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Elvis Presley on Screen

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As Baz Luhrmann's Elvis traces the career of the King of Rock'n'Roll on the big screen, Cinema Paradiso looks back on the cinematic achievement of an acting novice who made 31 features in 13 years.

A still from From Here to Eternity (1953)
A still from From Here to Eternity (1953)

In September 1950, when Elvis Presley got a job as an usher at the Loew's State Movie Theater on Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, he could have had no idea that his own name would emblazon the marquee just six years later. Singers had become film stars before. Al Jolson had spoken the first line of dialogue in screen history in Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927) and both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra had won Academy Awards, with Der Bingle taking the Best Actor prize for Leo McCarey's Going My Way (1944) and Ol' Blue Eyes receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953).

Elvis was an avid moviegoer and had based his stage persona on actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Tony Curtis rather than any of his musical heroes. He had serious ambitions of becoming a legitimate actor. But manager Colonel Tom Parker was aware that Elvis's fans bought tickets to see their idol perform the songs they would play for hours on end in their bedrooms on the soundtrack album. For Parker and the Hollywood studio heads prepared to pay his $1 million fee, therefore, it was all about ticket sales and, in order to churn out three pictures a year, corners would have to be cut when it came to the quality of the screenplays and the tracklists.

The critics were rarely kind about storylines that invariably saw Presley play a hunk who adopted a maverick approach to his macho job until he was tamed by the love of a good woman. Following his stint in the US Army, the plots became even more formulaic. Indeed, such was his frustration with the way that he had been packaged that he would later mock his movies on stage when introducing film songs. He jokingly dismissed them as 'the Presley travelogues', as the exotic locations had often seemed to matter more to the producers than the drama. Yet he remained the highest-paid star in Hollywood until his contract elapsed in 1969 and he quit acting for good - not that there weren't tempting offers for him to return in some high-profile roles.

The Trucker From Tupelo

Born on 8 January 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was convinced he had been spared for a purpose as older twin, Jesse Garon, had been stillborn. Life was tough in Tupelo, Mississippi, as father Vernon struggled to hold down a steady job and Elvis became close to his mother, Gladys. He gave his first public performance at the age of 10, when he sang 'Old Shep' at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on 3 October 1945.

Having been bought a guitar for his birthday, Presley overcame shyness to perform on Mississippi Slim's WELO radio show in 1947. He continued to grow in confidence after the family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in November 1948 and Presley started frequenting the record shops around Beale Street, which was the hub of the city's blues scene. He also listened to lots of country and gospel music on local radio stations and developed a liking for rhythm and blues. However, when he cut an acetate disc at Sun Records as a birthday present for his mother in August 1953, Elvis sang ballads and they caught the ear of owner, Sam Phillips.

Having failed a couple of band auditions, Presley was working as a truck driver when Phillips paired him with guitarist Winfield 'Scotty' Moore and upright bass player Bill Black for a recording session in July 1954. Once again, Phillips's hopes of finding a white singer who could do justice to Black music appeared to have been dashed, until Elvis started jamming on Arthur Crudup's 'That's All Right'. Three days later, the track was played on a Memphis radio station and rush-released as a single.

Drummer D.J. Fontana joined the combo, as audiences started screaming at the pelvic gyrations that would become Presley's trademark. Gigging constantly to hone his rockabilly style, he came under the wing of Colonel Tom Parker, who helped secure the 20 year-old a recording deal with RCA Victor in Nashville. Shaken by a flight in a stricken plane, Elvis misfired on his debut in Las Vegas, with one critic claiming he had been as welcome as 'a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party'. However, 'Heartbreak Hotel' topped the charts and Parker signed a seven-picture deal with Paramount.

A still from Elvis Presley: Winds of Change (1954)
A still from Elvis Presley: Winds of Change (1954)

As the hits began to flow, television appearances followed, with the dance moves to 'Hound Dog' on The Milton Berle Show provoking a wave of outrage and excitement nationwide. The three-song stint can be seen on Elvis Presley: The Milton Berle Show (2009), while the seismic impact that Presley had on American youth is well captured in the 2014 documentary, Elvis Presley: Winds of Change, both of which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso.

Act Naturally

Although television had become America's prime communication medium by 1956, cinema retained its prestige. Thus, Elvis nurtured ambitions of becoming a film star and even hoped to study at the Actors Studio. When he signed with producer Hal Wallis, he sought assurances that he would be cast in serious films and not rocksploitation offerings like Fred R. Sears's Rock Around the Clock (1956), with Bill Haley.

However, while Wallis was impressed with Presley's intensity, he struggled to find him a suitable vehicle. Having dismissed the possibility of teaming him with Jerry Lewis, he considered casting him alongside Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn in Joseph Anthony's The Rainmaker (1956) before opting against giving him the lead in Robert Mulligan's The Rat Race (1960), which eventually went to Tony Curtis.

Needing to make a return on his investment, Wallis loaned Presley to 20th Century-Fox to play the supporting role of Clint Reno in The Reno Brothers. The Reconstruction story had recently been filmed by Tim Whelan as Rage At Dawn (1955), with Randolph Scott, but Colonel Tom persuaded the studio to change the title to Love Me Tender and add three more songs to the scenario in order to entice Elvis's fans into cinemas. In fact, Presley was only in a supporting role (which had been rejected by Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter), as Richard Egan played the Confederate soldier who returns home after rumours he had been killed to discover that his younger brother has married his sweetheart (Cathy Downs).

Keen to make a good impression, Elvis knew the entire script by heart and readily accepted the advice of director Robert D. Webb. The critics were cool, as box-office tills rang across the country on 21 November 1956. But the debuting singer does a decent job, with his raw style suiting Clint's immaturity. However, Fox had to change the ending when fans expressed their dismay that their hero dies before the end. This mistake would never be repeated and Elvis would take top billing in all of his future outings.

Newly ensconced in his 18-room mansion, Graceland, Presley completed work on his first Wallis (and first colour) picture, Loving You (1957). Hal Kanter directed a story that bore a passing resemblance to the star's own, as truck driver Deke Rivers is steered to the top by unscrupulous manager, Glenda Markle (Lizabeth Scott). With Wendell Corey and Dolores Hart co-starring as other acts on Markle's touring bill, the backstage action allowed Presley essentially to play himself. He would continue to dye his hair black (in imitation of Rudolph Valentino and Tony Curtis), although this would be the only picture to guest star Presley's parents, who were in the audience for the telecast finale.

In addition to the title song, the seven-strong soundtrack penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller included the chart-topping hit, ' (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear' and 'Mean Woman Blues', which culminates in a punch-up. The reviews were marginally more enthusiastic, but the takings more than justified the exercise. Indeed, Elvis's growing success resulted in him getting under the skin of Frank Sinatra, who seemed to have forgotten the impact that he had made on 1940s bobbysoxers when he denounced rock'n'roll as a 'rancid-smelling aphrodisiac' that was 'sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons'.

Elvis laughed off the remark and embarked on his third feature, Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock (1957), which just happened to star another vocal critic, actor-comedian, Mickey Shaughnessy. He plays a washed-up singer who teaches construction worker Vince Everett to play the guitar while serving 14 months for barroom brawl manslaughter. The prison talent show, which Presley helped choreograph, remains iconic, although he couldn't bring himself to watch the finished film, as co-star Judy Tyler was killed in a car crash a few days after the production wrapped.

A still from King Creole (1958)
A still from King Creole (1958)

Offering stark insights into the music business and the pitfalls of fame, this sour variation on the 'Star Is Born' story brought the best out of Presley, who excels as the hothead who comes to believe his own hype. The Spectator sniffily suggested that the picture was 'dangerously near being repulsive'. But, with another hit-strewn Leiber-Stoller soundtrack, it ranks among Elvis's finest screen achievements, alongside his next release, King Creole (1958).

Adapted from the Harold Robbins novel, A Stone For Danny Fisher, this tale of a singer who falls in with a bad crowd was filmed during a 60-day window granted by the US Army after Presley's draft papers were served on 20 December 1957. The director was Michael Curtiz, whose credits included Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), and he asked cinematographer Russell Harlan to shoot the action in noirish monochrome. Walter Matthau co-starred as the New Orleans club owner-cum-mobster trying to persuade high-school dropout Danny Fisher to ditch the rival boss who had given him his big break.

With Dolores Hart and Carolyn Jones respectively playing the good and bad girls vying for Danny's attention, this would have been a James Dean picture, had he not perished in a car smash on 30 September 1955. But Presley was inspired by the demands of the role and even acceded to Curtiz's orders to lose weight and shave off his sideburns. His hair would become shorter still 14 days after the cameras stopped rolling, as Elvis responded to the call of Uncle Sam. But he enlisted with the New York Times review ringing in his ears, 'cut my legs off and call me Shorty! Elvis Presley can act.'

Earning His Stripes

Private Elvis Presley reported for duty at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas on 24 March 1958. It's safe to say that he would never be the same man again. However, the loss of his 46 year-old mother in August proved equally decisive, as did a meeting with 14 year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (whom Elvis would marry after a seven-year courtship), while stationed with the 3rd Armored Dvision in Friedberg in West Germany. His introduction to karate would also have its effect on Presley, as would his first taste of amphetamines.

Sergeant Presley was demobbed on 5 March 1960 and rushed into the RCA recording studio. He also got the last laugh on his famous host when they duetted on a special that Cinema Paradiso users can enjoy via The Frank Sinatra Show: Welcome Home Elvis (2003). It proved to be one of only three appearances he would make in front of an audience over the next eight years, as the Colonel had decided that Elvis's future lay in Tinseltown.

His return picture was Norman Taurog's G.I. Blues (1960), which started shooting while Presley was still in uniform. However, Private Tom Creel acted as his stand-in for the footage filmed in Germany. Feeling like a throwback to a Second World War Service musical, the storyline has country boy Tulsa McLean dreaming of opening a nightclub when he's discharged. However, the honour of the regiment depends on him seducing a prudish dancer named Lili (Juliet Prowse). The songs are better than the script, but the critics were intrigued by the extent to which Presley had matured and how much slicker the picture seemed than his earlier excursions.

The truth that Elvis had been tamed and, to a degree, had lost interest in recording edgier rock tracks was kept hidden, however, even as he insisted that his next two films should showcase his acting talent rather than his teenybob appeal. To that end, Don Siegel was recruited to direct Flaming Star (1960), a Western that had previously been earmarked for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. Moreover, Elvis sings only two song as Tracer Burton, the son of a white rancher (John McIntire) and his Native American wife (Dolores del Río), who tries to keep peace between the homesteaders and the Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas.

Barbara Steele was replaced by Barbara Eden while shooting the Romeo and Juliet-style romantic subplot. But the fans wanted to see their idol swinging his hips and flashing his grin rather than giving them lessons about living in peace regardless of race and creed. Seen today, the climactic speech feels culturally awkward. But Presley meant well and his acting is undeniably sincere.

A still from Elvis Presley: Wild in the Country (1961)
A still from Elvis Presley: Wild in the Country (1961)

While this was based on Clair Huffaker's novel, Flaming Lance, Wild in the Country (1961) was adapted from J.R. Salamanca's The Lost Country by the acclaimed playwright, Clifford Odets. In many ways, it represents Presley's bid to play an 'angry young man' and it's clear that he modelled his performance on Brando and Dean, as Glenn Tyler is assigned a psychiatrist, Irene Sperry (Hope Lange), after being put on probation for a violent fight with his brother. Irene detects a talent for writing, but Glenn mistakes her interest for love and he falls for her, while being pursued by both the innocent Betty Lee Parsons (Millie Perkins) and the married Noreen Martin (Tuesday Weld).

Director Philip Dunne limits the musical content and coaxes Presley into revealing the vulnerability that had been so evident in his early singing days. Reviewers commended the attempt to shed his surly image. But the takings were modest and the fans demanded a return to the old Elvis. Their wish was granted in Norman Taurog's Blue Hawaii (1961).

Hawaii had only become part of the United States in August 1959 and was more than happy to have Elvis show off its beauty in this musical travelogue. He did so in the guise of Chadwick Gates, a returning G.I. who defies an order from his mother (Angela Lansbury, who was only nine years older than Presley) to work for the family fruit company in order to set up a tourist business with his Hawaiian girlfriend, Maile (Joan Blackman), and his surfing buddies.

An easy schedule left Chad time to sing 14 songs, including the sublime 'Can't Help Falling in Love'. Consequently, soundtrack sales went through the roof and Colonel Tom realised that he had found the winning Elvis movie formula. History has not judged the pictures made over the next eight years kindly. But, as Hal Wallis said at a time of dwindling box-office returns, 'A Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood.'

Lost in Hollywood

Such was the Colonel's conviction that cinema was the way to sell records that 15 of Elvis Presley's films were boosted by soundtrack albums, while another five merited EPs. During this time, however, Top 10 hits became increasingly rare and Elvis became something of a musical irrelevance.

According to Jerry Leiber, the instructions were to come up with 'three ballads, one medium-tempo, one up-tempo, and one break blues boogie' per picture. However, the studios often entrusted the songwriting duties to in-house hacks, who were more attuned to Tin Pan Alley than Sun Records. As a result, Elvis was compelled to record numbers he actively disliked - although it was never evident on screen, where he had learned to go through the motions while looking like he was having a ball.

Some biographers insist he was, as he had always wanted to be a movie star and found basking in exotic locations preferable to performing for fans who chose to scream rather than listen. Others have suggested that Elvis remained in Hollywood while The Beatles were leading the British Invasion because he had been a rocker of convenience and hadn't really been interested in the new music that his epochal emergence had helped inspire. As he only wrote a handful of the 780+ songs he recorded, he was heavily reliant on people composing or finding material for him. Between 1962-68, Presley recorded only one non-film album and the 1967 gospel collection, How Great Thou Art, earned him a Grammy Award.

A still from Follow That Dream (1962)
A still from Follow That Dream (1962)

Back in Hollywood, Elvis found himself playing Toby Kwimper in Gordon Douglas's Follow That Dream (1962), which had been adapted from Richard P. Powell's satirical novel, Pioneer, Go Home! As the scion of a family that declares squatter's rights after running out of petrol on a Florida freeway, Elvis displays a flair for off-kilter comedy, as he and father Arthur O'Connell fight their corner against crooked casino owners Simon Oakland and Jack Kruschen and scheming social worker, Joanne Moore.

Cutting down on the song count to give the action more credibility, this includes a standout courtroom scene that suggests how Elvis's screen career might have developed if the Colonel hadn't called the shots. Certainly no other Presley picture had so much in common with an Isabelle Huppert film. Try this in a double bill with Ursula Meier's Home (2008).

Elvis revisited an old Michael Curtiz movie in Phil Karlson's Kid Galahad (1962), a remake of a1937 boxing saga that had teamed up-comer Wayne Morris with Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Gig Young and Joan Blackman took on the roles of the promoter and his sister, as unemployed mechanic Walter Gulick goes from sparring partner to contender after wandering into a New York gym. As Young is indebted to a gangster, however, the Kid is asked to take a dive in the big fight.

Tutored by onetime world champion Mushy Callahan and still ripped after his military stint, Presley certainly looks the part. Moreover, he's given solid support by Charles Bronson, as his grouchy coach. But the six songs were largely forgettable, even if the disc did top the UK EP charts for 17 weeks. Twice as many tunes were required for Norman Taurog's Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), however, with 'Return to Sender' being one of the biggest hits of the 'lost in Hollywood' era.

Returning to Hawaii, Presley cuts a dash as fisherman Ross Carpenter, who is intent on buying the boat he had built with his father. However, he's distracted by conniving club singer Robin Gantner (Stella Stevens) and sweet little rich girl, Laurel Dodge (Laurel Goodwin). It's undemanding (if occasionally culturally patronising) entertainment, with Presley and the debuting Goodwin sharing an amusing dance to 'The Walls Have Ears', in a room in which the furnishings have a mind of their own.

A hint of Anthony Darnborough's So Long At the Fair (1950) can be detected in Norman Taurog's It Happened At the World's Fair (1963), which sees crop duster Mike Edwards take care of young Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu) after her uncle goes missing at the 1962 Seattle Expo. However, recycled elements from earlier Presley pictures were bolted together for a scenario that turns around Mike's efforts to charm unimpressed nurse, Diane Warren (Joan O'Brien).

The critics queued up to voice their disapproval of both the movie and the songtrack, especially as the sole single, 'One Broken Heart For Sale' became the first in his RCA career to miss the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Elvis watchers will be amused to learn, however, that the boy he pays to kick his shins so he needs Diane's help was played by a debuting Kurt Russell, who would go on to play The King in John Carpenter's 1979 biopic, Elvis.

Ever since an audience had rioted during a screening of G.I. Blues, Elvis had been banned from Mexico. This proved a problem when it came to making Richard Thorpe's Fun in Acapulco (1963). A second unit was dispatched to film Lance Legault standing in for Elvis in the diving sequences, as ex-circus acrobat Mike Windgren conquers his demons in order to catch the eye of social director Margarita Dauphine (Ursula Andress) and bullfighter Dolores Gomez (Elsa Cárdenas).

The pick of the 10-tune songtrack was 'Bossa Nova Baby', which gave Presley the chance to put his famous hips through their paces. However, the film's release coincided with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963 and the nation went into a prolonged period of mourning, from which it only emerged when four Mop Tops from Liverpool appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.

The (Un) Swinging Sixties

As Beatlemania swept the United States, Elvis curled his lip and hunkered down in Hollywood. In order to counter the threat to his status posed by the Fab Four, he signed up to play the Tennessee Two in Gene Nelson's Kissin' Cousins (1964). He kept his dyed black hair to play USAF officer Josh Morgan, but reverted to his old blonde look for Jodie Tatum, the third-kinsman who not only doesn't want to surrender the family plot to create an air base, but who also resents an outsider muscling in on cousins Azalea (Yvonne Craig) and Selena (Pamela Austin).

Closer in tone to The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71) than Stanley Donen's Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), the film milked the folksy humour, as Arthur O'Connell and Jack Albertson locked horns over the Great Smoky Mountain terrain. Nelson's use of split-screen is as competent as Presley's dual performances. But the songs lacked oomph compared to those in George Sidney's Viva Las Vegas (1964), which had been filmed first, only to be held up because of tensions between the director and Colonel Tom.

The principal bone of contention was the time that Sidney devoted to Ann-Margret's numbers, as swimming instructor Rusty Martin, who falls for racing driver Lucky Jackson when he comes to Nevada to compete in the Grand Prix. With musicals like Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951) and Pal Joey (1957) to his credit, Sidney was no slouch when it came to this particular genre. Moreover, his stock was high after making Ann-Margret a star in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), which had riffed on the Presley myth.

The chemistry between the leads is palpable (they reportedly had a fling off camera), notably during 'What I'd Say' and 'C'mon Everybody'. Indeed, Elvis is on his best form since being drafted in adopting a soulful look for 'I Need Somebody to Lean On' and in recording the title track in a single take for the first and only time in his entire screen career. It's become a sleeper classic over time, but the New York Times had it right in declaring the picture to be 'as pleasant and unimportant as a banana split'.

A still from Elvis Presley: Roustabout (1964)
A still from Elvis Presley: Roustabout (1964)

Sadly, the standard wasn't maintained by John Rich's Roustabout (1964), even though it teamed Elvis with Barbara Stanwyck, in what would prove to be her farewell picture. As Maggie Morgan, she gives roughneck musician Charlie Rogers a job with her travelling carnival. Despite him becoming the chief attraction, however, fellow carnie Joe Lean (Leif Ericksen) takes exception to a troublemaker dating his daughter, Cathy (Joan Freeman).

Stanwyck goads Presley into raising his game and he revels in bad boy sequences such as the punch-up with some college puddings. But the script is strewn with carnival clichés and awkward song transitions. Nevertheless, the soundtrack album reached No.1, although it turned out to be Elvis's last chart-topping LP of the decade.

Boris Sagal's Girl Happy (1965) isn't currently available on disc. But Cinema Paradiso users can get the gist of the story by watching Henry Levin's Where the Boys Are (1960), which is also set in Fort Lauderdale over Spring Break. More fun still is Norman Taurog's Tickle Me (1965), which has the distinction of being the sole Elvis feature to contain no new songs. Yet, it also saved Allied Artists from bankruptcy in allowing Presley to display his slapstick skills in a screenplay penned by Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds, who had written for The Bowery Boys and The Three Stooges. Moreover, Bernds had directed such cult classics as Reform School Girl (1957) and Return of the Fly (1959).

Presley plays Lonnie Beale, a rodeo cowboy who winds up working at a health farm for models and actresses seeking to lose weight (so far so unPC). However, the plot starts to thicken when fitness instructor Pam (Jocelyn Lane) lures Lonnie to the old mining town of Silverado in order to find her grandpa's stash of gold and they succeed in rustling up some ghosts. Look out for the Western lampoon, in which Presley morphs into the milk-drinking Panhandle Kid. But you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen for all the wrong reasons in Gene Nelson's Harum Scarum (1965).

Elvis greatly admired Rudolph Valentino and there's an element of George Melford's The Sheik (1921) in this dramedy of errors. It was filmed on sets that had been built for Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1927), but the storyline has dated horribly, as has the tactic of casting white actors as Arab characters, as had been the case two decades earlier in such Maria Montez vehicles as John Rawlins's Arabian Nights (1942) and Arthur Lubin's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944).

Film star Johnny Tyronne is in the Middle East to promote a movie, but he's kidnapped and ordered to assassinate the ruling king. As usual, Presley's character is torn between girls on either side of the moral divide (Fran Jeffries and Mary Ann Mobley), but the jokes about tyranny, slavery and harems are so tasteless that not even a song as good as 'So Close, Yet So Far (From Paradise) ' can atone. Thank goodness the producers nixed Colonel Tom's idea about having a talking camel narrate.

No such gimmick was needed to enliven Frederick De Cordova's Frankie and Johnny (1966). The action opens on a fin-de-siècle Mississippi riverboat, where Elvis and Donna Douglas are the headline act. However, a fortuneteller informs Presley's inveterate gambler that his luck will change when he meets a redhead. Enter Nancy Kovack, who also just happens to be the boss's girl...

Befitting the period, there are a few old standards among the 12 songs. But Elvis sings them with respect and sparks genially enough with both Kovak and Douglas. This may not rank among his finest films, but it's closer to the mark in terms of how Elvis saw himself as an actor.

The Colonel had other ideas, however. and whisked his charge back to the 50th State for Michael D. Moore's Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966). Any hope of a repeat of past frolics were dashed by a script that opens with pilot Rick Richards being fired for serially harassing the female staff. He heads to Hawaii to launch a helicopter shuttle service, but partner Danny (James Shigeta) has to tell Friday Hudson (Suzannah Leigh) and Lani Kaimana (Marianna Hill) to pretend to be married so that Rick behaves around them.

Nine songs were used on the soundtrack, but none were deemed good enough for a single. Following the shoot, Elvis met The Beatles, whose own films for Richard Lester - A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) - had been vastly superior to his own. They were also coming towards the end of what would be their final tour so that they could concentrate on studio recording. They controlled their own destiny, with the support of their manager, Brian Epstein. No wonder Elvis hated them and later denounced their drug-taking for having corrupted America.

While John, George, Paul and Ringo went home to make Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Elvis reunited with Shelley Fabares on Norman Taurog's Spinout (1966). As rocking race driver, Mike McCoy, he's too busy having a good time to want to be tied down by his band's tomboy drummer (Deborah Walley), a spoilt heiress (Fabares) or a feminist author (Diane McBain). So, he sets out to find them suitable husbands in between nine livelyish numbers. The soundtrack album contained the longest song Elvis ever recorded, Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is a Long Time'. It pointed towards a new enthusiasm for his music that would manifest itself towards the end of 1968. For the moment, however, he was still contracted to make another nine movies.

Caught in a Trap

A still from Elvis Presley: Easy Come Easy Go (1967)
A still from Elvis Presley: Easy Come Easy Go (1967)

Paramount had planned to star surf duo Jan and Dean in Easy Come, Easy Go (1967) before they were injured in a train crash. But producer Hal Wallis thought it would be the ideal project with which to end his association with Elvis Presley. Thus, following a complete script overhaul, John Rich was persuaded to direct a story that sees retired naval frogman Ted Jackson discover a treasure-laden wreck that he plans to plunder before rival Gil Carey (Skip Ward) can get his hands on it.

Pat Priest plays the femme fatale who tries to distract Elvis, despite him having an eye on go-go dancer Dodie Marshall. However, he's far from convinced by the hippie culture she embraces and goes so far as to mock it in 'Yoga Is As Yoga Does', a number that is salvaged by the brilliance of instructor Elsa Lanchester. Her vocal was cut from the accompanying EP, however.

Even before the cameras started rolling on this prudish romp, Presley had completed Norman Taurog's Double Trouble (1967). Debuting producer Irwin Winkler had re-tailored a script intended for Julie Christie that amusingly sent singer Guy Lambert on a European tour. En route from London to Antwerp, however, he gets caught up with some diamond smugglers, along with teenage heiress Jill Conway (Annette Day) and socialite Claire Dunham (Yvonne Romain).

As Colonel Tom was really a Dutchman named Andreas Van Kuijk, who had entered the United States illegally at the age of 20 and never took citizenship, he was reluctant to let his client leave the country. Consequently, not a frame of film was exposed outside MGM's Culver City studio, although the sets were pleasingly authentic. Presley lost his temper over being made to record on a soundstage, however, with 'Old MacDonald' proving the breaking point. The soundtrack album barely registered on the charts, but its successor registered the lowest sales of any film spin-off and Elvis realised he was fighting for his musical credibility.

The last of Presley's four pictures for United Artists, Clambake (1967) marked the feature bow of TV director Arthur H. Nadel. He only made one more, the forgotten war saga, Underground (1970), which would star Elvis's bête noire, Robert Goulet, who had made a move on his girlfriend while he was in uniform. By the time the film was released, Presley and Priscilla had tied the knot and she was expecting his only child, Lisa Marie (whose daughter, Riley Keough, is now a successful actress). But his new marital status failed to redress his slide into cultural obsolescence.

Borrowing liberally from Shakespeare's comedies of errors in reworking Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (seven versions of which are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso), the action sends oil heir Scott Heywood into the real world, where he becomes a jet ski instructor and takes on brattish Bill Bixby in a powerboat race. It could have been lively, but Presley is evidently detached, even though 'Guitar Man' was one of his better recent screen tunes.

Another tele-stalwart, Peter Tewksbury, took the helm for Stay Away, Joe (1968), which was adapted from a 1953 satirical novel by Dan Cushman. Presley is cast as Joe Lightcloud, a Navajo gadabout, who takes time off from chasing women to prove that it's possible to raise cattle on the reservation. The problem is, his drunken neighbours barbecue the bull and the only replacement doesn't fancy cows.

It's tacky stuff and the redfacing of Presley, Burgess Meredith, Katy Jurado and Thomas Gomez would rightly not be tolerated today. Nor would jokes about saloon keeper Joan Blondell berating Elvis for seducing her underage daughter. Three songs were recorded for the soundtrack, but Presley was deeply embarrassed by them and no vinyl was released to bolster the film.

A still from Speedway (1968)
A still from Speedway (1968)

Although Elvis always claimed that Clambake was his worst film, Stay Away, Joeis actually his nadir. It was made after Speedway (1968) - which had been filmed during the Summer of Love - and one can only hope that he was distracted by the Christmas special he was preparing for television (more of which anon). Directed by Norman Taurog, the story of NASCAR driver Steve Grayson was enlivened by the presence of Nancy Sinatra as a tax inspector who loses her heart while poring over manager Bill Bixby's cooked books.

Had William Friedkin's Good Times (1967) not flopped at the box office, this would have been Sonny and Cher's second movie. Petula Clark and Annette Funicello turned down the Sinatra role, which turned out to be her last. Indeed, this also proved to Elvis's last formulaic feature, as he determined to wind down his contract by tackling more challenging roles. He's on affable form, although there's nothing remarkable about the eight tracks that made up his final soundtrack album. It sold fewer than 100,000 copies and neither spin-off single reached the upper echelons of the charts.

Co-scripted by Dan Greenburg from his own novel, Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) attempted to buck the trends. In his last film before he went blind, Norman Taurog gives Presley the latitude to play Greg Nolan, a rakish photographer who works for both Don Porter's girlie magazine and Rudy Vallee's advertising agency. However, he also has his work cut out dealing with the shifting personalities of a stalker named Bernice (Michele Cary).

Exploiting the relaxation of the Production Code, this raunchy screwball certainly took a more adult approach to the ways of the world. But it didn't go down well at the time, with British distributors refusing to handle it, in spite of the soundtrack including 'A Little More Conversation', which became a huge hit after it was remixed by Junkie XL in 2002.

Elvis Has Left the Building

Rumours circulated that The King's reign was well and truly over. Then came Elvis (1968), a return to his roots that came to be known as The '68 Comeback Special. Clad in black leather, Presley belted out his old hits with a tight band sitting in a circle in front of some adoring fans. As Colonel Tom had expected a Christmas show, Presley and director Steve Binder slipped in a couple of production numbers and solo slots to mollify him. However, he put his own spin on Presley's demand to resume touring by arranging a residency in Las Vegas. He also blocked future collaborations with Binder and insisted that his client honoured his remaining commitments in Hollywood.

The Colonel hadn't always been so amenable where the studios were concerned. He had knocked back Robert Mitchum's suggestion that Elvis co-starred in Arthur Ripley's bootlegging thriller, Thunder Road (1958), because the story was seedy and left no room for songs. In the end, Mitchum's son, James, got the part. Similarly, Paul Newman landed the roles of Brick Pollitt and Chance Wayne in Richard Brooks's adaptations of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).

Tony Curtis was the beneficiary when Parker declined to let Presley play Joker Jackson in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958), with Curtis going on to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance as a runaway shackled to fellow prisoner, Sidney Poitier. Misgivings about Elvis hanging around with street gangs cost him the chance to sing some classic songs as Tony in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's West Side Story (1961). But it was Hank Snow's widow who objected to MGM's plans to cast Presley as the country singer in Gene Nelson's biopic, Your Cheatin' Heart (1964).

Although author Jacqueline Susann was keen for Presley to play crooner Tony Polar in Mark Robson's take on her scandalous bestseller, Valley of the Dolls (1967), the producers settled for Tony Scotti. But Elvis was genuinely aggrieved when Parker dismissed United Artist's inquiry about John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Jon Voight picked up an Oscar nomination for his work as Texas hustler Joe Buck. In later years, Presley was linked with the lead in Mel Stuart's version of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), consigliere Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), John Norman Howard in Frank Pierson's A Star Is Born (1976) and Chance the gardener in Hal Ashby's Being There (1978). But he never acted again on screen after 1969, when he made his last three pictures.

Western specialist Charles Marquis Warren was handed the reins for Charro! (1969), a would-be Spaghetti offering in which reformed outlaw Jess Wade is framed for the theft of a solid gold cannon. Sporting a beard and free from singing duties, Presley snarls gamely as the good/bad man. But he was frustrated that the violence-strewn screenplay that had originally been written for Clint Eastwood had been drastically toned down. After years of working the hit TV shows, Gunsmoke (1955-75) and Rawhide (1959-65), Warren directs capably, but he never made another feature.

A still from The Trouble with Girls (1969)
A still from The Trouble with Girls (1969)

Elvis succeeded where Glenn Ford and Dick Van Dyke had failed in headlining a movie based on Day Keene and Dwight V. Babcock's comic novel, Chautauqua. However, the MGM front office didn't think fans would be able to pronounce the title and changed it to The Trouble With Girls. Moreover, in a nod to Richard Lester's 1965 satire, The Knack (and How to Get It) , they tagged on the subtitle, ' (And How to Get Into It) '. Peter Tewksbury returned to direct, as Walter Hale's travelling Chautauqua education show rolls into a small Iowa town in 1927. However, the murder of the local pharmacist causes friction between Hale and resident storyteller Charlene (Marlyn Mason), who wants to form a carnival trade union.

Sheree North, Dabney Coleman, Joyce Van Patten, Vincent Price and John Carradine bolstered a fine cast that also included Frank Welker and Nicole Jaffe, who had just been selected to voice Fred and Velma in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969-70). Elvis is also on form with tracks like 'Clean Up Your Own Backyard'. But none of the other songs were released on disc during his lifetime, while the movie itself wound up on the lower half of a double bill with James Neilson's Raquel Welch vehicle, Flareup.

It deserved better, as did Elvis's dramatic swan song, Change of Habit (1969). However, William A. Graham's tale of a doctor with a social conscience ministering to the residents of a rundown part of New York has some questionable attitudes when it comes to sexual violence. But, given the state of the nation at the time, a film tackling topics like urban poverty, autism, abortion and the validity of religion was at least trying to do the right thing.

Alongside Presley as Dr John Carpenter was Mary Tyler Moore's Sister Michelle Gallagher, who was hiding her vocation as a nun in a bid to bring succour to the neighbourhood. The script handles their attraction with tact, but also finds time to allow Elvis to let rip with "Rubberneckin'", the last movie song to trouble the charts. Released on a double bill with John Guillermin's thriller, House of Cards (1968), it brought down the curtain on Elvis's acting career.

He wasn't done with the big screen, however, as he resurfaced in two documentaries - each of which is available from Cinema Paradiso. Denis Sanders's Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) shows Presley rehearsing for his Summer Festival appearance in Las Vegas. In addition to the behind-the-scenes footage, there's also a chance to see The King on stage, entertaining celebrity fans like Cary Grant, Juliet Prowse and Sammy Davis, Jr. Two years later, Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge took to the road for Elvis on Tour (1972), which was co-edited by Martin Scorsese. Having received assurances that Presley wouldn't play up to the cameras, the pair sought to capture the sights and sounds of the Elvis roadshow and were rewarded with a share of the Golden Globe for Best Documentary, with Herbert Kline's study of Mexican murals, Walls of Fire (1971).

Resplendent in his now trademark jumpsuit, Presley looked heavier than he had done in his movie prime. But he has audience in the palm of his hand, as is the case with Aloha From Hawaii (1973), which was recorded by Marty Pasetta during a live satellite broadcast that was seen by 1.5 billion people in 26 countries. Sadly, Presley was in such a poor physical condition in Dwight Hemion's Live in Concert (1977) that it was shelved after being screened posthumously in October 1977. Clips can be seen, however, in Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt's This Is Elvis (1981) and Solt's two-volume, Elvis: The Great Performances (1997 & 2002).

Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 at Graceland on 16 August 1977. This year marks the 45th anniversary of his passing and fans can explore his legacy through the numerous documentaries available via the Cinema Paradiso searchline.

A still from Elvis: The Early Years (2005)
A still from Elvis: The Early Years (2005)

He's also been memorably played on screen by Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's Elvis (1979), Harvey Keitel in David Winkler's Finding Graceland (1998), Bruce Campbell in Don Cascarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in James Steven Sadwith's Elvis: The Early Years (2005), Michael Shannon in Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon (2016), and Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis (2022).

Even the priests from Craggy Island staged 'The Three Ages of Elvis' in the 'Competition Time' episode of Father Ted (1995-98). Now all we need is someone to release Alan Arkush's Elvis Meets Nixon (1997), which is set in December 1970 and features a wonderful performance by Rick Peters, as a man out of touch with his world trying to persuade an embattled president to make him a special agent so he can win the war on drugs and eradicate the influence of those pesky Beatles.

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