What You Don’t Know About Elvis the Movie Star, Part 1

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.

The Costars


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.”

0 Response What You Don’t Know About Elvis the Movie Star, Part 1
Posted By Heidi : July 23, 2012 12:24 pm

I love Elvis movies! I remember we had one of those whole wall stereo systems that had a record player in it. My parents liked Elvis (I always thought my dad looked like young Elvis!), and had all the record albums. I would sit down in the basement and listen to them for hours. When I had the chance to see some of the movies when I was much older, I was really tickled by them. I remember the songs, of course, so it was fun seeing how they fit into his movies. I have seen the vast majority of them. I think my favorite is “It Happened at the WOrld’s Fair” because my husband likes it (the only one he will watch) and I think the story is cute. Let’s face it, they were made as pure candy, for the eyes and ears.

Posted By Andy : July 23, 2012 3:33 pm

I’ve not watched all of Elvis’s movies, a lot but not all, but watching them you can see that as the years passed he seemed to grow increasingly despondent, for what ever reason be it being tired of being given unchallenging fluff or interference from other people. But it is a shame as watching the enthusiastic Elvis in his first few movies is a treat because you can see he wanted to act, not just be a show pony in fluffy musicals.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 23, 2012 4:18 pm

It is true that Elvis was excited by his film career in the beginning, but grew tired of the formula at the end. It is also true that not all of his movies were fluff or candy. Flaming Star is a passionate plea against racism during the height of the Civil Rights Era; King Creole is an excellent musical drama. Much of the critical stance regarding his film career comes from Elvis himself who disparaged his films — all of them — on stage when he returned to live performance in the 1970s. In my opinion that has colored perceptions of his entire career, reducing it in people’s eyes. In truth, his movies in total are not any better or worse than the movie vehicles of other stars with specific star images — inevitably, some films will be good, some just okay, some mediocre. And, that’s true of many stars with specific images — think of Bob Hope’s films, or Red Skelton’s, for example. Yet, unlike Elvis, their entire output isn’t criticized because of the bad films they made.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 23, 2012 4:44 pm

Ok they may not be masterpieces in some people’s minds. Who cares? I have always loved when L.Q.Jones is in an Elvis movie. He is in three:”Love Me Tender”,”Flaming Star”(he gets killed off right away in the film-I hate that!),& “Stay Away Joe”(even L.Q.Jones says that picture is lousy!)He did look it up! I love him,and I am not an fanatic over Elvis like some people. I do recognize he had talent though. I also like “Jailhouse Rock”,”Frankie and Johnny”,and “Charro!” Elvis based the way he wore his cowboy hat in “Charro!” on the way that Bing Russell,Kurt Russell’s dad,would wear his hat.Thought y’all might like to know.

Posted By robbushblog : July 23, 2012 6:59 pm

You wrote this especially for me, didn’t you Suzi? Such a Doll! I love Elvis movies, despite so many of them being pretty bad, but you are correct when you say that the quality varies. The two movies I usually state in argument against the blanket condemnation of Elvis’s total film output are two that you mentioned specifically: Flaming Star and King Creole (MY favorite!).

King Creole was originally optioned as a vehicle for James Dean, or so the story goes. It was based on the Harold Robbins novel “A Stone for Danny Fisher”. I believe Danny was a boxer in the original story.

As for Flaming Star, I think it’s a pretty damn good western. It was directed by Don Siegel, the great director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry and The Shootist. Siegel apparently thought that Elvis did very well in the movie. Incidentally, it’s probably not hard to find, but I have the recording of the original title tune, “Black Star” on CD. All of the lyrics are the same as the final released song except the word “black” is used instead of “flaming”.

Also, though Millie Perkins may have thought little of Elvis when they worked together, she later played his mother in the short-lived Elvis TV series from 1990.

I apologize for rambling on so, but you know how I get about the King.

Posted By Lisa W. : July 24, 2012 12:00 am

I really love all those title changes! Makes me wonder how they settled on the titles they did? I think Elvis was terrific, but I never saw a film until I was an adult— my mom couldn’t stand him! And I agree with your point in the comments about other personalities having made really good to not-so-good films and yet Elvis does seem to get judged more harshly. I think his films make for perfect summertime movie watching.

Posted By SLEAZY : July 24, 2012 7:43 am

Since when did the Pelvis turn to pop music??????! His music was pure rock’n’roll all the way (except wimpy tunes like the highly overrated Suspicious Minds!!). This just goes to show that the so-called r’n’r experts where not that expert as they seemed. Elvis ain’t no pop pollution like Jacko ya know:):):):)!!!!

Posted By Links 7.24.12 « Speakeasy : July 24, 2012 8:19 am

[...] What You Don’t Know About Elvis the Movie Star, Part 1 [...]

Posted By robbushblog : July 24, 2012 10:07 am

Suspicious Minds is a great frickin’ song.

Posted By Anonymous : July 24, 2012 10:15 am

To robbushblog:
There are WAAAAAY better tunes like Suspicion:):):)!!!

Posted By sleazy : July 24, 2012 10:16 am

There are WAAAAY better tunes like Suspicion:):)

Posted By robbushblog : July 24, 2012 10:49 am

Well, Suspicious Minds is not my favorite Elvis song, but it is pretty frickin’ great. Suspicion is too.

Elvis could sing anything though. he could sing in any genre, even opera. I’m listening to some of his gospel music right now, as a matter of fact.

Posted By sleazy : July 24, 2012 11:06 am

It’s the arrangements I don’t dig in SM…..but you’re right there when you say he could sing anything:):)!!!

Posted By Juana Maria : July 24, 2012 4:38 pm

Robbushblog:Wow! You know a lot about Elvis! Cool. I like “Suspicious Minds” as a matter of fact. I don’t feel everyone has to like it too. That’s Ok. I agree with his daughter Lisa Marie,I too love his sad songs that he sang later in his career. Hey,his daughter is a singer too! I remember hearing her on the radio but it’s been awhile.

Posted By Jenni : July 24, 2012 8:12 pm

The Kiss that lit fire to the Whole World?? Kiss my Firm but Pliant Lips?? Those titles are impossible, imho, and good thing the one was changed. I don’t know how well a BB and Elvis pairing would have been for the critics, but I bet it would have brought in the box office bucks! I should email your fun article to our local radio morning guys as they were remembering Elvis and his movies, and they both fell into the two camps you mentioned in the beginning of your article: 1. Elvis was a good actor but grew tired of the silly plots of his later films, 2. It’s all Col. Tom Parker’s fault.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 24, 2012 8:29 pm

KISS MY FIRM BUT PLIANT LIPS is a title that makes me chuckle every time I read it. At least it is memorable if a bit unromantic.

Posted By robbushblog : July 24, 2012 9:37 pm

We can blame Dan Greenburg, the best-selling author who wrote the novel. That movie actually has some decent songs and the beautiful Michelle Carey as the female lead. And Rudy Vallee.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : July 25, 2012 10:36 am

Flaming Star was based on a pretty good novel, Flaming Lance, by Clair Huffaker. From what I read, it was due to the relatively modest box office, compared to other Elvis movies, of this film and Wild in the Country, that caused Colonel Parker to determine that Elvis make light musicals. Also, the soundtrack albums were where the real money was made.

Posted By robbushblog : July 25, 2012 1:56 pm

Quite so, Mr. Nellhaus. Quite so.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 25, 2012 3:09 pm

It wasn’t only Parker that made that determination. As the decades go by and people are unfamiliar with the way Hollywood worked in the early 1960s, the reality of the situation is over-simplified. Elvis was under a non-exclusive contract to producer Hal Wallis, who was famous for making stars by establishing a star image for a performer and then sticking to films that exploited that image. Both Dean Martin and Shirley MacClaine chaffed under that rigid control. It was Wallis as much as Parker who looked at the b.o. results of FLAMING and WILD (made for other studios) and then decided not to tamper with the image that he had constructed and evolved over the course of Elvis’s career. Parker did not have the clout to tell Wallis what to do or how to cast Elvis, but he followed Wallis’s lead when he farmed out Elvis to other studios.

Posted By changeling : July 25, 2012 3:43 pm

I know enuff about Elvis and the Col. to safely say that 90% of Elvis’s health denise was due to the Col. pushing him too far in show biz and music…poor Elvis:(:(

Posted By Juana Maria : July 27, 2012 3:13 pm

Susan Doll: B.O.results? Yes,B.O. results from not having showered in awhile! Ha ha..No,I understand you meant Box Office results,right?

Posted By Doug : July 30, 2012 11:21 am

Susan Doll-thank you for this post; Elvis was Something Big in his day. Bigger than movies, TV specials, concerts…this post is a good refresher on the film parts of the Elvis phenom. Looking forward to part II.

Posted By Tamee Runion : September 22, 2012 6:41 pm

I was nine when Elvis left. My dad played the guitar and tried to sing like him, even wore his hair like Elvis until he died in 1985. Love you for you Elvis. You have a great heart. Hope to see you again soon.

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