Tuesday, May 7, 2013


As of April 26, 2013, I have seen all 31 feature films starring Elvis Presley. I watched Speedway (1968) a few weeks ago and finished with Charro! (1969). I had tried watching Charro! before, but only got as far as the capture scene toward the beginning of the movie.

Speedway has some of the predictable hallmarks of an Elvis movie, including the presence of cute children to whom Elvis sings. He's a race car driver (again) and in need of money to save himself and his career (again). There's a cute production number reminiscent of non-Elvis musicals with the song "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad". The soundtrack also features "Let Yourself Go," which is one of my favorite songs in the "Nothingville" production number in the '68 comeback. Unfortunately, the version in this movie wasn't as sexy as the one in the comeback. It was nice to see Elvis with a co-star who could sing - Nancy Sinatra - but I'm sorry to say that Nancy was no Ann-Margret. As my mom said, Nancy's success is all due to her last name. Sorry, Nancy.

Charro! had the fewest songs of all of Elvis's movies, with just a title track. It's another western in which Elvis is a troubled bad guy-turned-good guy. Elvis sported a scruffy mustache and beard, so he almost didn't look like himself. Those blue eyes showed through, though! There's nothing really remarkable about this film. Elvis doesn't even really have a love interest in this movie. He had had a relationship with a local saloon owner, but nothing really happens with that during the film. He basically just needs to prove himself to the town by saving them from a gang of reckless, thieving cowboys that he used to roam the desert with. There's some gun-slinging, saloon fighting and jail time at the sheriff's (though Elvis is the jailer this time). It's a typical western with one good-looking guy they made more rough with facial hair and a bunch of average guys.

What else can I say? When you see Elvis's films, especially the later ones, you see how he was used as a money-making tool for the studios and Colonel Parker. A lot of the dialogue is weak and the plots don't have much substance. Of these last two films, Speedway was more entertaining because at least there were a few songs. I can understand what Elvis meant when he said that the movies showed what Hollywood thought of him and how they made fun of him. In a lot of the movies you see a caricature of Elvis. The same fights scenes over and over again, the pop-y tunes perfect for hip swiveling. (Question: how many of Elvis's "moves" were his natural reaction to the music and how many were choreographed?) For someone whose livelihood revolved making these movies for most of a decade, I can understand the frustration.

So could Elvis have been a serious actor? It was one of his stated goals, but was it really possible? Maybe if he hadn't gone into the army. Arguably, his best acting came out in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Both of these films' stories revolved around the protagonist and allowed Elvis to develop his character. Both had quality soundtracks that worked with the rest of the film (and Jailhouse Rock had that great production number). If Elvis had had the opportunity to make more films like those, then perhaps he might have been able to transition from musicals to straight films. Maybe. His service in the army came at such a crucial juncture in his life and his career that it's easy to imagine how different his life might have been if he had kept making records and movies from 1958-1960. From 1956 to 1958 there was positive, moving energy in his music and in his movies. The army cut this energy off long enough that he couldn't just pick up where he left off when he came home in 1960. (This is not to say that he didn't produce good work in the '60s; I argue that he was at his best, vocally, between 1960 and 1963 when his voice had matured and he was able to sing some great ballads as well as gospel and pop/movie soundtrack tunes.) The energy that had propelled him forward in the '50s was mostly static until he was re-energized for the '68 comeback. He was someone who needed to be challenged in order to be satisfied, and the acting part of his career certainly didn't challenge him in the '60s.

Aside from my sympathies with Elvis for his artistic frustrations, what do I think of his 31 movies? While many of them are forgettable, there are some fun ones that I have watched many times and will continue to watch from time to time. I love watching him sing "Moonlight Swim" in that sky blue convertible in Blue Hawaii and watching him marry Maile with "Hawaiian Wedding Song" at the end. I love the "Jailhouse Rock" production number and when Vince sings "Young and Beautiful" to Peggy at the end of Jailhouse Rock after his voice has recovered. I have watched him sing "Return to Sender" in Girls! Girls! Girls! so many times that I can duplicate almost all of his moves from memory. These are fun films. They may not be deeply meaningful, or be Oscar-worthy, but they're entertaining. His mesmerizing charisma came through in some of the earlier films, which makes you want to watch them. His music and charisma are the redeeming qualities to many of the films, which suggests to me that his film career wasn't a complete failure.

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