Elvis at the Movies, or Heartbreak Hotel Goes Hawaiian

I marked the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley by remembering the happy days and nights I spent at the Heartbreak Hotel. Yes, there is one – and it’s right across the street from Graceland. I can’t quite remember what brought us to Memphis, but it’s a city full of tourist attractions: the original Sun Records, the music clubs on Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum (not a cheery place, because it’s housed in the motel where Martin Luther King was murdered), the ducklings who march daily through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (yes, really), lots of good barbecue. We wanted to stay in the heart of all that, but somehow we wound up in Elvis Heaven, at 3677 Elvis Presley Boulevard.

As you would imagine, the Heartbreak Hotel is as garish as the man who inspired it. The lobby is done up in shades of purple, bright blue, and mustard. Just off it is the Jungle Room Lounge, with décor that reflects Elvis’s own party den across the road. At the Heartbreak Hotel, you can choose among the Hollywood Suite (sleek art deco), the Burning Love Suite (romantic shades of red), the Graceland Suite (“gives guests the sense of living in their own diminutive Graceland Mansion”), or the Gold and Platinum Suite. We opted for a simpler room, and didn’t bother to patronize the gift shop where you can buy Elvis wine and an Elvis birthday card. But for me the Heartbreak Hotel’s oddest, greatest delight was that each guest room features Elvis movies round-the-clock.

Elvis Presley starred in 31 movies over a period of just 13 years. Frankly, I saw bits and pieces of so many of them that they all blend together in my mind. But most feature an Elvis who’s slender, attractive, fun-loving, and prone to break into a sappy love song or a lively up-tempo tune. The backdrops change, but the plots are generally pretty much interchangeable: see Blue Hawaii, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco. In Harum Scarum (a movie that would never be made today), romantic entanglements have him running around an Arab kingdom, sometimes in flowing robes, charged with assassinating the local potentate. In Kissin’ Cousins, he plays twins, and romantic entanglements have him running around the Ozarks spooning with man-hungry hillbilly gals.

One film I saw from start to finish was Elvis’s first. Love Me Tender (1956) is a serious romantic drama, set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Elvis plays, with impressive simplicity and sweetness, the youngster who’s stayed home to look after the farm and ended up marrying the sweetheart of the elder brother (Richard Egan) who reportedly died in battle. Of course big brother belatedly returns, with murderous consequences – but not before Elvis has touchingly crooned the title ballad. There’s a sense of conviction in Elvis’s performance here I didn’t see elsewhere. Who knows what he could have done in Hollywood if he’d been given better acting challenges? Or if his primary obligation wasn’t to sell soundtrack albums?

In any case, I hear Elvis enjoyed the time he spent living in Southern California. One favorite pastime was riding motorcycles in the hills of Bel-Air. (A man who once worked for a Triumph dealership remembers him coming in with his entourage, then ordering new bikes for all.) Surprisingly, one of his favorite hang-outs was the Lake Shrine, a peaceful garden retreat in Pacific Palisades maintained by the Self-Realization Fellowship. It must have been a good spot to shrug off the pressures of celebrity, Elvis-style.

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