Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager for 20 years, is one of the most controversial figures in the Elvis Presley saga. In some circles, he is blamed for everything that didn’t happen in Presley’s career, as well as a lot of things that did. Why didn’t Elvis put his foot down? Well, Elvis was not a put-his-foot-down kind of guy, although he certainly had his moments. He trusted Parker, and except for a couple of blow-outs, remained true and loyal to this man who put him on the national map in 1956. Besides, Elvis Presley engineered much of his life around avoiding confrontation, which is why his personal life often got complicated and Byzantine in its aspects. Avoiding confrontation at all costs was just who he was. He did what the Colonel said (at least when it came to business operations: Music choices, with one or two exceptions were all Elvis). Elvis trusted the Colonel. It was a deep bond, baffling to those close to him, and baffling to those looking on through retrospect. Elvis’ obedience, in his career, frustrates those who wish he had displayed more independence, more spirit and temper. How could this wildly free and ultimately masculine personality have been such a … well … a pussy in so many regards? (I personally think that some male critics wish Elvis had been more overtly manly in his business dealings, because they find his passivity actually personally disturbing. Elvis’ passivity is confrontational to them. But that’s a conversation for another day.)
Elvis fans know all about the Colonel. He is seen as the bogeyman of the Elvis Presley story.
Well, Kent Adamson and I have some different thoughts about all of that, and we go into it in the conversation below, with introductory words by Kent Adamson.
TCB In A Flash: Colonel Parker and Elvis in Hollywood
A Conversation Between Kent Adamson and Sheila O’Malley
Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley had one of the most successful and controversial partnerships in the history of show business. They were an unlikely but smart match, perhaps rivaled only by P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb in the 1800s. Legendary showmen, they were gifted in their ability to capture the imagination of the public, and sustained successful careers creating pop culture for several decades. They played “Good Cop/Bad Cop” throughout their relationship with Elvis wearing the white hat, and Colonel Parker wearing the black hat. After the untimely death of Elvis Presley these roles have become exaggerated, and the brilliance of their partnership overlooked.
“Take Care of Business in a Flash” was their motto, and they preferred their payments in cash.
Under the management of Colonel Parker, Elvis Presley conquered every entertainment medium available in his time, quickly earning top billing and top dollar fees in recording, radio, television, live personal appearances, and motion pictures. Though correctly perceived as the undisputed “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley was also one of the most popular movie stars of all time. His name alone could open a movie in theaters during the declining days of contract actors and major movie studios. Elvis became one of the last world-famous Hollywood movie stars, with Colonel Parker behind the scenes as one of the last of the movie moguls.
Often credited on the Elvis movies as “Technical Advisor”, Colonel Parker organized and exercised control over budget, schedule, casting, script and every technical detail of production from Loving You in 1956 to the posthumous This Is Elvis in 1981. Working with producers like industry veterans Hal Wallis, Joe Pasternak and Sam Katzman, Parker was more of a Hollywood “no” man than a “yes” man. He shaped the films through his aggressive veto power more than his creative production expertise. In this regard, he filled a role in commercial filmmaking that had been held by the studio chieftains of the earlier golden era. Where Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg at MGM had supervised production and shaped over 50 movies a year for several dozen stars, working with a team of in-house producers, Parker oversaw two/three feature films a year starring the singular Elvis.
Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley created their own special art form in cinema: The “ELVIS MOVIE”. Their films are professional and distinctive feature-length name brand entertainment vehicles. Huge box office hits in their time, they have dominated the various TV and home entertainment markets around the world ever since. There is nothing else like them in the entire history of film. Elvis Presley was an uncommonly talented performer. He could sing, dance, knew how to move on camera, and understood the technical aspects of film like blocking, lighting, and continuity. He was also a very fine actor, able to portray a wide range of emotions and character throughout several dissimilar films. Nobody but Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley has ever made another “ELVIS MOVIE”, and nobody ever will.
— Kent Adamson
Colonel Tom Parker and E: A Conversation
Kent Adamson: It seems there are two distinct periods of Elvis movies – the years before the Army 1956 – 57, and then after Elvis returned home to America in 1960, after his tour of duty. The movie business was in decline before Elvis made his first film, but his career seemed to run by its own rules till the late 1960s. Parker was able to use his position as Elvis’ manager to also function as a one man movie studio in the transition Elvis made from Rock and Roll hero to leading man movie star.
Sheila O’Malley: Elvis’ contract was run on the older studio system model, which makes his career in the 60s far more in line with the big studio stars of the 30s and 40s than his contemporaries. The pre-Army movies (excluding his debut, Love Me Tender) seemed to be serious attempts to actually deal with the Elvis Presley phenomenon. The movies are carefully crafted to his specific gifts. As the 60s rolled along, as the studio system began to collapse, you can distinctly feel the drop-off in quality in Elvis’ movies (for a couple of years), but on the other hand, Parker was protecting his property. During the most drastic downturn in American movie-going history, Parker kept Elvis at the top, in terms of salary as well as exposure. That is no small feat. In a time when everyone else was operating out of panic, Tom Parker kept his cool. In terms of business, Parker’s behavior during the 60s was brilliant.
KA: Let’s go through the first four movies beginning with Love Me Tender.
Love Me Tender seems to be the foot in the door of Hollywood feature for Elvis and The Colonel. Elvis was signed to a studio contract as an actor and is given a fairly small character part as a younger brother in a cast of many brothers played by more well known actors. Elvis has a dramatic part in a Civil War period picture. He doesn’t sing production numbers in the film, but sings the title track, which became a huge hit.
SOM: Love Me Tender, seen in context, was a bold and confident move. Elvis Presley, as a singer, was making girls melt in the aisles across the land at his live shows, and the first time you see him in Love Me Tender, he is struggling along behind a plow in dirty pants and work boots. It was a smart choice to put him in an ensemble movie, first of all, and a period drama, where he could play off of brilliant character actors like Mildred Dunnock. It helps him shine that much brighter. And in terms of messing with audience expectation, Elvis doesn’t even appear in Love Me Tender until 20 minutes in. I imagine the throngs of girls who went to see that movie, and I imagine them waiting with baited breath through the opening sequence, with the bank robbery and the running horses, and NO ELVIS … WHERE IS ELVIS?? Love Me Tender doesn’t use Elvis as a flash in the pan, a novelty act, or a trend Hollywood is trying to capitalize. It sets him up as a serious contender as an actor, which is what Elvis himself was always interested in.
SOM: The next movie, Loving You, is, in many ways, almost autobiographical, with Elvis Presley playing a young delivery guy who suddenly sings at a county fair one day and girls start to swoon the second he starts moving. Lizbeth Scott plays a kind of Tom Parker character, a manager of a strictly country & western band, who swoops in, signs Elvis, and devotes her life to making him a star. In Loving You, Elvis Presley is unleashed. He is filmed performing in full body shots, so you can see how he moves when he feels like moving. It’s a serious attempt to actually understand what had happened in America, culturally, with the onslaught of Elvis Presley.
It’s startling and powerful, to go from Love Me Tender to Loving You. It’s an announcement of serious intent. They didn’t just thrown him in “anything”.
KA: The progression from character part as a featured player in Love Me Tender to leading man in a full blown musical in Loving You was driven by the enormous success of the hit single record Love Me Tender. With his second film Elvis was a leading man, and the plot and secondary characters were all in service of him.
SOM: Fascinating, too, that “Love Me Tender” was actually “Aura Lee”, a Civil War-era song, which also served the purpose of showing Elvis Presley was not just a jiggling sex-hound rocker. He was a crooner, too.
Jailhouse Rock pushed Elvis even harder as an actor. He was ready for it, aching for it. Tom Parker and the producers were no dummies. They had faith in their property. Elvis has to play a man with a hot temper, quick to flare up, something that may have been true for Elvis as a real man (it was), but his public persona was always so deferential and polite. He is required to do some real acting in Jailhouse Rock, then, and he rises to the occasion beautifully. He carries that movie. Again, Jailhouse Rock is a respectful and accurate rags-to-riches tale of a young guy who learns he has a knack for singing while in the clink. Upon his release, he starts to gain some singing success. He is then taken out to Hollywood. He is a fish out of water with the little prissy starlets who go on dates with him. This is all reflective of Elvis Presley’s actual experience (without the jail part). It’s important, too, to remember the press Elvis was getting at the time. He was corrupting the youth, he was called a Satanic influence … Loving You and Jailhouse Rock put “rock and roll” in a context that actually tries to explain it, without panic, without fear. Elvis is wonderful in Jailhouse Rock.
KA: Jailhouse Rock put Elvis on the MGM lot, which in 1957 was still perceived as the preeminent movie studio in Hollywood. The songs by Leiber/Stoller are excellent, and the screenplay is well developed dramatically, as well as fun to watch in its brevity. It is one of the best Elvis films of any era, playing off his strengths and reinforcing his position as a leading man. Then, there’s King Creole.
KA: A film developed from a best selling novel which was expensive source material, an A list director, a strong cast and high production values. This film is their boldest move of all, because it makes the case for Elvis as an actor and leading man movie star without relying only on music or big production numbers. King Creole proved that Elvis could carry a leading part in an A list dramatic feature, that he was much more than a flash in the pan, and keep his star shining while he was off screen in the Army for two years.
SOM: As is not evident in some of Elvis’ later movies, where Elvis is placed not in the real world but in an “Elvis Presley Movie”, in King Creole Elvis has many different modes of operation in the film: who he is with his sister, his father, the good girl he is dating, the prostitute he is drawn to, the bad boys who try to rope him in … He comes off of a sweet date with the girl from the five and dime, and runs into the prostitute on the street, and his entire behavior changes when he sees her. Acting is effortless for him. He knows exactly what he is doing in every second of that movie. He is no longer an amateur. There is no tentativeness in his reaching for the big moments. The musical numbers, too, really “set him up” powerfully. There is a lot of music in King Creole, and each number is beautifully art-directed and shot to put Elvis in the strongest possible light. To show off his many modes: crazy sexual beast, sweet yearning lover, joyous insouciant teenager. King Creole is a slam-dunk in every respect.
KA: In four films over two years, the case is made and proven that Elvis is more than a contract actor. After King Creole, he had the chops as a full fledged actor, and box office star. He can open a movie on his name, and deliver as a performer.
Once he returns from the Army in 1960, the movies seem to hold up pretty well until the British Invasion, and the arrival of The Beatles in 1964.
SOM: Two of his best performances, in Flaming Star and Wild in the Country (1960 and 1961, respectively), were pretty much ignored because he barely sings in either of those films, and both of them are serious ensemble pieces. In Flaming Star he only sings the title song over the credits and one impromptu group number that opens the film.
SOM: Wild in the Country is a psychological drama written by Clifford Odets, putting Elvis Presley into a Freudian-drenched story about a young troubled man who has to see a psychiatrist via court order (shades of Good Will Hunting). Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), neither of these films did well at the box office, so naturally, the studio and Tom Parker were not eager to make more movies like that. It’s a shame, yes, because Elvis is so good in both of these serious projects, but you certainly can’t blame the powers-that-be for scrambling to put Elvis into something that would put asses in the seats again. Hence: Blue Hawaii in 1961.
KA: From Blue Hawaii to Viva Las Vegas, the films are very well crafted, though the formula has begun to set in. By then, Elvis was recording songs for the movie soundtracks, which were then delivered to RCA as singles and albums. In this move, The Colonel cut recording costs down to nothing for record releases, as the film budgets paid for the recordings. It became imperative that each film have enough songs to fill an album.
SOM: The quality of songs begins to decline drastically. You can feel that entire plot points are engineered around the song they want to get in to the movie (the “dog” song in Paradise, Hawaiian Style comes to mind, although there are so many more). Elvis, also, was the Prototypical Good Sport, in that: he worked fast, he had a photographic memory (could learn his lines after reading the script once), and never complained. By the mid-60s, once the studios realized this about him, that became the production plan for many of the films. Elvis was not happy with rushed shooting schedules, it filled him with despair, but he was able to do it. Easily. He was a well-trained thoroughbred, and the studios used him accordingly. At a time when the entire culture was changing too quickly for anyone to understand what was happening, Elvis was reliable.
KA: After Viva Las Vegas, you can watch the money get sucked off the screen. The movies become flat out star vehicles. The glorification and promotion of Elvis come at the expense of all other movie elements until the 1968 TV special changed their game up and led to more emphasis on live performance.
Elvis was reliable as an actor who would stay on schedule during production and continued to have a guaranteed audience at the box office, even after the British Invasion of the mid 1960s. This audience loyalty was the basis for percentages of gross participation, as well as the advances paid to Parker and Elvis for each film. Creatively, the mid sixties films fall into an assembly line formula for a brief time, but the Elvis business machine run by Parker was still in top form.
SOM: His star power was so crazy, so visceral, that all he needed to do was “show up” and excitement was generated automatically. Now this is a good thing and very few actors have that particular type of star quality. We’re talking John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. That’s the level we’re talking about. But the carefully crafted Elvis Presley vehicles of the 50s were no longer. Elvis’ star power was taken for granted. It’s startling to watch, even to this day.
SOM: What is also fascinating is how well Elvis Presley survives these second-rate movies. There’s some kind of cinema-acting magic going on with him, even in the midst of movies like Kissin’ Cousins or Tickle Me. He never goes down with the ship.
KA: At the height of the studio era, before television, stars of similar popularity were required to make four movies a year by the studios. The pressure is so great at that level that creative quality was often quickly sacrificed to keep up the pace of production. Elvis was the final top star movie performer under this kind of pressure. All the way back to Valentino and Clara Bow, wildly popular actors struggled with the pace and creative degradation of producing a continual flow of “product”. In contrast, by the ‘60s a post studio contract independent music and movie star like Streisand could take her time making a film, and made fewer.
SOM: I have been thinking a lot about the similarities between Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley. Like Presley, Streisand’s persona was so strong, so indelible, that it was difficult to find appropriate projects for her. There is also the little matter of her singing. She knew she was a kick-ass actress, and she wanted to be known for that as well as her voice. It is not surprising at all that Elvis Presley would have been her first choice as co-star in the first movie where she actually had some creative control, the remake of A Star is Born. One of the great what-ifs of the last 50 years is what Presley would have been like in that role. She saw something in him. A kindred spirit, perhaps.
The independent film world was starting to explode during the 60s, as a reaction to the monolithic crumbling studio system, but Presley wasn’t a part of that. He couldn’t afford to be. He was the sole prop of the studio system in its final days. A dubious honor, for sure, but speaks well of his character.
Elvis was strong enough as an actor to “be Elvis”, confidently, humorously, unselfconsciously, even in projects that were not worthy of him. This is nearly impossible to do, and would certainly sink many an A-list actor (and has). This element of Presley has yet to be acknowledged, or even recognized.
KA: The late 1960s were a very uncertain time for the established studios and stars. The film audience stopped accepting the formulas that had worked for ages. In 1966 The Ballad of the Green Berets, a pro military pop song, was a number one radio hit. By the time the movie The Green Berets came out in 1968, starring box office veteran John Wayne, popular sentiment had turned against the military action film, particularly one set in Vietnam.
Elvis movies were mostly set safely in Elvisland. Even the most ludicrous vehicles, like Harum Scarum are carried by the power of his sheer Elvisness. Even so, he has some very fine acting moments.
SOM: One of the things not often acknowledged about him is how damn funny he is. He was a tuning fork for comedic potential. You can see it in his live performances, from very early on, but it’s true in the films as well. Any moment where it is possible for him to make a joke, or an aside to himself, he does it. Harum Scarum is truly awful, but he is first of all gorgeous in it, as gorgeous as he has ever been (and that’s saying something), and very funny as well. He’s actually doing something different than the movie even wants him to do. He’s doing a send-up of Rudolph Valentino (whom he loved), and glorying in the ridiculousness of it. The movie is so bad that I admit it actually makes me angry to watch it, because he is so clearly under-valued as a great talent. Like: Really? You put this gleaming awesome STAR into this piece of junk? But like I said before, he not only survives it, he makes fun of it as he is doing it, and manages to come off as charming and funny. You can count on one hand the actors who could survive a movie like Harum Scarum with flying colors.
KA: He survives and succeeds! Harum Scarum was the Elvis Christmas release for 1965, and it was a hit! Even at a nadir of filmmaking, during the peak of being wiped off the record charts by The Beatles et. al. Elvis ruled his roost. In Viva Las Vegas with Ann-Margret, Elvis redefined sex on the screen. This movie is Elvis porno, with clothes on. There are no pornos as hot as the pairing of Elvis and Ann-Margret, both at their peak in the mid sixties.
SOM: There’s a reason why Viva Las Vegas is still one of the most beloved Elvis films. Something very important in him is released in that movie, a sense of urgency and heat (which he already had in spades), burning in him when confronted with the hot redhead who can not only sex him up with equal fire, but also love him tenderly and give him the support he needs. Elvis (as a persona in the movies) didn’t do well with floozies or coy hipsters. It’s not a good fit. He needed heat and engagement. That is what he demanded of his audiences in the 50s: he teased them, laughed with them, tormented them (in a friendly way), with the understanding that “we all know what we’re doing here, we all know we have to let off some steam, so let’s do that.”
SOM: Ann-Margret, both grounded and explosive, was his perfect match. They are twins. The sexual energy between the two of them is so strong that there is always tension between them, a thread connecting them even when they are separated, the audience yearning to see them come together and kiss.
SOM: It’s his most blatantly sexual performance. And it comes easily to him, showing how suggestible he was (in the best sense). Actors need to be suggestible in order to be successful. Elvis was the ultimate in suggestible, making him open to all of the possibilities in any scenario, and because he himself was such an Alpha male, the personification of Testosterone, it becomes one of his most unique characteristics. It’s hot beyond belief to see such a gorgeous male specimen be so ultimately OPEN. Women around the world clicked into that about him from the get-go. He was not protected as a persona. He was open. He allowed that. He allowed that access. It’s still a rare mix.
KA: He had great range, and a true gift for acting in addition to his other musical accomplishments. I remember asking the great British actor Oliver Reed to name his favorite film actor. “Elvis.” At first, I was taken aback, I would have thought he’d say Brando or Dean, since he had been a fifties teenager. Reed said “Watch him. Just watch him… watch what he does.” Reed also respected Elvis very much as a technical actor. Elvis matched action perfectly. He worked FAST, and carried a lot in his head. Elvis didn’t hold up production. He was spot on at ADR, and his character development flows with every detail in place as the movie progresses.
SOM: There is also the fact that when making those movies in the mid-60s, Elvis was mainly unhappy, lost, and trapped. He had come to Hollywood with the highest of hopes. James Dean and Marlon Brando were his idols. He was ambitious. He didn’t want to sing in his movies. He wanted to act. But as the situation began to solidify, in 1964, 1965, and he realized the kinds of movies they would only permit him to make, he succumbed. My point in bringing this up is that none of this despair is apparent in his performances. He does not appear to be “slumming”, he does not show his despondency, he commits to those dumb vehicles with everything he’s got. When critics refer to his performances as “wooden” (the main word used for his acting), I literally could not disagree with them more. You try to “show up” 100% in Harum Scarum or Kissin’ Cousins and see how difficult it is. He made it look easy. That’s star quality.
KA: It is also professionalism. A rare quality shared with some of the great screen talents like Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson and even Judy Garland. No matter what was going on in their personal lives, it never showed up onscreen. Post pop-psych movie analysis, this has been seen as a personal disconnect, but it is strict professionalism. Very few performers can stand the pressure and punishment at the top. It is worse than Presidential politics. Bruising and relentless. From day to day and week to week, the tabloid press builds stars up, and tears them down. If the star can take it and keep going, they get put through the cycle again and again. Elvis stayed at the top for twenty years straight in over thirty movies. How long did The Beatles last at the peak? Five years, three movies and a cartoon.
SOM: This is why Tom Parker was a good fit for Elvis Presley as a manager, at least in terms of steering the ship through the rough uncertain waters of the 60s. Their partnership has more in common with a vaudevillian team or a Broadway Danny Rose type of situation than a modern-day cost-benefit analysis partnership. Presley was always a little bit of a burlesque performer. He was far more talented than anyone ever could even realize in the early days of 1954, 1955. That jiggling pimply teenager as the biggest box office draw for nearly 10 straight years? Who could have predicted that?
KA: For the time, Parker made good moves. He put together the deal for the 1968 TV special with NBC and the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The soundtrack from that December holiday special sold millions, and led to NBC, a division of RCA at the time, funding the last few dramatic features Elvis made at Universal. After the TV Special Colonel Parker began making live performance documentaries like the TV Special Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii and on-tour feature films like Elvis: That’s The Way It Is.
SOM: I’m a big fan of some of the final movies Elvis made at the tail end of the 60s. Perhaps it was because he could see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of his contract, perhaps because the 1968 special reminded him of his innate power, not at all diminished by his time in Hollywood. But there’s a looseness and relaxation in his performances in Live a Little, Love a Little, Stay Away Joe, Charro, The Trouble with Girls, and his final movie, Change of Habit that make the case for him being a valid and important leading man, not just “Elvis Presley”. You can feel the winds of change drifting across those movies. You can feel the culture shifting.
KA: The approach to filmmaking began to expand, even if the scripts were not as ambitious as the production. Stay Away Joe is a gorgeous film to watch, shot on location in Red Rock country, with Elvis outdoors at his most natural. He’s loose and playful, freed up from the confines of the soundstage, and paired for a few breathtaking moments with one of the truly great pre-code sexy ladies of cinema, Joan Blondell.
SOM: Breathtaking, indeed. Their scene in her little bar is a masterpiece of sexual tension and subtext. To die for. Stay Away Joe is great, too, because it places him in a busy and social world with a lot of characters (family and friends), as opposed to isolating him as “Elvis Presley” the race car driver/Navy frogman/helicopter pilot. In Stay Away Joe he teases his stepmother as she takes a bath in a tub, bursts out laughing when things go wrong, gets protective of his sister when she shows up at a party with a new guy she’s dating, wrestles in the dirt with his brothers and friends (those scenes look truly rough, like someone might actually get an eye poked out), and is a natural part of the world being portrayed. It suits him. Elvis Presley, with all of his personal isolation in his real life (an understandable reaction to his unprecedented fame), was one of the most social of animals. He trusted deeply, hung out with his friends and family almost exclusively, and Stay Away Joe captures that elusive element of Elvis Presley’s character.
KA: Yes! AND Katy Jurado!
SOM: Tom Parker’s ruthless deal-making kept Elvis Presley at the top, during a very uncertain decade. But in terms of Presley as an actor, it is not apparent in Love Me Tender that he would go on to dominate the screen in movie after movie, filling the drive-in movie theatres of the land for 10 years straight. But that is what happened. His ability to justify any movie’s existence just by showing up is still unparalleled, even more striking because the material is often not so good. When the material is good, you can feel him not only rising to the occasion, but pouring himself into the imaginary situation with gusto, specificity and heart.
It is difficult to imagine that the confident and hilarious screwball performance he gives in Live a Little Love a Little in 1968 comes only 12 years following his debut. It’s like a different man. Watch Love Me Tender back to back with Stay Away Joe or Trouble with Girls, and it is apparent that this talented man could actually do anything. The container had to be right, and, unfortunately, the containers given him in the 60s were often second-rate. He filled them anyway, he was just that kind of performer, but when the container was good (like the 68 special, or like Stay Away Joe or, going back, King Creole), he showed, again and again, that there was nobody else on the planet quite like him. He is unique. He is universal, and yet also completely “other”.
SOM: Tom Parker’s taste in movies and music often did not dovetail with Presley’s own taste. This is a well-documented fact. But the partnership, with its brash boldness, and secretive firm withholding, served Elvis Presley by limiting his exposure (no personal appearances, very few interviews, no talk shows, no awards shows) and making the audience ache for him, ache for more of him. Leave ’em wanting more. This situation lasted for nearly 20 years, until Presley’s untimely death.
SOM: It took some maneuvering. It took serious management. Presley was overexposed just by being himself, and the firm hand Parker used to manage the juggernaut of his fame is still seen as controversial.
SOM: At the end of the day, however, what we are left with is the work itself. Books have been written about Presley’s music. Presley’s music will continue to be discussed for generations to come. But his work as an actor has been almost universally ignored (except by the fans, who always loved him no matter what he did), and there is so much there to celebrate. One of my goals is to rehabilitate Elvis Presley’s reputation as an actor, and it is something I have been devoting myself to on my site as well as in an outside project.
Elvis Presley was an important and successful movie star, and his work in even the dumb movies is not an embarrassment at all. It is heroic: the ultimate meaning of generosity, professionalism, and heart. It is, of course, tantalizing to imagine him paired with Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born, or as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (a role he lobbied for). But there is no need to look at his time in Hollywood as only a waste and an embarrassment. Just pop in King Creole. Or Stay Away Joe. Or Viva Las Vegas. Or Charro. Or Trouble with Girls. Or Live a Little, Love a Little. Or, better yet, the second-rate movies, like Tickle Me or Double Trouble.
And as you watch, follow Oliver Reed’s advice: “Watch him. Just watch him.”
OUR FAVORITE ELVIS MOVIES:
SOM: Wild in the Country (1961): Elvis plays Glenn Tyler, a troubled violent young man who is ordered to see a psychiatrist as part of his parole. It’s a deep script (by Clifford Odets) and has some hot Tennessee Williams elements (his dynamic with the blowsy sexually charged Tuesday Weld) that serves him well. And watch him deliver the monologue about his dead mother to the psychiatrist. It’s all in one take. Never once does he tip over into self-pity. Never once does he push. “It’s like I’m always walking around with a full cup of anger and I’m trying not to spill it,” he says. It’s a deeply personal performance.
KA: This Is Elvis (1981): Colonel Parker’s personally authorized Requiem for Elvis. Many years in the making, this film consists of beautifully compiled clips and highlights from their long partnership. It has a great deal of candid behind the scenes footage, as well as harmless reenactment scenes which were controversial when it was released. The authentic footage is revealing, showing Elvis singing gospel hymns after hours around a piano with friends, and on the other side it reveals what a true hound dog he was on tour, sitting in the back of a long black Cadillac talking about being “buried in beaver” the night before. The many, many sides of Elvis and the wide range of his talent come through in this well produced and edited memoir.
SOM: Follow That Dream (1962): Elvis gives a really interesting performance here as Toby Kwimper, a young man stranded on the side of the road with his makeshift family, trying to make a better life for themselves. He is overtly sexy, spending most of the movie in shorts and an open-collared shirt, but he’s casual about it, easy with himself. The character is a spin on the “noble savage” idea, a man with no sense of irony and a totally literal mind, which adds to many comedic situations. Presley (who was, himself, quite intelligent and self-protective, and not at all a simple savage, the way he was thought to be) turns in a very good “character” performance here. Perhaps there were those who thought he was just “playing himself” in vehicles like Follow That Dream. Not so, not so at all. This is very good acting.
KA: Wild In The Country (1961): Worth watching twice! Elvis and Tuesday Weld spark each other deeply and truthfully. His finest acting performance: “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?”
SOM: Stay Away Joe (1968): Any movie that pairs Elvis Presley with Joan Blondell, queen of the 1930s, has my vote. He’s great here, easy, loose, funny, and part of a larger social world, with family obligations and everyday concerns. It’s exhilarating to watch him placed in a more recognizably human context, and to see how awesomely he fits in. He was Elvis Presley (TM) but Stay Away Joe lets him be human. Yes, the “star” of the family, no way on earth could Elvis Presley ever play a regular guy, but it’s a joy to watch him interact, joke, fight, roll around in the dirt, and burst out laughing in Stay Away Joe. His talent is irrepressible.
KA: Speedway (1968): Elvis and Nancy Sinatra flashing sexy ‘60s star power at max illumination… and Lee Hazelwood’s “Your Groovy Self” as well as the inspiration for “Jack Rabbit Slim’s” club in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Sheila O’Malley is an essayist, playwright and film critic. Her film reviews have appeared in Capital New York, Fandor, and Noir of the Week. Her personal site is The Sheila Variations. She is currently working on an independent Elvis Rehabilitation Project, devoted to the celebration of Elvis Presley’s great and largely unacknowledged gifts as an actor.
Kent Adamson is a longtime producer/writer/filmmaker. His first job in Hollywood was with Pierre Cossette Productions in 1975. Cossette was a TV producer and Las Vegas talent booker, who had discovered Ann-Margret and in 1969 helped Colonel Parker bring Elvis to the International Hotel in Vegas for over 800 legendary live performances.
This conversation has been cross-posted at Paul D. Brazill’s You Would Say That Wouldn’t You?