Tuesday, April 15

The King's Quartet

Elvis Presley made 31 films.  Twenty-five of them are among the worst films ever made.  Ever.  Two more are passable and four of them aren't bad at all.  I still don't know if any of the four are all that good, but they certainly stand apart from those crappy 25.  After we drizzle some back story on you, we'll highlight those four.

When Presley made his first film in 1956, he was already a major star but would, of course, go on to become a superstar... a legend... the poster boy for popular culture... a phenom... a lover of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and ok, The King.  He unquestionably succeeded in all those areas and as much as he wanted to be a superstar actor, as respected and revered as his idol, Paul Newman, we know it was never to be. 

Presley's story cannot be separated from his manager Col. Tom Parker's, a former carnival barker, who used those talents and more as a
music promoter to woo the young Presley.  Parker had previously promoted/managed such country singers as Minnie Pearl, Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and later briefly-popular boy singer, Tommy Sands.  For Presley, who handed over nearly everything to Parker, including his integrity, found that Parker was the good news and the bad news.

The good was that it is likely true that Presley would never have pierced the heavens as he did without the counsel, pushing and prodding of the colonel.  On the other hand, Parker blew it when it came to the movies.  It was a medium that he just didn't connect to, certainly nothing close to his expertise in the music world.  It's been said that Parker would not allow Presley to do films outside of America because Parker could not be separated from the singer.  And Parker could not go with him because as a Dutch-born immigrant, he may not be allowed back in America because of some nasty business involving a murder.  As such, Presley had to pass on some film offers that might have garnered him some respect and opportunity in the film world.

As it was, he still passed (or Parker did) on roles in such stateside films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, West Side Story, Sweet Bird of Youth, Midnight Cowboy and True Grit.  Parker did not want Presley to involve himself in any good dramatic parts.  Parker wanted Presley to churn out exploitative musicals aimed at screaming teenage girls. The singer very much wanted to join Marilyn Monroe in 1956's Bus Stop and Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born, 20 years later, each of which might have been very right for him, but Parker didn't want his cash cow supporting a woman.

I think Presley had the makings of being a good actor.  The stuff was in there.  Someone who agreed was The Actors' Studio guru, Lee Strasberg, who offered about Presley... great acting talent going to waste.  But Presley traded in training and development for sullenness and arrogance, traits available for viewing in all but his first film.  He understood them well because they had been part of the man long before the actor.

His second film, Loving You, was his first good film.  The story of a young tough, down on his luck, picking up a guitar and making it in the music world became his template for nearly all of his movies.  I quite liked Loving You and was bored silly in the few of those other 25 films I saw.  His better films involved seasoned actors, talented directors and writers of some merit.  His lesser films featured mostly bubble-headed Barbi Doll actresses, has-been or untried directors and hack writers.  In this film, working with Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey paid off for Presley as well as his first of two pairings with sweet and wholesome Dolores Hart.

His fourth film, 1958's King Creole was the best thing Presley ever did as an actor and it also happened to be his favorite film.  There must be a connection.  It was also based on a successful Harold Robbins novel, A Stone for Danny Fisher, filmed in 1951 under that title with Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters.  Tailored for Presley and his southern roots, the locale was changed from Chicago to New Orleans' French Quarter so Presley could warble his songs in honky tonks while providing for his father and sister.  The hard core drama comes from his involvement with a customer and her abusive boyfriend.  Hart was aboard again, as were the sterling talents of Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow.  Directed by former Warner Bros quarterback Michael Curtiz, it was a truly professional gig that took Presley by surprise.  He thought he was onto something.

The money-grubbing colonel wasn't pleased that Elvis so enjoyed his thespian experience in King Creole.  The world famously knew at this point he did a brief stint in the army and when he got out, he did the mindless drek that was G.I. Blues.  The colonel was beaming from ear-to-ear but Presley said it was the worst movie he ever made.  Wow, what a tough call that would be.

Two years later came Flaming Star, directed by the great Don Siegel.  Ah, a western you may decry, most of us realizing it does pretty much fall apart in the second half.  But the first part was a decent outdoor drama involving a white father and his Indian wife and his white son and their half-Indian son.  Presley, of course, played the latter rather convincingly.  He loved westerns and riding horses and he was eager to do a drama without singing.  Here was his chance.  It didn't do well at the box office.  Parker was pleased. 

His last chance for a decent role although in the old tried and true formula (thug kid makes nice-nice with adults who attempt to reform him while he rises in the music world, here changed to the writing world although he still sings alot) came with Wild in the Country (1960).  Directed by Philip Dunne (who was primarily a screenwriter), it was based on a Clifford Odets work, obviously revamped for Presley.  Most of the time his character lusts after his psychiatrist, well-played by Hope Lange.  Even better was Tuesday Weld as a sluttish unwed mother who is part of a family with whom Presley lives.  She lusts for him and when she does, the screen comes alive with raw energy.  She had previously dated Presley and it shows.  Lange dated him during the film and that shows, too.

With two dramas that made no money, the colonel put his big foot down and advised E that he was going to start making movies that made money.  Period.  No more emoting.  Sing.  Argue with the girl.  Sing again.  Get girl back.  The end. 

From then on and until his final film in 1969, it was junk, junk, junk with such titles as Girls Girls Girls, Blue Hawaii, Follow That Dream, It Happened at the World's Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Kissin' Cousins, Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, Girl Happy, Spinout, Paradise Hawaiian Style, Easy Come Easy Go, Double Trouble, Clambake, Speedway, Live a Little Love a Little and The Trouble with Girls.  His mother, had she lived, would have been so proud.  It was mindless, cheap, exploitation crap that should not be included on anyone's resumé.

The King has left the studio.  Lights out.

Next posting:  The Directors

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