The story of Elvis Presley’s film career is one of wasted potential. Too many of the 31 films he made from 1956 to 1969 were hacking jobs that made money, and their scripts were nothing more than filling the time between musical numbers. In Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis” biopic, the entire Hollywood career of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is reduced to a flashy montage.
But for the Elvis fan, part of the appeal lies in watching his instinctive skills on screen and contemplating what could have been: picturing Presley with Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road” or opposite Barbra Streisand in “A Star Is Born”, two roles he could have had.
USA TODAY picks 10 (well, OK, 11) favorites from the Presley canon, plus a few to avoid.
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10. ‘Change of Habit’ (1969)
The singer’s latest feature isn’t a great one, by any means. It’s hardly a decent one. But his concept alone goes a long way: Presley plays a downtown doctor whose love interest is Mary Tyler Moore—as a nun. What’s not to love there, right? “Change of Habit” is sort of a movie equivalent of “In the Ghetto,” a heavy-handed attempt at cultural relevance. (At one point, his character says, “I get a feeling there’s a message here.”) Look for the great Darlene Love in an uncredited role as a backing singer. Ed Asner, who would later play Lou Grant for Moore’s Mary Richards, is also in it, although he and Moore don’t have any scenes together.
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(tie) ‘Blue Hawaii’ (1961)
In a perfect world, “Blue Hawaii” would have been the worst movie Presley ever made. Instead, it stands firmly in the top third. For all practical purposes, it’s a travelogue with a nice soundtrack, including “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” That would have been fine, had it not been so successful that the filmmakers and Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, used it as a template for nearly every Presley film that followed, with less and less impressive results.
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9. ‘Love Me Tenderly’ (1956)
Presley’s first film appearance might have been higher on this list had he starred in it, but he only had a supporting role in what Variety called “a minor-league oater,” the only time he’d be in that position. Presley was clearly included in the film, set in the 1860s, to capitalize on its popularity. Theaters hoped to draw young viewers away from the TVs popping up in households across the country, and it worked. It’s charming to see a rookie Presley enthusiastically perform against more seasoned veterans who knew they weren’t in a particularly good picture.
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8. ‘Kid Galahad’ (1962)
Take Presley out of the equation and “Kid Galahad” is a run-of-the-mill boxing photo. In fact, that was exactly what it was the first time, in 1937, when Michael Curtiz (who would go on to direct Elvis in “King Creole”) made it with Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Presley, whose weight had skyrocketed, provided a doughy but rock-hard ingenue that gets caught up in a fight schedule. At least he had a decent supporting cast, including Charles Bronson.
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7. ‘Follow That Dream’ (1962)
After “Blue Hawaii,” Presley went to Florida, where he played Toby Kwimper, a beach squatter described by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther as “a combination of Sir Galahad and Li’l Abner.” Presley seems involved here and shows a nice comedic touch. Bumped into this list for helping determine the life course of 11-year-old Tom Petty, who frequented the set.
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6. ‘Long Live Las Vegas’ (1964)
Flashy, showy, trashy and thin on story, just like the Vegas myth. There’s not much of a script, but swim instructor Ann-Margret looks good, and so do Presley’s cars. “As pleasant and unimportant as a banana split,” according to The New York Times, and it’s true. However, the film that foreshadowed Presley’s future features some great tunes and one of the most perfect scenes in all of his films — a dreamscape for the jazz-infused “I Need Somebody to Lean On,” which features Presley’s blissful look on his face. that he usually reserved for gospel tunes.
5. ‘Wild in the Country’ (1961)
Perhaps Presley’s most ambitious dramatic film, “Wild in the Country,” was ultimately undone by the competing priorities of those who made it. The script, written by playwright Clifford Odets, called on Presley to play a bald country boy full of literary talent. A cast including Hope Lange and Tuesday Weld and an attempt at topical relevance made “Wild” better than the average Presley movie, though Variety found it “shaky and artificial.” Smash “Blue Hawaii” followed, firmly confirming what kind of movies he would make for the rest of his career.
4. ‘Flaming Star’ (1960)
After the genius but silly “GI Blues,” 20th Century Fox attempted to restore Presley’s dramatic credentials by placing him in this western as Pacer Burton, a half-breed caught up in a culture war and land conflict. Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were both involved in the project, co-written by Nunnally Johnson, who had previously written and directed “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Three Faces of Eve”. The role demanded more from Presley than most of his films, and he found real chemistry with the great Dolores del Rio. The New York Times called “Flaming Star” “an unpretentious yet hearty western that takes the time, the place and the people seriously.” Theater owners called it a flop.
3. ‘I love you’ (1957)
Elvis’ first car to star was a fairly conventional showbiz musical, with country boy Deke Rivers rising to fame and then dealing with his pitfalls. In other words, a story not unlike Presley’s. By the standards of 1950s teen rock movies, “Loving You” is believable, with plenty of energy and a strong soundtrack, including the #1 hit “Teddy Bear,” “Mean Woman Blues” and “(Let’s Have A) Party.” Variety stated that Presley “shows improvement as an actor” and that the film “exposes the singer to the kinds of things he does best.” You know, like singing and rocking the hips. Too bad that Presley and his companions would soon discover that they could still make money with less effort and attention to quality.
2. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957)
The singer’s third film received mixed reviews at the time, and several high-profile publications were vocal about it. The British magazine The Spectator, for example, called it “dangerous, almost repulsive.” They were wrong, of course. This tale of an ex-con pop star has held up better than almost any of Presley’s other films. The plot offers parallels to Presley’s own story, especially when he becomes involved with a manipulative manager. It also features top-notch songs from the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and the great dance sequence of the title song, arguably the most exciting thing Presley has ever captured on film.
1. ‘King Creole’ (1958)
Presley’s best photo shows what surrounding him with talent can do for him. Director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”, “Mildred Pierce”, “Angels With Dirty Faces”) adds a noir-esque black-and-white style to the story of a young singer who becomes involved in organized crime in New Orleans. Initially written with James Dean in mind, “King Creole” was based on “A Stone for Danny Fisher” by Harold Robbins and co-stars Carolyn Jones (who later rose to fame as Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family”) and Walter Matthau. Even The New York Times, which usually mocked Presley’s films, was surprised by his performance: “Cut my legs off and call me Shorty!” Howard Thompson’s review began. “Elvis Presley can act.”
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‘Paradise, Hawaiian Style’ (1966)
The third and most unseen of Presley’s Hawaii films. Remember how engaged and excited he looked in “King Creole” and “Jailhouse Rock”? Yes, that man is gone.
‘Come easy, go easy’ (1967)
After previously serving in the Army (“GI Blues”) and Air Force (“Kissin’ Cousins”), Presley joins the Navy as a frogman. It’s hard to sing underwater, but that’s okay: if your most memorable tune is “Yoga Is As Yoga Does”, there’s no point in singing anyway.
‘Scarum Harum’ (1965)
Presley takes on Arab killers in a film so bad it takes “a fifty-fifth cousin of PT Barnum to sell him,” Colonel Tom Parker wrote to MGM. This from a man who suggested a talking camel to narrate the photo.