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Monday, May 08, 2006

Elvis --- You Had To Be There

I can’t recall anyone liking Elvis movies that didn’t grow up seeing them in the theatre. Anybody that came across them for the first time on television or video seems to have the same reaction. They’re lame --- they’re stupid --- the music’s bad, and Elvis worse. The only ones they'll recognize are the two concert features, and maybe a couple of numbers from Jailhouse Rock. That’s it. Those of us willing to confess an affection, or even tolerance, for a Fun In Acapulco or Spinout immediately reveal our age, or rather, our middle-age. Actually, fifty or so is more like it --- maybe more. How could we otherwise enjoy such dreck? I’ll never convince a post-boomer of the worthiness of these musicals, and I’m years past the point of trying. To do is to adopt an untenable position. How do you convey in words a chilly autumn afternoon when you came home from seeing Roustabout and jumped headlong into a pile of raked leaves in your parent’s yard? --- or the time you rushed out of school one Spring day to catch the 3:00 show of Girl Happy, knowing you’d miss at least the previews unless you hurried? Elvis movies are about memories, not merit. None of them stand today without a happy childhood moment coming before, after, or during to prop them up. To confess that I once owned the RCA Victor soundtrack album of Harum Scarum and played it repeatedly in excited anticipation of seeing the feature is perhaps a shameful admission to those of a subsequent generation, but I’d like to think my contemporaries will understand. A lot of us grew up in a world of Elvis. If you went to the show a lot in the sixties, you saw Elvis. Maybe you don’t have to look at him now, and I suspect most of us seldom, if ever, do, but let’s at least acknowledge for a moment what he meant to us once upon a long time ago, and revisit a Presley show I personally consider his best, and I didn’t even see it until I was an adult ---

Loving You was the second Elvis Presley feature. It was in Technicolor and Vistavision. The first one, Love Me Tender, was Cinemascope, but black-and-white. Unlike Loving You, it had a bummer ending, and Dick Egan was the star. Elvis didn’t sing that much in it either. In Loving You, he sings constantly (and sometimes looks directly into the camera when doing so). He also fights and kisses girls. Producer Hal Wallis made it his business to deliver precisely what the fans wanted. This was the man who’d helped package Al Jolson. He was the mastermind behind Casablanca and Adventures Of Robin Hood. More recently, he’d developed the Martin and Lewis formula. Wallis was a flat-out genius as far as I’m concerned. You could argue that Loving You was a little bit old-fashioned, even then, but who can blame the producer for using contract players Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey to work off their final obligations to him in support of the boy singer? Those kids in line to see Elvis wouldn’t have known Scott and Corey from John Bunny and Flora Finch, but someone had to play in support of their idol. Might just as well be these two has-beens. Wallis puts all the Presley ingredients in place right from the opener. Elvis makes his entrance in a hot-rod. It’s understood he digs nice cars. Pretty girls too, but he’s diffident toward them. Never lustful, but fists at the ready when others are. The big punch-up in a diner reveals a hearty Presley appetite for brawling. One of the most noticeable things about Elvis is how viciously he lays into his opponents. This boy really knew how to make a fight look like something. Check out the fisticuffs in any of his movies and see what I mean. Sometimes the surly Elvis can be a little too menacing. There’s a scene in Loving You where Wendell Corey casually mentions the possibility of changing the Elvis character’s name, to which Presley responds with an alarming show of temper. That sweet Elvis countenance could take on a frightening edge when provoked. Sometimes you didn’t even have to provoke him to get a glimpse of it. That must have shook up some of those 1957 teen girls in the audience. Of course, there’s always dumbbell sidekicks to relieve the tension, and Loving You has at least two of them. This was a fraternity whose membership would increase over those near thirty Elvis pictures that would follow this one.

Here’s some of the merchandising that accompanied Loving You. A few of these knick-knacks are undoubtedly worth money today --- you might even find this stuff on ebay if you care to search the thousands of Elvis items available at any given time. Paramount had begun issuing very nice color still sets for their major releases when Loving You came out in July 1957. Some of those are shown here. Our own Liberty and Allen Theatres staged an Elvis stand-off in August of that year when the Allen tried to steal Loving You’s thunder at the Liberty by bringing back Love Me Tender "by popular demand." Wonder how those two exhibitors greeted each other at the drug store sundry counter that week. Loving You grabbed a nifty $3.3 million in domestic rentals (against Love Me Tender’s much better $4.2) --- then added another $85,000 during a 1959 re-issue which found Loving You playing tandem in many situations with Paramount’s King Creole. Note the combo exhibitor ad here, and the "letter to Elvis" lobby stunt that accompanied the re-issues in 1959. I’d be willing to bet not one of those letters actually got mailed, despite management’s promise to do so. Stunts like the one here with the girls and the motorcycle were commonplace for bookings in the larger towns. Elvis photo giveaways were also a sure way to draw the kids. Showmen couldn’t miss when buying them by the gross. Hefty concession sales were a cinch when restless teens came out for refreshment between Elvis numbers, their cue usually arriving with the cutaway to Lizabeth Scott and/or Wendell Corey. Hope those two never attended a public screening of Loving You. Might have been pretty demoralizing if they had.


Anonymous Ayres Orchids said...

Gosh, but Elvis looks odd in that second color photo. Sort of like Tori Spelling-in-drag meets Harpo Marx...

8:38 AM  
Anonymous tificator said...

I, too, remember seeing Elvis flicks in the theater - my hearing has never recovered :).

While I think JAILHOUSE ROCK was his best, I also like KING CREOLE (though I know at least one fellow who felt it was absolute dreck). LOVING YOU is a a lesser film, but important historically as a template for what nearly every subsequent Elvis movie would be like.

I agree that you 'had to be there'. Kinda sad that kids today will never completely grasp who and what he was, or what he meant to us.

Thanks for remembering the King.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Great post, but I might argue the "Wallis was a genius" assertion when it comes to "(developing) the Martin & Lewis formula." It's no surprise that the team's television work holds up better than their films; Jerry at least got the TV writers to listen when he said "Dean and I are two comics - not a comic and straight man." Wallis would have none of it. When the team's Colgate and radio writers, Ed Simmons and Norman Lear, were hired to punch up the script for Scared Stiff, they tried to inject some business for Dino. Wallis threw it out and laid down his 'formula': "Jerry's an idiot, Dean's a straight leading man who sings a couple of songs and gets the girl. That's it, don't (mess) with it."

Lewis was no prince to get along with, but it was Wallis' hard-line attitude toward Martin that really fueled the fire that dissolved the team. To the end of his days, Dean despised the M&L movies. Film was the medium by which he expected to be remembered - nightclub acts and live TV were ephemeral - and if he'd stayed with Lewis, he'd be immortalized as the singer who played a louse until the final reel when he suddenly became "a right guy."

2:54 PM  

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