Elvis Presley Film Festival

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(Pictured: Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley on the set of Clambake, 1967.)

The children of the 1970s knew who Elvis Presley was, and we heard a handful of his songs on the radio as current hits before he died in 1977. But his movies didn’t register as strongly, at least not with me. You had to stay up pretty late if you wanted to see them on TV, but that was fine. Seeing them was not a high priority; there wasn’t anything among them I felt I absolutely had to see, not the way I wanted to see all of the classic monster movies of the 30s. Over the last month, however, I’ve had my own Elvis film festival. On the flip, read what I thought about what I saw.

In Jailhouse Rock, Elvis plays Vince Everett, who gets sent to prison for killing a man in a fight and becomes a singer while incarcerated. Once he gets out, he pursues stardom with the help of Peggy, a young woman played by Judy Tyler (who was killed in an car wreck two weeks after the film was wrapped, at the age of 24). Vince is quite unlikable, and he treats Peggy abominably for no reason—a rather bold choice of characterization, given Tom Parker’s obsession with protecting his golden-egg-laying goose at all costs. The story takes some interesting turns before the inevitable happy ending, although I can’t claim to have liked it.

In Spinout, Elvis plays singer Mike McCoy, who moonlights as a race car driver. He’s caught between a rich man who wants Mike to drive a car he owns, and the rich man’s spoiled daughter (Shelley Fabares), who has decided she wants to marry Mike, for reasons not entirely clear. Mike is also pursued by an author of relationship books (Diane McBain) who also wants to marry him, and by the girl drummer in his own band (Deborah Walley), who falls in love with him about two-thirds of the way through the movie for reasons not entirely clear. The only unpredictable turn in the plot is that each of the three women ends up married to someone else, and Mike remains single. Each of the three is gorgeous in a different way, and they’re the only reasons for sitting through the movie.

In Clambake, Elvis plays the son of a wealthy oil man (incongruously played by James Gregory, Inspector Luger on Barney Miller) who thinks girls only want him because he’s rich, so he trades places with a water-ski instructor at a Florida resort. He ends up involved in a boat race, and has to win Shelley Fabares (again) away from wealthy fellow racer Bill Bixby, which he does. Even a soaking wet and topless (under the water) Shelley can’t make it watchable, however. The songs, except for “Guitar Man” and “You Don’t Know Me,” are dreadful, and “Confidence” goes beyond dreadful to abominable.

In Girl Happy, Elvis and his band escape wintry Chicago for a spring-break gig in Florida, where they have also been tasked with keeping an eye on the Chicago club owner’s teenage daughter (Shelley Fabares yet again), and wacky hijinx ensue. Many of said hijinx take place on the phoniest “outdoor” set you’ve ever seen—the Seadrift Motel couldn’t be more obviously a soundstage if you saw behind the backdrops. And yet: as I have written before, I saw Girl Happy when I was maybe 13 or 14. When Elvis sang “Puppet on a String” to Shelley, I fell completely in love with her. And after watching the movie again over 40 years later (and Spinout and Clambake for the first time), I can report that I love her still.

Elvis made 31 movies in his lifetime, 33 if you count the concert/documentary films Elvis: That’s the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour. So I have lots left to see. If there are some you can recommend I watch—or strongly recommend I skip—please mention them in the comments.

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5 responses

  1. I went through a phase when I watched a lot of the ’60s movies. Viva Las Vegas is the only one I recall really rewarding me for my time. Not sure it’s worth spending much more time watching Elvis movies unless you’re looking to collect the merit badge.

  2. The early movies, from the ’50s, like “Kid Creole” and “Jailhouse Rock” were actually moderately ambitious in terms of aspiring to social relevance and character development. The later movies devolved into formula. I still remember a bit from “Late Night with David Letterman” where there was a game about matching Elvis’s character description with three films and the options were “singing race car driver,” “crooning hot rodder,” and “balladeering stock car driver.” “Viva Las Vegas” is pretty good because of Ann-Margret, plus you get to take a visual tour of Hoover Dam. Even so, Elvis not getting an Oscar for this performance in a sweater at a pool party is still an injustice – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDJgd4OGtus

  3. Hi JB. I find all the Elvis films to be pretty execrable, but “King Creole,” with Walter Matthau and Carolyn Jones (“Morticia” in “The Addams Family”), is probably his best. It’s frequently been opined that if Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, hadn’t scotched his taking the co-starring role in “A Star Is Born” due to Streisand’s receiving top billing, he might have been showered with critical and commercial acclaim, emerged from his depression and lived years or decades longer. And he’d certainly never have become the “industry” he is today.

  4. Ditto about Shelly Fabares.

    And about Viva Las Vegas. That was the movie, at age 7, where I knew I was straight.

    Ann-Margret appeared on the screen, I turned to my dad and said “Oh, HELL yes. I don’t even know what the question is, but the answer is oh, HELL yes.”

  5. […] Starland Vocal Band Show from 1977 and a radio sitcom that predated WKRP in Cincinnati by a decade. We watched some Elvis movies. We read some books, including one about the impact of drugs on the Beatles and another about the […]

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