Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Films of Elvis Presley

I don’t know under which circumstances Elvis quipped “The only thing worse than watching a bad movie is being in one,” but I imagine it was told with the same aww-shucks grin and nod at which he would laugh with his audience. Presley was no honed comedian, but always an entertainer. As such, this is the kind of line people have loved to quote for years, despite the fact that most of its quoters have probably seen very little of the King’s films. To me, the joke is less tongue-in-cheek and one-dimensional than it appears. There is a real, dark undercurrent that Elvis’s civility and loyalty covers up. But this is the same Elvis that understood his career was permanently derailed by an eight year film career at the insistence of manager Colonel Tom Parker (which had Elvis contracted to make $1 million plus profits per picture (with Parker taking 50% of the cut before the end of Presley’s film career), roughly three times a year); one that came at the sacrifice of his stage presence, watched the rock and roll industry creatively eclipse him, and was at least partly responsible for his becoming passé. More telling was Elvis’s no-punches-pulled insistence that producer Hal Wallis was a “double-dealing son of a bitch,” when any pie in the sky hopes of being developed into a serious actor were dashed.
Elvis with the Col. Tom Parker

Where Elvis Presley films suffer has little to do with Elvis Presley.  And while Wallis reneged on his promise, he also admitted “an Elvis picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood” and, at age 30, Elvis was the highest paid actor in the world.  This is the reason Colonel Tom went to the well time and time again, despite Presley’s dissatisfaction.  Wallis and Parker, both standing on the financial side of the coin, saw no reason for the films to not be made on the cheap.  Sure, the songs peaked early with “Jailhouse Rock” and quickly dropped off to nigh irrelevant at best, cornball at worst (Priscilla Presley stated her father screamed “it’s come to this?!” when he learned he would have to sing “Old MacDonald” in Double Trouble), but the real surprise is, a fair amount of the movies still hold up.  Much of it has to do with the Presley Persona, which is endearing even when he was clearly bored with the material.  Parker refused to let Presley perform outside of North America (and only three times outside of the United States), so the films inadvertently became a backward commodity; the only way for much of the world to see something resembling an Elvis performance.

It's no surprise that only when box-office figures and soundtrack sales steeply dropped off after 1966 did the light musical-comedy fare give way a little.  Though the James Dean rebel chic that carried him up to Wild In The Country was out, a number of his better films came, despite public opinion, in the latter part of his career.  Sometimes his characters were more minor (The Trouble With Girls), sometimes the comedy was allowed to be more "adult" (Live A Little, Love A Little), and sometimes songs were gone altogether (Charro!).

Norman Taurog, Hal Wallis and Elvis Presley
But the damage was done.  On the set of It Happened At The World's Fair, Elvis told Lloyd Shearer, "A certain type of audience likes me. I entertain them with what I’m doing. I’d be a fool to tamper with that kind of success. It’s ridiculous to take it on my own and say I’m going to appeal to a different type of audience, because I might not. Then if I goof, I’m all washed up, because they don’t give you many chances in this business. If you’re doing all right, you better keep at it until time itself changes things."  It sounds a bit like Colonel brainwashing, but time would take its toll.  Not only on Presley, but also on director Norman Taurog.  Taurog, who helmed nine Presley pictures (nine of his own last twelve), lost his sight in one year after completing Live A Little, Love A Little and was forced into retirement.  Though his films aren't the best in the Presley canon, they are far from the worst. Taurog was a workhorse who wouldn't let a lazy script be an excuse to make a lazy film.  He gave credibility to the work he was handed, recording even the bad songs seriously, bringing an air of unpretentiousness to repetitive scripts and giving us Elvis at his funniest.

That's not to say humor was the measure of a man according to the Presley catalog.  Presley's characters graduated from brooding, motherless, misunderstood rebels to good ol' boy, rock solid Americans who love the ladies (often, strangely, in misanthropic ways) and aren't unwilling to brawl because of them.  He grew from motherless child to lover of orphans, playing father-figure (or at least Uncle Elvis) in a number of pictures.  Of course comedy wasn't out of the question, but unapologetically low-brow.  The acme of laughs in a Presley picture usually involves someone splashing down in the pool/watering hole/ocean.  And oh, oh so many songs.

By my estimation, Elvis either sings the title song or performs a number within a film a staggering 238 times across 31 movies.  Three of the soundtrack albums (Blue Hawaii, G.I. Blues and, surprisingly, Roustabout) are among the top 100 selling albums of the 1960s.  The fact that Elvis's film career is defined by light musical comedy is a product of almighty dollar, but the myth that Elvis couldn't act says more about the worldwide phenomenon of his trademark persona than any lack of chops.  Elvis was Elvis: same grin, same Tony Curtis-dyed jet black hair.  Director Don Siegel (Flaming Star) recounts in Peter Bogdanovich's Who The Devil Made It that Presley is a "very fine actor.  He's totally under the domination of the Colonel, and it's very difficult to prove that the Colonel's wrong, because Elvis Presley makes all the money there is in the world.  So they don't want to change that image."

The films of Elvis Presley are unfairly in the crosshairs of historic ridicule.  The most tragic element is summed up by Siegel as he extends the metaphor from his own The Invasion of the Body Snatchers saying, "the pods are taking over."  Siegel's "pods" signify a lack of feeling-- people that "go unthinking about their work."  Talent was never the issue: it was that celebrity preempted it.  Siegel says "Elvis making those ['absolutely banal, stupid'] pictures is a pod."  The brainwashed muscle-memory was somewhat upheaved in Presley's "'68 Comeback Special" where he demanded a creative element return to his musical output.  He would go on to record one of his best songs in his last number one single, "Suspicious Minds" in 1969, but this renaissance came in large part because it marked the end of his film career.  We are left with a large number of now overlooked films, half of which aren't as bad as you think, with a handful being quite good.  It is a shame, but fruitless, to think what could have been.  As backwards-thinking as it is to praise the light lifting that stunted his career, a rethinking of his filmography shines a spotlight on an unquestionably multi-talented man whose charisma alone can carry the most mindless film.  Though the biggest star in the world, Presley's best films show him maleable, his worst show him humble.  It is our benefit to discover that many of these films, in fact, aren't mindless at all.

Love Me Tender (1956, Robert D. Webb)
Loving You (1957, Hal Kanter) 
Jailhouse Rock (1957, Richard Thorpe)
King Creole (1958, Michael Curtiz)
G.I. Blues (1960, Norman Taurog)
Flaming Star (1960, Don Siegel)
Wild In The Country (1961, Philip Dunne)
Blue Hawaii (1961, Norman Taurog)
Follow That Dream (1962, Gordon Douglas
Kid Galahad (1962, Phil Karlson)
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962, Norman Taurog)
It Happened At The World's Fair (1963, Norman Taurog)
Fun In Acapulco (1963, Richard Thorpe)
Kissin' Cousins (1964, Gene Nelson)
Viva Las Vegas (1964, George Sidney)
Roustabout (1964, John Rich)
Girl Happy (1965, Boris Sagal)
Tickle Me (1965, Norman Taurog)
Harum Scarum (1965, Gene Nelson)
Frankie and Johnny (1966, Frederick De Cordova)
Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966, Michael D. Moore)
Spinout (1966, Norman Taurog)
Easy Come, Easy Go (1967, John Rich)
Double Trouble (1967, Norman Taurog)
Clambake (1967, Arthur H. Nadel)
Stay Away, Joe (1968, Peter Tewksbury)
Speedway (1968, Norman Taurog)
Live A Little, Love A Little (1968, Norman Taurog)
Charro! (1969, Charles Marquis Warren)
The Trouble With Girls (1969, Peter Tewksbury)
Change of Habit (1969, William A. Graham)

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