In Praise of Elvis Presley, Actor

About two months ago, around the time I was winding down William Holden Wednesdays here on the blog, I fell head first into a brand new love – Elvis Presley. I got a Roku a while back, which makes watching random things I’d never otherwise check out very easy, and since Blue Hawaii was available for streaming on Netflix I thought I’d give it a try.

I absolutely loved it! It may be lacking in any meaningful content, but the trappings are so pretty and so much fun. Gorgeous Hawaii, gorgeous young Elvis, early ’60s cars and clothes, and lots of good music. I was absolutely smitten with the whole thing, especially with Elvis. I went into watching Blue Hawaii with such low expectations because of his films’ reputations, and couldn’t believe how wrong everything I’d heard about him was. Elvis was charming and charismatic, with the kind of presence that makes you want to watch him no matter what he’s doing on screen — a true movie star.

Elvis BH

Soon I was watching more and more of his movies. I couldn’t get enough. Elvis made 31 feature films, and at this point I’ve seen about half of them. Only a few of those have been genuinely lame.  Many of them have been very good, or at least entertaining, and Elvis himself has never been unpleasant to watch. On the contrary, he makes even the silliest, most formulaic movie enjoyable on some level, just because he’s in it.

I really think the prevailing narrative of Presley as a lousy actor in lousy films is one that needs to be reevaluated. Thankfully a few bloggers, like Sheila O’Malley of The Sheila Variations, and Jeremy Richey of Moon in the Gutter, are doing just that. All these years I avoided Elvis movies because of their reputations, only to learn that I missed out on some good stuff. Oh well, better late than never!

Here’s a quick rundown of my favorite Elvis Presley movies, of the ones I’ve seen so far.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock was Presley’s second movie, and probably his most iconic performance. Even people who say they hate Elvis movies will admit the “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance sequence is great.  In truth the whole movie is fantastic, and Elvis is very good as an ex-convict with a chip on his shoulder, trying to make it in the music business.

Presley’s idol was James Dean, and you can see that Rebel Without a Cause influence on his performance. This is one of the best of Presley’s movies I’ve seen so far in terms of depth, quality, and acting. Here’s one of my favorite scenes. That ain’t tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me. Sexy!

Loving You (1957)

loving you hart presley

Loving You has a biographical flavor, with Elvis playing a small town truck driver discovered by a manipulative manager who turns him into a big, if controversial, star. The soundtrack to this movie is great, featuring “Mean Woman Blues,” “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Loving You,” “Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do,” and “Lonesome Cowboy.”

This was Elvis’s first color movie, and he looks simply gorgeous. Lizabeth Scott plays his manager, and Dolores Hart plays his girlfriend. It’s a really enjoyable movie. Elvis’s mother and father are in the audience during one of the final scenes. It’s so touching to see Gladys Presley enthusiastically cheering her boy on, especially knowing she wouldn’t be around for him much longer.

King Creole (1958)

King Creole

This was the last of Elvis’s movies before he left for a 2-year stint in the Army, and it’s probably the best film he ever made. It co-stars Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, and Dolores Hart, and was directed by Michael Curtiz. Not too shabby!

Elvis is wonderful as a streetwise but sensitive high school dropout from New Orleans, torn between the expectations of his weak but moral father and the powerful grip of a sleazy mob boss who wants him to sing in his club.

Regardless of the reputation he may have with some, Presley wasn’t some rube with no acting talent. He had a lot of natural ability as an actor — a great sensitivity and honesty in what he put out there. Here’s what Walter Matthau, who played the mob boss in the movie, had to say about him.

I almost hesitate, I creep up to the sentence, he was an instinctive actor. Because that almost is a derogation of his talents. That’s saying, ‘Well, you know, he’s just a dumb animal who does it well by instinct.’ No, he was quite bright, too. He was very intelligent. Also, he was intelligent enough to understand what a character was and how to play the character simply by being himself through the means of the story. Michael Curtiz used to call him Elvy and he’d call me Valty. He’d say, ‘Now Elvy and Valty, come here, now Valty, this is not Academy Award scene. Don’t act so much. You are high-price actor. Make believe you are low-price actor. Let Elvy act.’ But Elvy didn’t overact. He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate…refined and sophisticated.

Elegant, sedate, refined, sophisticated? Not the words people usually use about Elvis Presley’s acting, but Matthau was right, especially when it comes to King Creole. Elvis didn’t have as many opportunities to shine in his fluffy ’60s musicals, however fun some of them were, which is a shame. You can see that the potential was there for him to accomplish a lot more as an actor than he did.

Sheila O’Malley does a wonderful job of dissecting a particularly pivotal scene in the movie on her blog.  See, that’s what Valty was talking about!  The boy could act.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii

The movie that got the ball rolling for me!  Blue Hawaii is just plain fun and Elvis is adorable in it. This movie was such a success with audiences that it served to lock Elvis into making many, many more with similar formulas. This is one of the best of those formula films.

It’s worth watching for the beautiful views of mid-century Hawaii, if nothing else, but it has a lot of other things to offer, like some great songs (“Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Hawaiian Wedding Song” among others), a good cast that includes Angela Lansbury as Elvis’s silly Southern mother and Joan Blackman as his spunky girlfriend, cool cars, and lovely costumes.

Wild in the Country (1961)

1961_wild_in_the_country_hope_lange_elvis_508

I have no idea why this movie doesn’t have a bigger following. It’s really good, and Elvis is so good in it. His role in Wild in the Country, the script of which was penned by Clifford Odets, is one you can imagine someone like James Dean or Montgomery Clift doing, and he acquits himself beautifully. He holds his own with co-stars Hope Lange, Millie Perkins, and Tuesday Weld and gives a really affecting performance.

I love this scene with Hope Lange. He’s so vulnerable and sensitive in it, not to mention sensual and dreamy. He’s a troubled but talented young writer who’s had run-ins with the law; she’s the court appointed therapist several years his senior with whom he falls in love.

At about the time I saw this movie during my Presley movie fest, I started getting actively annoyed at how many people disregard Elvis as an actor. It seems almost willfully mean!  When he had decent material to work with, he was terrific.  It bugs me to see him so underrated.

Follow That Dream (1962)

FTD

Follow That Dream is another movie I’d show to anyone who doesn’t yet see how good an actor Elvis Presley was. The movie is hilarious, and Elvis’s comic timing is brilliant. It may be my favorite of his comedies that I’ve seen so far. The character he plays is completely adorable – naive and dim, but not really the idiot everyone thinks he is. He has an unsophisticated, native intelligence of a sort. It’s so endearing.

This scene, in which his character attempts to get a bank loan, is a total riot!  What’s nice about Follow That Dream is that it’s just a good movie – it’s not an “Elvis movie.” It doesn’t follow a formula, and it doesn’t even have that much music in it — although what it does have is good.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

42573158947465159_PshrgnRF

This movie! I love it more than I can say. It’s one of the coolest, most stylish films of the early ‘60s. The soundtrack is great, and both Elvis and Ann-Margret are fabulous. I must admit, I kind of have a crush on both Elvis and Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas. Talk about two sexy, charismatic people. The chemistry between them is so hot, but also completely sweet and charming.

One of the things I most enjoy about Viva Las Vegas is that Elvis’s leading lady is a true equal on screen. In many of the post-Army musicals, he’s paired with some forgettable starlet whose part is just to be there for Elvis to sing to and kiss. Not so with Ann-Margret. She gets as much screen time as he does, sings and dances, and is nearly as mesmerizing to watch as Elvis himself. And when they’re on screen together, it’s truly electric.

Girl Happy (1965)

Girl Happy

Elvis’s leading lady in Girl Happy may not have quite the magnetism of Ann-Margret (who does?), but Shelley Fabares is another strong co-star for Presley. They have a great rapport in this light-as-air comedy about a singer sent to Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break to secretly keep an eye on a mobster’s college student daughter.  It’s amusing and fun, with some catchy tunes and a believable, sweet romance.

Live a Little, Love a Little (1968)

LALLAL

This movie is nuts! It’s a sexy screwball comedy with a little 1960s psychedelia thrown in for good measure. The film was made the same year Elvis made his famous “Comeback Special” on TV, and he never looked more beautiful – lean, tanned, with chiseled cheekbones and jet black hair and sideburns. He’s breathtaking, really – prettier than any woman.

This movie features a couple of good songs, including “A Little Less Conversation.”  This scene is just groovy.

Change of Habit (1970)

change of habit

For some reason Change of Habit seems to be one of the most derided Elvis Presley movies, but when I watched it I was puzzled as to why. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but I chalk that up more to the time period than anything. Some of the attitudes toward life in the ghetto and medical treatment are strange to modern eyes, but the movie is quite entertaining and Elvis himself is lovely.  He brought such warmth and kindness to the role.

He looks wonderful, too — ‘68 to ‘70 were good years for Elvis, looks-wise.  Plus, that movie gave us “Rubberneckin’” – an excellently funky, if cheesy, song.

Those are just the cream of the crop of the movies I’ve seen so far.  There were others I enjoyed but don’t consider favorites (G.I. Blues, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Girls! Girls! Girls!) and a few others I didn’t like much at all (Roustabout, Tickle Me), but for the most part I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen.  And I still have Love Me Tender, Kid Galahad, Flaming Star, Charro and others to look forward to.

I guess my point is that if a film career included 31 pictures in only 13 years and at least half of them are entertaining and, in a few cases, genuinely good, how can that be deemed a failure?  And if an actor successfully played drama and comedy, and brought something interesting, worthwhile and arresting to even the silliest, fluffiest movie, how can he be labeled a bad actor?  I just don’t buy it.  Sure, Elvis could have made better quality, less formulaic films, and I often wish he had, but writing off his whole Hollywood career is ridiculous.

Anyway, 99% of the time I’d rather watch something happy like Viva Las Vegas or Blue Hawaii than a deep ’50s drama directed by Elia Kazan. There are only so many times you can see Brando get beaten up in On the Waterfront before you want to kill yourself, whereas I could watch this next scene every day and be glad about it.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, haters!  Just kidding.  I do feel a little bit protective about Elvis these days, though.  He brings out the mother hen in women, that’s just a fact.