The Elvis Film Legacy: 'B' Grade Formula Celluloid - Truth or Myth?
Patterson (originally prepared for and published as part of the
First Online Symposium on Elvis Aron Presley)
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".
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.
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.
Elvis film career can be analytically split into four, quite distinct,
biographical films of the 50s;
early-mid 60's travelogues;
late 60s attempt at a 'mature' Elvis film; and
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.
1: The 50s - The Biographies
1950s Elvis' films were largely biographical (Love Me Tender being
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
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.
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.
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
2: The Early-Mid 60s - Travelogue Success
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
3: The Late 60s - A Change of Habit
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
4: The 70s Documentaries
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.
5: The Films Elvis Never Made
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.
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.
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.
In Hollywood Celluloid Sell-Out, Gerry McLafferty, Robert Hale,
London, 1989, ISBN: 0709037299
Read A Film: The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia: Language,
History, Theory, James Monaco, Oxford University Press; 3rd edition,
2000, ISBN: 019503869X
Cool The Movies of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden, Alfred A. Knopf, New
York, 1990, ISBN: 0394571576
Film (Study Materials), Nigel Patterson, The Brain Gym, Canberra
Guide to Elvis, Paul Simpson, Rough Guides, 2002, ISBN: 1843531194
Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image, Susan Doll, Garland Publishing
Inc., New York, 1998, ISBN: 0815331649
the author: Nigel Patterson is President of the Elvis Information
Network, one of the world's most respected web sites (www.elvisinfonet.com)
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.
"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.