Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Elvis in Hollywood

As a voice, Elvis Presley remains a legend nearly a decade after his death. With the possible exception of his baby gurgles, RCA has released on record practically every sound the King uttered in his 42 years. As an actor, however, Elvis is remembered mostly as a joke—the star of 33 forgettable films (can you remember more than two titles?) between 1956 and 1972. On the surface, the release by MGM/UA and Key Video of 18 of those films on VHS and BETA cassettes looks strictly like a cash-in enterprise, pegged to the 50th anniversary of Elvis' birth.

But surprise—exploitation has sowed some unexpected dividends. A pattern emerges from reviewing Elvis' screen output: His movies weren't all bad. Viva Las Vegas (MGM/UA, $59.95) and Jail-house Rock (MGM/UA, $49.95) are two actually worth owning. They show Presley at his musical best. And Love Me Tender (Key Video, $59.98) King Creole (Key Video, $59.98) and Flaming Star (Key Video, $59.98), each worth at least the price of a one-night rental, show something even more astonishing: Elvis could act.

Presley's early films are clearly his best. His producers were using him for quick profits, but Elvis hadn't quite caught on to the art of the walkthrough yet. You can see him trying for more even when the scripts asked him only to grin. Love Me Tender was his first film—a cheap black-and-white Western with a B-movie cast (Richard Egan, Debra Paget). But Elvis plays it honestly, without histrionics, which is a relief after Paget's nostril flaring. The fans were disappointed, though. While Elvis became a star by swiveling his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show, Love Me Tender hid the famous pelvis behind a farmer's plow. He loses the girl and even dies at the end of the picture (a last-minute epilogue was added showing Elvis warbling in the clouds). Worse, he sings the film's title song to Mildred Dunnock, who plays his mother. That mama's boy side, though close to the truth, was not what the growing Presley public wanted to see. Elvis would not make the same mistake again.

In 1957's Jailhouse Rock, his third film, Presley came full circle and played an arrogant, lady-killing ex-con turned rock star. This was the film for which Elvis developed his later famous lip-curling sneer. Again shot cheaply in black and white to make a buck on what the producers probably thought was the passing Presley fad, Jailhouse Rock gave Elvis his juiciest role. He played—all too convincingly—the dark side of rock stardom. Elvis hated the harshness of the film and later disowned it, but he never did anything as powerfully close to home. Another strength was the film's Lieber-Stoller score. The title song could stand today as a first-rate MTV video, so deftly was the Elvis strut transformed by choreographer Alex Romero into thrilling dance movement.

Presley's follow-up, King Creole, was done in a similar mode. He had a strong director in Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz and a supporting cast of pros (Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger). The story, based on the Harold Robbins best-seller A Stone for Danny Fisher, cast Presley as a nightclub singer drawn into the New Orleans underworld. He looked tough and sang tougher: "If you're lookin' for trouble, just look right in my face." The staid New York Times, almost alarmed at what it saw, announced, "Elvis can act."

In 1960 Presley delivered a strong dramatic performance as a half-breed Indian in Flaming Star, directed by Don (Dirty Harry) Siegel. Elvis sang nary a note aside from the film's title song, and a disappointing box office indicated the public was not much interested in watching a nonsinging Elvis. Neither was Presley's management, headed by Col. Tom Parker. After his Army discharge in 1960, Elvis was too big a recording star to worry seriously about movies. Presley movies would become no more than excuses for the sound track albums. Some (Blue Hawaii, Key Video, $59.98) were better than others (Girls!Girls!Girls!, Key Video, $59.98) but they were disposable.

Then in 1964 came Viva Las Vegas—Elvis' best movie and biggest box office hit. Here was a musical without a thought in its head except the casting: Ann-Margret played Elvis' love interest. Though the two dated offscreen, Ann-Margret scared Presley. He'd never had a co-star who was real competition in the performing and charisma area. Presley reportedly complained throughout shooting that Ann-Margret was getting the best camera angles and the greater number of close-ups. Perhaps so. But Elvis, whether out of panic or not, had never seemed as musically dynamic onscreen before. The Presley/ Ann-Margret numbers play like a Pelvic Olympics. Viva Las Vegas had plugged two live wires into a formula musical and it sizzles even today.

Presley never allowed another star of Ann-Margret's voltage to share the screen with him. After Vegas, his movies were one-star vehicles. MGM/UA has released several of these, including the execrable Harum Scarum ($59.95)—made in 1965, featuring Elvis (on threadbare Hollywood sets passing as the Middle East) singing such memorable lyrics as "Come hear my desert serenade." That Presley sound was a long way from the glory days of Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes. Presley's acting had become so self-conscious that even sexy Fran Jeffries (as an Arabian Joan Collins) couldn't singe his sideburns. He seemed too absorbed in reading his lines off cue cards.

Before long Elvis had become a movie-lover who hated his own movies. Hollywood had packaged, emasculated and trivialized a raunchy rock original. On the rare occasions when he watched his work, Elvis (according to biographer Albert Goldman) would glare at the screen and challenge, "Who's that fast-talkin' Southern sonovabitch up there?" Aside from two concert films—1970's Elvis—That's the Way It Is (not available on video-cassette yet) and 1972's Elvis on Tour (MGM/UA, $59.95)—the King, saying he was tired and "too fat," quit movies in 1970 for Vegas and a career of sold-out self-parody. He was living off the legend now, not adding to it. Barbra Streisand tried to coax him out of film retirement to co-star with her in A Star Is Born in 1976, but Elvis demurred and Kris Kristofferson stepped in. The role of the fading rock star self-destructing on booze and drugs might have been just what Presley needed to revitalize his career. A year later, Elvis Aron Presley was dead, his acting promise unfulfilled. But the promise is there on these films, a potent and provocative reminder of what might have been.

From Our Partners