Hi Folks ! This month in this column we will continue the amazing story of Elvis Presley. Last month we got up to the point where he was honourably discharged from the US Army with the rank of sergeant. This time we will concentrate on another fascinating period in his life – his Hollywood movie career, including his numerous affairs with his movie co-stars.
On 14th August we held another Elvis tribute event here in Moscow, to celebrate the King. I booked the Marshmallows to perform for us at the Esse Jazz Cafe. I have written about them extensively in previous columns. They are a brilliant group of 3 female rock’n’roll singers, with class, charisma and beauty. They put on a superb rock’n’roll show, a fitting tribute to the King. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Concert.
Let’s continue with the with the epic tale of the King. Elvis’ Hollywood career really took off in the 1960s. During this decade he made a total of twenty seven movies. This was an area where his manager Colonel Tom Parker’s business skills came to the fore. He made Elvis lots and lots of money from these films. Indeed the majority of the costs of these movies comprised Elvis’ performance fees. For those of us who over the years have seen these films (and thanks to TV, many times over), let’s be honest, they are hardly classics. The main Plus in all of them is the presence of Elvis himself and not any artistic or other quality. Each film was made within a short space of time, with simple plots and narratives. Tom Parker really liked the idea of minimising the art of film-making and making a lot of money. Some of the films earned Elvis nearly a million dollars – huge figures for those times.
Elvis was very aware of the low artistic quality of the films. But the director Gene Nelson, who worked with him on some of these movies, explained it was partly Elvis’ fault, “he wasn’t adventuresome, he didn’t really want to learn. Mostly he would just be his charming self and get away with it – because he was Elvis Presley.”
Nelson also gave some insightful comments about the so-called “Memphis Mafia”. This was the group of men, around Elvis’ age, whom he employed to look after him and hang around with him at Gracelands. In retrospect we can see this group as basically a bunch of “hangers on”, who were making the most, financially and socially, out of being part of Elvis’ entourage. Nelson at first was puzzled as to why Presley attached himself to such individuals, “Why would he isolate himself with this bunch of idiots ?” Nelson’s assessment was that Elvis “suffered an acute lack of self-esteem as a human being. He felt that he was uneducated and had nothing to contribute to a conversation.” Hence he surrounded himself with these hangers on, who were always careful to tell him what he wanted to hear and do exactly what he told them. Remember the ultimate cause of the King’s untimely death was his gross mis-use of pills. And not one of the Memphis Mafia at any time stepped in and tried to dissuade him from this habit, for fear of possibly antagonising him and thus putting their own privileged position at risk.
Despite their overall blandness, I guess we all have our favourite Elvis movie. I think mine is probably “Kid Galahad”, made in 1962. Again, hardly a classic, but the story-line is passable and the character Elvis plays is quite a believable one. Unusually for an Elvis film, there were other big film stars in the movie, one being the legendary Charles Bronson. Apparently the two did not get on during the making of the film and Bronson was openly derisive at Elvis’ attempts at serious acting.
As mentioned above, Elvis was sensitive to the fact that the films were not classics. He had desperately wanted to be acknowledged as a serious actor who left behind a film legacy. He once said, “The only thing worse than watching a bad movie is being in one.” To be fair, the fact that Elvis appeared in them meant the grand total of thirty three films that he starred in will always be watched and remembered, simply to witness the phenomenon that was Elvis. So maybe he did leave behind some kind of movie legacy after all. Others have also argued that his Hollywood career in the 1960s was good for him career-wise. They believe the changing music styles of this decade may otherwise have left him behind, as he rarely performed at concerts or cut many records during this decade. The films meant that he stayed well and truly in the public eye for a decade, right up to his “Comeback Special” in 1968 (about which I will write about in a future column).
And no analysis of his film career would be complete without covering his affairs with his co-stars. These were numerous and regular. The writer Joel Williamson described it this way, “In Hollywood, Elvis also made a minor and successful career out of having sex with his female co-stars. He privately boasted of his conquests and once allegedly said that he had slept with every female co-star except Mary Tyler Moore.” All of this was going on whilst he was living with his future wife Priscilla. This of course caused considerable friction between the two, of which I will write more about in the future.
Here’s one example of these numerous affairs, from the writer Jim Piazza, “An endless chorus-line of women were eager to dance to his tune. Co-star of “GI Blues” Juliet Prowse fell hard, despite her engagement to Frank Sinatra. Their dressing-room liaisons were guarded by Elvis’ Memphis Mafia with orders to keep a constant eye out for ‘Old Blue Eyes’ i.e. Sinatra. As a joke, they pounded on the door one afternoon with a warning that Sinatra was on his way. The King was not amused.”
And here’s another. His co-star in the film “Viva las Vegas” was Ann-Margret. For those too young to remember, she was a very beautiful and very popular Hollywood star during the 1960s and 1970s. Needless to say, she and Elvis had an affair. An interesting aside about this film concerns her role in it. Jim Piazza explained, “This is the only film in which an Elvis co-star got her own singing numbers – and managed to steal the duets. Colonel Parker panicked and the two would never be paired again in movies.” Ann-Margret was no naïve innocent and in fact used Elvis at least as much as he used her. For example, Joel Williamson described how with her powerful personality she “got some priceless publicity by practically announcing from the relatively safe distance of Great Britain that she and Elvis were to marry. Elvis had no such idea and had to scramble to set the record straight.”
This was the period when the public image of Elvis, from the time of his induction into the army and carrying on through his movie career, changed. The “greasy Memphis truck driver” image and the wild rocker persona was considerably toned down, to make the King appealing to an even wider audience. The writer Stuart Colman, who has been very active in the rock’n’roll movement for two generations, is a dedicated Elvis fan and described the change in a sympathetic way, “Whichever way you look at it, Elvis Presley could not have remained a rock’n’roller, even if he had wanted to. Most importantly, he was simply not allowed to. Thereafter, given the staggering rate at which he emerged, one has to realise that had he stuck solely with rock’n’roll, he would have burned himself out long before this actually happened. The demands upon him, both as an artist and a general ‘showbiz’ pied-piper, meant that the industry and his public wanted to see him tackle just about everything possible within the entertainment business – and he did.” The writer Randy McNutt argues that the change in style occurred even earlier in Elvis’ career, before he joined the army, “[in the 1950s] Presley recorded songs like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, a superior rockabilly piece and others followed: ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’. But he slowly drifted from rockabilly’s intensity to commercial rock’s blandness. His later records seemed part of a plan to be safe; to chart without danger of losing his place in contemporary music. By the end of the decade, Elvis had taken up the pop ballad and rockabilly was doomed.”
In a future column we will continue Elvis’s amazing journey, leading up to his “Comeback Special” in 1968, as well as covering his relationship and failed marriage with Priscilla Presley. The above details are more evidence of what I advised you previously: Elvis was not a perfect man but he was a unique rock’n’roll genius, who more than anyone else shaped our rock’n’roll culture – Thankyou, Elvis !