‘The movies’ have always been part of Elvis’s story. The drama and beauty of the golden age of American cinema shaped young Elvis’s creative talent and sense of style, Hollywood became the focus of his own stellar career for a decade, and since his early death in 1977, Elvis has been brought to life on screen many times, most spectacularly this year with the release of Baz Luhrmann’s much anticipated biopic Elvis.
Elvis was born in the wake of the Great Depression, on 8 January 1935, to adoring parents Vernon and Gladys. Growing up in rural Mississippi, in a railroad town named Tupelo, Elvis didn’t have much money to play with – but he and best friend Sam Bell made their own fun by sneaking into the movies at Tupelo’s Lyric Theatre. Bell has described the Lyric in the days of segregation laws, when the balcony seating was partitioned into Black and white sections. Elvis and Sam would sneak through the separate entrances and once inside, Elvis would “climb on over” so the boys could sit together and share their “ten cent popcorn”, sitting in the aisle watching Westerns. (Sam Bell interviewed in 2016.)
One of Elvis’s earliest teenage jobs was ushering in Loew’s State Theatre, in 1950 and again in 1951, in Memphis. The little Presley family made the move to Memphis, a cosmopolitan Southern city bustling with post-war industry and a vibrant cultural scene, when Elvis was 13 years old. Elvis studied the faces and expressions of 1950s screen idols such as Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando, observing not only their methods of conveying emotion and connecting with audience, but also their distinctive fashion and 1950s brand of masculine beauty.
Fresh out of high school, in mid-1954 Elvis had his first hit single with ‘That’s All Right’ on the innovative Memphis label Sun Records. He soon caught the attention of a canny talent manager known as ‘the Colonel’ Tom Parker. Parker moved swiftly to take control of Elvis’s blossoming career and brokered the sale of his contract to major label RCA Victor in November 1955. By March 1956, Parker had Elvis in Hollywood screen-testing for powerhouse Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis. Elvis had already appeared on The Dorsey Brother’s (television) Stage Show six times by this stage (he would go on to do a further five appearances in 1956 alone, on shows hosted by Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan). As Wallis’s Paramount colleague Allan Weiss put it: “We had all seen him on television, the swivelling hips below the bottom of the screen, unseen. But it wasn’t just sex; it was an indefinable energy that transcended that. The question was, would it show on film?”
Elvis had been sent a script for The Rainmaker, in production at Paramount with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn. He performed two short scenes, and also lip-synched a performance of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ for the screentest. Weiss got the answer to his question: “We knew instantly that we were in the presence of a phenomenon; electricity bounced off the walls of the sound stage.” Elvis was “absolute dynamite”.
Paramount signed Elvis for a multi-picture deal immediately, despite not yet having a script ready. Parker had negotiated in the contract that Elvis do one film a year with another studio – this clause was utilised straight away to enable Elvis to get started on a film with 20th Century Fox while Paramount prepared a script.
Love Me Tender was released just eight months after those first Hollywood meetings. The film was a civil war era drama, in which Elvis plays honourable and guileless Clint Reno, caught in a complicated love triangle with his young bride (played by Debra Paget) and his older brother Vance (played by Richard Egan). At the end of the film, Clint is killed in a dramatic shootout. This ending, however, was so displeasing to young audiences in test screenings that the studio was forced to ‘bring back’ Elvis, awkwardly superimposing him singing the title song over the final scene. In a private screening held the day before the film’s public release, at Elvis’s former place of employment, Loew’s State Theatre in Memphis, Gladys cried at her son’s death scene.
Elvis aspired to become a serious dramatic actor, he is said to have known all the dialogue from the generation-defining hit film Rebel Without a Cause (1955). From the very beginning though, music was deemed essential to any production designed around the young superstar.
Even despite a substantial period of pause during his Army service (approximately March 1958 – March 1960), Elvis pumped out an astonishing 31 features between 1956 and 1969. Certain early films stand out for their relatively high quality. King Creole (1958) for example is one of his most critically admired films, directed by legendary Hungarian-American auteur Michael Curtiz of Casablanca (1942) fame. The film is set in the nightclubs and back alleys of New Orleans, as Elvis’s hot-headed Danny Fisher grapples with the temptations of organised crime and a droll temptress played by Carolyn Jones. The excellent soundtrack features skilled song-writing duo Leiber and Stoller, including an evocative title song and a sultry number titled ‘Trouble’, reprised by Elvis for his ground-breaking 1968 NBC television special.
Throughout the 1960s, Elvis became disillusioned with his career in Hollywood. Always the professional, he fulfilled relentless contracts and was described as a good worker on set, but privately he was embarrassed by the increasingly flimsy and formulaic quality of his films, and the hastily produced soundtrack albums. In a rare candid interview during filming for the 1972 documentary Elvis On Tour, he explained:
“Hollywood’s image of me was wrong and I knew it. And I couldn’t say anything about it, couldn’t do anything about it. I’d be right into production, I’d be doing a lot of pictures close together – and the pictures got very similar… you know, if something was successful, they’d try to recreate it the next time around. So I’d read the first four or five pages and I knew that it was just a different name, with 12 new songs in it. The songs were mediocre in most cases… But I was never indifferent, I was so concerned…. It worried me sick.”
In 1968, his smash hit television special today known as the ’68 Comeback Special reignited his passion for live music performance and gave him a pathway out of Hollywood and onto the stages of Las Vegas. In 1970 and 1972, two innovative music documentaries captured the re-energised Elvis in this second phase of his career as a stage musician: That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972). These films still sparkle today as dynamic examples of music documentary making, and the glamour and excitement of 1970s Las Vegas.
In recent decades, many actors have attempted to emulate ‘The King’ on screen, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and a fan favourite, Kurt Russell. (Fun fact: a 12-year-old Russell appears in the 1963 romance It Happened at the World’s Fair – he kicks Elvis in the shin in his scene!) Almost half a century on from Elvis’s death, fans around the world nervously await their chance to watch Austin Butler’s portrayal of Elvis, which has already been given a glowing review by the people who knew Elvis best, his former wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie, who tweeted: “Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully”.
For more information on the Elvis: Direct from Graceland exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery (19 March – 17 July 2022), click here.
All images courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery.
This is a sponsored article produced in partnership with the Bendigo Art Gallery.