Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, associate editor Jamie Ludwig and culture editor Aimee Levitt consider the filmography of Elvis Presley on what would have been his 83rd 84th birthday.
Jamie Ludwig: So while everyone else in America was watching Bird Box this week, you and I were were watching Elvis movies.
Aimee Levitt: But Bird Box is just for now. Elvis movies are forever. They take me back to high school when my mother would make me go through the TV Guide every week and circle them all. And then we would watch all the ones that were on at a reasonable time. Which weren't a lot.
JL: Sounds like a fun memory. When I told my mom we were doing this, she made a face and told me how much she hates Elvis.
AL: No! Sacrilege!
JL: I think she was too young for Elvis. It would have been like us being excited about the heartthrobs of a generation or two before us, rather than thinking they were lame.
AL: True. But I think the beauty of Elvis movies is that they are so cheesy! The idea of all these girls screaming and throwing themselves at him whenever he sang . . .
JL: By the time we came around, Elvis was totally cheesy in a different way than he was for our parents' generations. They had to live it!
AL: I'm wondering about some of the people who made these movies. You can see them making an effort in Blue Hawaii and even Viva Las Vegas, but by the late 60s, like Speedway, it's like no one was even trying. The cuts between scenes are abrupt and weird and the scenery is obviously a painted backdrop and nothing anyone does makes any sense at all—like Nancy Sinatra is an IRS agent? And she just wanders into Elvis's house looking for . . . evidence? And he doesn't freak out? And then about half the movie is him driving a stock car around a track. And it's a running joke that Bill Bixby, who plays Elvis's embezzling manager, tries to rape just about every woman he meets.
JL: One thing I learned this week is that true Elvis fans consider Blue Hawaii the beginning of the end in terms of quality.
AL: That was really early on, though—1961! It wasn't even that terrible. At least they filmed it on location, and it had good songs. And I appreciate the attempt to celebrate Hawaii. I guess it did sort of lack plot and character development. And Angela Lansbury as Elvis's hysterical and racist southern mama was not good.
JL: OMG, she was crazy racist, and half drunk on mai tais throughout the whole movie. On top of that, Angela Lansbury was only 10 years older than Elvis in real life. Jessica Fletcher would not be amused.
AL: While I was watching Elvis drive around Honolulu, I kept thinking, somewhere out there is a baby Barack Obama.
JL: That's right! Blue Hawaii was released in November, 1961, so baby Barack would have been out there somewhere. Another thing is, Hawaii had only become a state in 1959. So I wondered how many handshake deals happened to ensure the movie would be about the tourism industry. It was probably similar with Las Vegas and Viva Las Vegas, in terms of boosting tourism to a specific hot spot.
AL: I'm sure many people benefited. Also United Airlines. And the Coco Palms Resort, where they filmed the last third or so of Blue Hawaii. Now it feels like an excellent time capsule. Viva Las Vegas, too. Elvis movies are educational!
JL: In Blue Hawaii, there was definitely a contrast between young Elvis and his friendships and romantic relationship with Maile, who were native Hawaiians, and his mother's racism. Also the portrayal of Elvis's friends versus his parents’ butler.
AL: Calling the butler Ping Pong was a lot. I dealt with it by imagining that the character was playing a role to make the racist parents happy. I was pleasantly surprised by the friends, though. Elvis seemed like he was actually having fun in the scenes with them. He seemed to be having no fun at all by the later movies.
JL: The movie was created and released during the civil rights era, so it seemed like there was an impact on this film (versus some later-era Elvis movies, which seem to be from another planet versus the times they were created in), but in Blue Hawaii progressiveness stopped at his parents’ front door.
AL: Elvis was a beacon of progressiveness! And by the end, at the wedding, his mom was bragging that Maile was "of royal blood."
JL: Yeah, they did leave it on a note that his parents had turned a new page when it came to acceptance.
AL: In their way.
JL: Right. At least it was better than when she was calling Elvis's Hawaiian friends "the beach boys”—though maybe with all those mai tais she was mixing them up with the band, which was starting to get popular at that time.
AL: Ha! She was more of a Lawrence Welk kind of lady. She would have been appalled by the real Elvis. I guess that was the point? Like they were supposed to be making Elvis appealing to a wider audience? Which is why his characters had names like Chad and Mike and Steve, and none of them were rock stars?
JL: I don't know if he would have needed the push toward a wider audience; this was pre-British invasion, so Elvis still would have been king of pop culture.
AL: Speaking of progressivism, can we talk about Change of Habit for a second?
JL: Yes! "Dramatic Elvis," I mean, "Dr. Elvis."
AL: That was his very last nonconcert movie, from 1969. Elvis played a doctor in a free clinic in a poor neighborhood who sang in his spare time. And Mary Tyler Moore was the leader of a group of nuns who came in undercover as civilians to be nurses at the clinic.
JL: It was like Sister Act in reverse.
AL: And they tried to deal with poverty and racism.
JL: It was supposed to be a Mary Tyler Moore movie, but I guess Tom Parker finally realized that Elvis should do a real movie again, so he signed him on. I wonder how different it would have been with another actor playing the doctor.
AL: Way less singing.
JL: But a lot of what they had was pretty decent.
AL: It was! And the movie even passed the Bechdel test!
JL: That's true! But despite that, I still had a lot of "what the hell was that?" moments watching this one. Like when Dr. Elvis "loves" the autism "out" of a small child?
Dr. Elvis and Sister Mary Tyler Moore performing a miracle cure
AL: Oh my god! I laughed a lot at that part.
JL: I was just baffled. Is that really what people thought autism was in the late 60s? This movie was supposed to be progressive, and that scene was more like The Exorcist, like Elvis switched from medical doctor to faith healer.
AL: I remember reading an article in the 80s about a couple who also allegedly love-bombed the autism out of their son.
JL: They must have seen the movie. . . . I also could have done without all the rape threats throughout the film, including the nuns’ first meeting with Elvis when he warns them, "The last three nurses who worked here couldn’t take it. Two of them got raped; one even against her will." Maybe it was some misguided attempt to be "gritty" or "edgy"? And out of all the guys who threatened the nuns during their time in the neighborhood, the filmmakers turned a character from sweet and misunderstood to a would-be rapist over a speech impediment.
AL: But he also had an abusive father and a thing for knives. And they did say at the end he was in psychiatric care instead of jail.
JL: Yeah, and Mary was like "Oh, that's good. But he'll still need a speech therapist." And Elvis is like, "Yeah, we're working on finding someone new."
AL: Well, you know, they had bigger problems at that point, like whether she was going to marry Elvis or stay a bride of Christ.
JL: Were you also laughing during that last scene? I loved the editing, which was from her perspective during mass. Swift cuts back and forth between religious paintings and imagery to Elvis in tight pants.
AL: Yes! And he was singing!
JL: He’s hard to resist. They say it's a cliff-hanger, but it's so obvious what she's going to choose.
AL: Really? I was kind of rooting for Jesus there.
JL: That's where we differ in this.
AL: I saw The Sound of Music at an impressionable age, what can I say?
JL: Haha, I also thought Julie Andrews made the right decision in that movie. Captain Von Trapp over the convent. Despite the horde of children.
AL: I do appreciate, though, how the people who made Change of Habit actually seemed to care about it. I think a lot of stuff we say about autism now will also seem very stupid 50 years from now.
JL: Yes, and it did incorporate a lot of interesting points about racial discrimination, the Black Panther movement. . . . But none of it crossed over with Elvis's part for some reason. I wish these subplots had much more screen time.
AL: In a lot of ways, it would have been a much more interesting movie if it had been about Sister Irene's awakening to black power.
JL: And the other nun leaving the convent to protest racial discrimination in local businesses.
AL: But I guess when you have Elvis in your movie, you have priorities. I read that Tom Parker was annoyed that Ann-Margret had as many close-ups as Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.
JL: It's funny, because if Blue Hawaii had some educational qualities, and Change of Habit at least tried to touch on actual social issues, then Viva Las Vegas was the height of Elvis fluff.
AL: Come on, they had some facts about Hoover Dam! Which Ann-Margret just happened to know off the top of her head.
JL: Speaking of characters making choices . . . why didn't Ann-Margret go for the hot, wealthy Italian race car driver over Elvis?
AL: Because he wasn't Elvis, duh. Their dance numbers together were amazing. She was the one costar with as much charisma as he had.
JL: Elvis was hot, but that's about all he had going for him in this movie. His personality was obnoxious.
AL: The character development in that movie makes absolutely no sense. But the music is great and the chemistry between the leads is really really hot.
JL: Right! If it did make sense, she would have ditched Elvis for sure, despite writing his name in mustard.
AL: I loved that part! It was so dumb!
JL: It was a little stalkery, but hey, he'll never know since she added the top slice of bread to the sandwich.
AL: Well, she was obsessed. What sexually frustrated woman has not written her lust object's name in mustard on a sandwich? I imagined that the movie was the G-rated version of the romance that they told her dad about, and there was another, much more interesting story going on that we weren't seeing where they were jumping each other's bones constantly.
JL: Maybe that's why she remained with him. For the (offscreen) sex. Before she fell for Elvis, they portrayed her as ambitious, smart, and hardworking, but when she fell in love, she also fell into some stereotypes.
AL: I think just about all relationships in Elvis movies are like that.
JL: Not so much in Blue Hawaii, which coincidentally, had the only Elvis of all three of these movies that seemed like a real person who would be fun to hang out with.
AL: It's true. He and Maile did go into the tourism business together at the end. I think that's why I liked Blue Hawaii so much, because Elvis seemed like a human being still.
JL: So basically, you think that as they went more for the quick buck, they didn’t just lose quality, but humanity?
AL: He seemed so miserable in the later movies that it was clear he was only doing it for the money and maybe because someone said, "OK, Elvis, you don't have to do much besides sing a few songs and drive a stock car really fast and then we'll pay you lots of money." They weren't even trying at the end, with the exception of Change of Habit.
JL: I don't know the full dynamic between Elvis and Tom Parker, but it makes you wonder what kind of movies, if any, Elvis would have been making if he were calling more shots. Or what kind of albums he would have been putting out if so many weren't soundtracks to shitty movies.
AL: It's really sad, actually. Such a waste of talent. Even when he's singing shit like "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," he still has a great voice.
JL: Yeah, a great voice, and even when his character is obnoxious, he has a lot of charisma on screen (though by Change of Habit, things got weird).
AL: I was reading that one of the projects Elvis considered and passed on was A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand.
JL: He probably didn't want to share top billing or be portrayed as a character who is eclipsed by a woman.
AL: Yeah, or a washed-up rock star. Too on the nose. It would have been something, though. I think the thing with Elvis was, he wasn't really a great actor, so they were always having him play versions of himself. That's why it seems so weird that he's playing a doctor in Change of Habit.
JL: When I learned they had to rethink the plot once he signed on, it made much more sense. He seems a little uncomfortable in the role—except for having all the nuns around him. But maybe if he'd been playing different types of characters throughout the decade, it would have worked better.
AL: Do you think people wanted to see him play different characters? Or did they just want to see him be Elvis, essentially, just with different names and jobs?
JL: I honestly don't know. Part of me thinks he had so much cultural power during the late 50s and early 60s he could have done anything he wanted, and certainly better movies than he ended up making. Some of the biggest stars in those days were also essentially playing variations of themselves, or a persona. Like Cary Grant—and most of his movies weren't Flopcorn material!
AL: What makes the best Elvis movies so much cheesy fun is how everybody's just shrugging like, “hey, he's Elvis!”
JL: Definitely! Even when he gets into fights . . . which happens during every movie. And there’s rarely, if ever, a scratch on his face.
AL: Fights, water skiing, playing music in public. Oh, and sports cars! And definitely never a scratch or a bruise.
JL: And women falling all over him, which, back to Mary Tyler Moore, is another reason I thought she'd leave Jesus for Elvis.
AL: OK, fair enough. I want to go to Hawaii now. Or 1965 Vegas.
JL: Same! If those movies were made to boost tourism in their time, I’m sure they worked. I mean, even in 2019, I fully expected to never want to watch another Elvis movie after this project, but now that it's over, I wouldn't mind.