It’s ironic that he sings “Who needs money? Not me,” since Clambake marked the last major studio film that would net Elvis Presley a seven figure salary.
A box office bomb that was released the same year as Bonnie and Clyde, which ushered in a new school of filmmaking that reflected the counter-culture, antihero mentality, and allegories surrounding the Vietnam war, Clambake is one of the King’s lesser efforts that seems dated even by the time of its theatrical run as a beach movie that would’ve probably appealed more to the Frankie and Annette or Sandra Dee audiences of the early ‘60s.
Borrowing its plot from The Prince and The Pauper, Elvis plays Scott Heyward, the wealthy son of an oil tycoon who escapes an engagement to a gold digger in order to run to a resort in Florida where he trades places with water ski instructor Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins) and hopes to find a chick who really digs him as a man rather than as a figurative ATM machine.
Featuring a visibly bored Presley whose weight ballooned roughly thirty pounds during the time of Clambake, which viewers notice onscreen as the man – going through the motions singing songs with a smile on his face – unfortunately never seems comfortable in either his own body or with the weak screenplay.
However, the film is nonetheless salvaged slightly by a few cute numbers including one he shares with a group of children on a playground and a perky Shelley Fabares who looks like she’s been given the Elvis makeover as a dead-ringer for then-wife Priscilla Presley.
Flaming Star (1960)
Returning to the genre that kick-started his career in Love Me Tender, Presley takes on one of the roles previously considered by Twentieth Century Fox for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in this devastating western that features a strong turn by our lead in his prime, working for the man who would later direct Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, filmmaker Don Siegel.
Atypical for an Elvis movie as it features only two songs – the title track over the opening credits and one that plays near the movie’s beginning – and doesn’t concern itself with having Presley chase any girls or vice versa, Flaming Star takes a stark look at race relations and the prejudicial hate that can be bred from violence after the local Kiowa Indian tribe begins gunning down the locals to take back their land.
As the half Indian/half white son of a Kiowa mother (Dolores del Rio) and her Anglo Texan husband (John McIntire), Elvis’s twenty-year old Pacer Burton finds that unlike his 100% white brother and best friend Clint (Steve Forrest), he isn’t accepted fully on either side of the conflict. But when the local Kiowa chief demands that Pacer ride with him against his neighbors or his family’s lives will be threatened and their community’s war bursts onto their previously peaceful property, Pacer must take sides for the sake of his family.
While Flaming Star suffers from a slightly confusing and lengthy set-up that finds viewers trying to decipher who’s who among far too many characters, once it settles in, the movie, based on Clair Huffaker’s book Flaming Lance becomes easily compelling even if you’re able to foreshadow the bloody conclusion long before it reaches its halfway point.
Although it wasn’t nearly as big of a hit with Presley’s fans as the silly musical romantic comedies that he loathed making, it does prove his charisma as an actor in one of his rarer straight man roles that’s effective enough to make you wonder what Presley could’ve accomplished if he would’ve been given the far more serious material he craved that was reserved for Flaming’s original choice for leading man—Marlon Brando.
Follow That Dream (1961)
Unlike the Florida set but Hollywood shot Clambake, this underrated Elvis classic was filmed entirely on location in the sunshine state, which is especially beneficial considering the fact that aside from one pivotal sequence set in a courtroom, roughly 80% of the movie takes place out in the ocean air.
Although contemporary viewers might be apt to compare the movie to the ‘60s series The Beverly Hillbillies, Follow That Dream drew inspiration from Richard P. Powell’s novel Pioneer, Go Home!.
The film centers on an unorthodox family headed up by government scamming Pop Kwimper (Arthur O’Connell) and his army veteran son Toby (Presley) who, along with Pop’s multiple adopted children have been living gloriously off of the system for years before a determined highway supervisor city official decides to make it his business to run the homesteaders off of an unincorporated, legally off-the-books stretch of beach property they claim as their own.
When Toby uses his standard defense mechanism of reciting multiplication tables to attractive women to ward actress Joanna Moore’s sex-crazed social welfare worker sent after the Kwimpers, the jilted woman fights back even harder in trying to break up the unusual family unit.
And even though Presley is forced to play yet another none-too-bright country boy whose polite charm became a character typecast trademark throughout his career, he excels in doing just that in this unexpectedly funny, offbeat charmer that offered much more substance than teen idol sex appeal that celebrates unorthodox families and the idea that love can be thicker than blood.
Frankie and Johnny (1966)
The showiest title contained in the seven disc Elvis 75th Birthday Collection finds Elvis Presley and actress Donna Douglas as our eponymous lovebirds—two performers on a riverboat cruise who find their relationship tested by Presley’s addiction to the roulette wheel.
Advised by a gypsy fortune teller that he’ll find great fortune and better luck with a redheaded stranger, Presley’s Johnny and his piano playing sidekick Cully (Harry Morgan) keep a lookout for the woman who will end Johnny’s losing streak. But when the next redhead to cross his path is none other than the captain’s girl, the sultry Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), Johnny finds he has much more to contend with than just his gal Frankie.
And after his obsession with gambling and blind adherence to lady luck threatens to get in the way of their success as both a couple and entertainers when a big music publisher joins the cruise specifically to catch their infamous “Frankie and Johnny” act, complete with gunplay and a love triangle that Frankie worries is more fact than fiction.
A quintessential Elvis movie with some terrific show-stopping numbers and the type of predictable romantic comedy plot-line you traditionally find in musical dinner theatre stage shows, while the King doesn’t have nearly enough to do to keep you interested for the entirety of the running time, it’s still one of the better manufactured pieces Hollywood and Colonel Tom Parker cooked up for the popular singing star.
Kid Galahad (1962)
Elvis Presley had pretty big boxing gloves to fill when he stepped into the ring for this remake of the 1937 movie starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Fresh out of the Army and dead broke after a crap game went south, Walter Gulick (Presley) returns to the Catskills resort community of Cream Valley where he was born.
Hoping to scrape up enough dough to open up his own garage as a mechanic, we soon learn that serviceman Gulick is doubly handy with his fists when, in between fixing cars he handily knocks out a local boxing favorite when he fills in as a sparring partner.
Worried that knocking the champ down meant he lost his chance at the five dollar payday, Gulick learns he couldn’t have been more wrong as the manipulative, indebted resort owner Willy Grogan (Gig Young) soon decides to take the man under his wing along with trainer Charles Bronson in order to cash in on his penchant for punching.
Building in some satisfying subplots concerning the love interests in both Grogan and Gulick’s lives (played by Lola Albright and Joan Blackman respectively) and a grittier more violent attitude with more than its fair share of bloodshed for an Elvis movie thanks to Walking Tall and veteran film noir director Phil Karlson, Galahad which is often considered to be one of Presley’s stronger works doesn’t fail to disappoint on DVD.
While he still has to break out in song early on in the picture, the role of the chivalrous natural fighter dubbed Galahad because of his attitude towards standing up for women seems like an ideal fit for the charismatic star and even though his plotline isn’t nearly as strong as the one surrounding the unscrupulous Grogan, Kid Galahad offers you the refreshing chance to watch the King mix it up a little both in the ring and onscreen.
Love Me Tender (1956)
Loaned out by Paramount head Hal Wallis to Twentieth Century Fox when the studio couldn’t find a project that was deemed suitable enough to become Presley’s first film, Elvis took a backseat to lead performer Richard Egan as the youngest Reno brother who tended to the ranch, his mother and Egan’s former sweetheart Cathy (Debra Paget) while his three older brothers went off to fight for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Arriving just one year after RKO Radio Pictures released their own more authentic interpretation of the Reno Brothers story in Rage at Dawn, Love Me Tender which was renamed to coincide with Presley’s chart-topping, record-breaking Gold record single of the same name nonetheless usurped Rage as the more popular tale thanks to its cinematic introduction of Elvis Presley to moviegoers around the world.
Admittedly Presley’s trademark ‘50s swagger and macho hip-swiveling was decidedly out-of-place during his onscreen musical performances. However, Presley still manages to turn in a fine portrayal of the brother left behind who, after receiving word that his brothers were killed in battle, marries Cathy only for all of the Reno men to return not just to Vance’s hidden heartbreak but with a secret of their own in the form of stolen Union Army funds they’d robbed under orders but neglected to give back once they learned too late that the war had ended.
Proving his box office potential – even in a black and white period western with an unhappy ending – Love Me Tender became an excellent cinematic springboard for Presley that may have found him tackling more serious roles, had his stint in the army and then return to the good graces of fans hearts in forgettable film fluff not been in the cards.
Still as it stands, Robert D. Webb and Stanley Hough’s Tender makes a fine western with some tense action sequences that help you overlook the fact that the character of Clint’s behavioral shift happens far too rapidly to be believed in the slightly unsatisfying conclusion of an otherwise above average debut.
Wild in the Country (1961)
Arguably the closest that Elvis Presley ever got to starring in a Tennessee Williams play or film adaptation opposite his movie heroes who had studied with Lee Strasberg at his oft-cited dream school of the Actor’s Studio, How Green Was My Valley scripter Phillip Dunne stepped behind the camera to direct the King in this overlooked, compelling drama penned by famed playwright and Sweet Smell of Success scribe Clifford Odets.
Using J.R. Salamanca’s novel as the basis for this tale of a juvenile delinquent with a violent temper, Odets manages to give Presley the kind of multilayered role he’d never receive again as at times, Wild in the Country seems tailor-made for the musician right down to the man’s obsessive dedication to his deceased mother with whom he shared an especially close bond and also his deeply held religious beliefs.
Having nearly killed his brother in a brawl at the start of the picture, Presley is taken in by his mother’s sleazy tonic selling cousin who hopes that his slutty daughter (Tuesday Weld) can seduce him into marrying her and therefore giving her bastard child a last name.
As part of his agreement not to wind up detained, Presley tries to avoid Weld’s trappings by staying true to his sweet girlfriend Betty Lee (Millie Perkins) and going to see the town psychologist Irene Sperry (Hope Lange) who encourages Presley’s Glenn Tyler to explore his literary ambitions as a writer.
Worried that he only has two roads to choose from on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil that are embodied by the two very different young women in his life and the man he becomes around them, Glenn’s in for a major shock when he discovers with Irene’s help that he may have a third opportunity for a future on his own, thanks to his raw talent as a writer.
A richly complex love story filled with strong portrayals by not only Presley but its trio of talented beauties in particular, while Wild in the Country does suffer a little from its overly melodramatic and rather lengthy third act, it’s still an unexpectedly moving and surprisingly effective picture that once again alludes to greater depth in its star than he would encounter in his bigger money-makers like this film’s follow up Blue Hawaii.
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