On film, was Elvis Presley anything more than an affable guy with predictably surmountable problems? Mostly no, but if he wasn’t exactly James Dean, audiences didn’t seem to complain. He seemed at ease in front of the camera, and his on-screen popularity is undeniable. With 31 movies to his credit, a great number of them turned a profit, with Viva Las Vegas (1964) at the top of his list of moneymakers. Blue Hawaii (1961), Love Me Tender (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) also brought home the bacon.
In content and quality, many of his films are strikingly similar—uninspired mixes of cool cars, criminal mayhem, job anxiety and girls, girls, girls. There were exceptions, mainly towards the beginning of his film career. Early on, he seemed to act with great purpose, as if to say to skeptics, “See, I can do this.” And he could, giving solid performances in Wild in the Country (1961), Flaming Star (1960) and his personal favorite, King Creole (1958).
After that, however, he seemed content in taking it easy on screen, churning out formulaic stuff peppered with songs. “I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood,” Presley once said. “My songs were the same conveyor belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.” Throughout them all, however, he displayed a physical beauty, a natural charm and a way with a song that moviegoers found irresistable.
Here are five essentials:
Flaming Star (1960) A conflict between two cultures puts Presley’s character, half-white and half-Native American, in a struggle over loyalties. The film, says film critic Blake French at filmcritic.com, “proves that Elvis didn’t just get lucky with his first performance; the boy could actually act.”
Jailhouse Rock (1957) Vince Everett (Presley) kills a man while protecting a woman, serves time and becomes a rock star after he’s sprung from the slammer. Critic Emanuel Levy writes, “Fortunately, the movie lives up to its title, and ‘Jailhouse’ really rocks when it comes to music, establishing in the process Elvis as an energetic force.”
King Creole (1958) Presley plays a nightclub singer aggressively sought by local crime boss Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) for one of his nightclubs. Critic Sean Axmaker of MSN.com opines that “Elvis rises to the occasion…he's a natural, more attitude and impulse than complexity and nuance, as he burns through the role.”
Viva Las Vegas (1964) Lucky Jackson (Presley) waits tables to pay for an engine for his race car. Writes Variety: “The sizzling combination of Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret is enough to carry Viva Las Vegas over the top. The picture is fortunate in having two such commodities for bait, because beyond several flashy musical numbers, a glamorous locale and one electrifying auto race sequence, the production is a pretty trite and heavyhanded affair, puny in story development and distortedly preoccupied with anatomical oomph.”
Wild in the Country (1961) Presley plays a young man with a troubled life who finds his talent as a writer. Jen Johans at filmintuition.com praises Presley’s strong portrayal, calling the film “an unexpectedly moving and surprisingly effective picture that once again alludes to greater depth in its star than he would encounter in his bigger money-makers.”