The Elvis Films
by Jon Abbott
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, USA, 2014, 299 pages, Softcover, Illustrated, Index, ISBN-13: 978-1500509972
Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, December 2014
“the last great series of star vehicles": Dave Marsh on the Elvis film canon
Jon Abbott has written extensively on popular culture topics for more than 30 years. This includes more than 400 articles and features for major publications and two years providing an annual report on the U.S. TV season for the trade journal, Television Weekly. His latest book is The Elvis Films.
Let me say that I am a fan of the author's earlier works, Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970 A Critical History and Stephen J. Cannell Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots. Being a child of the ‘pop culture’ era I appreciate his take on often underrated parts of my formative years. We share a love of many things including The Man From UNCLE, Supercar, Huckleberry Hound, The Invaders, Daleks, Irwin Allen TV series and a lot more. I am particularly looking forward to his announced books in 2015: Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed The World and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.
In this context I welcomed news of The Elvis Films and the evocative images it conjured in my mind of long ago Saturday afternoons at the local cinema or nights in the back seat of a car at the drive-in enjoying the delights of what were often Elvis "double bills". Blue Hawaii, Jailhouse Rock, Fun In Acapulco, Clambake, Speedway, Stay Away, Joe and the like........what great entertainment they were for many of us in our younger years and they can still delight today! I knew Jon Abbott would infuse his coverage of the eclectic Elvis film canon with a pop culture sensibility and an appreciation beyond the narrow minded perspective of many film critics.
Unfortunately, my anticipation of delving into The Elvis Films was somewhat dampened on reading the initial part of the book: introduction – a personal note, where the author revealed he had divided Elvis’ film career into three periods:
- the early films (which the author respects)
- the sunny 60s (which the author loves)
- the dreadful mistakes (which are fascinating in their own awful way)
‘the dreadful mistakes’! Having run an Elvis Film Course over the past 30 years I was dismayed on realising Abbott’s view on what was, in my opinion, actually a rich and interesting attempt to give Elvis an “adult’ makeover (in the celluloid sense). I now had to tread carefully (said with ‘tongue-in-cheek’) in digesting what he had to say.
Blue Hawaii - film poster from Germany
Abbott is quick to set the tenor for his analysis of where Elvis’ career as an actor best lay by observing:
With hindsight, Elvis was better off chasing girls in Hawaii and Acapulco than trying to be an imitation James Bond.....
He also comments perceptively on Elvis’ seminal role in the growth of teen culture:
Recent television exposure had moved Presley away from the security and passion of paying fans and into the homes of all and sundry, exposing his performances to people who hadn’t sought them out........He was the first pop performer to discover that when television presents an act to the wider public gaze and exposes that material to a larger, less appreciative audience that was previously in blissful ignorance......Well, teen culture has been taking a kicking ever since.
The author provides a general overview of the narrative of each film and demonstrates a perceptive understanding of how elements play off each other, for instance in Follow That Dream:
Although O’Connell and his brood are presented as struggling good-natured survivors rather than con-men, any film with protagonists on the fringes of respectable society needs real heavies added to the mix to provide the audience with genuine villains. Enter the Disney-esque gangsters, genuinely funny, with character actor Simon Oakland doing a blatant Edward G. Robinson impression, and Jack Kruschen as his pragmatic, calmer, but equally baffled lieutenant.
Abbott infuses his discussion with a heady mix of behind the scenes anecdotes offering a rich source of illuminating information and tantalising nuggets of information:
About King Creole:
Greeted with a torrent of intimidating foul language from the notoriously bullying [director] Curtiz, Presley apparently walked calmly onto the set and offered his handshake, alongside the traditional courteous Presley greeting, thus making the unfortunate Curtiz look an even smaller man than he already was.
And on the filming of Paradise, Hawaiian Style:
“[Director] Michel Moore never gave us any direction” said Irene Tsu, who played native girl Pua in several major scenes. “The guy was terrified of everybody, most of all Elvis. He never directed Elvis at all, and let him do whatever he wanted.”
While I may not agree with everything Jon Abbott has written, I appreciate and respect his consideration and interpretation of Elvis’ body of film work and its wider implications and influences (socio cultural context).
Be it “the sugar-coated retelling of the origin of Elvis” in Loving You, the “perfectly judged” performances in Viva Las Vegas, or the “unbelievable pile of crap” (I firmly disagree – IMO the film is an underrated, quirky and fun sex comedy!) of Live A Little, Love A Little, Abbott dishes up a sometimes sweet, sometimes savoury and often thought provoking interpretation of Elvis on the big screen.
Many readers will be surprised to read that Abbott judges Jailhouse Rock to be “wildly overrated” and he correctly observes that in The Trouble With Girls it is not Elvis but his impressive line-up of co-stars who drive the narrative in its most important moments.
Abbott is dismissive of Elvis’ last narrative film, Change of Habit, regarding it as probably his worst”. While I agree several scenes seem unnecessarily truncated and in a film sense this undermines their potential for dramatic effect, I don’t consider the film is anywhere near as bad as perceived by Abbott. It is, in my opinion, certainly not Elvis’ worst film....for me, titles like Paradise, Hawaiian Style and Kissin’ Cousins are much closer to being crowned with that uninspiring title.
In discussing each film Abbott also goes off in juicy tangential diversions to enlighten the reader about the non-Elvis film careers of many of his co-stars, film producers and directors. Pop culture addicts (like me) will particularly welcome these explorations. Abbott perceptively observes about Michael Ansara and Theo Marcuse (who featured in Harum Scarum):
Both Ansara and Mancuse were the sort of busy and prolific performers whose faces were so well known to the public that, either consciously or in an almost subliminal fashion, they became virtual visual reference points in films and TV of that period, creating their stereotypes through the sheer number of their appearances.
Elvis gets up close and personal with Nancy Sinatra on the Speedway
On Dabney Coleman, who co-starred in The Trouble With Girls and would later achieve prominence in his own right, Abbott colorfully records:
Dabney Coleman spent the 1960s playing nondescript bit parts in series like The Outer Limits, I Dream of Jeannie and The Invaders before growing a moustache and carving a niche for himself as opinionated slimeballs, The Trouble With Girls being one of the earliest examples....
These diversions occasionally come at a cost. They are both the strength and also a weakness of the book. Their strength is that they contribute to the author’s ability to give each of Elvis’ films their context relative to the social and popular culture landscape in which they were made.
Their weakness is that at times I felt Abbott didn’t strike the right balance between core elements of his discussion. King Creole is a case in point - Abbott writes vociferously and most interestingly about the political, cultural and personnel back story but less about the film itself.
The other weakness of the book is its routine black and white visuals which are relatively sparse in number and of only average (at best) visual quality. They appear in the book almost as if they were an afterthought. Of some interest are images of posters for films in the ‘teen film’ genre such as the Beach Party series, Gidget and Bye Bye Birdie, but sadly their low quality detracts. It would have been wiser to omit them altogether.
On the positive side a series of five value-add appendices make for stimulating reading:
- the documentaries (Elvis That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour)
- the elvis impersonators, Elvis on TV
- sources and bibliography
Verdict: Jon Abbott has written a deliciously breakfast cereal (read: snap, crackle and pop) take on Elvis’ films and their place in the fabric of their time. His is a “fan” perspective with a healthy dose of pop culture treats and healthy, more than bite sized morsels, of cogent analysis. All-in-all, within the book’s not inconsiderable 300 pages, there is an abundance of facts, opinion and anecdote to enjoy and reflect on. Abbott’s off-center ‘pop culture’ perspective gives The Elvis Films a different feel to most other books on Elvis’ celluloid career and for this reason it is a fresh and invigorating read which importantly, places Elvis' celluloid output within a socio-cultural context. However, the author and I will have to agree to disagree about the value of Elvis’ late 60s films.
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