WHENEVER ELVIS WORKED in Hollywood, the sound stages were sealed off and guards posted at the doors. The fans waited at the gates. But even some of the filmmakers never got much closer than those fans. “He was always a visitor, he was never part of Hollywood, he would come to the studio and do the work and then leave,” said Stan Brossette, publicist of 11 Presley pictures. “I got a lot of pressure from producers to get him to parties, but he never went. He brought his own party from Memphis with him.”
“I think he just went along for the ride, because he was so successful and they made so much money,” said Don Siegel, director of Flaming Star, deemed by many to be Presley’s best film, in which he plays an angry half-breed Indian. “It’s very difficult to advise someone the stature of Elvis Presley, who makes millions and millions of dollars, and say, ‘Look, you’re doing it wrong, you should do serious roles in pictures and make a whole new career for yourself.'”
He was signed by Hal Wallis in 1956. The first movies were scorchy melodramas that mined his original mythic image: Rowdy Youth, troubled, rambunctious, but absolved by his inner integrity. Love Me Tender, his debut, was not even his movie, but rather a Richard Egan Civil War western. The critics kicked it apart, the Legion of Decency howled over it, but the inexpensive drama with the hit-tune title earned millions.
In King Creole, a girl asks the rowdy singer what he wants out of life, and he snaps, “A pink convertible.” In Jailhouse Rock, the rowdy singer is sitting in a convertible with a woman, pastes a kiss on her and then looks at her levelly: “It’s just the beast in me.”
It was big. He made 33 pictures and none lost money. Some estimates put the picture profits over $200 million. The exact figures are elusive because, while Elvis could flaunt mansions and Cadillacs, the studios were discouraged from revealing the wealth of their product.
“Colonel Parker made some smart deals,” said Art Murphy of Variety. “Elvis got $1 million per picture and Parker made it so that Elvis co-owned the music-publishing rights — not the studios.”
The sad part was that he became a “product.” Because an Elvis picture guaranteed easy profits, he was eventually given nothing but the flimsiest of scripts, ground out sometimes at the rate of three a year. Of pop singers that made the switch, only Frank Sinatra had similar endurance. But Sinatra had better script judgment. In a few years we saw Elvis running a fishing boat in Girls! Girls! Girls!, serenading the freshly caught shrimp.
In later years Presley would tell directors that he just wanted to make a good, serious western with big-name stars. But Don Siegel, famed for stern stuff like Dirty Harry, had enough trouble getting just the one, Flaming Star.
“I found him very sensitive and very good, with the exception that he was very unsure of himself,” Siegel said. “Very insecure. He felt he could have done better things. And his advisers — namely the Colonel — were very much against his doing this kind of role. They tried to get him to sing throughout the picture. Obviously they didn’t want to get him off a winning horse. But when I was able to calm him down, I thought he gave a beautiful performance.
“I always had a problem communicating with him unless I was alone,” Siegel continued. “Those moments were treasured moments because he made it impossible to be alone with me. He needed those other people for support.
“I was never interested in Elvis after the picture because … he was so removed! To try and submit another property for him in a dramatic vein … I mean, he did his usual schtick, which was to sing 12 songs in a terrible film.”
The image re-formation that came in the Sixties, following his Army stint, was completed by the movie roles. The enormous success of Blue Hawaii, both as album and movie, was the beginning of a long train of movies all plotted around an exotic locale, an album’s worth of songs and scantily clad ladies on the order of Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas and a former Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley, in Harum Scarum, in which she played the Middle Eastern Princess Shalimar and he, a nightclub-singer-cum-Arabian knight. The early roughneck business was replaced by an equally heavy-handed wholesomeness. But he could always be counted on for the explosive sneer in the likes of Roustabout, a circus drama in which he rode a motorcycle, or Speedway, which was about a speedway.
“I always felt that he never reached his peak,” said Norman Taurog, whose direction of nine later Elvis pictures provided about the only continuity in his screen development. A sentimental man, Taurog saw in Elvis many reminders of another star who was labeled the King — Clark Gable — a simple man, industrious, unfailingly polite, but one who very seldom brought his own ideas to the pictures. In the common portrait that emerges of Elvis at work, the courtly manners are always mentioned. Siegel: “I must say this, he was extraordinarily polite. If a gal came in the room, he’d stand up and say, ‘Yes Ma’am.’
“And he had a charming sense of humor. He was a karate expert and he was breaking wood all day long. I would take home an armload every night to burn in my fireplace. His fingers were deformed from the constant karate stuff. And one day I told my propman to bring by a piece of balsa wood. When he came by I told Elvis, ‘You know, all that business of hitting the wood with your toes and elbows, that’s all a lotta baloney.’ With that I went boom! and I hit it into a thousand pieces. And he put his arm around me and he said, ‘You know, Don, the last director, when he hit the balsa wood, he did it a little different …'”
These instincts served him in his development as a good, light comedian. Occasionally Elvis rented theaters just to show his old movies for his cronies. But it was no secret that the pictures finally left him disenchanted.
The end of his movie career coincided with the first Fifties revivals when Elvis began performing again. His last two films were, appropriately, documentaries — That’s the Way It Is, which itemized his Las Vegas act, and Elvis on Tour, 1971. During the making of the latter, Elvis privately told the co-director, Pierre Adidge, that making those old movies made him physically ill: “It was just that Hollywood’s image of me was wrong, and I knew it, and couldn’t say anything about it.”
“I think he remembered the few films that he had done something in,” said Adidge’s partner, Robert Abel. “He was basically an incredibly fine actor with a lot of vulnerability and a lot of humanity that he could have communicated in his films. And occasionally he did.”