Posted by Susan Doll on July 23, 2012
Next month, TCM has scheduled an Elvis Presley Day as part of Summer Under the Stars. On August 16, which is the anniversary of Presley’s death and the high point of Elvis Presley Week in Memphis, TCM will air 14 of the King’s films. This represents almost half of his 33-film career. One of the selections is a documentary (Elvis on Tour); another is a signature film that includes some of his best songs (Jailhouse Rock); some films represent the best of his musical comedies (Viva, Las Vegas; Girl Happy); others are prime examples of those much-maligned “Presley Travelogues” (Harum Scarum; Double Trouble; Speedway; Spinout; and more.)
Elvis’s movies are brutally criticized especially by rock ‘n’ roll historians who still blame his film career for his shift to pop music. And, many biographers and pop culture historians are convinced that if it weren’t for Colonel Tom Parker, then Presley would have been a really good actor. These are the most prevalent perspectives on his movie career, and these two (mis)assumptions or over-simplifications tend to overshadow any fun facts, unusual aspects, or noteworthy observations about his decade in Hollywood. In my years of writing about Elvis Presley, I have collected hundreds of newspaper, fanzine, and magazine articles that chronicle his career as it unfolded. These articles are filled with tasty tidbits, ridiculous opinions by columnists, humorous quotes by actors and celebrities, and insight into how popular movies were promoted in another era. To celebrate Elvis Presley Day, I offer a two-part series: Today’s post is devoted to titillating and tantalizing tidbits; next week, I will offer quotes, opinions, and perspectives on Elvis from columnists, reviewers, and stars.
The Movies Elvis Didn’t Make
During the early to mid-1960s, many producers and small studios wanted to make a movie with Elvis Presley, because his films always turned a profit. Elvis was under a non-exclusive contract to Hal Wallis until the mid-1960s, meaning he was free to make films for other studios and production companies. Many times, plans for an Elvis movie were announced that did not come to fruition. Veteran musical producer Joe Pasternak announced to columnist Ken Thomson in 1963 that he was going to cast Elvis alongside a major classical artist, either a concert pianist or singer, in a film for MGM. In his opinion, Elvis’s musical vehicles hadn’t taken advantage of his potential. Besides, he thought there was money to be made bringing “the popular and classical music fans together.” Later, Pasternak must have thought better of the idea, because he opted to produce Girl Happy and Spinout, which were the very essence of the Presley musical comedy.
Pasternak’s other brainstorm was to pair Elvis with Brigitte Bardot. In 1964, he announced in Edwin Howard’s Front Row column that he was traveling to Paris to talk to BB about costarring with Elvis in The Kiss That Set the World on Fire. Apparently, BB declined, and the film was never made. Too bad; it was a great title.
If you look past the formula for the plots, the Elvis movies reflect the fads and trends of the youth culture of that era. From Ft. Lauderdale as a Mecca for college students during spring break (Girl Happy) to the popularity of yoga (Easy Come, Easy Go) to the grittiness of Italian westerns (Charro!), Elvis’s movies were quick to incorporate the passions and fashions of the decade. In 1968, the trade papers announced that Elvis would star as the title character in a film called That Jack Valentine. Valentine was a James Bond-like spy. The popularity of the Bond series had inspired other spy adventure series, including James Coburn as Flint and Dean Martin as Matt Helm. As a personality actor, Elvis was a logical choice for a series that depended on a character’s charisma, charm, and good looks, but the Jack Valentine films never got off the drawing table.
What Was That Title Again?
The movies that did make it from conception to release went through more title changes than any other group of Hollywood movies I have ever researched. Oddly enough, even after all the changes, most titles remained forgettable clichés. During pre-production and production, Flaming Star, the 1960 western directed by Don Siegel, evolved from Flaming Lance to Flaming Heart to Black Star to Black Heart to Flaming Star. Girls! Girls! Girls!, released in 1962, was originally titled A Girl in Every Port, then Welcome Aboard, and then Gumbo Ya-Ya before finally becoming Girls! Girls! Girls!. A great deal of publicity for the film was generated under the name Gumbo Ya-Ya, which sounds like a lot of fun. Too bad it didn’t stick. In 1965, the trades announced that Elvis would star as a Valentino-like character in In My Harem, which quickly became Harem Holiday, then Harem Scarum. When someone opened a dictionary and discovered that “harum scarum” meant irresponsible, as in reckless, “Harem” became “Harum” to make Harum Scarum. Spinout may hold the record for title changes: It evolved from Jim Dandy to After Midnight to Always at Midnight to Never Say No to Never Say Yes to Spinout. The title A Girl in Every Port was resurrected in 1967 but was quickly changed to Port of Call and then Nice and Easy before ending up as Easy Come, Easy Go. Perhaps the most disappointing change occurred when Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips was ditched in favor of Live a Little, Love a Little.
Elvis was notorious for dating his costars, though he preferred to keep his private life under wraps. Rumors swirled during the production of each film, but the Colonel was very good at protecting Elvis from the press during the 1960s. The exception was Ann-Margret. The couple’s chemistry was apparent to most reporters and columnists who interviewed them during the production of Viva, Las Vegas. After production wrapped, Ann-Margret revealed too much during a press conference in England, falling prey to reporters’ questions about her relationship with Elvis. She hinted that she and Presley could possibly get married. The slip caused the end of their relationship, because back home in Memphis, a young Priscilla Beaulieu let Elvis have it after she read the redhead’s comments in the columns. Beaulieu would become Mrs. Elvis Presley four years later.
My favorite Presley costar is Tuesday Weld, because she was such a firecracker. Weld was 17 years old when she was cast as Noreen Braxton, the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Wild in the Country. During an interview, she had no qualms to admitting to past relationships with two of her costars in the film—Elvis and John Ireland. Elvis had been 24 or 25 when the two briefly dated just before production began. Weld’s more volatile relationship with Ireland had occurred two years earlier—when she was 15, and he was 45.
Some costars were not enamored with Elvis. Millie Perkins, who also appeared in Wild in the Country, considered herself a method actress compared to Elvis, Weld, and the other young actors on the set. (Among those other actors was Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of Joan Crawford and author of Mommie Dearest.) Perkins remained aloof from them, and her lack of chemistry with Elvis is apparent on the screen. Marianna Hill, who appeared in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, also carried a low opinion of Elvis’s acting talents. When asked about her famous costar, the unknown Hill—a cousin to General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf—would simply repeat that he was “a show business phenomenon” as though it were a joke or insult.
Hammer scream queen Barbara Steele was the costar who never was. Steele was hired in 1960 to appear in Flaming Star. The brunette English actress was brought to Hollywood and interviewed by the execs at 20th Century Fox. They told her she would have to dye her hair blonde and speak with a Midwestern accent. She allowed them to dye her hair, but, after struggling to master the accent, she realized she had been miscast. Steele asked to be let go from the film and was replaced by Barbara Eden.
Marketing the Elvis Movies
Though the old studio system was in its death throes during the 1960s, remnants of its systems and practices were still a part of Hollywood when Elvis became a star. Working under contract to both major and small studios, Elvis and his films were subject to publicity stunts and promotional gigs that seem quaint at best. The studios’ press agents sent press kits and books to theaters with suggestions for local promotions and stunts to draw in the audiences. For Kid Galahad, the press booklet suggested that theaters sponsor “Kid Galahad Hops,” which were dances hosted by local deejays or television personalities who would plug the hops on their programs, generating word of mouth. The suggestion reminded me of how vital word of mouth was to the box office success of a film back when movies were released to a few theaters at a time—called a platform release. For a stunt, theaters were encouraged to hire a musician to stand in the lobby and play the guitar in boxing gloves. The secret to mastering the guitar while wearing boxing gloves was to glue a guitar pick to the glove. The press kit also suggested that theaters ask the local soda shop to serve up “the Kid Galahad Special” while the film was in circulation. What was so special about it? Well, it was served in a square dish.
For It Happened at the World’s Fair, MGM’s publicity department worked overtime trying to tie both the theme of the fair and the plot of the movie into various stunts and events. The 1964 World’s Fair was held in Seattle, and the theme was the space race. Theaters in cities with a NASA connection were urged to contact the organization for lobby displays. Elsewhere, theaters were encouraged to hold science fairs so that local science students could exhibit their best inventions. These inventions would then be judged by a civic leader who would award a bond to the winner, revealing that not all of the promotions were ridiculous. My favorite promotion was called The World’s Largest Date Book, which was a huge standee that looked like Elvis’s little black book. Girls who attended the film signed the standee with their names and addresses. The standee was sent to Elvis, who selected one name to respond to via mail. Theater owners were given an additional tip to maximize this promotion: “You can garner interesting space [in the newspapers] if some local wolf happens to be caught transcribing all the names and addresses.”
Next week: “Is it a sausage? It is certainly smooth and damp-looking. . .Is it a Walt Disney Goldfish?” Find out what in the world this movie critic was talking about in the second installment of “What You Don’t Know About Elvis the Movie Star.”
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