Appreciating Elvis the Actor
By Susan Doll
Few movie stars are more scorned than Elvis Presley; few films have been more ridiculed than Elvis's musical comedies. Yet, his films were profitable for the studios and producers that made them, and, decades later, his 31 features and two concert documentaries are successes all over again on cable, streaming, and DVD.
Elvis Presley wasn’t a bad actor, and he wasn’t a great actor; he was a charismatic personality who could hold his own in front of the camera. And, for many types of Hollywood movies, that is enough. So, how did Elvis come to be so maligned and why is his film career underestimated?
The criticism started with Elvis himself. In the 1950s, he had hopes for his film career that his manager (the notorious Col. Tom Parker), his agent at the William Morris Agency, and the producers of his films did not share. While Parker and the others wanted financial success by any means necessary, Elvis hoped his stint in musicals would evolve into a dramatic career, along the lines of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Three of Presley’s first four films–Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole–had been backstage musicals, in which he played a singer about to break into show business. When he sang, it was generally on a stage setting, and the gritty backstage milieus were plausible. These musical dramas were in line with his goal of becoming a serious actor. In interviews, he repeatedly told reporters that in his “next” film, he didn’t want to sing at all. Sadly, that film never materialized.
In the early 1960s, the enormous box office success of Blue Hawaii determined the path of the rest of Elvis’s Hollywood career. He realized his fate was sealed as the star of light-hearted musical vehicles in which his characters burst into song in a race car, on a Ferris Wheel, during a puppet show, or at the beach with a crowd of strangers. Elvis did not like integrated musicals in which the songs are incorporated into the plot, and the characters burst into song at any time. Integrated musicals require a strong suspension of disbelief, and Elvis was one of those viewers who declared them too “unrealistic” for his tastes.
He disparagingly referred to his musical comedies as the “Presley Travelogues,” because most of them followed a formula in which he played a singing race-car driver, pilot, or boat captain passing through an exotic or scenic vacation spot. When Presley returned to concert performing in 1969, he began to poke fun at his Travelogues in his onstage banter. From 1969 to 1977, he publicly denigrated his movie career, setting up others to see it or write about in an unflattering way. Once, when asked by a reporter why he stopped making films, he answered flippantly, “I got tired of singing to the guy that I just beat up.” If Elvis himself ridiculed his film career, it is easy to see where the disrespect started.
Rock music historians shared Elvis’s negative view of his films, including such respected writers as Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, who had gained their reputations with Rolling Stone magazine. In their eyes, Elvis’s decision to abandon his innovative rockabilly sound and rebel image to be a pop-singing leading man was sacrilegious. Compared to the raw, sensual rockabilly of the 1950s, Elvis’s 1960s movie music was mellow and conventional-sounding. Instead of growling such bluesy numbers as “Trouble” in King Creole, he now crooned tunes like “Wooden Heart” or winked his way through soft-rock hits like “Rock-a-Hula Baby.” Marsh, Marcus, and others painted the 1960s movies and music as weak, derivative, and the end of Elvis as a musical influence. Looking at it from the standpoint of musical innovation, their point of view is valid. But, looking at it from another perspective yields a less judgmental interpretation.
The decision to change Presley’s image and music was a deliberate strategy to escape the controversy of “Elvis the Pelvis” from the 1950s. His two-year stint in the army (1958-1960) provided an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and re-tool his image and sound to attract a broader audience — a mainstream audience that the Colonel had been courting all along. Turning Elvis into a conventional leading man of musical comedies successfully accomplished that goal without losing his original core audience. It’s not a fateful step downhill; it’s a calculated career move in a different direction. Because the rock music historians were among the first to write the history of Elvis, his film career was tainted by their prejudices.
Elvis’s musical comedies of the 1960s are actually better-than-average examples of the trendy teen flicks of the time. Who can forget the Beach Party series with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, which were peppered with guest appearances by musical groups associated with the “surfin’ sound.” Small wonder that Elvis starred in a number of beach-related movies complete with surfing and beach shindigs, including Blue Hawaii and Clambake. When spring break in Ft. Lauderdale and other resort towns was popularized through Where the Boys Are and Palm Springs Weekend, Elvis starred in his own Ft. Lauderdale adventure titled Girl Happy. When the mod scene in London was all the rage, Elvis made Double Trouble, which featured the swinging discotheques of London and Amsterdam. Familiar faces from teen flicks also popped up in Elvis’s movies, including Nancy Sinatra, Shelley Fabares (his favorite costar), and Deborah Walley. The Presley Travelogues successfully followed the trends of the time, and seen in this context, they make sense.
In retrospect, Elvis’s vehicles stand out from the average teen flick, because they were designed to appeal to family audiences. His films included children as well as older characters played by movie stars of the Golden Age. Barbara Stanwyck and Leif Erickson added considerable weight to Roustabout, Joan Blondell enlivened Stay Away, Joe, and Rudy Vallee, a teen idol from another era, costarred in Live a Little, Love a Little. The casting reflected the strategy of his management team: Appeal to the broadest audience while still courting the core group of fans. Studio veterans such as Norman Taurog were tapped to direct, and their expertise added a polish other teen flicks did not have. I recently watched Roustabout, and the production design and costumes consisted entirely of the primary colors red, blue, and yellow to capture the colorful carny atmosphere that was the milieu of the film. The color scheme organized the action, brightened the mood, and covered up the film’s low-budget origins–definitely the touch of professionals.
The songs from Elvis’s 1960s films are not nearly as bad as music critics claim. The romantic ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” from Blue Hawaii became his closing tune when he returned to concert performances in the 1970s; “Return to Sender,” cowritten by the great Otis Blackwell, graces Girls, Girls, Girls; Elvis renders a solid version of Ray Charles’s “What I’d Say” in Viva Las Vegas; the novelty tune “Little Egypt” enlivens Roustabout, “Long-Legged Girl” is the best part of Double Trouble, and “Little Less Conversation” from Live a Little, Love a Little may have been ahead of its time. Over 30 years later, the song was re-mixed and released as a dance-mix hit in Europe. Of course, there were plenty of clunkers, including “No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” from Fun in Acapulco, “Ito Eats” from Blue Hawaii, “Do the Clam” from Girl Happy, and “Queenie Wahini’s Papaya” from Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
During the mid-1960s, the budgets for the Presley Travelogues became lower, the costars less famous, the scripts more formulaic, and the production values weaker. Musicals such as Kissin’ Cousins, Tickle Me, Stay Away, Joe, and Harum Scarum reflect that decline, so there is no denying that some of his films are poor. And, yet, these films should not stand in for his entire career, which has been unfairly condemned. Rock music historians blame his movies for the end of an era; biographers lament that his musical comedies contributed to an overall artistic decline, and Elvis himself was lost in the disappointment of what might have been.
I prefer to appreciate his films as fun, light-hearted entertainment suitable for anyone. Elvis is TCM’s Star of the Month this July, and will be showing a range of Presley Travelogues. I think we can all use the distraction.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).