Today, across the country, folks are celebrating (or not) the birth of the once and future king, Elvis. Countless books, films and articles have covered the man and the myth from the evangelical to the salacious. So far be it for me to even attempt adding anything new or revealing about the arguable “creator” of Rock & Roll.
I do think it’s fair to weigh in on two of his films, released through Twilight Time that make for a watchable double feature while you’re enjoying peanut-butter-banana sandwiches.
Much has been made over the change in Elvis’s persona from the time he went into the army in 1958, then came out two years later. Gone were the long sideburns, the wavy, greaser haircut and the anti-establishment snarl that were his calling card. Now he was a squeaky clean pop-singer, doing everything he could to appeal to the widest cross section of the public as possible. He lost his core followers who sported leather jackets, shaped their hair into ducktails and “balled” all Saturday night.
The last film he made before donning his camouflage was King Creole (1958) which he filmed in bits and pieces while he was starting military training, but before he went overseas to Germany (where he met a certain Priscilla Beaulieu). Two years later he made his worst film to date , GI Blues (1960) a thinly veiled bit of nonsense that attempted to cash in on his short time in the service.
By this point, Elvis’ “manager,” the jail warden Colonel Tom Parker, had complete control over his “ward,” including decisions over what songs he recorded, where he appeared, and most importantly to his film career, what movies he made. It’s no secret, looking back, that Elvis frittered that opportunity away with the biggest pile of movie fluff of any pop artist in history because of the deal made between those two devils incarnate, Parker and producer Hal Wallis. They consciously strived for the most inoffensive material possible for his films. They wanted cheap, fast, recycled pap they could churn out for minimal investment and maximum return.
But early on, Elvis resisted and pushed hard for opportunities to reveal his nascent acting chops. So although G.I. Blues did incredible business and further proved Parker’s point, he allowed his “boy” some leash, and gave the go-ahead for two serious films, Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, the latter penned by none other than celebrated playwright Clifford Odetts.
Flaming Star surprisingly upped the budget by filming in Cinemascope, and (unlike Elvis’s later films) shot on real locations as opposed to mostly rear-screened projection. The result is a beautifully lensed western that tries (but nobly fails) to tell the story of inherent racism amongst white settlers and native Americans. Elvis is trapped in the middle as a “mixed race” son of a white rancher and Indian mother. All seems wonderful in the family. His brother (played by mid-century muscle boy Steve Forrest) is the son of his father’s previous marriage, so Elvis’ “Pacer” must deal with his issues of identity alone. One night after a party in the family home with kind neighbors (including future “Jeannie” Barbara Eden) when Elvis sings his one on camera song (a throw away), the friends return home to be attacked and murdered by a previously friendly tribe of Kiowas. Before Elvis’ family even knows what happened, a posse of settlers arrive at the cabin and demand the family announce what side they’re on. Sam Burton (John McIntire) is nonplused to be forced into a corner, declaring that they’re not taking sides. The next day, the Kiowas visit the family and with new chief Buffalo Horn leading the tribe, make the same demands on the family. This leads to a war between the settlers and the newly aggressive Kiowa that does no one good, but offers opportunities for both sets of participants to display their own forms of bigotry and frontier justice.
In the middle of it all are Elvis and his mother, a still radiant Dolores Del Rio (and the only other reason besides Elvis to see the film) who recognizes the ugliness of all cultures. Scenes where she must fight off the advances of two would-be frontiersmen-cum-rapists and a delusional march into the desert highlight her superior acting and onscreen charisma.
Elvis does a noble job, underplaying the role while exhibiting his ability to seethe beneath the surface. Even with stunt doubles, he does a fair share of riding and fighting to illustrate his athleticism as well.
While it takes some time for the story to kick in, (not helped at all by the obligatory song), Flaming Star offers a bleak albeit half-baked commentary on racism. Although it made money (all of Elvis’ films turned a profit), Flaming Star at the time brought in the smallest profit, and just added to Parker and Wallis’ argument that flat and insipid were the way to go with an Elvis Presley movie.
Follow That Dream (1962)
Follow That Dream is more representative of the pure escapist popcorn fare that Presley came to be known for, but succeeds slightly better thanks to an unusual storyline. Elvis is Toby Kwimper of the Kwimper clan, a ragtag hillbilly family in a jalopy that runs out of gas on a desolate stretch of beach along the Florida Keys. Arthur O’Connell is Pop Kwimper, a sort of Walter Brennan-ish character (straight out of Meet John Doe) who doesn’t trust any “gummint” or laws and becomes a squatter on the property. It turns out a loophole reveals the beach is, in fact, unincorporated land, and the county can’t evict the family. The term “family” is loosely applied here, since Toby is the only blood “kin,’ since Pop has adopted a quartet of orphans; two twins, an infant girl and a comely Holly Jones (Anne Helm), once a tomboy that Toby thought of as a sister. Of course, the real question here is when-oh when-will Toby see Holly for the real woman she is, as she pines away for the Hunky Hick?
Elvis is perfectly cast as a Li’l Abner type who unknowingly walks into and out of trouble, oblivious to what goes on around him. He’s suspected of robbing a bank, of posing as the unincorporated town’s sheriff, and outsmarting some old fashioned mobster types – never realizing that his country smarts make fools out of the city swells. In fact, he nobly defends his family in court when they can’t afford a lawyer by using good ol’ “common sense.”
Even this light comedy takes more interesting turns than most of Elvis’ films, but overall suffers from a foot-dragging pace and cornball humor. And of course, those “Elvis Movie Songs.” None are notable save for the minor title tune, which suffers from a ludicrous rendering where the King lies on a beach “singing” along with a song on the radio to a social worker who has evil designs on him. (Elvis’ Toby is the most asexual of all his characters, completely ignorant to the effect he has on women).
My biggest complaint with all Elvis movies is not the cornpone humor, the flat stories, or the creaky dialogue. It’s the fact that no one in Elvis’s camp ever taught the poor man how to lip sync his songs. If anyone can do a greater job of barely opening their lips while the performance they’re “miming” is bursting with such power and heft, I’d like to meet them. Even his best filmed musical performance, (Jailhouse Rock), Presley barely opens his mouth. His rendering of “Follow That Dream” is no exception, and it grinds the proceedings to an even more pronounced halt.
But methinks I doth protest too much. When you pop an Elvis Presley movie into your DVD player, you generally know what you’re in for and as double features go, you could fare far worse. Both Flaming Star and Follow That Dream from Screen Archives’ Twilight Time Blu-ray label offer beautiful transfers, excellent separated audio tracks and fun for the whole family. It may not be a King’s ransom, but it’s definitely a fitting tribute to the King.