Without doubt the most popular and influential musical artist of the 20th century, Elvis Presley was also a top box office star in the first half of the 1960s. But despite being able to draw audiences, Presley was never able to satisfy critics, who thought his movies were thinly plotted vehicles to sell music. They were right.
Still, studios were pleased with the financial results, until Presley became a laughingstock later in the decade. But that was nothing a certain comeback special couldn't fix. Presley starred in 33 movies; most were forgettable. Here are 10 even the most casual fan should see.
One of Presley's most popular films, thanks to the sequence where he sings the title cut with other prisoners in an elaborate choreographed number, his most famous onscreen moment. Presley played an ex-con who goes back to the slammer after saving a woman by accidentally killing her attacker. While inside, he learns how to play guitar and sings a few numbers that leads to a record deal after his release. The second-highest grossing film after Viva Las Vegas, Jailhouse Rock was marred by tragedy when Presley's promising young costar, Judy Tyler, was killed with her husband in an automobile accident just two weeks after shooting ended. Presley was reportedly so shaken up by her death that he couldn't bear to watch the movie.
Helmed by Hungarian director Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, King Creole was one of the few Presley vehicles to be mostly praised by critics. His performance was even praised by The King himself, who considered it his personal favorite. Presley played a young man who runs with a gang of dropouts by day and croons at a small New Orleans lounge by night, where he soon finds himself torn between two women: a decent girl (Dolores Hart) and the moll (Carolyn Jones) of a local gangster (Walter Matthau). The basic plot of a young singer struggling to make it while being drawn by two different women was relentlessly repeated in a number of subsequent Presley films. King Creole was also the last movie he made before his stint in the army.
After being stationed in Germany with the 32nd Armored Division, Presley returned to the states in March 1960 and went immediately into production on this rather thinly plotted musical. He played a singing soldier stationed overseas who dreams of opening a nightclub back home while he bets his fellow infantrymen that he can date a beautiful, but hard-to-get club dancer (Juliet Prowse). Despite complaints about the movie’s paper thin premise, G.I. Blues was a big hit for Presley, whose brief stint in Germany did nothing to harm his popularity back home.
Presley had long admired James Dean and Marlon Brando, which in part fueled his insistence on playing meatier, more dramatic roles. But his efforts in Flaming Star and Wild in the Country fell flat with audiences, leading Presley to return to the weakly plotted musical romantic comedies that were big hits at the box office. The first of his films to be shot in Hawaii, Blue Hawaii was a bigger financial hit than G.I. Blues, though it was hampered by a rather dull narrative and surprisingly mediocre songs. The film also featured a barely older Angela Lansbury as his mother in a role she later claimed was one of the worst of her career.
The one and only Elvis Presley movie that was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and another big box office hit. This time Presley was featured as a poor fisherman who dreams of owning his own boat while moonlighting as a nightclub singer, where he is of course swarmed by all manner of beautiful girls. Meanwhile, he finds his heart conflicted between a sultry singer (Stella Stevens) and an heiress (Laurel Goodwin) who pretends she’s poor, so as to not hurt his feelings. Fitting squarely into the formula of exotic locations, beautiful women and thin storylines, Girls! Girls! Girls! did nothing more than dump more money into the coffers at Paramount Studios.
Presley’s most financially successful movie, Viva Las Vegas received mixed reviews at the time of release, only to develop a reputation over time as one of his most iconic films. Elvis played a race car driver preparing for the Grand Prix who wiles away the time in Las Vegas as a casino waiter, where he tries to save money to pay for a new engine. Along the way, he sparks a romance with a beautiful swim instructor (Ann-Margaret) and is once again prodded to sing a few songs. Aside from the big take at the box office, Viva Las Vegas was notable for Presley’s famous off-screen affair with co-star Ann-Margret.
Repeating the tired formula, Presley found himself playing a character who works in a nightclub, only this time he goes to Florida, where he’s tasked by a Chicago mob boss (Harold Stone) to keep an eye on his co-ed daughter (Shelley Fabares). Naturally, the daughter falls for him, which presents all sorts of uncomfortable problems, only to incur her wrath when she finds out he works for her father and decides to go off with a slick Italian boy (Fabrizio Mioni). The happy-go-lucky beach party flick certainly made money, but it also marked the starting point where Presley’s popularity began to fade.
By the time Presley made Clambake, both his music and movie careers were in serious jeopardy. Despite reigning as the King of rock-n-roll for over a decade, Presley by this time was viewed as something of a joke. The never ending string of formulaic movies filled with mundane songs and lacking interesting plots had already worn thin with critics and began taking its toll on audiences as well. Surprisingly, this loss of popularity translated to his record career, which suffered a serious hit when sales for the Clambake soundtrack proved mediocre at best. Though the future looked bleak, Presley was a little more than a year away from his famed ’68 Comeback Special and a rejuvenated career.
Change of Habit was the last time Presley appeared in a feature. He played a socially conscious young doctor who starts a free clinic in an Hispanic New York neighborhood, only to find himself falling in love with a local nun (Mary Tyler Moore). Behind the scenes, studios had grown tired of Presley's famed manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and his attitude of making fast, cheap movies for maximum profit, which resulted in low quality movies that the viewing public increasingly refused to see. Though Presley’s movies still earned a profit, they were not the huge box office hits the studios were used to. Even Presley’s comeback the previous year did nothing to boos ticket sales for Change of Habit, and The King abdicated his Hollywood throne.