I admit to not being a fan of the Elvis Presley films, and further admit that I have seen only about half of them, still waiting for the accidentally good one, if such a one exists. I do like the black-and-white numbers in Jailhouse Rock (1957), but that’s as far as I can go in giving any of the films a positive response. What does stand out for me, though, is the presence, amid all those forgettable ingenues and the occasional big-star co-player (such as Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas), of two big-name divas supporting Elvis: Angela Lansbury and Barbara Stanwyck.
Lansbury, one year away from her greatest screen performance, as Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), played Elvis’ mom in Blue Hawaii (1961), one of the worst and flimsiest of the Presley musicals, though Hawaii comes off rather well. Lansbury, apparently approaching the role with a what-the-heck-it’s-only-an-Elvis-movie attitiude, goes way over the top, seemingly for her own amusement, in a very broad caricature of a Southern matron. Elvis, back from the army, doesn’t want to go into his family’s pineapple business, a troubling matter for his snobby mother. It’s a rare dimwit role for Lansbury, and it’s obvious that she’s too smart to fool anyone, so she just hoots and mugs her way through, as if appearing in a variety-show sketch. If you want to see a great actress in an unfunny cartoon performance, check out Blue Hawaii, which features “gems” such as “Rock-a-Hula Baby.”
In 1964, moviegoers could see Bette Davis in Dead Ringer, Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket, and Barbara Stanwyck opposite Elvis in Roustabout. (You can decide who got the worst deal.) The pickings were few for the legendary ladies of Hollywood’s past. Here Stanwyck owns a carnival and Elvis becomes an employee, eventually saving the financially strapped operation with his groovy tunes and screaming fans. White-haired Stanwyck is in butch mode, very trim in her jeans, tough-talking but kind-hearted. It would be nice to report that the film is elevated by her distinguished presence, but that’s not the case. Like Blue Hawaii, it’s square as can be, with Elvis learning to be a team player. In both movies, he comes alive only in the musical numbers, and only in the songs in which he can gyrate and hip-swivel. (“Hard Knocks” is the highlight here.) Otherwise, he’s a dead weight.
Both movies have lots of songs, most of them awful. If these films are low points for Lansbury and Stanwyck, at least both actresses make you sit up and notice whenever they come on-screen. I wish Elvis had paid more attention to the master classes they were offering while slumming in his pictures.