Elvis is dead at the end of Love Me Tender, his first movie. But he comes back in a ghostly postscript, singing the title song with orchestral strings and chorus swelling behind him on the soundtrack. Then, as if he’d forgotten death and everything else except his own radiant confidence, he smiles, in a burst of both promise and danger that blows the rest of the wretched film away.
If you think that’s cool, celebrate the 15th anniversary of his real-life death by joining me in the Elvis-movie fan club, and gawk with amazed delight at the 11 Elvis films just rereleased by FoxVideo: Love Me Tender, King Creole, G.I. Blues, Flaming Star, Wild in the Country, Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, Roustabout, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and Tickle Me (1956-66).
But don’t be too impressed by the four that take his acting seriously. Love Me Tender (1956) has a plot so contrived you can almost hear the machinery clank. King Creole (1958) is stiff and preachy; Flaming Star (1960), despite a serious look at frontier prejudice against Indians, is just plain flat. You’d never watch these if Elvis weren’t in them, if, just for instance, he weren’t all but bursting out of his skin in Love Me Tender with his eagerness to act. Even Wild in the Country (1961), with a respectable screenplay by playwright Clifford Odets, ends up a repository for sheer (if subdued) Elvis spectacle.
For us in the fan club, the real treasures are Elvis’ dumber films, because they’re made just to show him off. In G.I. Blues (1960) you see him as a tank driver, floundering as he tries to take care of a baby; in Blue Hawaii (1961) you see him swim, badly; in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) he wordlessly sings something we’re supposed to believe is Chinese music; in Fun in Acapulco (1963) he’s a circus acrobat who loses his nerve on a trapeze and, after romancing both Ursula Andress and a woman bullfighter, has a stunt double dive off a 136-foot cliff and gets his courage back; in Roustabout (1964) he smashes college guys with karate; in Tickle Me (1965) he trips over furniture; in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), a film so perfunctory its ending seems more like an accident than a conclusion, he’s upstaged by barking dogs.
He sails through this fluff, divinely coasting in somewhere between second and third gears, irresistible to women with his cockeyed blend of ”yes, ma’am” family values and subversive sex, tossing off songs it’s easy to laugh at, until you realize that in them Elvis establishes himself as an effortless pop stylist in the vein of his personal fave, Dean Martin (but a new kind, hinting at wild memories of rock & roll). Nobody noticed, doubtless because the songs, like the movies they’re in, don’t mean very much — except to those of us who’ll forgive anything for a single Elvis smile.
Grades (awarded mostly for Elvis value): Love Me Tender: C+
King Creole: B-
G.I. Blues: B+
Flaming Star: C
Wild in the Country: A-
Blue Hawaii: A+
Girls! Girls! Girls!: B+
Fun in Acapulco: A
Tickle Me: B-
Paradise, Hawaiian Style: C