Elvis Presley: Five films to watch on the King’s 80th birthday
Elvis Presley, born on this date in 1935, starred in 31 scripted motion pictures beginning with 1956’s “Love Me Tender” and ending with a thud with 1969’s “Change of Habit.” In honor of the King’s 80th birthday, here’s a look at his film legacy. A version of this article was first published last August, on the 37th anniversary of Presley’s death.
Because so many of his later films were so bad, including such turkeys as 1965’s “Harum Scarum,” 1966’s “Frankie and Johnny” and 1969’s “Charro!,” Presley is often given short shrift as a film actor.
Though he never found the film that really stretched him as an actor, Presley acquitted himself quite nicely in several musicals and dramas working with such noted directors as Michael Curtiz (“King Creole”), Don Siegel (“Flaming Star”), George Sidney (“Viva Las Vegas”), Phil Karlson (“Blue Hawaii”) and Philip Dunne (“Wild in the Country”) and such performers as Barbara Stanwyck (“Roustabout”), Lizabeth Scott (“Lovin’ You”), Mildred Dunnock (“Love Me Tender”) and Walter Matthau (“King Creole”).
To commemorate the anniversary of his birth, why not revisit some of these Presley films?
“Love Me Tender” (1956)
This sentimental Civil War tale is far from a classic. And Presley certainly proved no threat to Marlon Brando. But it’s worthwhile because the family drama was the young Presley’s feature film debut.
Presley had been signed earlier by veteran producer Hal Wallis to a contract. Wallis, who was at Paramount, loaned Presley’s services to 20th Century Fox for “Love Me Tender.” It was the only time in his film career Presley received third billing. Four songs were added to the drama, including “Love Me Tender,” which was a reworking of the Civil War song “Aura Lee.” In fact, the tune was so popular after Presley sang it on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that the film was retitled from “The Reno Brothers” to “Love Me Tender.”
Some reviews were less than tender, with Variety stating: “Appraising Presley as an actor, he ain’t. Not that it makes much difference. There are four songs, and lotsa Presley wriggles thrown in for good measure.”
“Jailhouse Rock” (1957)
Presley swiveled his hips over to MGM for one of his best flicks in a role that was tailor-made to his strengths. Playing a bad boy with a heart, he sings, dances, spends time in prison, gets to emote and even falls in love. And who can’t resist such lines as “That ain’t cheap tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me.”
The film boasts a memorable score by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, including "(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” “Treat Me Nice” and the showstopping dance number “Jailhouse Rock.” On a sad note, his costar Judy Tyler died in a car accident with her husband before the film opened. Veteran Richard Thorpe (“Ivanhoe”) directed.
“King Creole” (1958)
Presley was drafted during the making of this musical drama based on the Harold Robbins’ novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher.” But the U.S. Army draft board gave him a 60-day extension.
Directed by Oscar-winning “Casablanca” director Curtiz, the film, set in New Orleans, finds him playing another troubled young man who is torn between two lovers — the virginal Dolores Hart (the actress later became a nun) and Carolyn Jones as a gangster’s moll. Along the way he sings the title tune, “Hard Headed Woman” and “Trouble.” Matthau and Dean Jagger also star.
“Viva Las Vegas” (1964)
This sprightly romantic comedy was Presley’s best film since “Jailhouse Rock,” and many of his fans think it is his final good one. Directed by Sidney, who had helmed such classic musicals as 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh” and the 1963 hit “Bye Bye Birdie,” this film finds Presley turning on the charm as Lucky Jackson, a race car driver who has aspirations of winning the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Ann-Margret is perfectly cast as Rusty, a swimming instructor and Lucky’s love interest — Presley and Ann-Margret also had an off-camera romance. Their sexy dance number “C’mon Everybody” is the highlight of the film. Other songs include the zippy title tune, “What’d I Say” and even “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
“Elvis — That’s The Way It Is” (1970)
After his final scripted film, Presley made two documentaries, including this well-received look at his summer appearance that year at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Directed by Denis Sanders, the film was shot by Lucien Ballard, who used eight Panavision cameras to capture Presley in all his musical glory.
In 2001, a new version produced by Rick Smidlin debuted on Turner Classic Movies that featured less documentary material and more performance footage.
In 2014, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released Premium Digibook editions of “Elvis — That’s The Way It Is” and “Viva Las Vegas.”
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