A career in films isn't easy. Even if by some more-farfetched-than-a-lottery-jackpot possibility one achieves any level of demonstrable success and accolades, an actor (or director, etc) must adopt an unblinking flexibility towards project quality if a steady stream of work is to be maintained. Fleeting smash hit popularity, or winning an Oscar or somesuch, offers no guarantee of automatic new opportunities. Only major, massive stars can exercise true aesthetic veto power over which proposed future ventures they might opt to sign on for. Even if you're the best, sometimes there are still bills that need to be paid, and sometimes you enter upon enterprises somewhat beneath your abilities. Like, say for instance, ELVIS movies.
It is not the aim here to be critical of those on the first upward slope of their professional arc (MARTIN SCORSESE cutting his teeth editing ELVIS ON TOUR jumps to mind). Nor are we here to spotlight the journeyman efforts of capable 'B' or 'C' listers such as the likable L.Q. JONES or the surprisingly grating SHELLEY FABARES (both of whom astonishingly managed THREE 'E' film appearances.) The sublime succumbing to schlock is our present focus, and (especially) once they hit their post-army-stint pace, PRESLEY's movies were the very embodiment of schlock. They were churned out thrice a year, rehashing similar plots and rehiring the same second rate TV hacks behind and in front of the camera film after film. Most of his cinema highlights occurred in the initial mid to late fifties burst of activity, but in the sixties simple competence was rarely achieved-- despite the occasional (and often embarrassing) utilization of top notch craftsmen. And it is these startling appearances in ELVIS' celluloid ouevre by true, established Hollywood talent to which this list is dedicated.
1.) MICHAEL CURTIZ "King Creole"
Let's just get this anomaly out of the way. A genuinely GREAT movie, KING CREOLE is one of the only instances where an injection of skilled studio hands actually elevated an 'E' project, on the whole, to substantial heights. (Notably, but unsurprisingly, this occured pre-army.) At the director's helm for what ended up being one of his final films, CURTIZ drew upon a lifetime of experience for his ELVIS assignment. The multiple Oscar winning genius behind such varied classics as CASABLANCA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD brought a class and compositional eye to the table, the likes of which would never be seen in a PRESLEY film ever again. Also overachieving above and beyond the call of duty were cast members WALTER MATTHAU, a young VIC MORROW, and a pre-Morticia CAROLYN JONES.
2.) BARBARA STANWYCK "Roustabout"
The four time Academy award nominee of DOUBLE INDEMNITY and other classics brought a slight spunk to a workmanlike walk through of her role here as a matronly carnival owner. Already deep into a transition to television, she is tangibly formularizing a persona which will soon find full flower on THE BIG VALLEY. Veteran character actor LEIF ERICKSON seems a bit more in his element.
3.) GARY MERRILL "Clambake"
After unforgettably acting alongside his future wife BETTE DAVIS in the top rank classic ALL ABOUT EVE, there was probably really only room for downward mobility. However, MERRILL's surprising supporting role in this late PRESLEY potboiler is nearly impossible for a fan of his early work to acclimate to. One decade you're sharing the screen with GEORGE SANDERS, another decade, with WILL HUTCHINS and a bunch of gogo dancers from the MONKEES. That's GARY on the right.
4.) ANGELA LANSBURY "Blue Hawaii"
Academy award nominee for GASLIGHT and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, this English/Irish actress was on the way to one of her most chilling roles as the merciless political matriarch in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE when she paused for this misstep as ELVIS' southern mother, one of the most awkward performances in ANY PRESLEY film--which is saying something. Unfazed, the actress found future television fame awaiting her on MURDER SHE WROTE. Ummm, what the hell is up with that hug, MOM?
5.) GIG YOUNG "Kid Galahad"
Halfway between Best Supporting Oscar nominations (he eventually won for THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY) this screen veteran ranked barely noticeable in this bland ring drama. Some might suggest that the nod here should go to co-star CHARLES BRONSON, but although his continual struggle to not seem the tougher presence alongside the weak PRESLEY is amusing, his career feels a little too comfortable in the exploitative 'B' realm for this appearance to truly constitute 'slumming.' The overall arc must have been plain even to ELVIS--less than a decade after being directed by the great MICHAEL CURTIZ, here was the King stumbling through a hackneyed remake of one the recently deceased master's early classics.
6.) DON SIEGEL "Flaming Star"
The director of the respected paranoid sci-fi parable INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was already an experienced hand at crime drama and westerns by the mid sixties, but apparently his work at the helm of the FABIAN 'Love Me Tender' copycat film HOUND DOG MAN is what clinched SIEGEL for this latest PRESLEY shoot 'em up. Interestingly, filming had already begun with BARBARA STEELE in BARBARA EDEN's role, but she was replaced due to her inexperience, foreign accent, brunette hairdo, and height. Although SIEGEL eventually won fame later with countless CLINT EASTWOOD collaborations, this film remains no better than a bit above passable. The lobby poster reproduced below apparently features ELVIS after the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program.
7.) ELSA LANCHESTER "Easy Come, Easy Go"
The striking English actress best known as the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and longtime real life bride of the brilliant CHARLES LAUGHTON was on a Disney generated comeback of sorts when she detoured on to this dismal PRESLEY vehicle. She was offered sizable opportunity to degrade herself with a featured musical number (one of very few ELVIS costars allowed to do so) and the execrable results below offer grim proof that said opportunity was seized heartily.
8.) HARRY MORGAN/JOHN IRELAND/PAUL LUKAS (tie)
Here's a trio of talented character actors all being wasted in low grade PRESLEY drivel. HARRY MORGAN had already had supporting roles in durable perennials such as INHERIT THE WIND and HIGH NOON before taking on the role of ELVIS's little pianist in the unbearable FRANKIE AND JOHNNY. He later achieved TV notoriety on DRAGNET and MASH. Oscar winner PAUL LUKAS was well known for roles in creepy films such as THE LADY VANISHES and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA before stooping to the wretched FUN IN ACAPULCO. Dependable JOHN IRELAND was a familiar face in classic westerns and had already won an Oscar for ALL THE KING'S MEN before spinning his wheels in the hopeless PRESLEY melodrama WILD IN THE COUNTRY. Speaking of WILD IN THE COUNTRY...
9.) CLIFFORD ODETS 'Wild in the Country"
The famed left wing playwright had already landed on his feet as a Hollywood script doctor before being called to testify on his Communist leanings before HUAC, pretty much falling in line with ELIA KAZAN-- widely regarded as the McCarthy era's most famous cooperative witness. Despite his tarnished reputation, the screenplay for THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS brought him just that. He was then inexplicably hired to adapt the J.R. Salamanca novel "Lilith" as an upcoming ELVIS vehicle, and the morbidly overdramatic result WILD IN THE COUNTRY remains one of PRESLEY's most wrongheaded misfires.
10.) BURGESS MEREDITH "Stay Away Joe"
One of America's most recognizable thespians, BURGESS MEREDITH enjoyed work in stage and film so prolific that sometimes it almost seemed as if when he took on a truly low grade role, he would revel in relishing the opportunity to exploit the ludicrous lunacies of the assignment. Although surely cathartic and fun, this led to numerous career embarrassments. Surely few are as imbecilic as the 'comic' turn he takes playing a Native American elder in the rock bottom PRESLEY atrocity STAY AWAY JOE.
It just wouldn't seem right to not mention the TROUBLE WITH GIRLS cameos by VINCENT PRICE and JOHN CARRADINE. Although brief--and despite the fact that these are two actors scarcely known to have refused ANY role-- they prove to be a breath of fresh air in a film that is close to intolerable. Rarely has such a half hearted attempt at slumming been such a welcome relief.