The Elvis Project

Pre-formula

Elvis wanted to pick up where James Dean left off, and the idea of him as an outsider or a rebel flows not only through these early movies but through his entire film career. Still, you can sense the studios’ reluctance to let him be anything but Elvis, which is why so many of these films have autobiographical strains running through them. Jailhouse Rock and Loving You both trace the rise of music stars, while G.I. Blues is about a singer in the army (released in theaters at the same time Elvis was released from the army). Even Elvis’s debut, Love Me Tender–a Civil War period piece–forces him to sing a handful of songs that are decidedly not Civil War-era ballads. Still, as time went on, the variety of roles he was offered expanded . . . and it makes you wonder what would have happened to his career if Blue Hawaii hadn’t changed up the game entirely.

  • Love Me Tender (1956)
  • Loving You (1957)
  • Jailhouse Rock (1957)
  • King Creole (1958)
  • G.I. Blues (1960)
  • Flaming Star (1960)
  • Wild in the Country (1961)
  • Follow That Dream (1962)
  • Kid Galahad (1962)

Formula

With the success of Blue Hawaii, Presley’s handlers pushed him into an increasingly narrow range of roles designed to mimic that blockbuster. Thus Elvis’s 1960s films are characterized by the formula that he would later become synonymous with: pretty girls in bikinis fighting over Elvis, pretty background shots from locations like Hawaii and Acapulco, a car race or two. (For a comprehensive list of cliches associated with the Elvis Formula, see the entry on Blue Hawaii.) As the decade wore on and the formula began to get tired, the movies’ creators tried to spice it up by inserting all kinds of wacky hijinks and mystery plots. But it wasn’t until audiences made it clear that they were no longer interested in seeing Elvis in the same old roles that he was allowed to branch out.

Post-formula

With financial gains from the formula films steadily diminishing, Elvis was finally allowed to try his hand at new kinds of material. Live a Little, Love a Little, while a romantic comedy in the vein of the formula flicks, wasn’t nearly so derivative as many of those mid-’60s pictures had been, and Elvis’s success in its screwball comedy gave him and his handlers the confidence to branch out further. While Elvis’s late films are largely regarded as uneven, he shows potential both as a comic actor and as a dramatic one. If there’s anything we can take from the later films, it’s that it’s sad that so much time was wasted on formulaic time-fillers and that a career that still showed promise was cut short.

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