Rewind: A salute to the King of cinema
By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 15, 2002
Elvis Presley plays a prizefighter in Kid Galahad.
Elvis Presley was a better movie actor than his domineering manager, Col. Tom Parker, allowed him to be. Parker never wanted Elvis to muss his profitable heartthrob image, or miss a chance to sing what the manager hoped would be the King's next No. 1 hit.
Before Elvis settled into a rut of homogenized 1960s musicals, there were occasional flashes of his dramatic potential on screen: a brooding brother who sat out the Civil War in Love Me Tender, a semiautobiographical turn in Loving You (which will air at 8:30 p.m. Saturday on WFLA-Ch. 8), a racially mixed frontiersman in Flaming Star and troubled delinquents in Jailhouse Rock and Wild in the Country.
In those roles, Elvis occasionally pushed himself beyond rock star poses into genuine portrayals of emotions, something Parker wouldn't allow his client to try again until the sagebrush saga Charro! in 1969.
The movies in between are how Elvis fans remember their idol: singing, swinging and leaving a wake of swooning women. They were often set in sexy locales where miniskirts or bikinis were required, someone wanted to muscle Elvis out of the way and guitars were always handy. Parker nailed down a formula and bullied screenwriters, directors and his star to make it happen again and again.
Fans can only wonder what Elvis might have done with the role of John Norman Howard, a boozy, washed-up rocker in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. Barbra Streisand wanted him for the part, expecting to share top billing. Parker insisted nobody be billed above, or even alongside, the King, and the role went to Kris Kristofferson. Elvis was dead a year after the film's release. Maybe, just maybe, a critical triumph in A Star Is Born could have inspired him to shape up.
Elvis appeared in 34 films during his lifetime and nearly as many since his death, as a pop culture icon in documentaries and features such as Forrest Gump. We'll stick with his personal body of work for these suggested videos to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death:
Love Me Tender (1956) -- Elvis's screen debut, unless you count a 48-minute 1955 documentary, The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day in the Life of a Famous Disc Jockey, in which he appeared as Bill Randle's studio guest. That movie was shown once and never released due to legal hassles. It's rumored that Universal Studios has the negatives stored away in its vaults.
Jailhouse Rock (1957) -- Jailed for manslaughter, a hoodlum (Elvis) learns about the music business in prison and becomes a sensation after his parole. Parker made one for the money, Elvis put on a show and then it was go, cat, go. This is arguably the King's best movie.
King Creole (1958) -- A high school dropout gets a dishwashing job in a mob nightclub then wows the crowd onstage. Problems arise when a competing big boss man (Walter Matthau) wants the kid to perform in his club.
G.I. Blues (1960) -- Elvis' stint in the Army inspired this yarn about a soldier's bet that he can score with a cabaret dancer (Juliet Prowse) while stationed in Germany. If you don't enjoy it, you must have a wooden heart.
Blue Hawaii (1961) -- The King made three movies in the 50th state: Paradise, Hawaiian Style; Girls, Girls, Girls; and this melodic travelog about an Army veteran avoiding his family's pineapple business to become a tour guide. Can't help falling in love with this one.
Follow That Dream (1962) -- Drive north on U.S. 19 to Inglis, turn left on Follow That Dream Boulevard and look for the sign bragging that Elvis made this movie there (and in nearby Citrus County). About 6 miles down the road you'll be where Elvis and Arthur O'Connell set up a squatter home in the path of a new highway in the King's funniest flick.
Kid Galahad (1962) -- Elvis played a prizefighter on the rise in a remake of The Battling Bellhop. Gig Young and Charles Bronson took the trainer roles played by Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson in the original.
It Happened at the World's Fair (1963) -- A crop-duster (Elvis) pays off a gambling debt with his airplane, hitchhikes to Seattle for work and takes charge of a small girl, showing her the World's Fair. Elvis puts his broken heart up for sale when he gets ditched by a nurse (Joan O'Brien).
Viva Las Vegas (1964) -- Elvis takes the wheel in a Grand Prix race, when he isn't shimmying with Ann-Margret in casino showcases. All he needs are money and nerves of steel.
Roustabout (1964) -- Parker had Elvis making three movies per year by this time and the strain started to show. A vagabond singer on a motorcycle (Elvis) finds work and romance at a carnival in financial straits. Good support by old pros Barbara Stanwyck and Leif Erickson.
Frankie and Johnny (1966) -- Elvis gets a new backdrop for his songs, a riverboat sailing at the turn of the 20th century. He plays a gambler who likes to sing, or it may be the other way around. Donna Douglas made her first -- and last -- movie appearance after The Beverly Hillbillies made her a sitcom star.
Stay Away, Joe (1968) -- The King's bawdiest comedy is politically incorrect these days for its depiction of a booze-soaked Indian reservation. Elvis plays a rodeo champion retiring to raise cattle on that reservation, and sings to a bull.
Charro! (1969) -- A gunslinger (Elvis) is accused of stealing a Mexican army cannon, nearly gets hanged, then escapes to find the thieves who set him up. Elvis tried making a spaghetti Western and nearly pulled it off, but audiences stayed away. This is the only film in which Elvis didn't sing (the title song was played over the opening credits).
Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) -- In the midst of his legendary musical comeback, Elvis allowed cameras to trail him -- not too closely, though -- for a backstage-and-concert documentary. Two years later, he repeated the process with the equally entertaining (and more incisive) Elvis on Tour. He never worked in front of movie cameras again.
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