I’ve been an Elvis fan as far back as I can remember. Like anybody else, the King has made his share of bad movies. But because of his undeniable charisma (not to mention his way with a song), any movie he’s in is immediately worth watching. And that is more than enough to qualify Elvis as a Legend of the Silver Screen.
Our first Elvis film is his best:
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) ****
If Love Me Tender and Loving You was Elvis’ Dr. No and From Russia with Love, then Jailhouse Rock is Elvis’ Goldfinger. It’s the film where all the elements came together and established the template for things to come. It finds Elvis playing a great rebellious hotheaded, but loveable character. And of course it features some great songs too.
Elvis plays Vince Everett, a good ol’ boy that has a bad temper. He accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and goes to jail. While in prison, he sings a song on a televised jailhouse show and gets a big reaction. After Vince pays his debt to society, he hooks up with a pretty record producer (Judy Tyler) who wants to make him a star. But Vince’s former cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy) sees him as his meal ticket and tries to ride Vince’s coattails.
Jailhouse Rock is Elvis at his zenith, at least in terms of his Hollywood films. Hollywood producers and Colonel Tom Parker would later water down Elvis’ onscreen image, turning him into a sunny, happy-go-lucky walking jukebox. Here, he’s animalistic, crude, and electrifying. Take the scene where a guy heckles his performance in a nightclub and he smashes his guitar. It’s definitely not something you’d see him do in his later pictures. One thing is for sure, I wish he had kept this James Dean-inspired onscreen persona throughout his career instead of the innocuous one he would grow into.
The music in the film is better than most Elvis films. The title tune is a real showstopper. It’s one of the best musical numbers ever put on film. The rest of the music is pretty good, but it pales in comparison to Jailhouse Rock. Likewise, Elvis’ movies all pale in comparison to this one. It’s the King at his best.
The next film in our Presley-Palooza is…
IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963) ***
In a way, Elvis’ movie career kinda echoes Godzilla’s. When both of them started out, they were threatening, dangerous, badass forces of nature. But somewhere along the way, both titans of the screen had their image softened and they became friends to troubled children. It Happened at the World’s Fair falls into the latter category, but since it was made at a time when the Elvis formula hadn’t gotten stale yet, it remains quite a lot of fun.
Elvis is a pilot who finds himself babysitting a cute kid. He takes her to the World’s Fair in Seattle where he falls in love with a hot nurse. The little kid plays matchmaker and is able to wear down the nurse’s defenses.
It Happened at the World’s Fair is harmless and lightweight fare, but it’s totally watchable and fun. Elvis does just about everything you could want him to do in a movie. He sings, romances the ladies, and even gets to bust out some of his Kung Fu (or as I like to call it, “King Fu”) moves. There’s an especially funny scene where he lowers his crop duster to check out some babes in a car.
The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Gary Lockwood (who was also in Wild in the Country with Elvis) is quite good as Elvis’ gambling addict friend. Batgirl herself, Yvonne Craig also does a fine job as one of Elvis’ girlfriends. But the most famous co-star in this one is Kurt Russell, who plays a kid that kicks Elvis. Naturally, he went on to play the King in John Carpenter’s Elvis, and recreated the famous kicking scene in the highly underrated 3000 Miles to Graceland.
The next Elvis film up for discussion is…
STAY AWAY, JOE (1968) ***
Elvis stars as an Indian who gets loaned a herd of cattle by the government. Since the bull is a big stud, Elvis thinks he’ll be able to breed the livestock in no time. But after a night of drunken revelry, Elvis and his family accidentally barbecue the bull. Elvis gets another bull, but it turns out to be no Romeo. Meanwhile, his feisty stepmother starts selling off the herd in order to fix up her house, which seriously jeopardizes Elvis’ arrangement with the government.
Stay Away, Joe is refreshingly light on plot and is chockfull of colorful characters. It’s basically a “Hang Out” movie, as most of the film revolves around Elvis and his family and friends getting drunk, fighting, and fornicating. The style of the movie is fast and loose and at times it plays like a lesser Altman movie. After about an hour though, the film hops from one sitcom situation after another. But that’s okay because it’s still pretty funny.
The title track is very good, but some of the other songs are pretty goofy. At one point, Elvis sings to a pack of howling dogs in the rain and croons a love song to a bull to get it in the mood. Still, the flick has some things you’d never expect to see in a movie. Take for instance the scene where Elvis rounds up the cattle while driving a convertible. Plus, it’s a lot of fun seeing Burgess Meredith playing a drunken Indian.
And our final Elvis flick is…
CHARRO! (1969) ***
Of all the Elvis movies that get a bad rap, this one is the least deserved. Sure, it’s not as good as something like Flaming Star, but it’s a damn sight better than its reputation would lead you to believe. (At one point, it was THIS close to appearing on Mystery Science Theater.) Charro isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent western in its own right and benefits from a deadly serious turn from Elvis.
Elvis stars as Jess Wade, a cowboy who gets double-crossed by his former gang, led by Vince Hackett (Victor French). They brand Jess and let him take the fall for their crime. When Hackett’s hot-headed brother shoots the sheriff, Jess is deputized. Naturally, Hackett comes to town looking to bust his brother out, and he brings along with him a solid gold cannon to do the job.
Charro begins with a great theme song (sung by the King of course) that plays over a terrific title sequence. It immediately gives the movie a Spaghetti Western feel. The film may run on a bit too long and the ending is probably a bit too drawn out, but it’s definitely grittier than you’d expect from an Elvis picture, that’s for sure.
Elvis is good playing a serious role. I don’t think he ever got the credit he deserved for his acting work, but with Charro he shows he could handle dramatic material very well. It’s French though who is the standout here as the slimeball villain. He’s miles away from his work on Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
Next week’s Legend: Billy Zane.