Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I’m still thinking about Elvis, and in lieu of good ideas this week, I dug up a past piece of writing that has me baffled. Did I wrote this for Film.com, one of the internet’s original movie websites (I mean, check out that web address—founder Lucy Mohl was really thinking ahead), back in the mid-90s? I think maybe. I have been into Elvis movies since childhood, when they were a staple of TV movie packages, and I wanted to say a couple of things. I had obviously just read Peter Guralnick’s great biography, and cite it in the piece. Guralnick is interviewed in the new documentary The King, and the movie could use more of him.
Anyway. If they’re not showing Elvis movies on TV with any regularity, you can come to Scarecrow and get the goods. In the meantime, here’s a vintage thinkpiece.
Elvis and the Colonel: Easy Come, Easy Go
In the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us—a comedy about Catholic schoolboys in the mid-sixties—the teenage heroes trundle off to catch the latest Elvis Presley picture at their Brooklyn movie house. Staring up at the screen, one of them ponders the image of the rock god in Hollywood: “Man,” the kid says, “What’d they do to Elvis—cut his balls off?”
That is as valid an observation as any about the dismal spectacle of Elvis’s movie career. There’s no sadder chapter in the rock-movie catalog than this transformation of a raw young colt (Elvis ’56) into a pasty-faced zombie (Elvis ’66), able to rouse himself out of his donuts-and-tranquilizers haze just long enough to deliver a half-hearted karate chop. Blame for this has always gone to Elvis’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who dictated the trajectory of his movie-mad client’s Hollywood career; but let’s not forget that The King had the ultimate say in his own work, and lacked the invention, the taste, or the balls to do something about his mostly plastic film vehicles.
In Peter Guralnick’s beautiful two-part biography of Presley, the deal-making machinations of Colonel Parker are fascinatingly detailed, and they say a lot about why Elvis movies became so formulaically tawdry so quickly. The Colonel’s goal through the 1960s was to keep Elvis one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood; but he also remained fanatically insistent on keeping the budgets for Presley pictures low, so there’d be a bigger slice of the chocolate-cream pie at the end. The perverse logic went something like this: whereas most actors experiencing success in movies would see the budgets and shooting schedules of their films increase in direct relation to their box-office profile, Colonel Parker arranged it so that Elvis’s films would be shot cheaper and quicker. It was the kind of short-sighted craftiness that would appeal to the Colonel’s huckster soul and Elvis’s Tupelo-bred appetites. And that’s how you get to the netherworld of Clambake and Spinout.
Elvis began with promise, and his pre-Army movies are neat entertainments—King Creole (1958) actually feels like the start of something special. The kid’s acting is green, obviously, but there’s an interesting wariness there, and no fakery; and when he cuts loose in song, as in Jailhouse Rock (1958), the voltage is live. In retrospect, Blue Hawaii (1961) marks a turning point: a fun movie, but its success set the Elvis formula in an increasingly hardening paste of peanut butter and bananas. Thenceforth E would be cast as a racecar driver, a water-skiing instructor, a roustabout, and engage in some contractual singin’ and scrappin’ while looking sleepily indifferent to the shoddiness of the scripts and sets. By 1970 the movie thing was dead, briefly propped up by a couple of concert documentaries. He had occasional chances, as when Barbra Streisand asked him to play the male lead in her remake of A Star is Born (1976), and you can imagine the weird pathos he might have brought to that ridiculous project. But the Colonel screwed the deal by asking for more than Elvis was worth at that point (as though pretending it was still 1962 could make it so), and it would have been a cruel sight anyway—seeing Elvis play a has-been and an addict, a role much closer to himself than anything he’d done since those early Young Man With a Guitar flicks. At that point Elvis was tired, almost gone, and “the movies” in his life consisted of kung fu pictures unspooling at midnight at a Memphis theater.
Without question, some of the riper titles from the Presley filmography have a rich camp appeal, and that’s the only way something like Stay Away, Joe is bearable. But even on that level, you can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy through the most absurd of his movies when they flash across a late-night cable viewing. It’s hard not to sigh and think: poor Elvis—if only he’d done something.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.