Star of the Month: Elvis Presley

June 22, 2021
Star Of The Month: Elvis Presley

Thursdays in July / 22 Movies

Elvis Presley, TCM Star of the Month for July, is a cultural icon. During his reign, he was one of the hottest live acts in the history of show business and the most successful recording artist of all time. Elvis was an original – the first mainstream performer to blend gospel music, rockabilly, rhythm-and-blues and rock’n’roll. He wrapped it all up in an onstage persona so overtly sexual that it created a storm of controversy in the modest 1950s and beyond.

Presley was also a film star with an imposing lineup of popular movies. It is this aspect of his career that leads to our tribute, which marks the first time he has been named Star of the Month. “Elvis dreamed of being an actor from his teen years of ushering at the Loew’s Theatre in Memphis,” offers my journalist friend Alanna Nash, a Presley enthusiast and biographer who is the author of four books about him, including The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. “He especially studied Tony Curtis and later James Dean. When he made his first screen test, for The Rainmaker (1956), everyone was stunned at his emotional directness and ability to be himself in front of the camera. Then they added music and electricity bounced off the walls of the sound stage.”

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, MS, on January 8, 1935. He was the son of the former Gladys Love Smith, to whom he would remain close for the remainder of his life, and Vernon Elvis Presley, a worker at odd jobs. Elvis had a twin brother who was stillborn. When Elvis was 13, the family moved to Memphis, TN, where he attended Humes High School and attracted attention by singing in talent shows. His delivery was influenced by country music and the gospel singing he heard at local churches. He was already developing his trademark look of slicked-back hair, sideburns and flashy clothes.

After graduation from high school Elvis worked as a truck driver as well as movie-theater usher. Meanwhile, although he had no formal musical training and could not read music, he landed some gigs where he was billed as “The Hillbilly Cat” and sang country and blues numbers. In 1953, Presley began recording songs at Sun Records, a Memphis studio that specialized in Black performers. Sam Phillips, the head of the company, had said he was searching for “a white man who had the “Negro sound,” convinced that it would create a sensation.

Phillips found that performer in Presley, who had his first successful single with Sun in 1954, “That’s All Right,” backed by “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Presley signed his first contract with legendary manager-promoter Colonel Tom Parker in August 1955. Later that year, Parker arranged for the transfer of Presley’s recording contract from Sun Records to RCA Victor. Parker would become Presley’s solo professional representative for the rest of the singer’s life, managing every aspect of his career and, some said, his personal life as well. (After Presley’s death, Parker also managed his estate for a time.)

Presley’s first single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956, was a No. 1 hit. He released his first album for the company later that year. Meanwhile, his onstage charisma, complete with gyrating hips and shaking legs, was driving young female audiences wild. His string of best-selling records, along with personal appearances and network TV shows, would establish Presley as the “King of Rock’n’Roll.”

Hollywood came calling and distinguished producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca, 1942) worked through Parker to sign Presley to a film contract. In all, Wallis would produce nine Elvis movies. The screen test for Wallis’ The Rainmaker, though striking, did not lead to a role in that film. Instead, Presley made his film debut on loan-out to 20th Century-Fox for Love Me Tender (1956). In this Western, Elvis was third-billed after Richard Egan and Debra Paget and sang four songs. (Presley would be top-billed in all his other films.)

All told, Presley appeared in 31 narrative movies. TCM’s roundup includes 21 of these, along with a concert film released in 1981.

Jailhouse Rock (1957), Presley’s first film for MGM, is a lively black-and-white, wide-screen musical directed by Richard Thorpe. The highlight of this one is a strikingly performed production number built around Presley’s delivery of the title song, with a chorus of male prisoners and choreography derived from Elvis’s spontaneous movements. Loving You (1957) and King Creole (1958), both produced by Wallis at Paramount, offered Presley opportunities to test himself as an actor. But audiences – and, reportedly, Wallis himself – seemed to prefer him in escapist fare, rocking out to hit songs.

Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 and served two years active duty, much of it in Friedberg, Germany. Upon his return to Hollywood, Wallis exploited the idea of a military Elvis by producing G.I. Blues (1960) at Paramount. Playing a soldier stationed in West Germany, he romances Juliet Prowse and sings “Blue Suede Shoes.” Blue Hawaii (1961), also at Paramount, again casts Elvis as a soldier – this time one who leaves the Army to work with a tourist agency in the islands. Angela Lansbury, although only a few years older than Presley, plays his overbearing mother. Among the songs are “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

From 1962-63 Presley appeared in three films released by United Artists that were well-reviewed by Elvis-movie standards. Kid Galahad (1962) has him as a boxer in a remake of the 1930s Warner Bros. film in which Wayne Morris had the Presley part. Follow That Dream (1962) casts Elvis as the son of a down-home family that tries to homestead on a Florida beach. It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), set in Seattle during the Century 21 Exposition, costars Joan O’Brien and provides Elvis with 10 songs.

Next came a quartet of MGM musicals. Viva Las Vegas (1964), a highlight among Presley movies, was given first-rate production values and directed by a master of the medium, George Sidney. Above all, it provided a costar in Ann-Margret who had as much performance energy and sensual allure as Elvis himself. Kissin’ Cousins (1964) casts Elvis in double roles: one an Air Force lieutenant who wants his hillbilly relatives to allow a missile site on their land and the other a blond country boy who’s part of the family. Gene Nelson directs.

In Girl Happy (1965), nightclub singer Presley is hired by a mobster to chaperone his daughter (Shelley Fabares) during spring break in Fort Lauderdale. Boris Sagal directs, and songs include the hit “Puppet on a String.” Harum Scarum (1965) has Elvis as a movie star who visits the Middle East, becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate a king and falls in love with the king’s daughter (Mary Ann Mobley). Gene Nelson again directs.

Presley made Tickle Me (1965) for Allied Artists, a musical comedy with an emphasis on comedy (the slapstick variety). He plays a down-on-his-luck rodeo star who goes to work at an all-female health ranch. Norman Taurog directs, and Jocelyn Lane provides the romantic interest. Back at MGM Presley appeared in Spinout (1966), playing a singer/race-car driver pursued by three different women (Shelley Fabares, Deborah Walley and Diane McBain). Taurog again directed, and the title tune made the Top 40.

Next came a pair of films for United Artists. Frankie and Johnny (1966), based on the traditional song, has Presley as Mississippi riverboat gambler Johnny with Donna Douglas as his girlfriend Frankie. Clambake (1967) casts Elvis as a millionaire’s son who trades places with water-ski instructor Will Hutchins to find a girl who loves him and not his money.

Presley starred in four more MGM vehicles from 1967-68: Double Trouble (1967) with Annette Day; Speedway with Nancy Sinatra; Live a Little, Love a Little with Michele Cary; and Stay Away, Joe with a lineup of character actors, including Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell and Katy Jurado.

In Charro! (1969), a serious Western from National General Pictures, Presley made a final effort to prove himself as an actor. Playing a reformed outlaw attempting to save a Mexican town from his former gang, he performs the title song but does not otherwise sing. Despite expert direction by Western expert Charles Marquis Warren, the film was only mildly successful. Presley returned to MGM for the comedy-drama The Trouble with Girls (1969), in which he is the manager of a troupe of entertainers in the 1920s. A strong supporting cast includes Vincent Price, John Carradine, Sheree North and Dabney Coleman, with Peter Tewksbury directing.

Change of Habit (1970), a musical comedy-drama produced by NBC-TV and distributed by Universal Pictures, was Presley’s final narrative film. He plays a doctor in an inner-city New York City neighborhood who unwittingly falls in love with a young nun (Mary Tyler Moore). Ironically, the Change of Habit deal with NBC included a Presley TV special in 1960, a tour de force entitled simply Elvis that signaled the end of his movie career and marked his comeback as a “live” entertainer.

Elvis began touring again and through much of the next 10 years was one of the country’s top attractions, with a faithful following who often bordered on the cultish. He continued his recording career and enjoyed Top Ten hits with “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love.” Unfortunately, when Presley was not performing during this period, he led a reclusive and indulgent lifestyle at his Memphis home, Graceland. Overweight and unhealthy, he was only 42 when he died of a 1977 heart attack that was widely (if unofficially) attributed to drug use.

Elvis Presley was buried alongside his mother in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. The remains of both were later relocated to the Meditation Garden at Graceland. Elvis was married to Priscilla Beaulieu from 1967 to 1973. They had one daughter, singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Presley. This is Elvis (1981) is a documentary directed by Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt about Presley’s life and career. The film features dramatizations with actors portraying Elvis at various stages of his life, along with interviews of Presley and others, home movies and performance footage.

“More than 60 years after his first film, Elvis continues to fascinate and resonate, in movies and throughout popular culture,” says Nash. “He was probably the most important and enduring star ever, in part because he never separated himself from his following and loved to mingle among them, signing autographs and offering kisses from the stage.

“As Kay Wheeler, the president of his first national fan club puts it, ‘His most successful love affair was obviously between Elvis and his fans. And it has not died.’”