Posted by Susan Doll on March 31, 2014
After writing about the Elvis Presley musical Kissin’ Cousins for last Monday’s post, the King was on my mind—and in the ether. I couldn’t help notice how many times Elvis’s name or music popped up in conversation, on television, or on the radio. Maybe it was just one of those weeks, but I was impressed that someone who has been dead for 37 years still has that much cultural cache. I was also pleased that readers responded to the Kissin’ Cousins post with their own favorite Elvis flicks and observations about his often-maligned movies. With that in mind, I thought I would offer some tantalizing tidbits, astute asides, and fascinating facts on Elvis’s film career.
He Wasn’t Always a Singing Race-Car Driver, Plane Pilot, or Boat Captain. Critics are quick to poke fun at the musical comedies, which Elvis dubbed “Presley travelogues,” but there is more variety in his 33 films than detractors realize. Elvis made three westerns (including the Civil War drama Love Me Tender), one straight drama, five musical dramas, two satires, and two documentaries. Even the musical comedies vary in tone and approach—from the sublime Viva Las Vegas to the ridiculous Harum Scarum.
What’s in a Name? Films often go through title changes during production, but Elvis’s movies were downright notorious for this. In 1958, 20th Century Fox purchased the novel Brothers of Broken Lance by Clair Huffaker before it was published. The studio wanted a title change, so the publisher agreed to release it as Brothers of Flaming Arrow. The studio changed its mind again, and the book was finally published as Flaming Lance. Publicity for the upcoming western claimed that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra had signed for the key roles, but that was premature. Neither actor agreed to the film, so the property was shelved for two years. In 1960, Fox signed Elvis for the main role, and shooting began in August for Flaming Heart, which was changed almost immediately to Black Star, thent Black Heart. In September 1960, everyone finally agreed to Flaming Star.
More of the Name Game. Occasionally, the title change represented an improvement on the original as when Hawaii Beach Boy became the far more romantic Blue Hawaii. Likewise, a project called Jim Dandy became After Midnight, then Always at Midnight, then Never Say No, then Never Say Yes. You would think a film about car racing would have inspired the final and more appropriate title, Spinout, much earlier in the game. Most of the time, the titles were changed to variations on forgettable clichés. In My Harem became Harem Holiday, which turned into Harem Scarum, and then finally Harum Scarum, with that all-important misspelling so the first word could match the second. The memorable Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips became the forgettable Live a Little, Love a Little. A Girl in Every Port was changed to Welcome Aboard, then Gumbo Ya-Ya before being released as Girls! Girls! Girls!
Cadillac Casualties. In Loving You, Lizabeth Scott’s character, who plays Elvis’s manager, buys her singer a white convertible with a bright red interior. Later, a shot of the car behind a theater where he is scheduled to perform shows a horde of girls writing their phone numbers and love messages on the car in lipstick. The bit is a reference to Elvis’s real-life problems with overzealous fans ruining the finishes of his famous cars. The young Elvis loved flashy Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals, which he used on tour in 1956. According to one story, while Elvis was performing in Jacksonville in August 1956, the girls got to his light blue 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood before his drivers did. Some wrote love notes in lipstick while others scratched their phone numbers into the finish. Elvis certainly had had his share of problems in Jacksonville, where Judge Marion Gooding had forced him to perform without moving his hips. The story of the judge’s admonishment made headlines in newspapers across the country. The ruined Caddy was the cap to a horrible three days in Jacksonville, but the vandalism to his cars did not only occur there. Earlier on the same tour in Miami, fans ruined the finish of his 1956 lavender Lincoln Premiere Coupe, which he had just purchased in July. The following year, a group of girls found his black Caddy limo in a parking lot in Memphis while he was on a date and festooned it with declarations of their love.
The Girl Triplets Bally. Back in the day, studios sent extensive press kits and promotion ideas to theaters for most of their major releases. Included were pre-designed ads for the newspapers, background info on the costars, and “Hot Tips” on how to bolster audience attendance for the film. For Girls! Girls! Girls!, which was released in football season, one Hot Tip suggested that cheerleading squads from local high schools could rally support for the film in front of the theater. The press agents wrote a cheer for them: “Rah! Rah! Rah! Girls! Girls! Girls!” Another idea was called the “Girl Triplets Bally” and involved hiring a set of triplets to parade in front of the theater. The triplets should be dressed alike and carry identical signs reading, “Girls! Girls! Girls! Starring Elvis Presley!” According to the Tip, “If triplets aren’t available, any three teenagers of the same height would do as well.” In the minds of marketing execs and publicity agents, it would seem that all teenagers are alike.
Costarring with a Future Soap Opera Star. My favorite photo of Elvis from his Hollywood career shows the singer laughing behind the scenes with actress Jane Elliott, who played one of the nuns in Change of Habit. Both look like they are making the most of their situations: Elvis was likely ecstatic because Change of Habit was his last film, while Elliott was enjoying her first role in a feature film. Primarily a television actress, Elliott has played one of my favorite characters on General Hospital, Tracy Quartermaine, since 1978. Like many soap actors, who are unsung and unappreciated, she regularly brings weight, emotion, and realism to her role in storylines that are fluffy fantasy. I hope she had as much fun during the making of Change of Habit as this behind-the-scenes candid suggests.
Grab Your Barefoot Baby by the Hand. I recently listened to an interview with Bunny Gibson, a regular dancer on American Bandstand. She recalled the dance crazes that defined teen culture during the early to mid-1960s—the Twist, the Stroll, the Pony, the Monkey, the Jerk. Her remarks reminded me of choreographer David Winters, who was a dancer on the rock ‘n’ roll tv show Hullabaloo. Winters was asked to create a dance for Girl Happy, which was set in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break—a kind of Mecca for teens and college students during the 1960s. The Clam was introduced by Elvis and costar Shelley Fabares while singing “Do the Clam” in which they asked everyone to “grab their barefoot baby by the hand.” Unfortunately, the Clam did not catch on. Two other dances were introduced in Elvis’s musicals, though I don’t recall them lighting up the discotheques either. The Forte Four sang “The Climb” in Viva Las Vegas while Elvis danced the steps with Ann-Margret, and the King himself introduced a fast-paced step called Slicin’ Sand while singing the tune with the same name in Blue Hawaii.
Now, Grab Your Psycho Stick. Colonel Parker ensured that fan club members were the first to receive any promotional item related to any Presley picture. For Blue Hawaii, they received plastic leis with an attached picture of Elvis. For G.I. Blues, it was a paper army hat with a picture of Elvis in uniform. For Fun in Acapulco, it was cardboard passports. The oddest give-away was in conjunction with It Happened at the World’s Fair (TCM, Sunday, April 27, 12:00pm). Parker had to make due with an item that a manufacturer of novelties and toys already had on hand, so the toy was not designed specifically for the movie. Fans who sent a letter promising to see the film received their very own psycho stick in the mail. The psycho stick consisted of two thin sticks with a propeller on the end of one. When you rubbed the sticks together, the propeller twirled. The stick came with a set of instructions and an itemized cost, which let the owner know that their give-away was worth 24 cents plus 1 cent tax for a net worth of 25 cents.
Give the Colonel a Break. In the story of Elvis’s life, Colonel Tom Parker is painted as the antagonist—the villain who worked against the hero, Elvis, to achieve his goal. Parker is often accused of preventing Elvis from becoming a good actor, because he supposedly forced his one-and-only client to appear in a string of mindless musical comedies that squandered his acting talent for the sake of money. The truth is not that black and white. He did influence Elvis to follow the money, and he would later wheel and deal with small production companies to slash costs to maximize a film’s box office. But, he did not construct Elvis’s star image, and he did not single-handedly associate him with the Presley travelogue. Producer Hal Wallis did that. Elvis was under a non-exclusive contract to producer Wallis, whose films were released through Paramount. It was Wallis who shaped Elvis’s 1960s star image and developed the musical comedy formula that defined the Presley picture, not Parker. It was Wallis’s continual use of Elvis in the travelogue formula that typecast him as the singing man of adventure who wanders through exotic locales, fun resorts, or vacation spots. Wallis understood the value of creating a star image for a performer in order to attract fans, especially if the performer had come from another arena of show business. He had always been adept at constructing star images and taking advantage of formulaic vehicles for actors under contract to him, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Dolores Hart, and Lizabeth Scott. Despite Elvis’s eventual dislike for his films, Wallis’s use of the singer was standard practice.
Becket vs. Roustabout. Elvis wanted to be a serious actor in a movie that did not feature him singing, which did not jive with Wallis’s strategy. Though he appeared in other genres, they did produce the same results at the box office as his musical comedies. Still, he held out a spark of hope that Wallis would cast him in another type of film. Just after Roustabout was completed, an article appeared in the Las Vegas Desert News and Telegram praising Wallis’s upcoming costume drama Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. The article noted in a condescending tone that it was Elvis’s frivolous musicals that made the financing of Becket possible. When Elvis read the article, he finally realized Wallis’s strategy. The producer used the profits from the Presley Travelogues to secure financing for his prestigious projects with major actors. Crushed and angry, Elvis finally understood that his chance at a serious role would never come. And, so he stopped hoping.
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