My other movie goal for 2014

In addition to the 10 Classics for 2014 challenge I wrote about yesterday, my other movie-related goal for the year is to make a dent in the number of unseen movies in my possession. Ever since I got a DVD recorder about three years ago, I’ve been recording movies and saving them for a rainy day. Between those hundreds of recordings and the DVDs I’ve purchased over the years I have a lot of movies saved up — so many that I have to have an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

Of the movies on the sheet I’ve only seen about half, so this year I’m hoping to watch at least a couple of new-to-me films every week, picked at random based simply on what I’m in the mood for. Not a lofty ambition, but a fun one.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve watched so far in 2014. No doubt my viewing will slow down as the year goes on, but I’m off to a strong start. Cold, wintry weather makes for good movie watching , after all! So far everything I’ve seen has been very enjoyable and worth recommending. None have been great classics, but all are quality movies that made for fun viewing.

william-holden-jeanne-crain-edmund-gwenn-apartment-for-peggyApartment for Peggy (1948) is a sweet, funny film starring Jeanne Crain, William Holden, and Edmund Gwenn. Crain and Holden are a young married couple. He’s going to college on the GI Bill, and they can’t find anyplace to live because of the post-war housing shortage. Gwenn is a retired, widowed philosophy professor whose son died in the war. He feels his life has no meaning anymore and plans to commit suicide, until Crain talks her way into renting his attic as an apartment for her and her husband. (And their cat, and the dog she brings home one day, and their soon-to-be-born baby…)

The young couple, especially the sweet but slightly kooky girl, upsets the old man’s household and his plans to kill himself in lots of amusing and touching ways, giving him a reason to live as he grows to love them and to get interested in life again through all their ups and downs. A lovely little film. Edmund Gwenn (who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) is good at playing loveable old men.

I watched this movie on a Fox MOD DVD, and I have to say the quality of the picture and sound was atrocious! This movie deserves better treatment than it got from Fox. Warner Archive does a much better job at releasing films. Honestly, just watch it on YouTube rather than buying the DVD. The quality couldn’t be any worse there than it was on the  disc.

Orchestra Wives (1942) is one of the two movies in which the Glenn Miller Orchestra was featured, the other being Sun Valley Serenade, which I was very happy to finally be able to watch during my Christmas vacation thanks to TCM. The plot — starstruck, innocent girl marries trumpet player she just met and is drawn into life on the road with other orchestra wives — is pretty simple, but the wives’ cattiness is amusing in a The Women-lite kind of way. As with Sun Valley Serenade, however, the real point of the movie is Glenn Miller’s music, which is simply wonderful.

First Love (1939) is a modern (well, 1939 modern) retelling of the Cinderella story, starring Deanna Durbin. This is the second Durbin movie I’ve seen (the other was 1941’s It Started With Eve) and I’ve enjoyed them both. Durbin’s musical style is probably hard for people today to appreciate, I don’t know, but I think she’s lovely. Her acting is so natural. She has great comic timing and can also break your heart. Plus her singing is gorgeous. This movie co-starred a very young Robert Stack in what I think was his first movie role.

I bought myself several Deanna Durbin movies with Christmas gift money after watching It Started With Eve on TCM, so I’m sure more of her stuff will be coming up for me in the weeks ahead.  It’s so fun discovering a new star to love!

Double Harness (1933) stars William Powell as a playboy who has no interest in either work or marriage, and Ann Harding as a woman who sees marriage as a business and sets out William Powell - by George Hurrell 1935to catch him and make him into the successful man she believes he can be. I completely loved this one. It’s a sophisticated look at relationships, and Powell and Harding have great chemistry. I’m starting to think Powell had great chemistry with all women, though!

Pre-Code movies never stop surprising me with how forthright they are about so many things. They’re still tame by today’s standards, of course, but compared to movies from the years after the Code began being strictly enforced they’re shockingly open. For instance Powell and Harding start sleeping together after just a few dates, and there are no punches pulled about this fact. Nothing like that would’ve happened in a movie just a few years later.

Vivacious Lady (1938) had been on my to-watch list for ages, and I don’t know why I waited so long to see it because it’s really good. Jimmy viv ladyStewart plays a quiet, reserved botany professor from a small college town who falls in love at first sight with a spunky nightclub performer, played by Ginger Rogers. They marry after a whirlwind one-day courtship, then head to his hometown to introduce her to his stuffy father, the college president.

Once back home, Stewart can’t seem to find the right moment or the necessary backbone to tell his father he’s married to a blonde singer he met a few days before. Lots of silliness ensues.

Charles Coburn plays Stewart’s father and Beulah Bondi plays his mother. Those two alone make pretty much anything worth watching, and they’re as good as always in this.

In The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), William Powell plays a medical doctor and Jean Arthur plays his murder mystery author ex-wife. They’re still obviously in love in spite of being divorced, and when they get caught up in a real life murder when a jockey falls off his horse and dies under mysterious circumstances, there’s lots of mystery and even more witty banter.

This movie struck me as a wannabe Thin Man film. It isn’t on a par with that series, but it’s still lots of fun. Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses, and of course William Powell is always perfect. The wry wit combined with silliness, the jaunty walk, the mustache, the dimples…sigh. I’m feeling very smitten with him lately, the way my girlfriends are feeling about their Cumberbatches or whoever. Granted, my crush was born 122 years ago this year, but that doesn’t make my love any less real. 😉

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10 Classics for 2014

For the past few years Laura of the wonderful blog Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings has created a list of 10 new-to-her movies to see and write about during that year. Raquel from the also wonderful Out of the Past blog has done the same for 2014.

It’s such a great idea, choosing several never seen classics and committing to watch and write about them, that I decided to be a copycat and follow their leads. So often I choose movies that are in my comfort zone — romantic comedies, musicals, “women’s pictures,” screwball comedies — or simply re-watch old favorites again and again. This is a nice way to break out of my movie-watching routine, expand my horizons, and check some “must see” films off my list at the same time.

I decided I wanted to see movies in certain categories, many of which I rarely seek out. Here are my chosen 10 for 2014.
39 Steps (1935)
Pre-Hollywood Hitchcock: The 39 Steps (1935) I love Alfred Hitchcock films and have seen many of them from his American movie-making days. I have yet to see any of his earlier movies made in Britain, however, so I chose one of the most highly-regarded from that time period.

Silent Comedy: City Lights (1931) I’ve gotten better about watching the occasional silent movie, but I must admit they’re still not my favorite. I know it’s ridiculous, but when I was young I would get the creeps watching voiceless, ghostly figures on the screen, speaking with no sound coming out of their mouths. It’s a weird hang-up, I suppose! That being said, I feel like seeing a Chaplin movie is a must for any self-respecting classic movie fan, so City Lights is going on the list. Anyway, I made it through the super creepy The Unknown on TCM the other night, so maybe I’m getting over my childhood silent movie phobia.

wings-1927-ivSilent Drama: Wings (1927) I’ve never seen a Clara Bow movie before, so I’m looking forward to that. This movie has the added benefit of Gary Cooper’s presence in a small but starmaking role.

War Movie: Sergeant York (1941) War pictures are a category I’ve never really sought out, though I’ve seen a few here and there. I know there are lots of great ones to see, though, so I wanted to add one to my 2014 list. I’m going a little easy on myself by choosing one starring an actor I adore, Gary Cooper.

Musical: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) I love musicals and I love Stanley Donen films, so you’d think this would be one of my favorite movies. However, it’s never appealed to me all that much. Time to give it a try and see if I’ve been missing out on something great all these years.

New Hollywood: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) I’ve never had much interest in movies from the late 1960s through thebonnie_and_clyde_ver5_xlg 1970s, although that’s always touted as one of the great periods in filmmaking. I like my studio-era films of the 1930s through early 1960s and have never been drawn to the violence and grittiness of the so-called “New Hollywood” era. Time to push myself out of my comfort zone! If nothing else, it’ll be good to see Faye Dunaway’s influential style.

936full-bicycle-thieves-posterForeign: The Bicycle Thief (1948) I like foreign films, but I don’t always seek them out as often as I ought to. The Italian classic The Bicycle Thief has been on my to-watch list for a long time, so I’ll be checking it out this year.

Western: Stagecoach (1939) Westerns aren’t my very favorite genre but I do like them now and then, especially if they star Gary Cooper or Joel McCrea. John Wayne I’m not so crazy about — I’m dreading the week of 24/7 John Wayne movies on TCM in April — but I think he was great in The Searchers and Red River. Stagecoach is such an archetypical Western and one of the many famous films to come out in 1939, so I thought I’d add it to my list.

Pre-Code: Baby Face (1933) I’ve really grown to love Pre-Code movies over the past few years. Their frankness about topics and behavior that would be taboo in movies before too long still manages to surprise me, plus I love seeing the early onscreen incarnations of beloved actors and actresses like Loretta Young, William Powell and, in this one, Barbara Stanwyck. 405px-Citizenkane

I can’t believe you’ve never seen that: Citizen Kane (1941) I threw this last category in as a way to capture one of the movies I’m embarrassed never to have seen before! I know it’s considered the greatest film ever by many people, but it’s just never appealed to me that much and there was always something else to watch instead. I’m glad to have this one on the list, if only so I can finally say I saw it!

So there they are, my 10 Classics for 2014. Thanks again, Laura and Raquel, for inspiring me to follow your examples! I’m excited to watch and discuss these movies. It’ll be a good way to ensure I post here at least 10 times this year, too, after neglecting the blog for far too long.

The Five Pennies

This weekend I watched one of my favorite performers, Danny Kaye, in “The Five Pennies,” a  1959 biopic based on the life of jazz cornettist Loring “Red” Nichols. The movie itself is sentimental and no doubt greatly fictionalized in the manner of so many musician biopics of the day (Cary Grant triumphing over post-accident disability as a decidedly not-gay Cole Porter, for instance), but Kaye’s performance is just great.

In the movie Red Nichols is a workaholic whose horn and career are his first priority. He loves his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and daughter (Susan Gordon as a little girl and Tuesday Weld as a teenager), but he seems to love rehearsals, recording, performing on the road, and staying up to all hours with his musician friends more. Here’s a scene where he tries to sing his daughter to sleep – she’s been woken up by him playing poker in the other room.

Danny Kaye’s brilliant wife Sylvia Fine wrote the songs and lyrics for this movie, as she did for most of Kaye’s film and nightclub performances. Such a sweet song, and he had such a sweet voice.

Nichols and his wife decide life on the road is bad for their daughter, so they send her off to boarding school, where she contracts polio. Nichols blames himself and ends his music career. He spends the next years devoting himself to supporting his family with a job in a wartime factory, and to rehabilitating his daughter in hopes she’ll walk again one day. From the top of the music business in the ’20s, he becomes an unknown in the ’30s and ’40s, until his daughter convinces him to make a comeback. It’s all very sappy, but enjoyable.

Red Nichols’ “Five Pennies” band included quite a few musicians who later became famous bandleaders and eclipsed their former boss — Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman. They were played by actors in the movie, but one of Nichols’ real life fellow musicians, Louis Armstrong, was in the film and had a few memorable moments.

Danny Kaye was one of those all around great performers you don’t seem to see anymore. Comic, singer, dancer, actor — he could do it all.  He was just as multi-talented in the rest of his life, too, and had a list of accomplishments as long as your arm — golfer, pilot, chef, baseball team co-owner, and UNICEF’s first celebrity ambassador.

So cute!  I just love Danny Kaye.

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies

I watched the 2008 documentary Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies, on Netflix streaming earlier this week. It was so interesting! I didn’t know much about Mary Pickford before seeing it, but now I’m full Imageof admiration for all she accomplished.  Not only was she the first megastar actress in the movies, famously known as “America’s Sweetheart,” but she also had a great deal of intelligence, ambition, and savvy, holding her own in a business very much dominated by men.  This in the teens and twenties!  Pickford was a woman ahead of her time as far as the things she did and the power she exerted in her industry.

Pickford was a leader in the fledgling movie business, forming the United Artists movie studio along with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith in 1919.  She was one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.  Pickford gained creative, co-star, and financial control of her films long before other actors were doing the same, and she helped establish the Motion Picture Home for retired employees of the movie business.  She was as big an influence on the early days of American movies as anyone else you could name.

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Plus, she was part of Hollywood’s first glamorous power couple with her second husband, fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks.  They were pretty much the “it” couple for years and years, entertaining luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their Beverly Hills mansion, Pickfair.

(Why wasn’t Pickfair made a historical site and museum to honor Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks?  I Googled it in hopes of having a new place to visit on my next trip to Los Angeles, only to learn that it had been demolished in 2012.  Sad.)

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ImageMary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the first actors to put their footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, supposedly because they made the suggestion to the theater’s owner after their dog stepped into some cement at Pickfair and left his pawprints on the driveway.

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Weren’t they gorgeous and perfectly chic?  The embodiment of what you’d imagine 1920s movie stars to be.

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(Shallow side note: I want all her shoes!)

The documentary is very well done, full of fascinating detail about Mary Pickford’s life and career, and interviews with friend and actress Lillian Gish, stepson Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Pickford’s third and final husband, actor and band leader Buddy Rogers.  Much of the film is narrated in her own voice, too, with voiceovers of interviews she gave during her life providing even more insight into her character.

I can’t say I’ve yet developed a huge appreciation for silent movies, although 2011’s The Artist made me a lot more open to seeing them and I’ve enjoyed a few recently, including Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor and Laugh, Clown, Laugh starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young.  After learning about Mary Pickford’s life and career, however, I’ll be sure to check out any of her movies that air on TCM.  She was a truly remarkable woman, and one I’m looking forward to learning more about.

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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At the end of my long and movie-filled holiday break, I finally got around to seeing director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that had been on my “to watch” list for many years.  Talk about ending my vacation on a high note!  The film is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of three WWII veterans who return to their midwestern hometown after the war, and their difficulties readjusting to life with their families, friends and jobs after years away.

Myrna-Loy-and-Fredrich-March-in-The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-1946Fredric March plays a middle-aged banker who served as an infantry sergeant in the Pacific and returns to his lovely, understanding wife (Myrna Loy) and two children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) who’ve grown up in his absence. In spite of all he has, he struggles to acclimate to the life and career he knew before.  He feels he no longer knows his children, chafes against the rules and regulations of the bank at which he works, and copes with his post-war trauma and uncertainty by drinking a great deal more than he should.

Dana Andrews gives a charismatic and nuanced performance as a guy who was a soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks prior to the war, but who in the service became a captain and a decorated bombardier. All he wants is to return dana andrews & virginia mayo - the best years of our lives 1946to his wife (Virgina Mayo), find a good job, and move to the suburbs. Unfortunately the shallow woman he married after a brief wartime romance is unimpressed with him now that he’s not a glamorous army flier, and jobs for men with the skills he gained in the service are hard to come by now that planes are being decommissioned and nobody’s dropping bombs.  That Dana Andrews wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award for this role is an absolute travesty.  To me his was the most fascinating character in the film – a man whose wartime opportunities allowed him to escape a poverty-stricken upbringing and become a success, however briefly.  Seeing him come crashing back to earth when post-war realities set in is heartbreaking.

harold russell & hoagy carmichael - the best years of our lives 1946Harold Russell, a disabled WWII veteran who’d never acted prior to this movie and turns in a memorable and touching performance, plays a sailor who lost both hands in an explosion and fire.  Although he’s learned how to cope with the physical side of his injuries quite well, lighting matches, dressing, and even shooting targets using his new prosthetic hooks, the emotional repercussions of his loss are harder to shake off.  He can’t stand to be pitied by those he loves, and pushes his family away in an effort not to be a burden.

Every performance and storyline in the movie is pitch-perfect and honest. It’s not melodramatic or emotionally manipulative, and it doesn’t particularly try to be a tearjerker. The emotion comes from seeing these decent if imperfect men deal with displacement, awkwardness, and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the war, and from seeing their loved ones also come to grips with their return and the fact that the men they’re welcoming home aren’t quite the ones they sent away years before.

There are many memorable scenes in the movie: the three vets flying home in the nose of an army plane, looking down at the country they fought for; Fredric March reuniting with Myrna Loy; Teresa Wright gently and matter-of-factteresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946ly calming Dana Andrews after a nightmare; Harold Russell letting his sweet, girl-next-door fiancee (Cathy O’Donnell) see just how helpless his disability has made him; Dana Andrews walking through a graveyard of decommissioned planes, climbing into one as he tries get the past out of his system. The movie is full of moments that are honest, warm, heartrending and hopeful, and the characters are such real people that you grow to love them.

In spite of The Best Years of Our Lives being on lists of the greatest movies ever made, a winner of multiple Oscars and starring actors I like, I’d put off watching it for years. For one thing, I knew it would make me cry, and for another it’s almost three hours long and these days my attention span isn’t what it used to be. I shouldn’t have avoided it for so long, though! The tears I shed were worth it, and the movie was so engrossing that three hours sped by in a flash. In fact, I watched it a second time later that week and felt I got even more out of it with a repeat viewing.  I can’t say enough good things about this film.

The Best Years of Our Lives is available on DVD and airs on TCM February 26th and March 19th.  I highly recommend checking out this very special movie if you haven’t seen it before.  Don’t wait years and years like I did!

September Affair

September Affair (1950)

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Last week I watched a movie that’s been on my to-watch list for a while now, September Affair starring Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, directed by William Dieterle.  Fontaine plays a concert pianist on her way to New York from Florence, Italy to give her first big performance.  Cotten is a successful engineer who’s in an unhappy marriage and came to Florence alone to try and figure out where his life is going.  When the plane they’re on has to land in Naples for a repair, they spend a few hours exploring the city together.  Then when they miss the plane, they decide to be “unconventional” and stay on together for a few more days as tourists and friends, exploring Naples, Pompeii, and Capri.

During those days they fall in love.  When they read in the paper that the plane they missed crashed and they’re presumed dead, they decide to escape their pasts and make a new life together in Italy.  Of course that new life is based on deceit and selfishness, so how can their love last?  Image

It’s hard to ever feel good about the couple’s newfound happiness since it’s founded in the unhappiness of others, most particularly that of Cotten’s wife and teenaged son. The movie doesn’t shy away from the questionable nature of their choices or give the characters a free pass when it comes to their behavior, even though they’re both likeable people and you can’t help wishing they could be together.  The one person who knows the pair is still alive is Fontaine’s piano teacher in Florence, portrayed by Françoise Rosay.  Rosay says and feels all the things I felt as a viewer watching the film.  She’s sympathetic with the lovers to a point, but also deeply uncomfortable about the decision they’ve made and its effects on other people.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors and he’s really good in this.  We can sense how disconnected his character has become from his family and his work, allowing us to understand why he’d snatch at the first thing that’s made him feel alive in years, regardless of the consequences.

Joan Fontaine has grown on me a lot in the past few years too as I’ve seen more and more of her movies, like Letter to an Unknown Woman and The Constant Nymph.  She’s lovely in September Affair, showing us a woman of intelligence and talent who struggles between what her heart wants and what she knows is right.

Jessica Tandy has a supporting role as Cotten’s wife, a woman who comes across as a decent and understanding sort of person, making her husband abandoning his family even more disconcerting.

The movie’s music is wonderful.  Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto is featured, as is the 1930s version of “September Song” sung by Walter Huston.  You can hear it in this YouTube video, and it’s very touching.

ImageIt’s a nice film to look at.  There’s just something special about Italy in the ’50s.  Cotten and Fontaine wander through a country that’s romantic and beautiful, but with a certain post-war grittiness still apparent.  Florence, Naples, Pompeii and Capri all look great, though it would’ve been nice to see them in color instead of black and white — especially when they visit the Blue Grotto.

The costumes by Edith Head are pretty, with shades of what was to come in Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday wardrobe a few years later appearing in Joan Fontaine’s white blouses, full skirts with itty-bitty belted waists, and summery sandals.

It’s too bad the movie isn’t out on DVD, because it’s a good romantic tearjerker along the lines of Summertime, Now Voyager, and Brief Encounter.  However, it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime and on Netflix and is well worth checking out if you have access to one of those.

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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.