As Elvis Presley's popularity declined in the mid-1960s, so did the quality of his films. What began as a promising career eventually devolved into a seemingly endless series of embarrassing movies. The main problem was that, rather than find good projects suited to his client's talents, Col. Tom Parker routinely slashed the budgets to maximize his own profits. Also, since all the songs had to go through Elvis' publishing company, they were no longer written by solid hitmakers, but by hacks willing to give up their rights for the exposure.
To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death, Warner Brothers has taken six Elvis movies, of varying degrees of quality, from this period and put them in a DVD box set called The Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1. Each DVD is presented, for the first time, in widescreen format with the theatrical trailer, and comes with five photo cards.
Nearly all Elvis movies feature cheesy dialogue, a handful of songs, and lots of beautiful girls, so, using those criteria, here is a chronological guide to the six movies in the set:
Kissin' Cousins (1964)
Plot: The Army wants to build a missile base on top of a Tennessee mountain, but the family that owns the land doesn't want to sell. It's up to Lt. Josh Morgan (Elvis) to convince his distant cousin, Jodie Tatum (also Elvis, in a blond wig) to make the deal.
Quality of songs: Weak, including some Hollywood takes on Appalachian bluegrass. The songs are as interesting as their titles - "Barefoot Ballad," "Smokey Mountain Boy," and "Catchin' On Fast" - suggest.
Quality of women: Pretty good. Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig, making her second appearance in an Elvis film, is cute as Josh's love interest, Azalea Tatum. Cynthia Pepper is a WAC who eventually falls for Jodie. There's also a nearby gang of hillbilly hotties, the Kittyhawks, led by, of all people, Maureen Reagan.
Sample dialogue: "The catfish eyes bring out the flavor in the possum tails."
Memphis Mafia cameo: Joe Esposito is Mike.
Overall: An example of the lazy, lighthearted comedic fare foisted on us by the Colonel, with lots of stereotypes about mountain folk. Elvis does his best to overcome the material, but it's not one of the better pre-Viva Las Vegas movies.
Girl Happy (1965)
Plot: Singer Rusty Wells (Elvis) and his band are hired by a Chicago gangster to look after his daughter (Shelley Fabares) in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break, but spend most of their time chasing co-eds.
Quality of songs: The title track and "Do The Clam" are B-list Elvis classics. The others are mostly fun, silly numbers, with "Puppet On A String" as the ballad.
Quality of women: Very high. Shelley Fabares, in her first of three Elvis movies, and former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley lead a bikini-clad cast.
Sample dialogue: "I've given up the mental types. This is the type for me. Not much upstairs, but what a staircase!"
Memphis Mafia cameos: Red West is an extra in the Kit Kat Club.
Overall: Some good tunes, light comedy, and a beautiful cast. What more could you ask for from a beach movie?
Tickle Me (1965)
Plot: Lonnie Beale (Elvis) is a singing rodeo star working at a spa that caters to models and actresses. They chase him, but he has his eyes on the aerobics instructor. That's all you need to know.
Quality of songs: Despite songs by names like Otis Blackwell, Pomus-Shuman, and Leiber-Stoller, nothing is particularly memorable.
Quality of women: No big name actresses, but there is still plenty of eye candy among the patrons of the spa.
Sample dialogue: "You know how it is when a pack of women get together… They begin clawing and scratching like wildcats. Try to keep everybody happy, won't you?"
Memphis Mafia cameos: Red West is an extra in a bar.
Overall: It's not a mess like, say, Harum Scarum (the next film he would make), but you could still see that, by this point, they had lost the plot. And I still can't figure out how the title relates to the story.
Stay Away, Joe (1968)
Plot: Native American Joe Lightcloud (Elvis) returns to the Arizona reservation to help it prosper through a cattle-raising deal with a Congressman. There's lots of drinking and fighting. I couldn't figure out much more than that.
Quality of songs: There aren't too many songs, but one is about a bull. The soundtrack wasn't even released, so if even the Colonel didn't want to put this out, that should tell you something. Did I mention there's a song about a bull?
Quality of women: Like the rest of the movie, Quentin Dean as Mamie Callahan is hardly up to Elvis' usual standards. Some cute extras, though.
Sample dialogue: "Why don't you find out while I rescue a certain white man from being scalped by wild Indians. Female Indians."
Memphis Mafia cameos: Sonny West as Jackson He-Crow, Joe Esposito appears as a workman.
Overall: After some lovely opening shots of Sedona, Arizona, it's an incomprehensible pile of stink, and its portrayal of Native Americans is practically indefensible by today's more enlightened standards.
Live A Little, Love A Little (1968)
Plot: Photographer Greg Nolan (Elvis) encounters a flighty woman (Michele Carey) who causes him to lose his job and his apartment, and he is forced move in with her. He works two jobs simultaneously, at a nudie magazine and an ad agency, to get her out of his life.
Quality of songs: "A Little Less Conversation", which became a worldwide #1 hit in a 2002 remix version, is sung during the party. "Edge Of Reality" offers some late-'60s psychedelic pop, a new direction for Elvis, but without the drugs.
Quality of women: Carey is the requisite beauty, but the others are inconsistent.
Sample dialogue: "You don't taste bad for a Sagittarius."
Memphis Mafia cameos: Joe Esposito, Red West and Elvis' father, Vernon Presley, appear as extras.
Overall: An attempt at a manic sex farce, but without the sex. As a result, it doesn't quite work, but it also isn't horrendous.
Plot: An historic Mexican cannon is stolen by an outlaw gang and they have falsely accused Jess Wade (Elvis, with a beard!) as the thief. Elvis tries to clear his name and win back the love of the woman he left behind.
Quality of songs: Apart from the title song that plays over the opening credits, Elvis doesn't sing. Instead, there is a decent sub-Morricone score by Hugo Montenegro.
Quality of women: Ina Balin is rather unappealing as Elvis' love interest, and gets upstaged by one of the dancing girls.
Sample dialogue: "You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I was ever not allowed to look at."
Memphis Mafia cameos: Charlie Hodge is uncredited as a Mexican peon.
Overall: Filmed shortly after the '68 Comeback Special, it's a surprisingly average Western. It's slow in spots, and occasionally overacted, but it conforms to the expectations of the genre, and Elvis is engaged throughout.