Elvis Presley made 31 movies between 1956 and 1969. Many were not what you’d call good. The scripts were full of witless jokes; the narratives could be downright ludicrous. Though obviously a talented performer, Presley’s acting ability—while certainly present—was far less consistent and transcendent than his singing.
To tar all his films with the same brush would be to do them, and yourself, a disservice. Few of them are genuinely accomplished productions, and yet even fewer have nothing at all to recommend. Most were formulaic, but the formula allowed plenty of room for fascinating strangeness. A glittering array of co-stars, as well as a skilled director or two, helped give the movies an extra appeal. And sometimes, Presley’s acting could yield pleasant surprises.
That was the case in the greatest of his cinematic adventures, and Presley’s personal favorite, King Creole. Set in a headily atmospheric New Orleans, Presley plays a plucky young nightclub singer who runs afoul of mobster Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau). In one of the rare roles that allowed him to exercise some range (the part was originally intended for James Dean), Presley acquits himself admirably, going toe to toe with the formidable Matthau and proving himself a worthy scene partner. Director Michael Curtiz weaves the requisite tunes into the action with an eye to narrative propulsion; it’s one of the rare Elvis movies where the music moves the story, and the plot isn’t just a flimsy excuse to string a bunch of songs together.
He did make movies with little music at all, however. Presley led several westerns, and in the best of them-Flaming Star—he only performs one song. Directed by Don Siegel, the film sees Presley play the son of a white father and Kiowa mother (admittedly dubious casting, but this was 1960) who becomes embroiled in a bloody war between his parents’ people. The most violent of Elvis’ filmography by quite some margin, Siegel gives Flaming Star his typical taut, pacy touch, and directs Presley to another solid, moody performance. Though he’s no Henry Fonda, it’s quite possible to watch his turn in Siegel’s film (or in his other westerns, like Love Me Tender and Charro!), and imagine him having a successful B-movie career akin to those enjoyed by Audie Murphy or Rory Calhoun.
A more typical Elvis movie—one that featured an album’s worth of music and a decidedly sunnier tone—and yet just as enjoyable as Flaming Star, was Viva Las Vegas. One of three films where he plays a racecar driver, the real reason to see Viva Las Vegas is the ferocious chemistry between Presley and Ann-Margret, who were having an affair during the shoot. In the worst of his formulaic movies, Presley could seem bored, uncomfortable and uninterested in his female leads, but the spark he shares with Ann-Margret makes Viva Las Vegas electric.
Also entertainingly hewing to the formula is Frankie and Johnny, which sees Presley performing songs staged with the overt theatricality of Gene Kelly musicals on one of cinema’s most gloriously lurid riverboat cruises. Adding further fun to that fire is his sidekick Harry Morgan, who would become best known for playing Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H the following decade.
It’s rare to find an Elvis movie where he doesn’t share the screen with a big name either on their way up or down the ladder of fame; besides those already mentioned, he could count Barbara Stanwyck, Vincent Price, Dabney Coleman, Delores Del Rio, Nancy Sinatra, Tuesday Weld, Gig Young and Charles Bronson among those who elevated often sub-par material. Sure, Easy Come, Easy Go is a bit of a disaster, but how can you deem it a total waste of time when it includes a duet between Elvis and Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester about the joys and difficulties of yoga?!
And of all the very many strange things that happened in his movies, his playing a doctor who cures a girl’s autism by hugging her for hours, as nun Mary Tyler Moore looks on, must surely be the strangest. That was in Change of Habit, his final feature outing (because where do you go from there?!).
It would be disingenuous to pretend that every single Elvis movie is worth your 90 minutes. Tickle Me (the title of which is hard to fathom considering no song, dialogue or plot point has anything to do with tickling) gives us rodeos and haunted houses and hidden treasure and multiple kidnappings, and yet is still somehow completely boring and charmless. Although none of the works in Elvis’ filmic canon are paragons of progressiveness, that his sidekick in Speedway is a comedic sexual assailant is difficult to overlook. Harum Scarum sends Presley on a jaunt across the Middle East, to predictably offensive results. That the movies of Elvis Presley have gotten a bad rap is no great injustice; there are certainly enough films within his oeuvre that are derogatory, ridiculous or just plain dull to justify that bad reputation. You couldn’t be blamed for forgoing them altogether.
But you shouldn’t. Beyond the surface pleasures—the brilliant co-stars, the eyeball-searing production design, the sheer weirdness on display—there’s a real fascination in watching a legend on the near-unparalleled level of Presley engage in a creative pursuit that didn’t come easily to him.
Sure, he was gorgeous and had charisma to spare, but those two assets don’t automatically translate to acting talent. That improbably makes him, this God among mere mortals, something of a cinematic underdog. You root for him because you can see the effort, not because—as when he sings—he makes it look effortless. When a performance is clearly not going his way, you feel for him. When he pulls it off, you feel proud. Beneath the cheesy formulaic veneer, beyond the silliness and the dated jokes, Presley’s filmography presents us with the eminently relatable struggle of a person trying their best at something that isn’t a natural fit for them. And that story, at least, is riveting.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.