Quite simply, Elvis Aaron Presley is the one, true King of Rock 'n' Roll. Although other notable talents in the 1950s matriculated to the screen before he did (namely Bill Haley in Rock Around the Clock, 1956, this charming, charismatic, and ruggedly handsome Southern performer is nonetheless considered the first major rock star in history, and definitely the first rock-movie star.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, Elvis unveiled his first rock album when he was still under twenty years old. By the time Elvis was just twenty-one, he had a number one hit in "Heartbreak Hotel" under his belt. By 1957, at 22, the King's career in Hollywood had commenced in earnest. His freshman film was the Civil War era epic Love Me Tender (1956), which had been hastily re-titled to take advantage of Presley's burgeoning popularity.
Following that successful initiative, Elvis appeared in over two dozen films in the following fifteen years. Not all these efforts were good choices, but Presley routinely left business decisions in the hands of his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Reportedly, Presley lost the lead role in West Side Story (1960), a major movie musical directed by the great Robert Wise, due to Parker's lack of foresight. The Colonel apparently preferred that his most famous client appear in mostly innocuous romantic dramas that featured some light singing and dancing. Nothing too scandalous to inflame the masses.
Accordingly, the Elvis Presley movie canon is not necessarily highly regarded among critics, and that's because various films tend to blunt the King's wicked edge. The artist was universally famous for wriggling his pelvis and hips, and gyrating at fast speed, so much so that his body motions were considered scandalous. Yet in his movies, Elvis rarely performs his most famous or popular, "sexual" moves. His movies are very much a case of Presley de-fanged.
Instead, many of Elvis' pictures find him playing a "white bread" character, a bland, mainstream American protagonist (usually with very basic, heartland-sounding names such as Deke Rivers, Mike Edwards, Vince Everett, Mike Windgren, and Danny Fisher). Early on, a workable formula was cemented for these films, and after that nobody tampered with it. Even when it begged for change.
The first part of that successful formula involves Elvis' relationship and interaction with children. In a number of films, including Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) and especially It Happened at the World's Fair (1963), Elvis is deliberately teamed on-screen for a time with cute-as-a-button children. He sings to that child, dances with him or her, and generally proves to audiences he is a responsible and decent fellow. In other words, the message to parents was - you can trust Elvis with your children. Don't fear the Pelvis.
The other element in the Elvis formula finds the fickle King forced to choose between two women of vastly different personal qualities. One woman is always a sexually-knowledgeable, almost feral femme fatale who appeals to the King's lusty, naughty side. The other woman is a virtual innocent (and usually blond), a "good girl" who would make a fine wife to bring home to mother.
In King Creole (1958), Elvis is forced to choose between the hot-to-trot, sexually-ravenous Carolyn Jones and the sweet five-and-dime waitress, a blond named Nellie (Dolores Hart). Here, the femme fatale conveniently dies, making Elvis' choice a fait accompli.
Similarly, in Fun in Acapulco (1963), Elvis must select from a kindly (but gorgeous) foreign heiress played by Ursula Andress and a powerful, aggressive female bullfighter, Dolores (Elsa Gardenas). The latter undergoes a last-minute personality alteration and proves to be mean to Elvis, so again, his choice is clear. This was also the dynamic in Girls! Girls! Girls! (featuring bad girl Stella Stevens and good girl Laurel Goodwin), as well as other Presley pictures.
In all his films, Elvis' protagonists prove to be quite versatile. He always played a man capable of virtually any feat, including racing cars (Speedway, 1968,), flying helicopters (Paradise, Hawaiian Style), boxing (Kid Galahad, 1962) and cliff-diving (Fun in Acapulco). And yet there's always time to sing too. This may be why many Elvis fans see the man as something of a superhero or messianic figure. Like James Bond, there's nothing this idol can't do.
Even considering the dramatic range of these professions, Elvis' characterizations boil down to two basic character-types. He could play a rebellious sort (King Creole, Wild in the Country, 1961) or a basically harmless stud, singing and dancing his way through life (Clambake, 1967, Paradise, Hawaiian-Style).
Despite his films' narrative and pacing flaws, Elvis was - contrary to many opinions - a pretty good actor; and one who could hold the screen seemingly by force of an unearthly, remarkable charisma. Elvis played comedy well in Follow That Dream (1967), and convincingly nursed psychological wounds in Wild in the Country. Few people remember this today, but Elvis could also express dynamic passion, particularly in his earlier work like Jailhouse Rock (1957) and the aforementioned King Creole. It's just a shame he never was in better, more involving films.
By the latter days of his film career, Elvis began to succumb to the ridiculous story lines he was forced to vet, and by appearances, seemed to give up; merely walking through roles. An example of this characteristic comes in Harum Scarum (1965) which sees the King portray a matinee idol abducted by Arabs in an exotic Middle East country, forced to become an assassin. It was an utterly ridiculous plot, but at least it made use of Elvis' physicality. He was always convincing in a fight (Elvis had a black belt in karate), just as he was in romancing the ladies.
Another commonality: Elvis' films tend to feature a harmless secondary male lead, a good-looking guy who isn't quite handsome enough to actually threaten the King's superiority. Bill Bixby (Speedway) and Gary Lockwood (It Happened at the World's Fair) occasionally filled out these "best friend" roles. Many of Elvis' films were produced by Hal B. Wallis, and featured the Jordanaires supplying back-up vocals. Norman Taurog was a frequent director.
By the 1970s, Elvis had successfully put his middling film career behind him and went whole hog into the documentary format instead. Fitter and more dynamic than ever, he released a terrific concert film entitled Elvis: That's the Way It Is in 1970, and later Elvis on Tour (1972).
The King of Rock 'n' Roll died tragically young, in August 1977. His untimely passing was mourned by fans across the globe, and yet Elvis' impact on the film world would still be felt for years - even decades - to come. Elvis Presley impersonators have appeared in films including Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), and the Kurt Russell/Kevin Costner crime adventure 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001).
Presley has also appeared as a fantasy figure in the sweet Chris Columbus comedy, Heartbreak Hotel (1988) and a messiah of sorts in Finding Graceland (1998). An aging Elvis, played by horror icon Bruce Campbell, even battles a soul-sucking mummy in a nursing home in Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-tep (2002).
Elvis has also appeared as a character in a variety of rock biographies. In Great Balls of Fire (1989), Elvis appears competitive with Jerry Lee Lewis, and tells him (on the eve of being shipped out to West Germany), that the title of Rock King falls to him. In 2005's Walk the Line, it is Elvis, according to the film, who first introduces "The Man in Black," Johnny Cash to amphetamines.
In 1981, This is Elvis was released with the blessing of the Presley estate. This is a pseudo-documentary featuring actors "playing" Elvis at various ages. Some critics, including Pauline Kael, quibbled with the technique of mixing ham-handed fictionalized "scenes" with authentic footage.
Considering his multiple appearances in biographies, horror pictures, fantasies, and comedies, it's fair to state that no other rock star has matched the impact of Elvis Presley. His moniker "King of Rock 'n' Roll" turns out not to be an exaggeration at all.
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