Elvis Presley holds the throne as “The King” of rock n’ roll. Music was his forte, but he did dabble in film for awhile and the results were a mixed bag. In honor of his 75th birthday which he won’t be able to celebrate for himself (unless you’re an Elvis Lives conspiracy theorist), Fox has released the Elvis 75th Birthday Collection. Presented in 2.35:1 Widescreen (save for Kid Galahad in 1.85:1 and Frankie and Johnny in 1.66:1), the collection shows its age in a few places as Fox seems to have done little to remaster these classics, but overall it’s a nice look at the musician who would be an actor, even if the selection of films leaves a lot to be desired. If the set is good for anything it’s for showing his progress as an actor from his first film ever, Love Me Tender, up to Clambake, made in the final three years of Elvis’s acting profession. Beyond that, the set is woefully disappointing, and yet we really can’t blame Fox for that – Elvis’s acting career was one mediocre film after another, with three of his best being in his first four out of the 31 he would make total.
Thus, when you consider that the ceiling of quality for an Elvis film is just “decent” the scale slides to accommodate and the grade curve sets in. While the set has the films in no discernable order, we’ll cover them here chronologically.
Love Me Tender (1956)
Directed by Robert D. Webb; Written by Robert Buckner; Also starring Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Robert Middleton, James Drury
Taking us back to the days of the Civil War, Elvis stars as Clint, one of two brothers who stays home while his brother joins the Confederate Army and goes off to war. During his brother’s absence, Clint marries his brother’s sweetheart, something that causes a bit of friction upon his brother’s return. What would otherwise be a straightforward drama about love set in the Civil War era becomes unnecessarily complicated by an additional subplot, perhaps an effort to give a badly needed third dimension to the brother (otherwise why should we care if the beloved Elvis stole his girl?), after Clint’s brother robs a train and does the right thing (someone got there first, Spike Lee) by returning the money.
Flaming Star (1960)
Directed by Don Siegel; Written by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson; Also starring Tom Reese, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores del Rio
Easily one of the better films in this collection, now Elvis is the son of a man named Clint, playing Pacer Burton, the child of a settler and a Kiowa Indian fights valiantly for peace between the two parts of his lineage. Unfortunately his efforts are for naught and violence erupts between the two sides. Pacer must choose a side in a conflict that has both external and internal conflict, a true rarity for Elvis Presley films.
Wild in the Country (1961)
Directed by Philip Dunne; Written by Clifford Odets and based on the novel by J.R. Salamanca; Also starring Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld
Think of it as Finding Forrester meets Good Will Hunting. Elvis plays Glenn, a troubled youth with a rebellious spirit harbors a hidden knack for putting words to the page. Few people recognize the talent in him until a psychiatrist takes a chance and helps Glenn harness the innate talent within. It’s a genuinely decent story and gives Elvis a chance to flex his acting muscles few of his later films required.
Follow That Dream (1962)
Directed by Gordon Douglas; Written by Charles Lederer and based on the novel by Richard Powell; Also starring Arthur O’Connell, Anne Helm
Here’s where the collection starts to go south, both in terms of quality and tropically. Elvis plays a family man hoping to give his family its start on the road to the American dream. Unfortunately the path is rife with obstacles in the form of state supervisors, social workers, and the mob. The plot has little going for it and never delivers many laughs or tension. It’s an empty exercise with no purpose beyond capitalizing on the King’s status.
Kid Galahad (1962)
Directed by Phil Karlson; Written by William Fay; Also starring Charles Bronson, Gig Young, Lola Albright
Paying a little bit of homage to Elvis’s military service, Kid Galahad turns a mirror on the King’s life and reflects his military past as well as his recent loss of his mother. That’s really the most that can be said for the film though as its title derives its name from a negligible event in the film and attempts to connect the tale of a boxer and a gangland story through a very loose romance story. It never works and only the amusement of watching the King get by on his fame carries Kid Galahad.
Frankie and Johnny (1966)
Directed by Frederick De Cordova; Written by Alex Gottlieb; Also starring Donna Douglas, Harry Morgan, and Sue Ane Langdon
Before setting in on this one I have to admit I thought there would be a correlation between it and the Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer film of the same name from 1991. There isn’t. Two riverboat entertainers Johnny (Elvis) and Frankie (Douglas) have a good thing going, but after Johnny has his fortune told by a gypsy and learns that a red-haired girl will bring him luck, the once simple romance gets a wrench in works. Again, the quality seems to dwindle as Elvis gets further and further in his acting career, but there are a few musical experiences to be had here that go a long way to making it a more bearable experience.
Written by Arthur H. Nadel; Written by Arthur Browne Jr.; Also starring Bill Bixby, Shelley Fabares
The final film in the collection (although oddly the first on what I think is the first disc(?)) is also the worst. Taking the Prince and the Pauper concept into a hokey modern setting, Elvis plays the heir to a millionaire’s fortune who switches places with a nigh-impoverished ski instructor and ends up falling for a girl only to find he has stiff competition (Bill Bixby).
Each movie, thankfully, is on its own disc, but the discs are split into groups of three and four in two DVD cases. The presentation of the discs is nice, and those of us with already cluttered DVD collections will find the condensed two-case presentation preferable over a bulky 7-case release.
DVD Bonus Features
There are none, but this was before the era of extra features, so it’s forgivable. However, retrospectives would have been interesting.
"Elvis 75th Birthday Collection" is on sale June 1, 2010 and is not rated. Comedy, Drama. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Phil Karlson, Robert D Webb, Don Siegel, Philip Dunne, Arthur H Nadel, Frederick De Cordova. Written by Arthur Browne Jr., Alex Gottlieb, William Fay, Richard Powell, Charles Lederer, J.R. Salamanca, Clifford Odets, Nunnally Johnson, Clair Huffaker, Robert Buckner . Starring James Drury, Elvis Presley, Debra Paget, Richard Egan, Robert Middleton, Tom Reese, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Tuesday Weld, Hope Lange, Anne Helm, Arthur OConnell, Gig Young, Charles Bronson, Lola Albright, Donna Douglas, Harry Morgan, Sue Ane Langdon, Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby.