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The Persistent Mediocrity Of The “Elvis Movies”

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2023 has been a year for comebacks for several veteran classic rock acts.

We got new music from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for one thing.

Perhaps most surprising of all, we’ve had a revived interest in Elvis Presley.

A biopic on him, Elvis, was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture earlier this year. And similar Oscar talk is occurring around the new movie Priscilla, about the life of Presley’s wife.

Amid all this chatter, I recently found one of the best YouTube videos ever about the King of Rock and Roll.

I’d like to share it with you because I think you’ll enjoy it too. It’s called:

“I watched every Elvis movie and all I went was insane.”

Actually, the YouTuber went further than that. His result is indeed funny – but also insightful about Elvis and his filmography…

… the latter of which is problematic at best.

It’s Deep Thought, Not a Cheap Shot

In the video, twentysomething host Ewan from the United Kingdom watched and researched over 30 films for 3 months to clarify and dispel misconceptions about Presley on screen.

(Incidentally, by doing so, he shatters one myth: that younger generations have little to no interest in anything that happened in entertainment before they were born.)

Ewan lays out how and why Elvis wanted to conquer film as much music when he emerged in the 1950s. The success in the medium of his idol Frank Sinatra was one reason. But whereas the Chairman of the Board appeared in several classics such as:

Anchors Aweigh,

From Here to Eternity,

and The Man with the Golden Arm ….

Elvis starred in the likes of Girl Happy,

Tickle Me,

… and heaven help us all:

Harum Scarum.

Ewan explains what went wrong by dividing the cinematic output of Elvis into 4 phases:

  • 1956-1958: Elvis Goes to Hollywood
  • 1960-1962: The Birth of the Elvis Movie
  • 1963-1968: Absolute F**king Hell
  • 1968-1969: The End and Beginning

That’s a lot to cover: and Ewen does so lovingly, but fairly. Here’s the condensed version:

Where Things Went Wrong

Elvis made his theatrical movie debut in 1956 with Love Me Tender. A year later, the bigger success of Loving You, with Elvis playing a fun-loving guy who attracts the ladies between fighting bad guys and crooning songs, set up the template to follow thereafter.

“It was part of a concerted effort to ameliorate his image in the public eye,” Ewan says. “The whole story of this movie is designed to show Elvis’s character—and by association Elvis himself—as misunderstood and worthy of sympathy.”

Trapped by a contract with producer Hal Wallis which Presley’s notorious manager “Colonel” Tom Parker fully supported, Elvis found himself typecast and unable to escape this mold for most of his pictures.

Yet Elvis brought some of his cinematic suffering upon himself.

Ewan notes the singer turned down the leads in the Oscar-nominated films Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones because they involved characters with big flaws.

And Elvis rarely showed that depth anywhere anytime, even in real life.

The lack of care and professionalism on these projects became apparent by the 1960s. Ewan shows several clips where Elvis seems to be rolling his eyes during the proceedings and garbling his lines to get them out fast in one take.

The system seemed to affect his colleagues as well. Elvis worked alongside several Oscar-nominated performers, including Angela Lansbury, Burgess Meredith, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Stanwyck and Gig Young.

Yet each seemed to be dragged down along with Elvis by the hackneyed scripts, wan direction and tight production budgets in his movies.

One notable exception was Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas.

Her effervescent screen presence and dynamic singing and dancing nearly blows Elvis off the screen.

Colonel Tom noticed that as well.

And made sure Elvis didn’t have any costar like that thereafter.

The cumulative effort of all this kept Elvis among the top 10 box office attractions for much of the 1960s, but at a steep cost. His music career went down even worse than the quality of his flicks.

Though the video doesn’t say it, Elvis had his last US number one soundtrack album with Roustabout in 1965.

And the title track for Frankie and Johnny in 1966 became his last song from a movie to sell a million and make the top 30 in the United States.

Elvis finally did escape from the doldrums when he had his comeback in 1969 and started doing regular shows in Las Vegas and other concerts. Of course, that change brought other challenges to Elvis, but that’s for another discussion.

The Lowest of Low Points

With so many films for Ewan to review, things can start to blur in the mountain of mediocrity he surveys. However, two of them stick out to me as sounding particularly bad:

· Kissin’ Cousins (1964) was shot in a breakneck pace of just 18 days, even with Elvis playing twin lead characters.

It was set among hillbillies in the mountains, but filmed unconvincingly on Hollywood soundstages. Coming out during the height of Beatlemania in America, it really made him look unhip and out of touch to the current rock scene.

· Stay Away, Joe (1968) had Elvis playing a half-Navajo in brownface makeup.

“It is a genuinely racist piece of filmmaking … This is also the worst film technically in the Elvis movie canon,” assesses Ewan. That’s saying a lot after the clips you see prior to this point.

The Final Takeaways

Ewan seems genuinely sympathetic about the plight of Elvis overall, even while cringing and laughing at various aspects of each movie. He brings out elements others have overlooked to my knowledge.

For example, especially disturbing is the recurrence throughout of Elvis performing love songs or even suggestive numbers to little girls.

This is even worse when you remember Priscilla was under age when Elvis started dating her.

Leaving all that aside, the one good thing to emerge is that no rock stars wanted to follow in what Elvis did on film.

No one has emulated his efforts probably because they saw the short-term gains made weren’t worth the legacy that occurs from doing so.

Or, as Ewan astutely says:

“The only thing worse than failure:

is a persistent success to remind you of your own mediocrity.”

Check out Ewan’s video when you have 95 minutes or so to spare. It’s well worth your time.

Certainly more so than 95 percent of the movies Elvis put out.

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rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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November 28, 2023 9:18 am

I watched 5 minutes of Clam Bake recently and from this thorough assessment, it sounds like it gave me all the intel I needed on Elvis’ film career. The title should have been a dire warning, but alas, I did not heed it.
This was an interesting read, and makes total sense. I feel like it mirrors in some ways many of the musical choices that were also being made along side of it, thought the movie side seemed to take a worse of a hit.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 28, 2023 9:29 am

I have never seen an Elvis film, and the fact that they were tossed-off efforts to promote his brand does not surprise me at all.

But, are they funny-bad, or boring-bad? Kitsch and camp are so delightful when right, but so easy to go wrong.

I’ll have to check out Ewan’s video and see if the dive is worth it.

Virgindog
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November 28, 2023 9:47 am

I’m going to set aside time to watch Ewan’s video. It seems up my alley. Until then, a couple questions.

The British Invasion has at least something to do with Presley’s waning career. Which had a bigger effect on his record sales, the British Invasion or the schlocky movies he was putting out?

A Hard Day’s Night isn’t a great film, but it’s not bad for a rock and roll movie. Was it considered better than Elvis movies at the time?

LinkCrawford
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November 28, 2023 11:40 am
Reply to  Virgindog

It’s a funny question…obviously he wasn’t topping the charts much after 1960, but he still sold a ton of records…just the fact that Ozmoe mentions that Elvis still had a million selling single from a soundtrack in 1966 says something!

I wish I had the dates in front of me, but there was a period of 2 or 3 years in the mid 60s where Elvis basically did not go into the studio to record a single song that wasn’t associated with a soundtrack, and 1 gospel album that he released (How Great Thou Art). In an era where artists were expected to be recording singles and albums multiple time a year, this shows how much he had shifted away from music.

Surely folks that were interested more in music than celebrity…those that would jump on the revolution that was the British Invasion…they were hearing “Good Luck Charm” and “Bossa Nova Baby” (actually a great song), and were already losing interest. The rebellious Elvis was fading away. I’m sure that the light-weight, powder-puff plots of his 60s movies did nothing to help that loss of cred with rock n rollers.

Eric-J
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November 30, 2023 9:51 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I’d think if he concentrated on his music career (and maybe got steered to some decent producers) he could have had the equivalent of the career Cliff Richard had in the U.K. – persistant chart presence through a combination of nostalgia and riding current trends (while never really trailblazing himself.)

Imagine late-sixties Elvis, Col. Parker’s influence waning, recording at Muscle Shoals, or backed up by the Wrecking Crew, and covering songs by the former Brill Building crowd.

LinkCrawford
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November 28, 2023 11:25 am

Something to remember: Elvis wanted this. Music was part of Elvis’ soul…his DNA. The way Elvis reset was to sit alone at a piano and play and sing gospel songs. But I think Elvis really wanted to be a Hollywood star. Even while Elvis was only a regional star…before “Heartbreak Hotel”, Elvis was already in talks with Hollywood considering making a movie. He obviously didn’t seem to mind at the time that his movies took higher priority than his music…basically from 1961 or 62 through the comeback special of December 1968.
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I do look forward to watching this video. I’ve watched not many Elvis movies, but have seen enough to know that some of them are bad…like cringe-y bad. I think there were some moments of good cinema as well, but as he got into the 60s the films just got lazier and lazier.
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Not all of the songs from the films were bad, though! Some are great in a kitschy way (like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Do the Clam”), but some were genuinely great songs, especially early on, like “Loving You”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Return to Sender”, and “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”. Heck, I even think that the song “Kissin’ Cousins” is fantastic in an early 60s kind of way.

Last edited 2 months ago by LinkCrawford
LinkCrawford
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November 28, 2023 1:52 pm
Reply to  Ozmoe

That’s a good point. “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” is Oscar worthy, I’d say.

JJ Live At Leeds
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November 28, 2023 11:27 am

I’ve never seen an Elvis film, just looking at the posters is fascinating but enough to know that we’re in no danger of any real quality breaking through.

Perhaps no one emulated his efforts in the US but we saw what Elvis had done and let Cliff Richard have a go.

He started off with what appears to have been a minor role in a serious film but then came Espresso Bongo in 1960. This one was apparently well received even if it features Cliff playing an aspiring pop star who changes his name from Bert Rudge to Bongo Herbert.

After that he follows the Elvis path with a series of films in which him and The Shadows have day glo adventures where the plot is secondary to promoting Cliff. Between 1961 and ’66 there was The Young Ones, Summer Holiday, Wonderful Life and Finders Keepers. They were box office successes and despite Cliff not really fitting in with the Beatles and Stones and the new youth culture they didn’t impact his musical career. Maybe different expectations that we weren’t expecting anything great and as Cliff was no longer trendy it didn’t matter how good or bad the films were.

There was one more 60s film, this time without The Shadows and with a message to deliver. Two A Penny was made by Billy Graham’s production company. Cliff plays a drug dealing art student miscreant whose girlfriend is converted to Christianity at a Billy Graham crusade and eventually leads Cliff to acceptance. Not exactly in keeping with the swinging sixties mood of 1968.

JJ Live At Leeds
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November 28, 2023 2:12 pm
Reply to  Ozmoe

Checking up on Cliff’s films they were released in the US with different titles. Wonderful Life apparently came out as The Swingers, a name whose meaning has changed to something not at all in line with Cliff’s well known position on faith and celibacy.

I was surprised to see they actually got US releases. I know he had the occasional hit record but didn’t think they would be enough to get people to watch his films.

Do you know if his movies had any impact at all in the US?

Eric-J
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November 30, 2023 9:53 am

Ha, I had not read your comment when I wrote mine above about Elvis following Cliff Richard musically.

mjevon6296
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November 28, 2023 3:21 pm

I would suggest Jailhouse Rock as a good starting point on what Elvis was originally trying to do by making movies. It is a decent movie – a little melodramatic – but it kept the acting in Elvis’ wheelhouse.

mjevon6296
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November 28, 2023 3:26 pm

Ozmoe – just wanted to tell you I ordered your “Televisions’ Top 100 – the Most Watched American Broadcasts” a few months ago and read a section here and there. I have enjoyed it tremendously!

So much research and info on what and why people watched big events primarily in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It is fascinating!

Zeusaphone
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November 28, 2023 4:40 pm

I’ve seen most of Elvis’ movies. None I’ve seen are great or even really good. Viva Las Vegas and Blue Hawaii are probably the best ones. I have not seen Stay Away, Joe.

LinkCrawford
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November 29, 2023 10:15 am
Reply to  Zeusaphone

I wondered if you’d weigh in here, Zeusaphone. I can always count on you to reference an obscure Elvis soundtrack song over at the mothership!

Zeusaphone
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November 29, 2023 1:09 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I’ve listened to all the soundtracks. Elvis recorded quite a bit of crap.

Ewan likes Kid Creole, and I can understand that. It’s the most similar to a normal movie. It’s not what you think of when you think “Elvis Movie”, and as such doesn’t make a good choice for an Elvis viewing party.

“Elvis’ Greatest Shit” was the first bootleg album I ever had.

LinkCrawford
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November 28, 2023 10:14 pm

I watched the whole thing! First, I’m just glad someone did this. I learned a lot. He wasn’t apologetic for Elvis’ bad choices, but also wasn’t overly cruel. For a lifelong Elvis fan like myself, this was a pleasure to watch. Thanks Ozmoe.

Virgindog
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November 29, 2023 10:11 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Agreed! I watched it, too, and where I had no interest in Elvis movies before, I want to see King Creole and Viva Las Vegas. Thanks, Ozmoe, and Ewan, too!

blu_cheez
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November 29, 2023 4:31 pm

That video is fascinating – thank you for this write-up!

Last edited 2 months ago by blu_cheez
sieglinde
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November 29, 2023 7:40 pm

At https://500songs.com/ one of the late-50s episodes on Elvis talks about how Colonel Tom figured that when people bought an Elvis record, he only got money when they bought it but they could play it as much as they wanted for free. But if you wanted to see Elvis in a movie over and over, you had to pay every time in those pre-vcr, pre-dvd, pre-internet, pre-whatevers-next days. And Lieber and Stoller, among others, were under pressure to crank out deliberately mediocre product.

And hello to all the familar names from Tom’s site. I never got the memo about this place – thx for creating it.

mt58
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November 29, 2023 7:42 pm
Reply to  sieglinde

@sieglinde !!

So great to see an old friend! Welcome to tnocs.com!

sieglinde
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November 29, 2023 10:11 pm
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Thanks! Good to see you again. Lots of familiar names & icons – guess this is where everyone who couldn’t relate that much to Katy & Taylor & Lil Nas Puffy ended up?

Is this your joint?

mt58
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November 29, 2023 10:35 pm
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Indeed it is!

Last edited 2 months ago by mt58
Virgindog
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November 30, 2023 9:00 am
Reply to  sieglinde

Hiya! Good to see you here!

Actually, it was the new commenting system that lessened my participation over at the mothership. I still read every article and post the poll and will read some of the comments, but without an Expand All feature or Ctrl-F, it’s just too annoying to use.

Besides, the content here has been great!

rollerboogie
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November 30, 2023 10:46 am
Reply to  sieglinde

Yes, glad to see you here, sieglinde!  Most of us double dip between the Gum and here.

sieglinde
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November 29, 2023 11:32 pm

This poster behind the narrator of the dudes in the two bathtubs? That’s Rod and Elton, right? If they are, and I meet any of you at a bar one day, I have a story to tell that international libel laws stop me from revealing on line (I didn’t tell it on Tom’s site I hope…)

cappiethedog
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December 1, 2023 2:07 pm

Every time Tom Hanks was alone on-screen, I rested my forehead on my hand, and waited for him to stop talking. I paid $18.75 to see Elvis, not the Colonel Tom Parker Story.

That extra during the first musical number should have gotten screen credit. She starts off placid and ends in hysteria. I think there were two shots of her between placid and hysteria that shows how she ended up in her happy zone. We’re witnessing the birth of the modern teenager. It’s my favorite part of the film.

I can’t remember the comedian. But he showed how Elvis stopped giving a damn through dance. He started doing Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, in which Presley uses his entire body. And ends with Clambake. Elvis is basically just clapping his hands in rhythm from the waist up. Yep. That falls within Category 3. I actually watched Roustabout because a former governor’s wife had a bit part. She ran for her husband’s old job last year. She lost. Probably because she starred in Roustabout, another Category 3 movie.

I never heard of Paradise, Hawaiian Style. And I live here. I’ve seen Donny and Marie Osmond in Goin’ Coconuts.

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