Posted by Susan Doll on July 30, 2012
As part of Summer Under the Stars, TCM has selected August 16 to showcase the movies of Elvis Presley. To prime viewers for the 14-film marathon, I offer the second in my two-part series about the publicity and promotion surrounding Elvis’s movie career. Viewing Elvis’s stardom through the perspective of contemporary reviewers, fans, and costars will put a different spin on his movies as you watch them.
“Why Sure, Sideburns!”
For many years, the press was obsessed with Elvis’s sideburns. During the 1950s, his personal appearance consisted of pegged pants, wildly colored shirts, baggy suit jackets, a long ducktail haircut that required three hair creams to control, and long sideburns (see left). Throughout 1956, the year that Elvis became a national phenomenon, the press repeatedly made a connection between rock ‘n’ roll music and juvenile delinquency, with Presley as their main target. It didn’t take them long to equate his unusual personal appearance with a delinquent mentality, honing in on the sideburns, which many identified as a fad among Southern truck drivers. By 1957, the word “sideburns” had become synonymous with delinquency and bad taste, so when a tough-talking punk sneers, “Why sure, Sideburns,” to Elvis’s character in Loving You, it was an insult that echoed the real-life criticism of Elvis in the press.
After Elvis was discharged from the army, he changed his appearance to reflect a more mature star image for the movies. He opted for a conventional haircut with shorter sideburns. The lack of sideburns became the most talked about aspect of Presley’s return. It was as though his talent as an actor could not emerge until he had shorn his hair and sideburns. The new look made headlines in the press. Harold Hefferman topped his August 4, 1960 column with “Elvis Presley Abandons That Ducktail Haircut.” A review of G.I. Blues in a movie magazine notes, “. . .Elvis has changed. Gone are the overlong sideburns, the long haircut and, most important of all, the exaggerated wiggle.” Lily May Caldwell, the news amusement editor for an Alabama newspaper, was pleased with the new Elvis: “Elvis Presley, more mature and more attractive, with less hip-swinging and no sideburns, is packing them in at the Alabama.” John Scott was more blunt when he observed that “Elvis’s formerly oily mop of hair is no more.” Like many in the press, Mildred Martin made the connection between Elvis’s lack of sideburns and his future as an actor: “The sideburned, pompadored, hip-swiveling Elvis has all but vanished, certainly not to this corner’s regret. . .Now, in neat-as-a-pin uniforms, sporting a modification of the Army’s butch haircut, the young man. . .turns out to be distinctly normal, likeable actor.”
Bosley Crowther, long-time reviewer for The New York Times, echoed the majority opinion in his review of G.I. Blues: “Gone is that rock ‘n’ roll wiggle, that ludicrously lecherous leer, that precocious country-bumpkin swagger, that unruly mop of oily hair. Almost gone are those droopy eyelids and that hillbilly manner of speech.” Crowther’s words hint at the real reason for the mainstream press’s obsessive hatred of his hair and sideburns—a dislike and prejudice against Southern culture and music. After Elvis’s army discharge, Colonel Parker, Abe Lastfogel of William Morris, and producer Hal Wallis recognized the traits of his pre-army image that had riled the press and public—the clothing, the hair, the sideburns, the rockabilly music, and his identity as a Southerner—and quickly worked to eliminate them from his movie roles. The reviews for his films and the publicity surrounding his career turned positive almost immediately.
“A Walt Disney Goldfish”
Given the current reputation of Elvis’s movies, viewers might expect the reviews of his films to be brutal. And, some of them were indeed vicious, though not for obvious reasons. For example, reviews of his first four films—Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole—were highly critical. These movies were produced and released between 1956 and 1958 when Elvis the Pelvis was reviled by the mainstream press. Ironically, three of these films are now considered some of his best work. On the other hand, contemporary reviews were far kinder to many of his 1960s films, after he had adopted a more mature look with shorter hair and sideburns. Today, the 1960s films are often lumped together and condemned as flimsy musical vehicles.
When Elvis was cast in his first role, the historical drama Love Me Tender, reviewers and the entertainment press were lying in wait for the opportunity to condemn the singer-turned-actor for his performance, his music, and his negative impact on culture. The most bizarre remarks I have ever read in a movie review came from Time magazine’s unnamed critic when he skewered Love Me Tenderin the issue dated November 26, 1956. The review begins, “Is it a sausage? It is certainly smooth and damp-looking, but who ever heard of a 172-pound sausage 6 ft. tall? Is it a Walt Disney goldfish? It has the same sort of big, soft beautiful eyes and long, curly lashes, but who ever heard of a goldfish with sideburns? Is it a corpse? The face just hangs there, limp and white with its little drop-seat mouth, rather like Lord Byron in the wax museum.” The second paragraph of the review continues to describe Elvis’s body and voice in a similar vein. The third and last paragraph finally gets around to mentioning the movie and the other stars.
Henry Hart, long-time editor and reviewer for Films in Review, allotted 10 paragraphs to Love Me Tender of which only three are directly related to the film. The rest of the review is devoted to the “young man of hulk and probably flabby muscle, with a degenerate face, who sings emasculated innuendoes in a Southern drawl as he strums a guitar,” plus he is a “lewd dancer.” Mr. Hart attributes some of Elvis’s “hysterical” moves to “the Holy Rollers, a primitive sect of Christianity which still exists and holds ‘love feasts’ in Tennessee, from whence Presley comes.” He goes on to compare these moves to “the coition-simulating movements of primitive Negroes.” Obviously, Hart knew nothing of regional Southern music, religion, or culture, and I was surprised to read his ugly statements masquerading as a film review. Unfortunately, Hart was not the only reviewer or journalist to make these types of statements. Today, many assume that the controversy surrounding Elvis the Pelvis in the 1950s was a harmless generational conflict that pitted teenagers’ newfound love of rock ‘n’ roll against their parents’ tastes for traditional pop music. But, that is not supported by the articles and reviews of the time. At the heart of the controversy was the mainstream’s prejudice against the South, its music, and its culture—that of both whites and blacks.
“A Perfect Piece of Pop Art”
During the 1960s, Elvis movies that are now considered dull, senseless vehicles were given decent reviews or at least complemented in a back-handed way. In 1967, Variety compared Easy Come, Easy Go, one of the worst of Elvis’s musical comedies, to classics of the past: “A generation from now, Elvis pix will be film festival items, just as the Busby Berkeley, Astaire-Rogers, and Mae West pix are now.” Columnist Glenn Hawkins was even more enthusiastic declaring the film to be “one of Elvis Presley’s best pictures.” Perhaps Kevin Thomas was being tongue in cheek when he reviewed Tickle Me: “It’s also got lousy color, cheap sets, hunks of stock footage, painted scenery and unconvincing process work. But who’s to quibble when the movie is so much fun? Even the most ardent devotee of Antonioni will appreciate it as a perfect piece of pop art. . . .”
Not all critics went so easy on Presley’s flicks. Time magazine seemed to have a career-long grudge against him. Their still-unnamed critic titled his review of Kid Galahad “Jelloweight,” and then went on to say, “Between bouts, Presley Elviscerates a few helpless songs, moos over Joan, and twists like Little Egypt.” I assume he meant “moons” over Joan, as in Joan Blackman, but who knows, especially if it was the “Is it a sausage” writer from a decade earlier. The reviewer for Movie Slants hated Elvis in Tickle Me: “He is his usual pouting, half-sneering self here, projecting those negative, animalistic, pseudo-sexed qualities that the immature think attractive.” Rose Pelswick gets the prize for the most suggestive headline for her review of Kissin’ Cousins, a movie that showcases not one but three young starlets, Pamela Austin, Yvonne Craig, and Cynthia Pepper. Next to a photo of a smiling Austin, the headline winks, “Elvis Shucks the Tall Corn.”
“The Big Sexy Pot”
In Hollywood, Elvis and his entourage of friends and family, dubbed the Memphis Mafia, kept to themselves most of the time. A few actors and starlets, such as Gary Lockwood, Ty Hardin, and Tuesday Weld, regularly visited Elvis’s rented Hollywood home, but the King and his court rarely made an appearance on the L.A. social scene. For the most part, he was unfailingly polite and respectful to any actor he encountered on and off the set. Most Hollywood celebrities had only positive opinions of Elvis, though some of their comments were on the strange side. Hayley Mills never worked with Elvis, but like most teen girls, she had a major crush on him. During the making of The Parent Trap, she confessed her admiration to a fanzine in an article titled “My Hero—Mister Presley.” In the slang of the period, she gushed that Elvis “is the most. He’s way out. He’s the living end.” And, she admitted, that “he just sends me.” Costar Dolores Del Rio, who played his mother in Flaming Star, also seemed to be smitten, calling Elvis “my young black panther. . .he has the look of a Latin. He is dark and lithe. He moves like a cat. He is a good actor and I even like his singing.”
When Barbara Stanwyck worked with Elvis on Roustabout, she was cool toward him at first, which bothered him. Later, after she had warmed up to the singer, Elvis’s bodyguard Sonny West overheard Stanwyck tell him, “It’s because you remind me so much of Robert [Taylor]. He was gorgeous, and you’re gorgeous.” Robert Taylor had been the love of Stanwyck’s life, and she carried a torch for him for a long time. Then there was French actress Liliane Montevecchi, the French actress with a heavy accent who had a small role as a stripper in King Creole. When she heard she landed a role in an Elvis Presley musical, she confessed, “I think of him only as the belly dancer. The big sexy pot.”
Elvis’s fans are among the most enduring of any star who has ever graced the silver screen. In conclusion, I offer a quote to represent the perspective of the fans. If anyone has ever wondered why none of Elvis’s film ever lost money—no matter how formulaic—they need only consider the fans. In a 1966 letter to Elvis, a young fan revealed, “Your movie played two weeks at Loew’s, and I saw it at least twice a day. I can’t hardly wait to see it again when it comes to the neighborhood. I have seen it 29 times!”
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