The Elvis Film Legacy: 'B' Grade Formula Celluloid - Truth or Myth?

by Nigel Patterson (originally prepared for and published as part of the First Online Symposium on Elvis Aron Presley)

Synopsis: This paper will challenge the myth that Elvis' film career was shallow and one-dimensional, and that his body of work can be characterised as "the Elvis movie".

It will highlight the four distinct phases to Elvis's film career by exploring essential elements that distinguish each phase and offer much needed fresh insight into the body of work that comprises the varied nature of his film legacy.

The Elvis film is a film sub-genre much maligned by critics and the general population.

It is most recognisable as one of the 60s Elvis travelogues that featured a recycled script with half-a-dozen new songs, beautiful girls and exotic locations. But the Presley travelogues are only part of the Elvis film catalogue, although admittedly they make up the majority of Elvis' screen credits.

The Elvis film career can be analytically split into four, quite distinct, phases:

  • the biographical films of the 50s;
  • the early-mid 60's travelogues;
  • the late 60s attempt at a 'mature' Elvis film; and
  • the 70's documentaries.

In this paper I will principally examine the first three phases of Elvis' film career, ie. his narrative films, and suggest a fifth phase worthy of further investigation.

Phase 1: The 50s - The Biographies

In the 1950s Elvis' films were largely biographical (Love Me Tender being the exception).

Loving You drew closely on the Elvis story with its southern roots, country and rockabilly music, flashy clothes, impoverished start etc. In Jailhouse Rock, the media texts surrounding Elvis' long hair, flashy clothes and effect on the opposite sex were emphasised as was his performing style.

King Creole offered Elvis a meaty script, evocative New Orleans setting and great soundtrack. Again, media texts about Elvis and his life were reinforced, from his quiet, sullen demeanour to his sexually provocative performing style. Critics were generally complimentary about Elvis's acting ability in his latter three films of the 50s. This would quickly change once his post Army formula films began.

The soundtracks for Elvis' 50s films were strong and discrete. Loving You offered the country side of The King, Jailhouse Rock the rock and ballad side, and King Creole the raw, bluesy side. The only weak link was Love Me Tender with its anachronistic use of song and physical movement.

The strength of these soundtracks is very apparent when contrasted with the formula pop soundtracks chosen for Elvis's later films. A similar observation can be made when contrasting the plots in the first three phases of the Elvis film career. The production values (sets, costumes and experienced co-stars) for Elvis' 50s films were solid without being outstanding.

Phase 2: The Early-Mid 60s - Travelogue Success

Attempts in the early 1960s to provide Elvis with a stronger acting challenge were not successful. In particular, it was unfortunate for Elvis, who aspired to a serious acting, that two serious films were released consecutively, thereby reinforcing their relative box-office failure.

Wild In The Country was a slow moving, well acted moody melodrama, but failed to set the box office alight. Similarly, the critically acclaimed Flaming Star was a comparative box office disappointment due to Elvis dying at the end of the picture and its minimalist use of songs. Elvis fans simply wanted more songs and certainly didn't want to see their idol die. Alternative endings to Love Me Tender had been filmed for the same reason, with a compromise ending being selected - while Elvis died in the picture, his image in the clouds singing Love Me Tender emphasised his star image over his film character, thereby reassuring his fans (particularly his female fans).

The huge box office success of G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii was quick to convince the film studios and Colonel Parker that Elvis did not need any more dramatic challenges. Rather, the strategy was to place Elvis in an exotic location surrounded by beautiful women, mix in a dash of drama and amusing situations, a pot pourii of songs and then relax, sit back and listen to the sound of the cash registers singing!

Subsequent successes with Girls! Girls! Girls!, It Happened At The World's Fair and Viva, Las Vegas confirmed the formula mould. Elvis appeared uncomfortable in Kid Galahad but its soundtrack and strong supporting cast (including Gig Young and a soon to be superstar, Charles Bronson) prevailed. The formula continued to prove highly profitable until 1965 when the decline in box office receipts became noticeable.

Having said this, even Tickle Me, one of Elvis's flimsiest and most criticised films saved Allied Artists from immediate bankruptcy! Paradise, Hawaiian Style was a lame attempt to repeat the success of Blue Hawaii, while Easy Come, Easy Go and Frankie & Johnny offered good value for respectively, their eclectic characters and 19th century riverboat setting/period costumes.

It Happened At The World's Fair was an enjoyable, family orientated production with a pleasant soundtrack and amusing scenes, including the film debut of young Kurt Russell, who would go on to play Elvis in the critically acclaimed television movie, Elvis and the violent and plot muddled heist caper, 3000 Miles To Graceland.

Fun In Acapulco offered nothing new in plotline but this hardly mattered with its glorious scenery and Latino flavoured soundtrack. While Harum Scarum (Harem Holiday) had merit for its costuming and reasonable soundtrack, these elements were overshadowed by a lacklustre script and routine acting.

Roustabout was an unmeritorious stand-out in the mid 60s, largely due to the inclusion of screen legend, Barbra Stanwyck as Elvis' principal co-star. Its soundtrack songs had a total playing time of just over 20 minutes! Other films including California Holiday (Spinout), Girl Happy, Clambake and Speedway offered a pleasant diversion on a Saturday afternoon or at the drive-in without being memorable films.

Films such as Kissin' Cousins and Double Trouble epitomised the quick 3 to 4 week shooting schedules of mid-60s Elvis films (earlier films had been shot over several months). The latter film also has the distinction of including the absolute nadir of Elvis's film songs, Old MacDonald's Farm.

The mid 60s was a mixed bag for fans. After Follow That Dream (a solid light comedy where Elvis displayed a deft acting touch) there was a noticeable decline in the production values for Elvis' films. Location shooting often replaced studio shoots, and the quality of scripts was variable. Similarly, the songs chosen for each movie showed a decline in (general) quality although for most fans they were still great and they worked quite well within the plot line, a fact arguably due in great part to Elvis's ability to make just about any song sound good. In assessing the worth of the Presley travelogues it is important to remember their intended audience and purpose - to entertain teenagers. They were never intended to be blockbusters with huge budgets. Compared to other sub-genres of the 60s, eg. the beach and biker films, Elvis's films have obviously higher production values. Given these considerations, most of the Elvis travelogues worked very well. It is also interesting to note that while critics malign the Elvis travelogues they are less caustic about other formula films, for example the films of Martin & Lewis, Tarzan and the Astaire-Rogers catalog.

Phase 3: The Late 60s - A Change of Habit

By the late 1960s the declining box office receipts saw a change of direction for Elvis' films, increasingly without formula elements. While they continued to be largely maligned by critics the third and last phase of Elvis's 'narrative' film career was actually much better than suggested.

Elvis was able to shine as a light comedy actor in the enjoyable sex farce, Live A Little, Love A Little and the unfortunately racist, but tongue-in-cheek, Stay Away, Joe. In The Trouble With Girls (and How To Get Into It), Elvis performed admirably as a leading man in one of his most underrated films.

Today, The Trouble With Girls is being positively re-discovered by movie critics for its high production values (the costumes and sets are excellent while the use of camera techniques), period film evocation and its well acted, if slowly plotted and somewhat weak, script. Charro was a solid spaghetti western with a strong music score, good central characterisations and a tough, adult script.

Change Of Habit (Elvis' final narrative film) was, at the time, a fine attempt at a contemporary, socially aware picture. Although now somewhat dated, Elvis certainly looked great and there was some wonderful support acting and genuinely amusing and dramatic scenes.

The late 60s films still included a minimum number of scenes for Elvis to sing, and it is on this count that some criticism can be made. The deplorable Dominic in Stay Away, Joe (Elvis singing to a bull!) is a painful reminder of the formula days, but this is more than counter-balanced by the superb Clean Up Your Own Back Yard (from The Trouble With Girls) and the funky 'ahead of its time' track, A Little Less Conversation (from Live A Little, Love A Little).

Unfortunately, for Elvis, by the late 60's fans were "switching off" from his films and despite some admirable attempts at changing the direction of his film career, neither fans, the general public nor critics were willing to sanction the new direction. As the bottom line for film studios is profits, the studios also were not interested in giving the new direction time to develop and re-attract a substantial audience.

Elvis himself also wanted a change, a return to live performing and the adrenalin rush of being in front of an adoring, live audience. It is a tragedy that Elvis and the Colonel did not persist with an Elvis narrative film career in the 1970's. This could have been achieved by balancing the commitments for live performing with one movie every 12 months or so.

At best, this may have provided a greater creative spark for Elvis and, at worst, slowed his physical and psychological decline throughout the 70s. It is a case of what might have been.

Phase 4: The 70s Documentaries

The final phase in Elvis' film career was the concert phase, with the two concert documentaries: Elvis: That's The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. The superb re-edit and digital re-mastering of Elvis: That's The Way It Is (2000 Edition) is bringing a vibrant Elvis to a whole new generation. A re-edit of Elvis On Tour is also on the cards, although it was less effective than its predecessor that dynamically showcases a slim, superlative performer at the peak of his profession.

Phase 5: The Films Elvis Never Made

A fifth phase to Elvis's film career encompasses the films he never made. Films such as Thunder Road, A Star Is Born, The New Gladiators and Forever Is A Bullet Away. This is a fruitful area for study as it offers considerable insight into not only what might have been, but also the politics behind Elvis's film career.

In any film course there are several films that are ideal for film analysis. In the Elvis context these include King Creole with its strong camera work, Blue Hawaii the perfect example of how to do a Presley travelogue and The Trouble With Girls with its high production values. Conclusion Despite the generally accepted, negative view on Elvis' film career, the Elvis film is not a homogenous entity.

The formula film travelogues of the early-mid 60s, while the most remembered part of Elvis' film legacy, are not characteristic of his full body of work. The Elvis film legacy encompasses four discrete phases, each one worthy of critical analysis in its own right and each offering distinct differences in the quality of plot, production values and soundtrack material. Nearly thirty-five years have passed since the release of Change of Habit, the last 'narrative' Elvis film. In the absence of the prevailing critical attitudes of the Elvis era, the new millennium offers us an opportunity for a fresh examination of and perspective on Elvis' body of film work.


Elvis In Hollywood Celluloid Sell-Out, Gerry McLafferty, Robert Hale, London, 1989, ISBN: 0709037299

How To Read A Film: The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia: Language, History, Theory, James Monaco, Oxford University Press; 3rd edition, 2000, ISBN: 019503869X

Medium Cool The Movies of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990, ISBN: 0394571576

The Elvis Film (Study Materials), Nigel Patterson, The Brain Gym, Canberra College, 2002

The Rough Guide to Elvis, Paul Simpson, Rough Guides, 2002, ISBN: 1843531194

Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image, Susan Doll, Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1998, ISBN: 0815331649

About the author: Nigel Patterson is President of the Elvis Information Network, one of the world's most respected web sites ( and fan clubs. Nigel is also Convenor of the Coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs and periodically, since 1991, has facilitated the acclaimed study course, "The Elvis Film - 'B' Grade Celluloid: Truth or Myth?" in a number of Australian secondary and tertiary institutions.

In 2002, "The Elvis Film - 'B' Grade Celluloid: Truth or Myth?" became the first course to be offered by the Canberra College as both an in-class and distance learning unit.