Elvis would have turned 77 yesterday. In honor of the King’s birthday, let’s examine an overlooked and oft-derided part of his career — his filmography.
Elvis’s arrival in Hollywood is usually demarcated as the turning point of his career: the moment when he stopped being a rebellious, race-defying rock singer and began his transformation into a safe lounge singer who tossed scarves at adoring grandmothers. He handed over control of his career (and life) to Colonel Tom Parker, who always chased the easiest and quickest buck — which meant a string of formulaic comedic musicals starring Elvis playing guitar, chasing girls and driving race cars.
The truth is in there somewhere, but as with most things, it’s not that simple. Elvis always dreamed of becoming an actor — he idolized Marlon Brando — and turning from music to film was as much is choice as the Colonel’s. But somewhere along the way, his dream was bastardized, and early rebel-loner roles morphed into the grinning, beach-hopping, clambake-throwing, dead-eyed Frankie Avalon clone of the late ’60s. Upon arriving in Hollywood to appear in his first film, Love Me Tender, Elvis said, “I don’t know anything about Hollywood. But I know you can’t be sexy if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.”
Somewhere along the line, Elvis forgot that simple truth. Or it was drugged out of him.
Not all of Elvis’s early, James Dean-style films were good. He was raw as an actor, and the scripts were often clichéd. And not all of his ’60s romps were bad — there are some hidden gems if you know where to look.
Yes, I have seen every single Elvis movie. Yes, I am about to rank them all for you. Free of charge. As per usual, you’re welcome, gang.
Always notable are the names of Elvis’s characters: equal parts awesome and ridiculous. And particularly with the more formulaic films of the ’60s, remember Larry Mullen Jr.’s inane quote from Rattle and Hum: Elvis “wasn’t just a car salesman. He was a car salesman who loved to play guitar — and I really related to that.” It’s fun to see what occupation producers and writers thrust Elvis’s character in as an excuse to get him near girls in bikinis and to allow him to sing when called upon. In particular, Elvis loved piloting things: cars, boats, planes, bikes.
Here we go. Happy birthday, King.
1) King Creole (1958)
Character Name: Danny Fisher (yawn)
A very similar story, theme and tone to Jailhouse Rock, but with a stronger soundtrack, a better performance by Elvis and a New Orleans setting that serves the film well. This is the movie that shows Elvis could have become a legitimate, respected actor if he chose that path, and it’s no coincidence that this is best film. King Creole is more successful than Presley’s other “serious” films at balancing melodrama, music and the star’s unique charm.
Also Featuring: Walter Matthau!
Any songs worth checking out? The title track, Trouble, Crawfish, and the rocking Hard Headed Woman.
2) Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Character Name: Lucky Jackson
Occupation: Racecar Driver
On paper, Viva Las Vegas shouldn’t work any better than half of Elvis’s ’60s films. He plays a racecar driver as he often does, he has a love/hate relationship with a hard-headed woman, as he often does, as the plot borders on ridiculous. But the execution here is so splendid that it elevates the film far above what it should probably be. Elvis’s chemistry with Ann-Margaret (with whom he had a famed, torrid affair on set) carries much of the film. But the songs are good, the Vegas-appreciative direction hits the right notes, and the script is legitimately funny (as opposed to many Elvis movies that are funny when they’re not trying to be).
Also Featuring: Teri Garr!
Any songs worth checking out? A lot of them, including the rollicking title track, Elvis’s version of What’d I Say, dance number C’mon Everybody, and the light-hearted pursuit duet with Ann-Margaret, The Lady Loves Me.
3) Wild in the Country (1961)
Character Name: Glenn Tyler
Occupation: Writer (yup)
Elvis’s most underappreciated film, Wild in the Country was also his last chance to prove he could make so-called legitimate movies. When it failed at the box office, Elvis ran out of ammunition to argue with his management and with his studio that he should pursue films with depth. He plays the same type of misunderstood character he portrayed in his first handful of films, but does so as an improved, more mature actors. Rare for a Presley film, Wild in the Country is heavier on character and atmosphere than it is on getting from plot point A to plot point B. A hidden gem.
Any songs worth checking out? The title track is lovely.
4) Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Character Name: Vince Everett
Occupation: Construction worker/convict/singer
“That ain’t tactics, honey. It’s just the beast in me.”
Any songs worth checking out? Leiber and Stoller’s title track.
5) Loving You (1957)
Character Name: Deke Rivers
Occupation: Singer/Delivery boy
Loving You is often forgotten in the shadow of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, but it forms a worthy trilogy with those films as stories that loosely follow the track of Presley’s music career. Elvis plays a young singer with a great fucking name who experiences a meteoric but chaotic rise to fame. As an actor, he still shows the strain of trying too much, but his natural charisma is certainly present.
Any songs worth checking out? Mean Woman Blues, a fairly standard 12-bar blues that was later turned into a bigger hit by Roy Orbison.
6) Girl Happy (1965)
Character Name: Rusty Wells (the worst Elvis character name?)
Girl Happy pairs the King with his second-best leading lady: Shelley Fabares, who looked a lot different then compared to her eventual role as Coach’s love:
As a result, this tale of a spring break gone awry is thoroughly delightful. Elvis is asked by Shelley’s father to look after her while she’s partying in Ft. Lauderdale. Maybe not the best choice, Dad?
Also Featuring: Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester)!
Any songs worth checking out? Puppet on a String, a simple, earnest ballad.
7) Follow That Dream (1962)
Character Name: Toby Kwimper
One of the rare Elvis films that allows some weirdness to creep in around the edges. For example, Elvis’s primary love interest is his adopted sister. Follow That Dream leans almost entirely on Presley’s charisma for its appeal, but it mostly works. Like several other films in the Presley oeuvre, his character is borderline white trash…but in a lovable sort of way.
Any songs worth checking out? The title song is one of Elvis’s great lost tracks.
8) Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Character Name: Mike Windgren
Occupation: Boater/Cliff Diver
This film manages to take itself a bit less seriously than Elvis’s Hawaiian trilogy (not that any of those considered themselves Citizen Kane), which makes the result more endearing. A couple key elements of the Elvis movie formula are present here and done about as well as they are anywhere: Elvis besting a rival in competition (cliff diving) and a woman causing Elvis trouble at work. Fucking ladiez, am I right, guys?
Also Featuring: A very bony Ursula Andress
Any songs worth checking out? Both Bossa Nova Baby and No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car are emblematic of the movie — silly and fun.
9) Kissin’ Cousins (1964)
Character Name: Josh Morgan AND Jodie Tatum (yup)
Occupation: Army / hillbilly
Certain Elvis movies are so ridiculous that they can’t help but be fun. The enjoyment derived from them is a combination of camp and genuine appreciation for the moments of entertainment the film purposefully brings. Kissin’ Cousins is such a movie. Elvis plays twin cousins (one in a lighter wig that’s probably closer to his natural hair color) who ain’t be getting along. Also there are girl cousins who want to get up in his business. One of them is Yvonne Craig, who looked like this…
Any songs worth checking out? One Boy, Two Little Girls, which is pretty much what it sounds like.
10) Change of Habit (1969)
Character Name: John Carpenter
Occupation: Ghetto Doctor
Elvis’s final film, excluding concert films and documentaries about his career, which we’re not considering as part of his filmography. Here’s really all you need to know about Change of Habit: Elvis’s love interest is a nun played by Mary Tyler Moore. Boom. Are you trying to order it on Amazon yet? I thought so. It’s also grittier than any movie with that description should be, and Elvis is so goddamn handsome at 34 that he makes you want to throw up.
Also Featuring: Did I mention Mary Tyler Moore??
Any songs worth checking out? Rubberneckin’ — and not the bullshit remix version. The title track is also one of the most criminally unknown songs of Presley’s career. That organ is fucking killer:
11) Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
Character Name: Ross Carpenter
Occupation: Boat tour guide
When you think of Elvis movies, you’re probably thinking of Girls! Girls! Girls! From the pandering title to the Hawaiian setting to the threadbare plot to the predictable love triangle, this is Elvis’s ’60s film career in microcosm. Yet, like many of his ’60s movies, it’s certainly watchable and occasionally enjoyable.
Any songs worth checking out? Return to Sender: a minor Elvis hit, but a hit all the same.
12) Clambake (1967)
Character Name: Scott Heyward
Elvis’s second of three pairings with Shelley Fabares is often criticized as the epitome of his late-career silliness. It’s a take on The Prince and the Pauper, featuring Elvis’s playboy switching places with a blue-collar nobody to avoid the pressures of his life. Of course it’s absurd and over the top, but it’s all in good fun. On balance, the singalongs on the beach tend to make you want to go to the beach and sing; in Elvis’s worst films, they make you want to blow up every beach on the planet and forget that music is a thing that exists.
Also Featuring: Bill Bixby!
Any songs worth checking out? Guitar Man and Elvis’s version of Big Boss Man are among his best songs on any soundtrack.
13) Live a Little, Love a Little (1968)
Character Name: Greg Nolan
Occupation: Newspaper Photographer
Elvis actually has a real-world occupation for once, and he also actually seems engaged in his role for the first time in three or four years. This film condescends to the audience a mite less than the typical Presley film.
Also Featuring: Dick Sargent!
Any songs worth checking out? A Little Less Conversation — and not the bullshit remix version.
14) Flaming Star (1960)
Character Name: Pacer Burton
Along with Wild in the Country, one of the two “serious” films between G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii (which marked a permanent turn toward the silly). Flaming Star is serviceable and not much more. This film is most notable for the fact that Elvis played a half-Native American.
Also Featuring: Barbara Eden!
Any songs worth checking out? Not really.
15) Speedway (1968)
Character Name: Steve Grayson
Occupation: Racecar Driver
Think about the awkwardness that ensued when Elvis and Frank Sinatra appeared together on a purported “Welcome Home, Elvis” TV special in 1960:
Now think about Sinatra coming to the slow realization that Elvis was fucking his daughter. Speedway was also the last of its kind…the final Presley film to feature a young-dumb-and-full-of-cum stud singing, fighting and racing his way through life. As such, it holds some historical value.
Any songs worth checking out? Western Union and Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet, Baby
16) Blue Hawaii (1961)
Character Name: Chadwick Gates
Occupation: Helicopter tour guide
Blue Hawaii holds a special place of dishonor with me because — although it’s a perfectly harmless film — it ultimately served as a trap that ensnared Elvis with its box office success. Hollywood worked the same way in 1961 as it works now: when something works, you run it into the ground with as little creativity and finesse as possible. People like seeing a slightly de-sexualized Elvis, singing and dancing and smiling? Great! Throw him in a bathing suit as often as possible and get him some defanged “rock” songs to play. Blue Hawaii isn’t even one of the best of this type of Elvis film. Even though it came near the beginning of the run, its lazy, formulaic script sinks it. But hey: Hawaii.
Also Featuring: Angela Lansbury!
Any songs worth checking out? Can’t Help Falling in Love! Perhaps the best ballad Elvis ever laid to tape.
17) Love Me Tender (1956)
Character Name: Clint Reno
Elvis broke into Hollywood by serving an apprenticeship in his first film, playing a supporting role to Richard Egan and Debra Paget. Love Me Tender is an overwrought Civil War drama, notable only for being Presley’s first film. The musical numbers were shoehorned in after Elvis’s casting, and their placement is invariable awkward. Presley seems unsure of himself as an actor in his debut.
Any songs worth checking out? The title track, of course. The film was originally titled The Reno Brothers, until Elvis’s involvement precipitated a name change to match the hit single.
18) Easy Come, Easy Go (1967)
Character Name: Ted Jackson
Toward the latter part of the 1960s, you definitely have to grade on a curve. But if you’re legitimately fascinated by Elvis, as so many are, it’s a curve you don’t mind spending some time on. So you can watch a movie like this where…deep sea diving…something something…hidden treasure….something something….now he’s singing…something something…and have a reasonably good time.
Any songs worth checking out? Love Machine would have made a great game show theme, and the title song is a breezy couple minutes.
19) Roustabout (1964)
Character Name: Charlie Rogers
Elvis saves a traveling carnival through the power of song. Um…yeah. It’s fine and nothing more.
Also Featuring: Barbara Stanwyck!
Any songs worth checking out? Poison Ivy League, which goes out to David Simon Cowell and the Musky Canadian. (“The ra-ra boys are sitting ’round the table tonight/The ra-ra boys have lots of plans in view”)
20) G.I. Blues (1960)
Character Name: Tulsa McLean
Elvis’s first film of the 1960s signaled a change from his misunderstood-singer-on-the-rise parts that preceded it. Here, a concerted effort is made to make Elvis’s character “likable” (read: bland), and G.I. Blues suffers for it. The poster tells you pretty much everything you need to know about G.I. Blues, whose formula set the girls-guitars-and-guffaws template for dozens of Elvis movies to come.
21) Spinout (1966)
Character Name: Mike McCoy (so many Mikes)
Occupation: Singer/Racecar Driver
Only Presley’s connection with Fabares rescues this most generic film. The umpteenth Presley film to feature a climactic race of some sort, and one with utterly no imagination behind it.
Any songs worth checking out? Tomorrow is a Long Time, a lovely Dylan cover.
22) Charro (1969)
Character Name: Jess Wade
A major departure for Presley, but not necessarily one that worked out. His role was originally developed for Clint Eastwood, and the film is a generic Western with themes of redemption and original sin.
Any songs worth checking out? No, sir.
23) The Trouble With Girls (1969)
Character Name: Walter Hale
Occupation: Chautauqua troupe leader (ha ha ha ha ha)
After Elvis’s ’68 comeback special aired on TV, he regained some control over his career. Read: he told Colonel Parker to fuck off with the beach blanket bingo bullshit. Which could have led to a brilliant late-career film revival, but sadly just led to a few generally boring movies like The Trouble With Girls.
Also Featuring: Vincent Price! Dabney Coleman!
Any songs worth checking out? Clean Up Your Own Back Yard
24) Stay Away, Joe (1968)
Character Name: Joe Lightcloud
Occupation: Bull rider
This time Elvis plays a full-blood Native American, which I’m sure wouldn’t cause any controversy today at all. A turn toward the dramatic for the first time since Flaming Star, and it doesn’t really work. The film is equal parts condescending and dull.
Also Featuring: Burgess Meredith!
Any songs worth checking out? The title track is very much of its time and place. Let’s just say that.
25) Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966)
Character Name: Rick Richards
As the ’60s dragged on, Elvis began making more films per year. His career became an assembly line, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style is a fully finished commodity, seemingly created by machines trying to imitate the human creative process. Elvis himself is clearly disheartened with what’s happened to him, and you can see it on screen. Almost mercifully, this is even more of a travelogue than Blue Hawaii or Fun in Acapulco, because seeing how bored Elvis looks is painful.
Any songs worth checking out? Not really. Whiter Leiber and Stoller?
26) Double Trouble (1967)
Character Name: Guy Lambert
A pretty run of the mill late-period Elvis movie that must carry the burden of featuring the absolute low point of Elvis’s film career: a version of Old MacDonald. I feel sick for everyone involved with this:
Any songs worth checking out? Long Legged Girl (with the Short Dress On)
27) Frankie and Johnny (1966)
Character Name: Johnny
This film’s creators made the crucial mistake of trying to stuff Elvis into a period piece and still have it be an Elvis movie. As a result, the tone is all over the map, torn between slapstick and drama.
Also Featuring: Donna Douglas (Elly May Clampett)! And M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan!
Any songs worth checking out? Nope.
28) Harum Scarum (1965)
Character Name: Johnny Tyronne
A legitimately bad movie, and the point at which it’s safe to say that Elvis’s film career had gone irrevocably off the rails. The plot is kind of a precursor to Three Amigos, with a vague racist Arabia standing in for Mexico. The only pleasure to be gained here is of the camp variety, and Elvis is also bored out of his mind. If this clip is any indication, he’s also drugged out of his fucking mind:
The best part about Harum Scarum, other than its ridiculous name, is the reported fact that Colonel Parker fought to include a talking camel narrator in the film. He was overruled.
Any songs worth checking out? Nope.
29) It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
Character Name: Mike Edwards
More than even other Elvis movies, the plot here is just an excuse to get us from song to song, and the songs are pretty despicable. In general, the more the songs in an Elvis movie are related to his job or to specific plot points, the worse both the songs and the movies are. (Example here: Cotton Candy Land). Also, far too often Elvis is paired with adorable precocious children and asked to develop some kind of chemistry with a kid actor. Here, as in most places, it doesn’t work.
Also Featuring: A very young Kurt Russell!
30) Tickle Me (1965)
Character Name: Lonnie Beale
Occupation: Bull rider (again!)
Well, as far as movies about bull riders starring teen idols go, this one edges out 8 Seconds with Luke Perry. So, that’s something…right? The story is all silly misunderstandings and comedic happenstance, but none of it’s very funny and the writing is frighteningly unsophisticated.
Any songs worth checking out? No. Elvis didn’t record any new songs for the film.
31) Kid Galahad (1962)
Character Name: Walter Gulick
This nondescript remake of a 1937 film starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart is a pretty standard underdog boxing tale. You’ve seen all the plot turns before: the gambling debts, the pressure to take a dive, etc. Eminently skippable.
Also Featuring: Charles Bronson!
Any songs worth checking out? Not really. King of the Whole Wide World is decent but non-essential.
It’s easy to look at Presley’s Hollywood career as a sea of missed opportunities. But there’s a handful of legitimately good films in there, and in almost all of them, there’s something redeeming — whether it’s Elvis’s raw charisma or a few good songs or a general aura of fun. Don’t hold Elvis’s film career responsible for what his music career could have been; instead, appreciate it for its very real appeal.