Whether you believe Elvis Presley died in 1977 or that he’s alive and comes out of hiding from time to time like a rock ‘n’ roll Big Foot, the King’s birthday is still Jan. 8. The hip swiveler would have been 86 Friday, and what better way to celebrate than to round up five of his best movies.
Choosing five is no easy task. Elvis made 31 movies from 1957 to 1969, and many are terrible (looking at you, “Charro!”).
His roles often seem interchangeable — characters with one-syllable names like Deke or Vince who adhere to the ethos of the red-blooded, hetero American male: They work for themselves on their terms; they don’t take money from anybody, even family, so they can prove their worth; they brawl; they chase women.
Occupations vary — they usually race cars or boats — but all of them sing, of course, whether it’s their main gig or a side hustle (or over the opening credits in “Charro!,” the only time Elvis sings in the abysmal 1969 Western). All of these movies can be rented, purchased or streamed for free on Amazon, Google Play and other platforms.
No surprise that Elvis is at his best when he plays a singer, especially when the role follows the trajectory of his real-life career. Three of the four movies made before his stint in the Army — “Loving You” (1956), “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) and “King Creole” (1958) — fall into that category, and the second of these is his finest film.
“Jailhouse Rock” captures Elvis’ appeal in pristine black-and-white: hints of danger and sex, unbridled moves, disregard for the establishment, vulnerability and a heckuva singing voice. He plays Vince Everett, an ex-con who ends up taking the music world by storm while alienating those who helped him along the way. Elvis will never again look as good as he does here, all popped collars, shirts with rolled sleeves and that cable-knit sweater he wears poolside when singing “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” And who can forget this memorable line, after a kiss is rebuffed as “cheap tactics”: “It ain’t tactics, honey. It’s just the beast in me.”
A close second in the Elvis pantheon, this shares “Jailhouse Rock’s” black-and-white aesthetic. Here he is a troubled high school dropout named Danny (the movie is based on the Harold Robbins novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher”) living on the edge of the New Orleans mob world. He finds his star rising after he sings for a kingpin’s moll (Carolyn Jones, aka Morticia of TV’s “Addams Family”). Elvis is supported by a stellar cast that also includes Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, Vic Morrow and Dolores Hart, who also co-starred in “Loving You” (and went on to become a nun!).
It’s a moody film elevated by the shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere created by director Michael Curtiz, who helmed “Casablanca,” “Mildred Pierce” and a host of other classics, with Jagger adding a layer of pathos as Danny’s disapproving, can’t-keep-a-pharmacy-job father. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Elvis mainstays who also contributed to “Jailhouse Rock,” represent with “Trouble” (“I was born standing up/ And talkin’ back”) and the title song.
‘Viva Las Vegas’
Art loosely imitated a different phase of Elvis’ life in his post-Army films, starting with 1960’s “G.I. Blues,” as the hungry young singer is replaced by a tamer, fun-loving Elvis playing a soldier who romances Juliet Prowse to win a bet. Elvis’ next films would more or less continue what “G.I. Blues” started, but with diminishing returns and fewer memorable songs.
It wasn’t until 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas” paired him with Ann-Margret that the spark returned. Elvis is Lucky Jackson, a race car driver who needs money to buy an engine for the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Ann-Margret is Rusty Martin, a swim instructor who knows how to shimmy and shake. She sings as often as he does, holding her own and then some against the King, and Elvis is up to the challenge. “Viva Las Vegas” bursts with their chemistry, lighting up the screen like the neon-bedazzled Strip.
After “Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis tried carnival life in “Roustabout,” notable for the presence of Barbara Stanwyck and the Leiber-Stoller song “Little Egypt,” then moved on to three films with Shelley Fabares (Christine Armstrong on TV’s “Coach”). The first one, 1965’s “Girl Happy,” is the best of the bunch. Rusty Wells (Elvis) fronts a combo at a Chicago nightclub. It’s spring break, and the boys (including Gary Crosby, son of Bing) are headed to Fort Lauderdale. When their trip is jeopardized, they get an offer they can’t refuse: Keep an eye on the nightclub owner’s daughter, who is heading to the Sunshine State, too.
The plot may be ridiculous, but “Girl Happy” is boisterous fun, like a goofy, pastel-colored “Beach Party” movie, with Elvis and Shelley instead of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Elvis is a little out of place among the bikinis and swim trunks — for some reason he favors long-sleeved velour shirts and pants — but he looks like he’s having a good time.
‘Change of Habit’
The late 1960s saw Elvis turning to more serious fare. The misbegotten Western “Charro!” finds the King looking the part of an outlaw-trying-to-go-straight but failing miserably at acting the part. To be fair, he didn’t have much to work with, and there are no songs to distract from the terrible dialogue and incompetent direction. 1969’s “Change of Habit,” at least, makes a decent ending to his mixed bag of a movie career.
The plot is a little preposterous: Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot are nuns assigned to work as nurses with Elvis as a doctor who runs a clinic in a low-income neighborhood, but they do so incognito — the logic being they won’t be accepted if they wear habits. All this does is set up romantic misunderstandings between Elvis and Moore, as Dr. John Carpenter falls for Sister Michelle.
“Change of Habit” has a cliched sense of inner-city life, complete with a loan shark and slurs and its earnestness comes off like a made-for-TV movie, but Elvis is at his most relaxed and natural since “Jailhouse Rock.” The shellacked hair is gone, and he even wears a sweatshirt and tennis shoes in a scene where the gang plays football. If that’s not enough, Ed Asner plays an understanding cop — the first time “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” Mary Richards and Lou Grant appear on-screen together.