Elvis Presley was more than a music mega-star; he also was a movie star. On the surface one might think that Elvis was swallowed up by The Big Machine and forced into big screen action in an effort to boost his sellability to a public that was already hungry for more. In actuality, that is only partially true — Elvis was interested in acting from a young age.
Elvis acted in high school plays and had always dreamed of being an actor in the same vein as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Very shortly after he released his first album in 1956, he had a chance to do a screen test for Paramount Pictures. Paramount saw the potential in Elvis and signed him to a seven-year contract, with the stipulation that he could work with other studios. Elvis was interested in getting serious acting roles, but the studio was more interested in connecting his acting with his singing.
Elvis’ first movie was The Reno Brothers for Twentieth Century Fox. Convinced they had to connect Elvis the Actor to Elvis the Singer, the studio inserted one of Elvis’ songs — Love Me Tender — into the script, and renamed the movie after the song title to capitalize on the release of the record, which had good advance sales. Elvis agreed to the change, but hated the addition of other songs he thought were inferior. The movie was released in 1956, and fans loved it, though critics’ reactions were mixed.
Three more movies followed, all requiring more dramatic performances. Again, Elvis was not happy about the addition of songs into his movies, but the studio prevailed and all three were released in 1958: Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. The studio kept adding more songs to Elvis’ movies, and he wasn’t pleased with the trend. Elvis voiced his displeasure and dismissed the songs themselves as well. While the studio was tinkering with a mixture of songs and action that made them the most money, Elvis still wanted more serious roles.
In March of 1958, Elvis was drafted into the Army. He was offered a choice of enlisting in the Army’s Special Services unit to entertain the troops, but Presley opted for regular service. Since his sexually-charged gyrations on stage had caused a ruckus and considerable backlash on rock ‘n roll music in general, many adults saw his military service as a good thing as it temporarily removed him from the sight and minds of their teenage daughters and sons.
Immediately after his release in 1960, the movie studios picked up Elvis’ acting career where he left off. G.I. Blues was quickly and cheaply put together and released that same year. This is the film that helped to define the Elvis movie formula — a lot of singing, a touch of humor and Elvis gets the girl — that stuck with him throughout the 1960s.
Elvis continued his complaints, however, and two pictures that required him to act in more serious roles were released in 1960 and ’61: Flaming Star and Wild in the Country. Neither film did well at the box office, so the studio went back to their now-winning formula. Another thing the formula did for Elvis and the movie studios was it made him an international movie star. Elvis never toured overseas, and in fact only performed twice in Canada. His movies let the world see Elvis and hear “his” music.
Elvis went on to make 27 movie musicals between 1960 and ’69. Mister Boomer finds it a little difficult to feel any sympathy for Elvis the tortured actor, though, as he made one million dollars per film (in 1960s dollars!) plus fifty percent of the profits! Fans continued to love Elvis in movies, despite the formulaic portrayal he was forced into.
Mister Boomer was never a huge fan of Elvis movies as he felt they were pretty schlocky. His connection with the films, however, were memorable in that he saw only two of them in movie theaters. Brother Boomer took him along to see Blue Hawaii in 1961. Hawaii had become the 50th state in 1959, so the exotic settings of palm trees and blue waters were as impressionable to a young Mister B as it was to other boomers and adults alike. In fact, on Mister Boomer’s fifteenth wedding anniversary, he and his wife took a trip to Hawaii and, without planning or realizing his locale, was informed he was standing in the very area where Elvis had sang the title song for the picture.
The other Elvis movie that carried some significance for Mister Boomer was Viva Las Vegas (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1964). Again, Brother Boomer brought him along to see this Elvis vehicle, but this time, Mister B was all eyes. He thought Elvis’ songs were OK, but what did it for a pre-teen Mister B was add the presence of Ann-Margret. Mister B had his boyhood crushes on TV actresses, to be sure: Diana Rigg and Stephanie Powers chiefly among them — but Ann-Margret was a revelation. Such a dance talent! Such flaming red hair! Such fantastic form-fitting costumes! Evidently Mister B was not alone as the movie turned out to be Elvis’ largest grossing film.
On average, Elvis’ movies brought him a bonanza in music sales: around two million copies of the album that was released in conjunction with each movie, but Viva Las Vegas became the exception. The British Invasion had begun, and rock ‘n roll was turning away from Elvis’ style of rock. In fact, The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, was released just four months after Viva Las Vegas, and grossed more than double the Elvis film. The writing was on the wall, and Elvis made his last musical film, Change of Habit, in 1969. He returned to touring in comeback shows.
Mister Boomer recalls seeing several Elvis movies in the ’60s and ’70s when they came to broadcast TV, including Kid Galahad (originally released in 1962), It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), Fun in Acapulco (1964) and Roustabout (1964). As may be expected, Mister B doesn’t recall a thing about these movies, other than Elvis was supposed to be a boxer in Kid Galahad. Mister B never saw any of these films in color, as his family only had a black & white TV.
The only other connection Mister B has to Elvis movies is that, looking in the cutout bin at a local record store in the early 1970s, he happened across the album released for It Happened at the World’s Fair. He bought it for fifty cents, but after the first playing, realized this was no Elvis classic. He hopes someday the album will generate more collector appeal, as it is currently trending on ebay between $7.00 and $60.00 dollars.
What memories do Elvis movies have for you, boomers?