Judge Adam Arseneau actually did catch a rabbit, one time in college.
Our reviews of Clambake (published October 26th, 2001), Frankie And Johnny (1966) (published June 8th, 2001), Frankie And Johnny (1991) (published December 21st, 2001), Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), Kid Galahad (published June 23rd, 2006), Love Me Tender (published March 30th, 2006), and Love Me Tender / Flaming Star / Wild In The Country (published September 5th, 2002) are also available.
Released to coincide with the King's 75th birthday (which he spent in a retirement home fighting Egyptian zombies) comes Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection, a box set bundle of seven beloved Elvis films. Well, beloved if you're a fan of the Man from Memphis. Otherwise, these films are…kind of goofy.
Facts of the Case
Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection contains seven Elvis films on seven DVDs:
• Clambake (1967)
• Flaming Star (1960)
• Follow That Dream (1961)
• Frankie and Johnny (1966)
• Kid Galahad (1962)
• Love Me Tender (1956)
• Wild in the Country (1961)
A confession: an Elvis fan I'm not. After watching Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection I can now extend that to the King's cinematic endeavors. These seven films represent a nice cross section of Elvis' acting prowess; his highs and lows in the dramatic arts. Ironically, they're all pretty equal in mediocrity. To the legion of Elvis fans out there, all I can say is that the King was a musical prodigy, a groundbreaking artist who broke down barriers between segregated generations of music lovers, an innovator who arguably invented rock and roll. He was not, however, a particularly gifted actor. Odds are good, all you angry Elvis fans, that I'm not the first person to point this out.
At best, the films featured in Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection are kitsch genre films—lighthearted, simplistic Westerns and beach romps reworked from within to promote the star power of Elvis. If anyone else but Elvis were front and center in them, they would barely be remembered today, let alone endlessly re-issued and re-packaged on DVD. At their worst, these films are constructed and choreographed delivery devices for new Elvis songs, cinematic syringes injecting country ballads into the arm of a musically junked-out nation. For better or worse, his films remain surprisingly popular with fans.
Filmed way back in 1956, Love Me Tender was the first Elvis film, only featuring the King in a supporting role. Elvis shakes and dances in a wholly inappropriate fashion for a Civil War period piece, setting the tone for all future Elvis films to have his gyrating hips and songwriting prominently placed. Take Elvis out of the equation and you have an average film, not an outstanding drama or Western by any stretch, but not poisonous on the tongue. Richard Egan is sufficiently rugged and handsome as a leading man, while Debra Paget looks on longingly. Elvis' youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for his first acting gig are so enthusiastic as to distract from his inexperience in front of a camera. For better or worse, Love Me Tender does set the mold for future Elvis films to follow: co-opt an otherwise unremarkable studio release, throw Elvis into the mix singing and dancing, market to screaming girls the world over, and rake in the dollars. While you'd never call Love Me Tender a classic, it is a far cry from the train wrecks to come later in Elvis' film career.
Skip ahead a few years to 1960 and we see a more sophisticated and mature role for Elvis in Flaming Star, a rarity in his cinematic career. Elvis fought with Hollywood and his management for years over his desire to transform into a dramatic actor, but ticket sales would soon drive Elvis into the campy comedic beach romp formula that so dogged his career in years to come. Directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry), Flaming Star is a half-decent Western: solid direction, strong performances from its cast, plenty of angst and action and a reasonable effort to throw in complex racial relations, pitting Texas ranchers against native Kiowa tribes. Elvis is no Marlon Brando (the actor to whom the part was originally written for) but give credit where due—he holds his own here, turning out a competent performance as a half-Kiowa teenager torn between his two heritages. With only two musical tracks and no pelvic shaking, Flaming Star is a small glimpse into what could have been, a world in which Elvis could pursue a genuine acting career, not just projects custom tailored to suit his star power. Flaming Star feels like a movie with Elvis in it, not just an Elvis movie. There's a big difference.
Wild in the Country, shot in 1961 continues Elvis' exploration into dramatic acting, his last foray in this genre before being swept up by pressures from his handlers to rake in big bucks with campy musicals. A drama about a teenager framed as a troublemaker, it shows yet more glimmers of potential in the dark, handsome, and jaded leading man. Had he stuck with dramatic acting, one imagines he could have had quite the talent. Wild in the Country features a good performance by Elvis, but the film itself is too insubstantial to have much dramatic weight. It feels like a weird soap opera by way of Rebel Without A Cause, except the protagonist, Glenn Tyler (Elvis) isn't really a bad boy…he's got the heart of a poet. I think I just threw up a bit in my mouth. He does get to make out with three exceptionally beautiful women, which, in my mind, is kind of what Elvis always does, everywhere he goes. In all other regards, Wild in the Country is an unremarkable and forgettable drama.
In contrast, Follow That Dream is quite pleasant. A relaxed and down-to-earth comedy, this is Elvis at his most charming and effable, a good old Southern boy with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. Based on a novel by Richard P. Powell, 1962's Follow That Dream is a relatively unknown film in Elvis' canon, eclipsed by the mega-success of previous ventures like Blue Hawaii. In his career, this film is something of a turning point, a road marker on the path of decline. From this point on, his creative output begins to drag. Albums begin to disappoint in both sales and critical acclaim. Call it a transition period between the hopeful and enthusiastic Elvis looking for dramatic roles, and the sagging and jaded Elvis endlessly cast into musical comedies without a good script in sight. Follow That Dream hangs comfortably in the middle space between these two periods, like a hammock strung up between two trees, contently swaying in the breeze. Elvis is relaxed and pleasant, but there is nothing exceptional in the role for him to sink his teeth into. There are plenty of catchy songs, but nothing groundbreaking. This is a film with a marquee as large as the Hollywood sign, but only two letters: OK.
A remake of a 1937 film of the same name, Kid Galahad puts Elvis in the role of a singing boxer. This casting could generously be called "entertaining," but try as he might, Elvis is about as intimidating as a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Even without this unfortunate stretch of casting logic, Kid Galahad is an odd film. This is a dramatic and gritty boxing film trapped in the body of a lighthearted musical comedy; a freakish chimera too twisted and mangled to survive in the wild unaided. Director Phil Karlson hints at that urbane grit that all good boxing films strive to achieve, but in Kid Galahad, it ends up endlessly tempered by Elvis's very presence, like a fire doused with a bucket of water. I suspect Kid Galahad wanted to be a straight-up boxing film, but the star power of Elvis converted the film midway into a comedy. The end result is a confusing mix of goofiness and gallantry, almost like a spoof. Oh, and keep an eye out for a young Charles Bronson.
Jumping ahead a few years to Frankie and Johnny, and we find Elvis in a campy musical riverboat film. He looks bemused and bored, the epitome of an actor running down the clock in front of the camera until he gets his paycheck. This is not a great role, for him or anyone else, and you can see the displeasure in every frame. The plot is hackneyed and contrived, but these things happen when you base the plot of a film around the lyrics of a song. The romantic lead, Donna Douglas (The Beverly Hillbillies) does a fine enough job, but both her and Elvis turn out rather forgettable performances. Lighthearted and wholesome, this movie is kind of a bore, like a cardboard cutout of a romantic comedy without any substance. The best part of the film—and this is reaching—are some Dixieland-inspired numbers that are noticeably upbeat and entertaining. Alas, most of Elvis' musical contributions are weak ballads, which just drive the film's value lower. The ending is so mind-numbingly stupid and banal it almost has to be seen to be believed.
Finally, Clambake is a picture-perfect example of how horrendously bad Elvis' acting career progressed in the late sixties, and how low his cultural currency had become. In 1967, campy musicals staring a washed-up country rocker were hardly riveting the youth of America. They were far too busy having their brains exploded by a growing counterculture of anti-establishment and drugs. I mean, Jimi Hendrix was out in 1967, for heaven's sake. "Clambake," the Elvis Presley album just wasn't going to cut it for America's youth. Growing increasingly despondent with his acting career, which had become little more than a farcical and endless marketing campaign for his failing album sales, Clambake is the King at his roughest. He's overweight, sluggish, and lacking charisma—the exact opposite of what people love about Elvis. It doesn't help matters that the film itself is a wretched affair, an overly contrived and preposterous beach musical. On the plus side, if all you know Shelley Fabares from is her stint on Coach, be prepared for a pleasant shock. She's a knockout.
Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection is a compilation box set, so the seven films assembled here are double-dips, currently available for retail purchase in standalone form. Little has been done to amalgamate the eccentricities and formatting foibles, so each film has markedly different menu design, technical specs, etc. In short: new packaging, old discs. Some films are anamorphic, while others (Follow That Dream, Frankie and Johnny, Clambake) are not. For some bizarre reason, Follow That Dream is a flipper disc. Some have mono sound, others stereo, while others have surround. There is no rhyme or reason to the presentations, which make it very challenging to pass overall judgment on the box set from a technical perspective. Most of the films show their age, with noticeable grain and some occasional print damage, but nothing unpleasant or unacceptable in that regard. Ironically, the worst-looking in the bunch is the newest film (Clambake) and the best looking is the oldest (Love Me Tender). It would have been nice to see all these films receive the same kind of treatment, rather than just repackaging previous versions.
In terms of extras, the only disc that offers up any is Love Me Tender, and they're identical to the standalone release. We get a commentary track with longtime Elvis collaborator Jerry Schilling, some short featurettes ("Elvis Hits Hollywood," "The Colonel & The King," "Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit") as well a still gallery and some trailers. The other six discs offer up theatrical trailers and nothing else.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Admittedly, it is cool that as a society we have all these Elvis films floating out in the ether. Sure, his films may not be critically acclaimed, but they did cement Elvis in the public eye throughout the late 1950s and '60s, leading up to his first comeback. As a leading man, or even just a secondary character, Elvis is a fascinating figure on the screen; his charismatic playfulness, energy, and sparkle all translate with vibrancy to audiences. His acting prowess is mediocre at best, but even at his lowest ebb, his most laconic and disaffected, we can still see that twinkle in his eye that made the man a star.
A chronological cash-in, Elvis: 75th Birthday Collection represents good value if (for some reason) you are an Elvis fan who doesn't already own these seven films. Methinks, for most fans of the King, this will just end up being just another double-dip.
Send him back to the retirement home with JFK. Let the man rest.
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