Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, racked up more than 30 movie credits during the 13 years he was in the narrative acting game. But not all of them are as well-remembered as hits like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Jailhouse Rock.” As Baz Luhrmann’s biopic “Elvis” opens in theaters, here are the top 10 movies starring the King, Ol’ Snake Hips, the Tennessee Troubadour himself — including one concert film that gives fans a chance to hear a full selection of his songs.
The Trouble With Girls (1969)
Elvis comes off more like a genial emcee than the main attraction in his penultimate star vehicle, a lightly likeable mashup of period dramedy, variety show and, starting at the midway point, murder mystery. The King is well cast as the smooth-talking manager of a traveling Chautauqua company who, in 1927, tries to remain graceful under pressure during an eventful engagement in a small Iowa town. But he serves the story by receding into the background whenever director Peter Tewksbury (making amends for helming 1968’s “Stay Away, Joe,” one of Elvis’ very worst films) parcels out screen time to the supporting players, a crazy-quilt ensemble that includes Sheree North, Dabney Coleman, Marlyn Mason, Joyce Van Patten, Vincent Price, John Carradine, and Nicole Jaffee (the original voice of Velma is the “Scooby Doo” cartoons).
Elvis on Tour (1972)
The King’s final film made lightning strike a second time for MGM two years after the studio’s success with another celebratory musical documentary, “Elvis: That’s the Way It is.” Praised by critics and embraced by fans, the ’72 follow-up follows Elvis on a 15-city tour just five years before his death at age 42, and showcases his showmanship as he performs a song list that runs the gamut from credible covers (“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Never Been to Spain”) to his own greatest hits (“Love Me Tender,” “Burning Love”). No less a notable than Martin Scorsese served as montage supervisor for the movie, which has the distinction of being the only Elvis movie ever to receive a significant award: A Golden Globe for Best Documentary.
Kid Galahad (1962)
Believe it or not, this one is a remake of the 1937 Warner Bros. melodrama directed by Michael Curtiz (who, two decades later, worked with The King on “King Creole”) and starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Wayne Morris. In this, ahem, re-imagined version directed by Phil Karlson (“The Brothers Rico”), Elvis plays the equivalent of the character originally essayed by Morris, an amiable ex-G.I. who returns to his hometown in the Catskills resort area, where he impresses a washed-up boxing promoter (Gig Young) by demonstrating knockout prowess as a natural-born pugilist. While Young feasts on the scenery with relentless relish, Elvis goes the distance with easygoing aplomb — even during credibility-straining scenes where his character takes a licking but keeps on ticking in the ring — and Charles Bronson lends strong support as a seen-it-all trainer who suffers greatly for his loyalty to the young fighter.
Love Me Tender (1956)
Elvis is a co-star, not the lead, in his first big-screen outing, a creaky but compelling post-Civil War drama about a Confederate soldier (Richard Egan) who returns home to find his sweetheart (Debra Paget) married his younger brother (Elvis) after receiving greatly exaggerated reports of his death. Complications ensue. Egan’s heartbroken Vance Reno behaves nobly, but Elvis’ insecure Clint Reno is driven to extremes by irrational jealousy — until he is conveniently killed to allow for a reasonably happy ending. To cushion the blow for The King’s many fans — who, of course, helped turn the film into a box-office smash — the filmmakers superimposed an image of Elvis crooning the title song over the final graveside scene. (Yes, it’s true: Even in an 1860s setting, Elvis got to sing, strum his guitar, and shake those hips. You have to keep the customers satisfied.)
Wild in the Country (1961)
Playwright Clifford Odets provided the screenplay (based on J.R. Salamanca’s novel) for an emotionally charged movie that, in retrospect, can be viewed as The King’s farewell to serious drama and brooding moodiness. (“Blue Hawaii,” also released in 1961, became the paradigm for most of his subsequent big-screen endeavors.) Ironically, Elvis proved conclusively here that he had the potential to tackle even more challenging roles with his affecting portrayal of an angry young man who, while on probation for inflicting serious bodily harm on his brother, reveals previously untapped potential as a writer. He’s torn between a good girl (Millie Perkins) and a not-so-good one (Tuesday Weld), but winds up falling hard for the (slightly) older psychologist (Hope Lange) who wants him to be all he can be. Under Philip Dunne’s sensitive direction, Elvis and Lang share the most tender love scene ever to appear in any of The King’s movies.
Flaming Star (1960)
Director Don Siegel was able to keep the songs to an absolute minimum and, more important, convince Elvis to risk giving his all during some highly emotional moments in this engrossing Western about a half-Native American (Elvis) torn between white and Kiowa cultures. Elvis earned appreciative notices for his performance in a role that, according to Stuart M. Kaminsky’s 1974 critical biography “Don Siegel: Director,” originally was intended for Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, the movie itself was a box-office under-achiever. “Presley was very good in the picture,” Siegel is quoted as saying in Kaminsky’s book. “However, I think one of the reasons the picture did not get the recognition I feel it deserves, especially in terms of its presentation of a racial conflict, is that the public was unable to get beyond the fact that Elvis Presley was in it.”
Blue Hawaii (1961)
The King already had seven features to his credit by the time he made “Blue Hawaii,” but this frothy musical comedy more or less set the mold for what most folks now think of as “an Elvis movie” – lightweight fun and frolic, often in an exotic locale, involving a lovable hunk who sings and sways his way through minimally daunting challenges while encountering only temporary impediments to happily-ever-aftering with a young lovely. Here, Elvis plays Chad Gates, an ex-G.I. who, upon returning home to Hawaii, rejects a job with his father’s fruit company in order to hang with his beach buddies, surf and swim, and work as a tour guide in partnership with his curvy sweetie (Joan Blackman). It’s one of Elvis’ most ingratiating performances, in one of his most undemandingly pleasant movies — with (except for the title song and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) some of his most forgettable songs. Go figure.
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Most folks remember this musical melodrama only for the classically campy, insistently exuberant production number (arguably Elvis’ greatest on-screen moment ever) that hard-sells the title song. But take a second look: In sharp contrast to the formulaic fluff frequently concocted for The King throughout the ‘60s, “Jailhouse Rock” actually attempts to package Presley as a semi-sensitive anti-hero with pronounced tendencies toward badassery. After beating a man to death with his bare hands in a barroom brawl (which, to be fair, he didn’t start), construction worker Vincent Everett (Presley) spends a year behind bars as the cellmate of a washed-up country singer (Mickey Shaughnessy) who teaches him how to play a guitar and carry a tune. Once released, Vincent becomes a chart-topping recording star, signs a contract to make Hollywood movies — and devolves into an unpleasantly selfish lout until his former cellmate shows up to provide tough-love discipline by punching him in the larynx. (Don’t worry: There’s no permanent damage.)
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
If you looked up the term “guilty pleasure” in the “Illustrated Dictionary of Cinema,” you’d likely see a photo of Elvis and Ann-Margret shaking their groove things and generating high-potency chemistry in director George Sidney’s well-nigh irresistible extravaganza. The plot, no more complicated than it has to be, revolves around Lucky Jackson (Presley), a race-car driver who unluckily loses the money he needs for a new engine, and seeks employment as a hotel waiter while romancing swimming instructor Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) as a fringe benefit. Presley is at the top of his game here, striking the perfect balance of smirk and sincerity while placating drunken Texas tourists with a medley of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Eyes of Texas,” and rambunctiously blowtorching his way through the title song in a low-concept, high-impact production number filmed in one continuous, swaggering take.
King Creole (1958)
What did Elvis Presley have in common with Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, and James Cagney? All of these legends made career-highlight movies directed by the prolific and prodigious Michael Curtiz. In Elvis’ case, the movie was a first-rate, hard-boiled, borderline-noir musical drama (based on the Harold Robbins novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher”) about a sullen New Orleans youth (The King, of course) whose overnight success as a singer in a Bourbon Street nightclub attracts the unwanted interest of vicious gangster and part-time talent manager Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau). “King Creole” was filmed largely on location, and it captures the unique flavor of the Crescent City to a degree rarely matched by other films made there before or since. (Elvis’ first song actually is an ode to crawfish.) The superior supporting cast includes Dean Jagger, Vic Morrow, Carolyn Jones (in one of her all-time best performances), Paul Stewart and Dolores Hart, and the songs include “Trouble,” “Hard Headed Woman” and the rockin’ good title tune. The other films on this list are enjoyable for a variety of reasons. But Elvis was never better as an actor than he was in “King Creole.” And he never made a better movie.