Six Degrees of Elvis Presley

elvissammyFor the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.

Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.

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Reel Elvis: The King in Hollywood

elvisopener2After 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.

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A Salute to ‘Kissin’ Cousins’—Sort Of

kissinopenerOver the years, Kissin’ Cousins has grown on me—sort of.  Elvis Presley’s fourteenth feature film, which airs next Sunday (March 30) on TCM at 8:30am, is a musical comedy that is even more ridiculous than most of his films. And yet, Kissin’ Cousins manages to be interesting—sort of. It is the only one of his 31 narrative films to feature the King in a dual role. In KC, Elvis stars as dark-haired Josh Morgan, a member of the Air Force aerobatic team the Shooting Stars, and blonde Jody Tatum, a member of the hillbilly Tatum clan of rural Tennessee. Josh finds out that he is a distant cousin to Pappy Tatum, so he is assigned to persuade the stubborn patriarch into allowing the Air Force to build a missile base on his mountain. While the story doesn’t seem like it would inspire much to sing about, the 96-minute film includes eight musical production numbers.

Kissin’ Cousins marks an important but dubious point in Elvis’s Hollywood career. The musical is his first film with Sam Katzman, known as “the King of the Quickies.” Katzman had been producing low-budget, rock ‘n’ roll musicals since the 1950s, and he was notorious for his short shooting schedules and penny-pinching methods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that his films are not entertaining or enjoyable; I love his teen musicals (Get Yourself a College Girl; Twist Around the Clock) as well as some of his other productions (Your Cheatin’ Heart). But, when Elvis’s manager, the equally notorious Colonel Tom Parker, teamed up with Katzman, it represented a turning point for Parker’s approach to Elvis’s film career.  Parker was unhappy with Elvis’s previous film, MGM’s Viva Las Vegas—which would be released after Kissin’ Cousins—because its budget surpassed a million dollars, and it went over its shooting schedule. He felt that the money spent to ensure high-quality production values was unnecessary. Though Elvis would make only two films for Katzman, thereafter, Colonel pursued deals with other small production companies, because he was determined to keep production costs down and increase Elvis’s salary by asking for a percentage of the profits. He also learned other methods for decreasing production costs, which he employed on Kissin’ Cousins. While on location near Big Bear Lake in California, he struck deals with local hotels and restaurants to put up the cast and crew at a cut rate in exchange for promotional opportunities.

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Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.

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A Celluloid Revolution – James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

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“In sixteen months of acting, he left a more lasting impression on the public than many stars do in thirty years.”
- Henry Ginsberg (GIANT producer)

The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as a one of our greatest actors. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it’s a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films that have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
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Gloria Swanson’s Adventures in the Parlor City of the Ohio Valley

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This past August, two new biographies about the silent era’s most glamorous star were published, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up by Trish Welsch and Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer and Jeanine Basinger. Both are profiled on the Books page of the TCM website. I breezed through both of them, looking for info on my favorite Swanson flick, Stage Struck.

If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Stage Struck doesn’t have the reputation of those romantic melodramas that Swanson made for Cecil B. De Mille—Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, etc.  Also, the film has never been released for home viewing, not even in the good ole bad VHS days. Years ago, I checked out a poor VHS copy from the public library in New Martinsville, West Virginia. The librarian recommended it because Stage Struck had been shot in New Martinsville in 1925. Local resident R. Bryan Wilson had tracked down a 16mm print and paid for a videotape copy for the library so that residents would have an opportunity to see it.

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Never a Bad Hair Day: Memorable Movie Hairstyles, ‘dos, and Cuts

en-ickfordLast week, I was reminded of Louise Brooks when someone on Facebook noted that it was her birthday. As a film historian, I should have immediately recalled her best films—Pandora’s Box, A Girl in Every Port, Diary of a Lost Girl. Instead, my first thought was:  “Great hair.”

A good haircut can be more than mere fashion or part of a glamorous appearance. It can also connote something about a character’s persona, and in some cases, tap into a larger social significance. While some male film stars have sported distinctive-looking styles (Elvis’s ducktail, Yul Brynner’s bald pate, Johnny Depp’s dreadlocks), hair is more obviously part of the identities of female characters and stars. For example, I have seen films in which a female character’s hair is shorn, shaved, or chopped off in order to extinguish or obliterate her individuality or sense of self. When I was a little girl, I watched the WWII drama 5 Branded Women, directed by Martin Ritt. The story follows five women who are accused of sleeping with the Nazis. As part of their punishment, a group of partisan men chop off their hair, obliterating their sense of femaleness and scarring them as outcasts. The film scared me, because I found the act so brutal—like destroying someone’s personal identity as a way to control or punish them.

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The Star System and ‘If You Could Only Cook’

cookkitchenThis could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.

To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre.  I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.

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Happy 100th Birthday to Gig Young

gigopenerGig Young’s vocal coach once asked him about his ailments. “Where does it hurt anyway, Gig? “Everywhere,” he replied. “It hurts everywhere.”

George Eells recounts this sad exchange in Final Gig, which is perhaps the only full-length biography of Gig Young, which reveals—or rather exposes—the actor’s tragic life. Between his father who belittled him because his conception was an accident and his mother who withdrew into neurosis, Young experienced insecurity on all fronts. According to Eels’s bio, he spent a lifetime searching for love and approval; his fans, Academy Award, and five wives were not enough. Nothing was ever enough. In some ways, his life seems at odds with his suave, sophisticated star image, but in other ways, it fits.

This afternoon, TCM is airing eight films starring Gig Young in celebration of his 100th birthday. The films are from his earliest career, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a supporting character and his star image was evolving into the affable gent with a debonair smile.

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Author Christina Rice on ‘Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel’

Rice FLibrarian-archivist Christina Rice has just penned Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, the first major biography of this star who has been forgotten by the public but still beloved by movie lovers. She was kind enough to let me interview her about the book, which will be TCM’s Book Corner Selection for November. Evidently, we Morlocks like to hobnob with the literary set, as evidenced by Greg Ferrara’s recent interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and a previous interview with Ms. Rice by Richard Harlan Smith about her expertise on Dvorak.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel will be officially released on November 4 via the University Press of Kentucky. If you live in Los Angeles, drop by the release party on November 12 at the Central Library on West 6th Street. Please read on for expert insights into Dvorak’s life and recommendations for her best films.

SD:  Can you briefly summarize the scope of Ann Dvorak’s career for those who may only know her from her most well-known films, Scarface and Three on a Match? And, what type of role/character was her forte?

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