Thursday 16 September 2010

That's Not Bad, Mama

Okay, here's where I put my critical credibility on the line. I've recently, thanks to a charity shop bulk buy, been watching Elvis Presley's post-army films. And some of them aren't bad.

The standard critical line is fairly simple; after a promising start (Love Me Tender, Loving You), Elvis' screen career peaked with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Then he went into the army and, on emergence, turned into a pod person. With a couple of odd exceptions (Flaming Star, Wild in the Country), the films from G.I. Blues on are cheaply-made travelogues, as he somnabulated through a series of forgettable plots, interchangeable leading ladies, and awful songs, all masterminded by Col. Tom Parker, whose 'Technical Advisor' credit sits on the screen like a mildewed ear.

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, and it'd be a braver man than me who attempted to defend the likes of Fun in Acapulco, featuring Ursula Andress as a female bullfighter, and the song 'The Bullfighter was a Lady', a number which has proved to have surprisingly little currency outside its immediate context.

Presley was never the world's most expressive actor and the first few post-army films play to his strengths, casting him as a laconic, Brando-ish outsider, often with some surprisingly sharp one-liners. Even a monstrosity like Girls, Girls, Girls! has a couple of nice moments - Elvis, in a club where a woman is being troubled by her drunk, boorish boyfriend, turns to her and says 'Who's the intellectual?'.

Viva Las Vegas, a film I remember being on television all the time when I was growing up, still holds up well - it has a terrific theme song, and Ann-Margret as an unusually ballsy heroine. According to Peter Guralnick's biography, the two of them were having an affair during filming, and they certainly have a remarkable screen chemistry. In an impressive piece of directorial generosity, the final freeze-frame shows the two of them singing together, with her in a slightly better screen position.

I can't make great claims for Blue Hawaii, which kicked off the unfortunate wave of musical travelogues, focusing on bikinis and wildlife - as the man himself said, 'I got sick of singing to turtles.'. Even so, it's got Angela Lansbury as Elvis' Southern Belle mother, one great song - the incandescent 'Can't Help Falling In Love' - and more of those one-liners (Young Girl - 'This Hawaiian moonlight is very intoxicating, isn't it?' Elvis - 'Yes, ma'am. That's why I never touch the stuff.') . It also gets props as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to end with an inter-racial marriage - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is still seven years in the future.

The one that really surprised me was Roustabout. Elvis plays a cafe singer who gets assaulted by a group of college boys offended by his song 'Poison Ivy League'. Don't be fooled by the leathers and quiff - this Elvis is clearly a beatnik rather than a greaser - Dylan rather than Brando - and his one-liners have an oddly existential ring - 'You're all alone.' 'Isn't everybody?'.

The first line in that exchange is delivered by Barbara Stanwyck, playing the owner of the carnival that Elvis joins as a all-round helper. Probably the best actor ever to appear in an Presley film (with the possible exception of Walter Matthau in King Creole), she's wonderfully sparky in her scenes with him and still - it has to be said - stunningly glamourous at 57. Indeed, one of the film's problems is that you wonder why Elvis is bothering with the insipid Joan Freeman rather than her far more interesting and attractive mother. (Admittedly, she's married, but that didn't stop Fred MacMurray.)

Like Freaks and Carny (which features the Band's Robbie Robertson - what is it about rock stars and carny films?), Roustabout has an incidental anthropological interest, showcasing a few real carnival and freakshow turns, including a Wall of Death on which Presley (or his stunt double) takes a ride. The music is one of the film's less interesting features, though the milieu does allow Elvis to cover the Coasters 'Little Egypt', reuniting him briefly with his best songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

So, maybe it's time to reassess a couple of those films. At the very least, I've had a surprisingly good time watching them, and queried my own knee-jerk dismissal. To quote a singer who's made nearly as many bad films as Elvis (though nothing like as many good ones); 'Beauty's where you find it.'.

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