Thursday, August 16, 2012

Remembering Elvis

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. To commemorate the occasion, here are two blasts from the past. The first, "I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood," is a look back at his mostly lamentable film career. It was written in 1990 when Elvis had been in the grave only 13 years. The second is a review of Flaming Star, one of the King's better films, written in 1999 and originally published at a site called Movienutz.

I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood
This week marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. There are those who insist that the King is still alive, having fabricated his death, but they have yet to be heard from. They tend to be more vocal on the more important anniversaries - the fifth, tenth, and no doubt the upcoming fifteenth and twentieth. Elvis’ movies won’t be hard to find, however. Several are being unspooled on TV this week.

Channel 19 kicks off the Presley fest this afternoon with a colorized version of 1957's Jailhouse Rock, while channel 5 is offering 1958's King Creole in untainted black-and-white. It will be followed later this week by G.I. Blues, Roustabout, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style. The best is certainly not being saved for last.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style is a dreadful disaster that only the least discriminating Presley fan could tolerate. Little more than a retread of 1961's Blue Hawaii, it makes that film look like Citizen Kane. While Blue Hawaii was essentially a travelogue with a skimpy plot, it at least had some memorable songs, most notably the classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The 1966 rehash has some memorable song titles - “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya” - but otherwise it’s a barren beach.

G.I. Blues, the first film Presley made after his discharge from the Army, is considerably better but it’s the movie that may have sounded the death knell for Presley’s aspirations to become a serious actor. The rebellious rock and roll persona so vividly captured in Jailhouse Rock and still present, if toned down, in King Creole, was gone now, replaced by a clean-cut Elvis who was now finding favor with the very guardians of good taste who denounced him when he first appeared on the national scene in 1956. Songs like the weepy “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the operatic “It’s Now or Never” did much to win them over, and Blue Hawaii sealed the deal, making Elvis a mainstream entertainer that mothers could love as ardently as their daughters.

Presley’s new softer approach on both vinyl and celluloid helped bury rock and roll, and ultimately gave rise to the Beatles who, influenced by Elvis and other American rockers like Buddy Holly and Little Richard, revived the genre in the 1960s. Elvis turned “square,” donning suits and ties and keeping his hair above the collar in movies like It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and on records like “Surrender,” while the Beatles, along with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, brought the music that Presley popularized and all but abandoned back from the dead. The man who paved the way in the ‘50s and all but single-handedly brought about the revolution in culture and society that made the Beatles possible, was now churning out cinematic rot like Tickle Me and Harum Scarum.

But as the quality of his films declined, Presley’s economic fortunes grew. He remained a huge superstar, becoming not only the highest paid entertainer in the world but also the highest paid actor, commanding a million dollars per picture and 50% of the gross. He was, along with John Wayne and Richard Burton, one of the top 10 box-office draws of the decade. It’s interesting to note that in 1964, probably the Beatles’ most lucrative year, Presley’s film Viva Las Vegas, one of three Elvis movies that year, made more money at the box-office than the Fab Four’s A Hard Day’s Night.

The fact that Presley was so well-paid for his movies undoubtedly influenced the studios in their decision to make them as cheaply as possible. Up to and including Viva Las Vegas, Presley’s films were generally well-mounted productions. Even though most were given mass distribution - playing in more than one theater to make back the financial investment as quickly as possible (standard practice now, but once reserved for exploitation films) - they were competently made and often featured such acting luminaries as Angela Lansbury (Blue Hawaii) and Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout) in supporting roles.

Later films like 1965's Tickle Me and 1967's Clambake were slapped together like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fobbed off for quick but profitable engagements at second-run theaters and drive-ins. A few Presley features were high class A films, most notably 1961's Wild in the Country with a screenplay by Clifford Odets. But if Presley’s fans only wanted to see Elvis, why hire first class writers, directors, and co-stars when bigger bucks could be generated without such fuss?

Wild in the Country and 1960's Flaming Star, both of which gave Presley an opportunity to show his dramatic skills, fared poorly in comparison to the scenic Blue Hawaii, and neither succeeded in establishing the star as the serious actor he longed to be. This turn of events enabled his manager, the tacky, uncultured Colonel Tom Parker, to wrest away all control of the Presley film career. Parker’s only interest was money, and if he could make ten cents more by having his client appear in Girls! Girls! Girls! instead of The Fugitive Kind based on Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending (a role offered to Presley that Marlon Brando played instead), then Girls! Girls! Girls! (or something similar) it was going to be.

In his few good movies, Presley clearly demonstrated not only a strong screen presence but definite potential as an actor. He was excellent as the half-breed in Don Siegel’s underrated western Flaming Star, and showed a flair for comedy in 1962's modest Follow That Dream. But instead of more vehicles along those lines, he became trapped in the kind of movies that were more suitable for the likes of Frankie Avalon and Tommy Sands than for a performer whose accomplishments transcended the domain of mere “show business.”

Presley films improved in 1968 when he starred in Stay Away, Joe, a slightly more adult film than the bilge that preceded it. Elvis played a wheeling dealing Navajo in a role that was a sharp turn from the bland, overweight bozo he played in Spinout and Easy Come, Easy Go. Stay Away, Joe came under attack for its stereotyped depiction of Native Americans but otherwise stands out as one of Presley’s better films.

The four films that followed were also a notch above the Spinout type turkey if only because they presented the star in a more flattering light. Live a Little, Love a Little was trash but it wasn’t embarrassing. The few songs were genuine songs, and there were no scenes of rock and roll’s biggest and greatest star being backed up by a band consisting of such non-musicians as Gary Crosby (Bing’s son) and Jack Mullavey.

Presley’s 31 films (not including documentaries) break down into three categories: the good (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Follow That Dream, Viva Las Vegas, and Stay Away, Joe), the acceptable (Love Me Tender, Loving You, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Kid Galahad, Wild in the Country, Live a Little, Love a Little, The Trouble with Girls), and the godoffal (Spinout, Clambake, Speedway, Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, and on and on and on).

For my money, Presley’s best movie is Jailhouse Rock. More than any other Presley film, or for that matter, any rock and roll movie of the 1950s, it captures the image, if not quite the essence, of both Elvis and the cultural revolution he started which would blossom in the next decade. It also includes one of his most memorable songs, “I Want to Be Free.” It’s a sentiment he probably understood better a decade later after years of toiling in the wasteland of Hollywood trash.
August 12, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks

Elvis Presley, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores Del Rio, John McIntyre, Richard Jaeckal, L.Q. Jones
Directed by Don Siegel
* * * * out of * * * * *

After his discharge from the Army, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having served his country with honor, he was suddenly seen as a decent American kid by many of the same parents who condemned him earlier as a pied piper leading their children down the path to Hell. To appeal to these newly won fans, his hips now swayed more than they swiveled and the raucous rock and roll that brought him fame gave way to maudlin ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") and finger snapping pop songs ("Stuck on You").

Nothing reflected the change in his public image more than his movies, though. Whereas his first four films found him playing rebels both sweet (Loving You) and sullen (Jailhouse Rock), 1960's G.I. Blues put him back in the military uniform he was relieved to have been freed from, and had him singing to babies in a role that could have easily been played by Establishment god Bing Crosby two decades earlier. A monster hit, its acceptance by the public did not dampen his enthusiasm for a serious acting career, and his next film, Flaming Star, suggested that this goal was not beyond his reach.

Returning to the western genre in which he made his film debut, Presley is effectively cast as Pacer Burton, a half-breed torn between two peoples.

When the Kiowa Indians launch an attack on the neighboring white settlers, burning homes and savagely murdering the people, the Burton homestead is spared. Though the family is headed by a white man, his wife is a Kiowa. One son is white, but the youngest is a half-breed. Suddenly, the whites, who had accepted the family and welcomed them into their homes, turn against them, threatening to shoot the half-breed should he set foot on their property. Meanwhile, the Kiowas hope to enlist Pacer in their cause. "If a half-breed white leaves his father's people to fight for his mother's people, it will make the strongest magic I have," the chief tells the troubled lad, but he refuses to join their battle. When his mother is shot by a white man and dies after being refused treatment by the white doctor, Pacer's long held but hidden feelings that he never belonged in the white man's world suddenly surface. He abandons his home and joins his mother's people on the warpath. But he remains an outsider, painfully aware that as a half-breed, no matter whose side he takes, he is always fighting himself.

With a literate screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Huffaker, and the customarily tight direction of Don Siegel, Flaming Star is a meaningful drama potently performed by a strong cast. As Pacer's father and mother, there's the always excellent John McIntire and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. Steve Forrest capably plays Clint, the white son in the Burton clan, and there's a supporting cast that features Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckal, and L.Q. Jones. Though it's not a shoot ‘em up by any means, there's plenty of exciting action well staged by the masterful Siegel, who later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

The role of Pacer Burton was originally intended for Marlon Brando. As an actor, Presley may not be Brando (just as Brando could never be Presley in the recording studio), but by 1960 Brando wasn't Brando much anymore, either, and Presley gives an excellent performance that even Mr. Method Actor could not improve on. Presley's performance may have even been inspired. The situation his character faces is not unlike the one confronting him at the time. Just as Pacer is torn between two divergent cultures, Presley, with the resumption of his career, stood uncomfortably between two different worlds: the rock and roll culture in which he had been the White Negro, the rebel king whose music terrified the guardians of middle class morality, and the whiter than white, white bread world of mainstream showbiz where, with his new more respectable image, he seemed to be headed. The modest reception given Flaming Star and the complete failure of the Clifford Odets scripted Wild in the Country may have sealed his fate more than any Faustian pact he had made with Colonel Tom Parker. Before long, Presley was exiled to another world all together - that strange Twilight Zone nightmare known as the "Elvis Presley movie."

Ah, but Flaming Star is not an "Elvis Presley movie." It's a thoughtful, intelligent western drama, and a good one, that happens to star an actor named Elvis Presley.

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Other posts on Elvis:
Elvis Remembered
August 16, 1977
Elvis Is Everywhere

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