Movie Stars: Elvis (1935-1977)–Appreciation of the Actor, Singer, and Movie Star

Several features (docus and narratives) about Elvis, the King, are in the works, despite the fact that he’s been dead for 42 years (exactly the length of his short life).

Why the sudden interest now? Who was Elvis and what is his legacy in terms of musical films? Was he a decent actor, or just a great singer in mostly mediocre (or below) films?

Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo Mississippi, Elvis was a major rock ‘n roll idol of the 1950s, whose influence on American pop music and Hollywood musical genre, not to mention his impact on youth lifestyle, cannot be overestimated.

Elvis became an instant hit on the radio airwaves and in concert halls. In 1956, he began a successful film career, starring in no less than 33 pictures, most made in one decade, between 1956 and 1966. By the time of his death, Elvis had sold some 600 million singles and albums, more than any other performing or recording artist, including Frank Sinatra.

The rock n’ roll star developed a unique style of performance, known for his pelvic gyrations, which caused mass hysteria among teenage audiences, particularly girls. His style also stirred major controversies among religious leaders, TV persona, and parents that led to accusation of “corrupting the youth of America”this was after all the conservative era of the Eisenhower administration. So great was the fear of the “threatened sexual standards” of the young generation during his many TV appearances that cameramen were ordered to shoot and/or cut him off at the waist level. There were always rumors that he was wearing loose pants and no underwear

The survivor of identical twins, Elvis moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was 13. He worked as an usher at a movie theater and as a truck driver before embarking on one of the most phenomenally successful showbiz careers. After touring locally as “The Hillbilly Cat” and recording a number of singles for a regional label, he was signed by RCA in 1955 at the young age of 20.

The Turning Point

Elvis’s first Ed Sullivan appearance, on September 9, 1956, was seen by over 55 million viewers. On the third show, Sullivan censored Elvis’s “gyrations,” and the singer was shown only above the waist. The cameras were ordered to shoot only Elvis’s chest and head. On November 16, 1956, Presley’s first movie “Love Me Tender” bowed. It was panned by the critics, but did well at the box office.

Elvis’s hybrid style of music was criticized: Some attacked rock ‘n roll because of the mingling of black and white styles and because of what they saw as black music’s power to corrupt through “vulgar and animalistic rhythms.”

While some charged that Elvis had “borrowed” his style from the black rhythm-and-blues performers of the late 1940s, others held that many black entertainers copied stage mannerisms from Elvis. By spring of 1956, Elvis became popular nationwide and teenagers flocked to his concerts.

Bad Influence on America’s Youth

But Elvis continued to be considered by some a threat to the moral well being of young women, because he didnt just represent new type of music; he represented sexual liberation, too. In 1956, a writer for the New York Daily News wrote that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley.”

In August 1956, a Florida judge called Elvis a “savage” and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing in Jacksonville. The judge declared that Presley’s music was undermining the youth of America. During the performance, Elvis kept still as ordered, except for wiggling a finger in mockery at the ruling.

Elvis seemed bemused by all the criticism, claiming: “I don’t see how they think my act can contribute to juvenile delinquency. if there’s anything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to live a straight, clean life and not set any kind of a bad example. You cannot please everyone.”

His parents moved into a new house in Memphis. With increased concerns over privacy and security, “Graceland” was bought in 1957, a mansion with several acres of land. It would serve as Elvis’s primary residence until his death.

Elvis’s record sales became enormous, with hits like “All Shook Up”, “(Let me Be Your) Teddy Bear” and “I Need Your Love Tonight”. The movies “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You” (both 1957) and “King Creole” (1958) were released and are regarded as the best of his early films. However, most critics remained unimpressed.

Media Blitz Over Draft

In December 1957, Elvis received his army draft notice. Hal Wallis and Paramount had already spent $350,000 on his film “King Creole,” and the Draft Board granted him a deferment to finish the movie.

On March 24, 1958, Elvis was inducted, and did his basic training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, before being posted to Friedberg, Germany. He joined the 1st Battalion, 32nd Armor. He chose not to receive any special treatment, like joining Special Services, which would have allowed him to maintain his public profile. Elvis’s service received media blitz coverage.

In 1958, RCA producer Steve Sholes and Hill and Range Freddy Bienstock pushed for recording sessions, in order to release hit singles during his two-year hiatus. Thus, hit singles and six albums followed.

In Germany, Elvis began taking pills, specifically amphetamines. But the army also introduced him to karate, which he was to study and incorporate into his performances.
Elvis returned to the U.S. on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged with as sergeant. Recording sessions yielded some best-selling songs, including “It’s Now or Never”. The album, Elvis is Back! was a triumph.

Elvis once said, “More than anything, I wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.” His manager negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract with Hal Wallis. The contract gave him a fee for each role and a percentage of profits.

The films were usually musicals and further marked his transition from rock ‘n roll rebel to all-round family entertainer. Elvis withdrew from concerts and TV appearances, except for “The Frank Sinatra Show: Welcome Home Elvis” (1960) and two charity concerts.

Although Presley was praised by his directors as polite and hardworking, the critics didn’t like his pictures. Elvis’s vehicles, like the beach party movies of early 1960s, were viewed as cheesy, examples of “bad taste.” The scripts of his movies were all the same, and the songs vastly uneven.

Elvis’s movies were nevertheless popular–he became a genre of his own. Elvis on screen offered the only chance to see him, due to the absence of live appearances, especially outside of the U.S. The only time he ever toured outside the U.S. was in Canada, in 1957.

“Blue Hawaii” is credited with boosting the new state’s tourism. Some of his most enduring and popular songs came from those movies, like “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Return to Sender” and “Viva Las Vegas”.

His films during the 1960s had grossed about $130 million, and he had sold a hundred million records, for which had made at least $150 million.

With few exceptions, most of Elvis’s films were dismissed by the critics and the more discriminating audiences. However, they were tailor-made vehicles that exploited his unique personality and talents.

Most of his movies fared well at the box-office, and some, like “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock, “Blue Hawaii,” and “Viva Las Vegas,” were among the top-grossing features of their respective years (see list below).

Elvis’s career began to decline in the mid-1960s, a combined result of over-exposure and the rise of new musical styles by the Beatles and other groups and bands from the UK, such as the Rolling Stones and The Doors. Though Elvis continued to be one of the highest-paid actors in the 1960s, but times were changing. The Elvis Presley type of picture and music were becoming outdated. Musical acts like The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Janis Joplin and many others were beginning to dominate the airwaves. As a result, Elvis was not considered as “cool” or “rebellious” as he once was.

Elvis first met Priscilla in Germany, when she was only 14. They married on May 1, 1967 in Las Vegas. A daughter, Lisa Marie, was born 9 months later. The couple was divorced in 1973, after which Priscilla began a semi-successful TV and film career.

In the 1970s, Elvis made only rare personal appearances, but his movies and recordings continued to do relatively well. In the mid-1970s, he resumed his concert and nightclub work with quite an amazing success, re-winning his old fans and new audiences as well. Elvis was one of the few performers to be embraced by tow-generational demographics, parents and their children.

While Elvis’s popularity was booming anew, his health was declining and his reclusive lifestyle was taking a toll. Over the last decade of his life, he gained considerable weight, a direct result of his diet of junk food, which consisted of soft drinks, jelly doughnuts, and banana splits.

After his sudden death of heart attack at the age of 42, close associates and bodyguards disclosed that Elvis was dependent on stimulants and depressant pills to the point of addiction. There were also rumors of heavy use of recreational drugs.

Nonetheless, thirty years after his death, Elvis remains the object of vast global adulation. Year after year, thousands of fans flock to his Memphis shrine, Graceland, which now functions as a popular museum.

By 2000, at least 80 biographies of Elvis Presley had been published.

Elvis Filmography

1956: Love Me Tender, Clint Reno (originally titled The Reno Brothers)

1957: Loving You, Jimmy Tompkins;
Jailhouse Rock, as Vince Everett

1958: King Creole, Danny Fisher, based on a Harold Robbins novel

1960: G.I. Blues, as Tulsa McLean
Flaming Star, as Pacer Burton

1961: Wild in the Country, as Glenn Tyler
Blue Hawaii, as Chad Gates

1962: Follow That Dream, as Toby Kwimper;
Kid Galahad, as Walter Gulick (Remake of 1937 film) Girls! Girls! Girls! as Ross Carpenter

1963: It Happened at the World’s Fair, as Mike Edwards;
Fun in Acapulco, as Mike Windgren, co-starring Ursula Andress

1964: Kissin’ Cousins, as Josh Morgan/Jodie Tatum;
Viva Las Vegas, as Lucky Jackson
Roustabout, as Charlie Rogers, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck

1965: Girl Happy, as Rusty Wells;
Tickle Me, Lonnie Beale, as Panhandle Kid;
Harum Scarum, as Johnny Tyronne

1966: Frankie and Johnny, as Johnny
Paradise, Hawaiian Style, as Rick Richards;
Spinout, as Mike McCoy

1967: Easy Come, Easy Go, as Ted Jackson;
Double Trouble, as Guy Lambert;
Clambake, as Scott Heyward

1968: Stay Away, as Joe Joe Lightcloud
Speedway, as Steve Grayson, co-starring Nancy Sinatra;
Live a Little, Love a Little, as Greg Nolan

1969: Charro! as Jess Wade;
The Trouble with Girls, as Walter Hale;
Change of Habit, as Dr. John Carpenter, co-starring Mary Tyler Moore

1970: Elvis, That’s The Way It Is (documentary of concert film)

1972: Elvis On Tour (docu of concert film)