At last, Elvis films worth seeing — for the most part!
Your obedient reviewer of classic films has had to suffer through some pretty wretched DVDs featuring Elvis Presley in the past, Clambake being the most recent such disc to come to mind. Thus it was with some trepidation that I approached Fox’s recent release of three Elvis films, even though I was aware that the titles included what are considered to be some of his best film efforts. Not to keep you in suspense, I will say now that you could do considerably worse than to pick up a couple of the new titles.
The three Fox DVD releases are Love Me Tender (1956), Flaming Star (1960), and Wild in the Country (1961). This brings to 13 the number of Elvis films now available on DVD (including the final That’s the Way It Is), which represents a pretty good percentage of his 32 feature film appearances. Actually Paramount and MGM were the two major producers of Elvis films by far and to date have been the main Elvis DVD releasers. Fox now enters the fray with the only three Elvis pictures that it was involved in, releasing DVDs of them in honour of the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death.
Love Me Tender — Vance Reno and two of his brothers are believed killed during the Civil War. Younger brother Clint, who had remained on the home farm, then falls in love with and marries Vance’s girl Cathy. But when the war ends, Vance and his brothers have survived and they return home to the surprise but happiness of all. Money that the returning brothers have appropriated for themselves from their time as rebel raiders during the war and a growing rivalry between Vance and Clint over Cathy, however, seem likely to destroy any future family harmony.
Flaming Star — Pacer Burton is the half-native half-white son of a white rancher and his Kiowa wife living in west Texas. When the Kiowas in the territory begin to attack the ranchers in an attempt to reclaim their land, the family finds itself outcasts from both cultures — suspect by the white settlers because of the Kiowa mother, and rejected by many of the natives because of the white father. As violence in the region mounts, Pacer finds himself forced to choose between the two cultures, but neither choice offers any long-term peace for him or his family.
Wild in the Country — A young man named Glenn Tyler gets one final chance to overcome a wild youth when he is paroled into the custody of his uncle who runs a questionable liquor business. As Glenn tries to keep his life on the rails, he must balance his feelings for his long-time girlfriend Betty-Lee, his uncle’s daughter (and a single mother) Noreen, and his counselor Irene Sperry. Irene recognizes the potential in Glenn to be a fine writer and manages to secure a scholarship at college for him. A romance begins to develop between Glenn and Irene, but she resists by agreeing to marry another long-time suitor, Phil Macy. When Glenn finds out, he turns to Noreen and the two plan to run away. In the process, Glenn accidentally kills Phil’s son Cliff in a fistfight and is charged with manslaughter. As an inquest is held into Cliff Macy’s death, the futures of both Glenn and Irene seem tenuous indeed.
Sometime early in the 1960s, Elvis Presley movies began to fall into a tiresome and predictable pattern. Elvis would have a flashy role as a singer, pilot, racecar driver, or whatever; he’d manage to have several women involved with him; and he’d advance what plot there was by singing six or seven mostly forgettable songs. He was usually pretty likable in these films, but any sense of a serious acting career was absent. It wasn’t always so. Elvis made his film debut in 1956’s Love Me Tender and although his inexperience as an actor was evident, he showed good promise. Films such as Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were positive steps and then 1960’s Flaming Star showed Elvis’s real acting talents to full advantage. But that was the peak. Follow-up vehicles such as Blue Hawaii, Wild in the Country, and Kid Galahad (a remake of the 1937 Robinson/Bogart classic) seemed to mark time, and then the formulaic decline set in, with only the occasional highlight (such as 1964’s Viva Las Vegas) thereafter.
Elvis’s first film, Love Me Tender, is a black and white Cinemascope western with an interesting story and fine performances. Elvis (who plays youngest brother Clint) doesn’t actually appear until almost 15 minutes into the story. He tries hard and generally does a good job with the role, even though he seems a little self-conscious in front of the camera. He handles the scenes near the end where he must express restrained rage quite well. The film itself has good, well-staged action and only lags in the final third when the plot becomes somewhat bogged down with too much apparently senseless riding back and forth. Elvis sings four songs (each is identified as a separate scene selection) including the title song, and shows off his hip-swiveling technique, which predictably looks pretty out of place in a western setting. Able acting support comes from the film’s star, Richard Egan, and a host of familiar faces including western veteran Robert Middleton; future TV-star of The Virginian, James Drury; and frequent western bad-guy, Neville Brand.
Flaming Star contains Elvis Presley’s single best acting performance in a film. Perhaps the fact that he sings the title song over the credits and only one other song (and that in the first five minutes or so) contributes to this. As a consequence, the film never loses its focus due to intrusive musical numbers and is able to maintain viewer interest throughout. Elvis has the starring role in the film as Pacer and he looks very comfortable with both dialogue and action. He speaks with conviction and conveys emotion well. The overall implication is that he could have become even better as an actor had he chosen his succeeding roles more wisely instead of being allowed to lapse into comfortable formula vehicles. It helps too that Flaming Star has a strong script that addresses an important issue in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. Most importantly, the film benefits from the presence of Don Siegel in the director’s chair. He moves the story along briskly and stages the action scenes with great vitality. The cast is top-notch with very fine performances from Steve Forrest as Pacer’s brother, Dolores Del Rio and John McIntire as his parents, and the likes of Richard Jaeckel and L.Q. Jones in smaller supporting roles.
Wild in the Country is based on a novel by J.R. Salamanca and has the benefit of a good script by Clifford Odets. It’s a soap-opera-like sort of tale that offers the genesis of the plots that would characterize (albeit in a much less sophisticated form) the later tiresome Presley films. The story does threaten to lose focus about half way through, but gets back on the rails and delivers a satisfying if somewhat predictable conclusion. Elvis once again gives a very fine performance, although it’s padded with a few more songs (none particularly memorable) than his efforts in its predecessor, Flaming Star. He has a number of romantic scenes with each of three women, all of them requiring a different approach, and he handles each capably and believably. Once again the supporting cast is very fine with typically good work from John Ireland and Hope Lange, and an unexpectedly nuanced performance from Tuesday Weld despite being saddled with at least one sequence of ripe dialogue.
Fox appears to have made a concerted effort to have these films look as good as possible on DVD, short of undertaking a complete restoration. It begins with the packaging, which sports simple, classy-looking portraits of Elvis on the front of each keep case. The image transfers are all anamorphic and preserve the original 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratios. Flaming Star is marginally the best looking of the three. The image is sharp and clear, and colours are fairly bright and true. Shadow detail is very good and edge enhancement is not an issue. Speckling and other debris is minimal. Both of the other films’ image transfers have their moments with very sharp images and some nice deep blacks and fine shadow detail, but there is somewhat more grain in evidence and occasionally noticeable minor edge enhancement.
The audio mixes offered are a varied Dolby Digital bag. Love Me Tender sports both a stereo and mono English track plus a Spanish mono track. Flaming Star and Wild in the Country each have a 4.0 English surround mix and a Spanish mono track. For the most part, the 4.0 surround mixes offer the best results. There is some very modest directionality to them and they provide a reasonably dynamic sound. On Love Me Tender the stereo is but marginally better than the mono. Dialogue is clear and age-related hiss is minimal in all instances. Each disc offers optional subtitling in English and Spanish. I guess no Francophones are interested in Elvis Presley, as far as Fox is concerned.
Supplements are minimal in all cases. Each film is accompanied by its own theatrical trailer, plus the trailers for the other two films. Love Me Tender also offers its Spanish theatrical trailer and Flaming Star offers its Portuguese theatrical trailer.
If you want to sample any Elvis Presley films currently available on DVD, these three new releases from Fox are the ones to try. They offer Elvis at his best as an actor and they give you enough songs to satisfy an Elvis fan without ruining the films. Fox has done a fine job in its presentation of all three titles. All are worth having, but if you only wanted two of them, I’d suggest Flaming Star for sure and then Love Me Tender. The latter is not as polished a film as Wild in the Country, but it does have Elvis’s debut and I’m partial to westerns.