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Elvis Aaron Presley was a controversial and transformative figure in American music, and one of the most recognizable 20th century icons. He was also the star of a shocking number of financially successful but, mostly, not very good movies.
“The King,” as he has been called, made an initial attempt at serious acting in the 1950s, but his cinematic career was quickly derailed by a stint in the Army, and upon his return found he could sell the most tickets — and the most soundtrack records — by headlining generic, family-friendly musical fluff. There are hidden treasures in Presley’s filmography, but they are extremely well hidden, and before you find them, you might have to endure some of the biggest stinkers of the era. (Even Elvis himself wasn’t a fan of a lot of them.)
So let us be your guide, as we escort you through the treacherous waters of every single Elvis Presley movie, ranked from worst to… let’s say “good.”
Honorable Mention: “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” (1970)
It’s unfair to compare Elvis Presley’s two documentaries to his dramatic roles, so let’s let them off the hook and call them Honorable Mentions. Presley returned to the stage after a decade of focusing on his film career, and in this concert film from Oscar-winning filmmaker Denis Sanders, waves of relief practically radiate off the screen. The first third is a behind-the-scenes look at his rehearsals and backstage nerves, but the rest of the film is a strong set of hit songs, with The King playfully winning over the audience and settling back into his element. It’s not the most polished concert film, but it’s a treat.
Honorable Mention: “Elvis on Tour” (1972)
Presley’s second concert film tries a little harder to integrate actual documentary filmmaking between the musical numbers, to sometimes satisfying and sometimes comical effect. (One montage of his famous movie kisses seems to have been crafted entirely out of clips from his most embarrassing films.) Too many of the songs are repeats from “That’s the Way It Is,” and Presley already seems to have lost a lot of the energy he regained from his big return to the stage. It’s not The King at his best, but it ain’t The King at his worst.
31. “Stay Away, Joe” (1968)
Presley (at a low point in his career) plays a Navajo man who arranges for his father, Burgess Meredith (also at a low point in his career), to get a herd of cattle from the U.S. government. If he can make a profit, the government will aid all indigenous peoples, so there’s a lot at stake here. However, they get so drunk and rowdy they kill and eat the only bull. Now Elvis has to find another bull (which can’t perform sexually, and Elvis sings a song about it) when he’s not trying to seduce an underage girl. “Stay Away, Joe” is ugly, insulting and gross, and somehow — and this is the only impressive part — it’s also boring.
30. “Double Trouble” (1967)
It turns out the girl Elvis Presley has been dating is underage — a plot point which happens twice, but twice too often in these movies — and he tries to ditch her as she chases him across Europe. Along the way they encounter a gang of assassins who wants one or both of them dead, for mysterious reasons. Presley made nine films with Oscar-winning director Norman Taurog, and this is the worst, despite some energetic direction and quality production design. The central “romance” is extremely creepy (and having Elvis sing “Old MacDonald” to his leading lady only makes it worse), but the film seems to think it’s whimsical and sweet. Yikes.
29. “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (1966)
Presley’s third Hawaiian adventure starts off swimmingly, with Elvis playing an airline pilot who, in a subplot that’s supposed to make him sympathetic, has been fired from every airline for sexual harassment. So he travels to Hawaii and starts a helicopter transport service by manipulating every women he meets into thinking he’s their boyfriend in exchange for personal favors. It gets so bad his business partner, James Shigeta (“Die Hard”) has to ask single women who work for them to pretend they’re married, but Elvis knows. Somehow, he always knows. Lazy and episodic storytelling, even by Elvis-movie standards, and a protagonist who deserves his failures.
28. “Harum Scarum” (1965)
The idea of Presley playing a movie star who gets confused for the characters he plays on film is a clever one, and this film is determined to completely ruin it. Presley gets kidnapped in a regressive Middle Eastern country and forced to assassinate a local ruler, in a film which lets lots of white people play Arab roles (yikes) and romanticizes harems (double yikes), to the point that a little kid sings a song about how she dreams of being a glamorous, beautiful slave (all the yikes in the world). The film’s only saving grace is “So Close, Yet So Far (From Paradise),” a great song that Presley is unusually invested in at this point in his movie career. But you can hear that song without having to suffer the indignities of the film surrounding it.
27. “Wild in the Country” (1961)
Just before Presley settled down into a long, long series of programmatic fluff musicals, he took one more stab at serious acting with this unconvincing melodrama (from a screenplay by Clifford Odets). Presley plays a troubled young writing prodigy who tries to overcome his emotional issues with the help of a psychologist (Hope Lange, “Peyton Place”) who, naturally, falls in love with him. At least this movie knows when the romance is inappropriate. It all ends in a court case and life-or-death tragedy, and all of it is seedy, none of it works, and Presley is very much out of his acting wheelhouse the entire time.
26. “Easy Come, Easy Go” (1967)
Presley plays a Navy frogman who stumbles across a shipwreck full of treasure and schemes to steal it for himself, with a little help from a free-spirited dance enthusiast who lives at a wacky art commune. It’s kinda like “The Deep” if “The Deep” stank out loud, and if it had an absolutely bewildering musical number mercilessly making fun of yoga, with the great Elsa Lanchester on hand (all too briefly) to assist. The underwater footage is interminable — a marginal improvement on the footage that was shot on land.
25. “Roustabout” (1964)
Barbra Stanwyck had her final film role in a flick that’s drab and plotless even by Elvis-movie standards. The King stars as a big jerk who sings mean songs about his audience, including a group of 40-something frat boys, and then beats them up in the parking lot when they point out — reasonably so — that it wasn’t very nice. (One of his victims hilariously screams “No! No! That’s karate!”) Then Elvis nearly runs Stanwyck’s family off the road while trying seduce her daughter and blocking the highway. But when Presley’s motorcycle crashes, it’s up to Stanwyck to make it up to him (for some reason) by giving him a job at their failing carnival. Sure, he saves the day, but he never stops being a cad, and this movie never, ever picks up steam.
24. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (1962)
This unimaginatively-named Presley vehicle barely registers as a motion picture. Elvis is trying to buy a boat in Hawaii, while the person who owns the boat would rather sell it to someone who has enough money to do so. So he takes on jobs to buy the boat, and eventually he gets that boat. Meanwhile, he balances a variety of women in his life who, mysteriously, all want to sleep with him, even though he literally cares only about boats. Somehow the iconic song “Return to Sender” came from this tedious drivel, even though it has literally nothing to do with the rest of the film.
23. “It Happened at the World’s Fair” (1963)
Elvis plays a crop duster who just happens to befriend a little girl whose uncle goes mysteriously missing at the World’s Fair. But instead of, you know, actually looking for him, the two of them conspire to hook Elvis up with a nurse who hates his guts. The songs are completely forgettable, and the plot isn’t forgettable enough. Historical footage of the fair aside, “It Happened at the World’s Fair” is noteworthy only for the scenes where a young Kurt Russell kicks Presley (who Russell would go on to play multiple times as an adult) in his highly vulnerable shins.
22. “Clambake” (1967)
Presley famously believed that “Clambake” was his worst movie, and while he wasn’t correct, his point is well taken. The King plays the heir to a gigantic oil-industry fortune who swaps places with a stranger, giving a regular Joe a taste of the good life while Elvis figures out if he can live without his money. Not the worst premise ever, but an insipid b-plot about Elvis alchemically mixing a miracle “Goop” to fix up a racing boat gets way too much screen time, and all the jokes — and the songs — uniformly fall flat.
21. “Kid Galahad” (1962)
This tepid remake of Michael Curtiz’s 1937 boxing drama (which originally starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart) finds Elvis working as a sparring partner who can take such a beating he wears out his opponents. Ostensibly there’s a crime element here, with his promoter (Gig Young) mired in debt to the mafia, but it plays out with all the gin-soaked, desperate tension of a Hayley Mills musical. Charles Bronson plays Presley’s coach, but he looks like he’d rather be in any other movie. Watchable, but utterly forgettable.
20. “Change of Habit” (1969)
In his final film as an actor, Presley plays Dr. John Carpenter (no relation), who runs a small clinic in Harlem. Mary Tyler Moore co-stars as a nun who, along with her fellow sisters, decide to go undercover as regular folks to make a positive impact on the neighborhood, and possibly to fall in love with Elvis at the same time. Noteworthy for being the first movie to openly discuss autism (even though it gets a whole lot of it wrong) and for Elvis playing an abortion doctor, the film features strong performances, but the film’s approach to sexual violence is unsettling, alternately the source of humor (yikes) and a climactic brutal attack that the film never recovers from (more yikes).
19. “Kissin’ Cousins” (1964)
It’s not just a title! Elvis stars as an Air Force pilot trying to convince his cousins in the Great Smokey Mountains to let the military construct a missile base on their land. Along the way he ends up in a love triangle with his two cousins, one of whom is played by the original Batgirl herself, Yvonne Craig. They are so closely related that their other relative looks like Presley’s identical twin. (Elvis played both, “Parent Trap”–style.) If you’re thinking that’s a tough sell, don’t worry, because this movie dedicates two (!) whole (!) songs (!) to Elvis saying it’s okay to date your cousins, with lyrics like “Kissing’s allowed because we’re proud to be cousins.” It’s bad, but it’s so flamboyantly bad it’s riveting.
18. “Live a Little, Love a Little” (1968)
A dangerously unhinged woman randomly sets her sights on Elvis, kidnapping him, getting him fired and kicked out of his apartment, and systematically sexually cajoling him while rejecting him at every turn. Michele Carey co-stars, but all she can do is make her nonsensical character weirdly charismatic, because this movie makes no sense and never pretends otherwise. Somehow it manages to grow on you, thanks partly to the psychedelic performance of “Edge of Reality” and the killer track “A Little Less Conversation,” but mostly because — like Carey’s character — it wears down your defenses until all you can do is stop fighting and get used to it.
17. “G.I. Blues” (1960)
Presley’s first foray into feel-good musical travelogue inanity finds him in the army, raising money to start his own nightclub. To that end, he makes a wager that he can seduce an unseduce-able dancer (Juliet Prowse), but naturally he falls in love with her and it all gets very, very trite. Amiable, certainly, but very, very trite. Bonus points for the early scene where Presley is performing but gets interrupted when an audience member rudely puts an actual Elvis Presley record on instead, a meta-textual quantum singularity that never gets properly addressed.
16. “Loving You” (1957)
Presley dyed his hair black for his second film (his first in color), and he never changed it back. This time he stars as a young rocker who’s discovered by a duplicitous managing team who take advantage of his emotional neediness for their financial gain, only to get won over in the end by his earnest charms and on-stage charisma. The way the film connects the dots between Elvis’ stage persona and suspicious personal management is oddly self-aware, and Presley already seems more comfortable on-camera. Sure, this featherweight movie exists only to sell us Elvis, the icon, and Elvis, the records, but it’s adequate at both.
15. “Charro!” (1969)
A too-little, too-late effort to revitalize Elvis’s career finds him starring in a relatively violent western as a former criminal framed by his old partners for stealing a valuable cannon. Now the law is after him, the criminals are after him, the townsfolk are after him, the whole country of Mexico is after him, and it should all be much more exciting than this. Presley never really convinces as a tough guy but the plot is strong enough to carry the movie through, and the score by Hugo Montenegro (who composed the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme song) is satisfyingly epic.
14. “Frankie and Johnny” (1966)
Presley plays a riverboat gambler and showman who, in an incredibly fictional way, inspires the 1904 title song about a woman who shoots her cheating lover. It’s a simultaneously cheap and colorful period piece with forgettable numbers but an amusing plot in which Presley gets convinced that only a redhead can bring him luck at the roulette tables, sending him bouncing between an alluring flame-haired performer and his blonde girlfriend, played by Donna Douglas from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Extremely insubstantial, but enjoyable in an Elvis-y kind of way.
13. “Flaming Star” (1960)
One of Hollywood’s great macho filmmakers, Don Siegel, directed this earnest western action film, starring Elvis as a man whose mother is Kiowa, placing his family at the center of a violent feud between racist settlers and violently anticolonialist Native Americans. Elvis tries to capture the conflict of a biracial young man in a complex situation, but the film is as nuanced about its heavy themes as you might expect from a melodramatic 1960s western. Well-intentioned, it seems, and engaging, but never entirely convincing.
12. “Tickle Me” (1965)
Presley works at a ranch for women trying to lose weight. Along the way he gets embroiled in a ridiculous plot to find missing gold in a Wild West ghost town, and in the end the filmmakers give up entirely and transform the final act into a quasi–Martin & Lewis haunted-house gag-fest. It’s not a clever film but, unlike most of Elvis’s lesser fare, it knows it’s absurd and leans into it, with whimsically bizarre gags like Presley shooting a silver dollar out of the air and getting four quarters back.
11. “Love Me Tender” (1956)
The feature film debut of Elvis Presley finds the crooner co-starring as the young, naïve brother of Confederate soldiers hiding ill-gotten gains after the Civil War. So in a funny way, Presley’s obvious lack of acting experience makes for a spot-on performance. He’s married his eldest brother’s sweetheart, after thinking his sibling was dead, so of course it all ends in tragedy. The drama isn’t fully baked, and the songs are clearly tacked on, but “Love Me Tender” was probably the perfect debut for Presley, playing to his limited strengths in a story that didn’t depend on him for anything other than raw, unrefined star power.
10. “Fun in Acapulco” (1963)
Can former circus acrobat Elvis Presley get over his PTSD in time to save an Acapulco resort by cliff diving? The answer, of course, is “Why in god’s name is that an actual premise of a movie?” Ursula Andress and Elsa Cárdenas are quite good as Elvis’s love interests, and the silliness of the plot makes it more entertaining than it ought to be. But you’re going to be distracted by all the rear-screen projection: Presley didn’t shoot a single scene in Mexico, for surprisingly complicated reasons involving a blank check, a birthday party, the Regent of Mexico City, and false quotes printed in a gossip column.
9. “Speedway” (1968)
Elvis plays a successful race-car driver who gives all his money away to needy strangers and his lifelong manager, Bill Bixby, only to discover that due to Bixby’s misdeeds, he’s in debt to the IRS for $150,000 (that’d be more than $1.2 million in 2022), and all the nice things he gave to people in need are getting repossessed! Nancy Sinatra co-stars as the IRS agent who falls in love with him, and she gets the best song in the whole movie, but Elvis’s whimsical ode to taxes, “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” is a treat too. Spritely and amusing, practically from start to finish.
8. “Girl Happy” (1965)
How’s this for a fun pitch: If Shelley Fabares has any fun at all during spring break, the mafia will murder Elvis! At first, Presley and his musical back-up band of merry mischief-makers do everything in their power to prevent Fabares from partying, but eventually he falls for her and accidentally shows her a good time himself. A spirited and likable lark, halfway between Presley’s usual schtick and the then-contemporary “Beach Party” genre, but the song “Do the Clam” is one of The King’s musical-movie low points.
7. “Blue Hawaii” (1961)
Presley’s first Hawaiian adventure is easily the best. Not so much a movie as a cheerful travelogue, Elvis plays a young man returning home to Hawaii from the armed services, only to eschew his family business in order to lead teenagers around the island to show them the tourist spots. The plot, such as it is, completely loses steam in the second half, but “Blue Hawaii” isn’t about story; it’s about beautiful locales and relaxing music. It’s a movie to chill out to, and it’s highly effective.
6. “Spinout” (1966)
Shelley Fabares is back, and this time she’s a wealthy heiress trying to buy Elvis’s love, while he’s simultaneously torn between the affections of a famous non-fiction author (Diane McBain) and his plucky drummer Les (Deborah Walley). Meanwhile, all Elvis wants to do is rock and roll and race fast cars. Norman Taurog’s best Presley film is skimpy on plot but rife with cheerful characters and silly situations, with one of the most satisfying romantic endings of any of his movies.
5. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)
The most famous of Presley’s musical numbers stems from a surprisingly sour rags-to-riches story, in which Elvis goes to jail for manslaughter, finds his love for music in the joint, and becomes a self-made rock and roll superstar before devolving into a familiar tale of selfishness and excess. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall classics, and the title track is iconic for a reason, emphasizing Presley’s unique physicality with a stark and exciting cinematic aesthetic. Bitter, but with an unconvincingly positive ending, it’s easy to see why, for a brief moment, it looked like Elvis’s motion picture career could go in interesting directions.
4. “Viva Las Vegas” (1964)
Presley’s frothiest concoction stars Elvis as a race-car driver who, while waiting for a new engine for his hot rod, takes a menial gig at a Las Vegas casino so he can woo Ann-Margret, who gives off more heat — romantically and musically — than any of Elvis’ s other female co-stars. Energetic and romantic, with great numbers and a climactic auto-racing sequence that visibly presages, in both look and execution, the creation of “Speed Racer” just three years later. “Viva Las Vegas” is the closest Presley ever came to starring in an actual great musical. It’s legitimately close!
3. “Follow That Dream” (1962)
If you ever wanted to see Elvis Presley play Steve Martin’s character from “The Jerk,” this is that film. And it’s great. In this weird comedy, Elvis’s vagabond family runs out of gas in Florida, then decides to permanently live wherever they just happened to park. Elvis accidentally robs a bank, accidentally takes out mafia hitmen, and accidentally rebukes every single sexual advance thrown his way (of which there is no shortage), and that’s always funny. It’s a delightfully goofy film, and the only comedy that truly knew how to capitalize on Elvis’s patented “aw, shucks” persona.
2. “The Trouble With Girls” (1969)
Presley’s second-to-last movie as an actor is almost his best, in small part because it’s the only Elvis movie that doesn’t treat his presence like a gimmick. Elvis stars as seasoned showman running a Chautauqua in 1927, traveling from town to town putting on fascinating and informative productions and getting mired in an unusual murder mystery in the process. Bolstered by memorable supporting performances from Dabney Coleman, Vincent Prince, and even Frank Welker and Nicole Jaffe (who would make their debuts as Fred and Velma on “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” just ten days after this film’s debut), Presley’s casual charisma is a valuable piece of an impressive ensemble in an excitingly photographed and memorable period piece.
1. “King Creole” (1958)
The best Elvis Presley movie was very nearly a James Dean movie, but after the actor’s untimely death, it was reworked into an atmospheric and dramatically potent musical. Presley plays a high-school dropout wooed to the nightclub circuit, only to be seduced by a deeply troubled Carolyn Jones and controlled by her vicious criminal boyfriend, played by a fantastic Walter Matthau. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and stunningly photographed by Russell Harlan (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), Elvis is the weak link in the cast, but his naïveté is completely justified by the plot, which sends him down a path to ruin, fueled by extremely tragic choices. Presley may never have been a truly great actor, but this was the closest he got.