t singing, and the Colonel had a fit because Elvis wasn’t selling records with the movie, but that actually makes the movie better in my opinion.

Look at that hairdo. How much pomade did he sell?
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Here’s the King of Rock and Roll, as he was christened by the press, in all his youthful, feral glory. His third movie, and one with a bite, it’s technically no better than the first two films, Love Me Tender and Loving You, except for one thing: the soundtrack is genius, and the song and dance number for “Jailhouse Rock” is the stuff of legend.

MGM was known for lavish musicals, and they sent their choreographer to work with Elvis during the big production number. He showed Elvis his routine, with all of these sweeps and glides, and Elvis told him flat-out, “That ain’t me, man.” The choreographer, Alex Romero, took it upon himself to actually watch Elvis perform a few songs, and when he came back the next day, the dance routine had a distinctly Elvisian feel to it. Romero never got a lot of credit for making Elvis look so good.

And what’s not to love about the name, Vince Everett? Pure rock and roll, man.

Did that popular lingo, Daddy-O. Who were they kidding?
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
By the mid-1960s, Elvis had become a movie-making machine. Two films a year, quick turn-around, and an album to bolster the box office. It was a slot machine for the Colonel, and Elvis was sick and tired of it. Maybe that’s why they decided to pair him up with Ann-Margaret, who was basically a female version of Elvis. When they met, the sparks were instant, and their on screen chemistry (and most likely their off-screen shenanigans) make Viva Las Vegas a fresh oasis in a desert of mediocre Elvis films.

Elvis is a race car driver, and Ann-Margaret teaches swim lessons at the big hotel. Honestly, you don’t need to know anything more about the plot than that. Just revel in the amazing duets, the palpable sexual tension between the two stars, and the genuinely fun soundtrack. One of the most suggestive songs they recorded, “You’re the Boss,” didn’t make the album originally because it would have been a dead giveaway that they were shacking up. It’s that suggestive. On purpose. Think I’m exaggerating about those two? Ann-Margaret had a code name amongst the members of the Memphis Mafia for the purpose of running Elvis’ security. They called her “Thumper.” You know, the rabbit?

I watch this movie at least once a year.

Elvis is still a force of nature in this movie, but they were
already working on him to tone it down.
King Creole (1958)
King Creole is proof that Elvis had enough creative intelligence to do whatever he wanted to do. By that I mean, if he had been able to break away from the Colonel and become a serious actor, he would have been as big as James Dean and Marlon Brando in their heyday.

The movie is based on the Harold Robbins book, A Stone For Danny Fisher, and like how Hollywood always does, they bought the book, and then messed it up. Danny Fisher the boxer became Danny Fisher the...cabaret singer? Really? Um, okay, because as we’ve previously established, the people in control of Elvis wanted their singing and dancing monkey to sing and dance.

By this time, Elvis had already gotten his draft notice, and he got an extension to make the movie. Since they didn’t know what the future would bring—he could have been killed during active duty!—they decided to make King Creole as good as they could. That meant putting veteran director Michael Curtiz on the picture. This is the man who made Errol Flynn a star and gave us Casablanca. If anyone could make Elvis into an actor, he could. And he did.

The cast is solid, too: Walter Matheau plays the heavy, along with Caroline Jones, and Victor Morrow has a supporting role. It’s Elvis as an actor; sometimes he’s understated (well, as understated as Elvis is capable of being), and he displays an emotional range that was clearly missing in the first three movies. If you routinely scoff at Girl Happy because of how inane the movie is, and you’ve never seen King Creole, move it to the top of your cue and marvel at an Elvis career choice that might have been.

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