Elvis in Hollywood, back on a painful experience

Elvis in Hollywood, back on a painful experience

While Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is currently in theaters, a look back at Elvis Presley’s film career, very quickly mentioned in the film, and which deserves attention to understand a decade of the singer’s life. .


Elvis Presley in Hollywood, there are 31 films released from 1956 to 1969, an average of two to three per year. It is a time when the singer received a lot of money between his fees, his percentage of the receipts and his royalties on the original tapes. But it is also a period of renunciation by Elvis of any cinematographic ambition in the name of profit.

It was at Paramount that he spent three days of trials until producer Hal B. Wallis agreed to sign him for a film in 1956, with an option for six more if the results were there. But not finding what to make his new “foal” play, Wallis lends the aspiring actor to Twentieth Century Fox who finds him a first project, a western.

A decisive trial run: Love Me Tender

Originally titled The Reno Brothers, planned to be a B series, this western sees its budget increased to 1 million dollars when Elvis Presley joins the cast in third place on the poster. If Elvis is then famous in the world of music, it is only after the shooting that he becomes the country singer who sells the most records.

To follow this trend, four musical numbers are added to the film, including the song Love Me Tender, which becomes the final title of the feature film. Elvis, who was to star in a classic feature film, becomes the hero of a musical. The tragic fate of his character is also mitigated by the addition of a final appearance humming a few excerpts from the title song. The feature film is a success, and others are very quickly put in box.

The creation of the recipe

Hal Wallis from Paramount decides to capitalize on the success of Love Me Tender* and launches 2 months after the filming of Loving You, when Elvis has just celebrated his 22nd birthday. The recipe is simple and serves as a base for two following films of the King: King Creole and Jailhouse Rock. Elvis is the star, he embodies a professional singer faced with a concern (family, economic or both) who will meet with success and love. Each film is sold with its soundtrack, sung on screen and on disc.

They are also distributed above all in the provinces (where the heart of Elvis’ public lives), with a maximum of sessions per day.

At the same time, the star’s salaries exploded, going from 15,000 dollars for Love Me Tender to 20,000 for the next one, then 25,000, etc., up to 100,000 dollars** for the seventh film of the contract! This does not include bonuses ($50,000) and miscellaneous singer fees ($30,000).

In addition, the impresario of Elvis, “Colonel” Tom Parker, receives half the salary of the actor-singer, and has the right to make it turn with a studio other than Paramount once a year. A possibility that Parker will exploit each year, starting with Fox, which pays Elvis 100,000 then 150,000 dollars to shoot the western Flaming Star (1960) and the drama Wild in the Country (1961).

In the first, Elvis plays a half-breed Indian, a role that was intended for Marlon Brando. Directed by Don Siegel (The Invasion of the Gravediggers) and allowed only two musical passages in the film, his performance was generally well received at the time. In Wild in the Country, he plays a bad boy who will return to the right path.

The recipe is refined and the abandonment of Elvis

Elvis still managed to impose elements in his films until the early 1960s, then abandoned his ambition to become a great actor a la James Dean, whom he admired and whose last film, Giant, was released the same week as Loving You. From then on, most of his projects follow the aforementioned recipe, and all begin to look alike.

There is what could be called the “Hawaiian trilogy”, which begins with Blue Hawaii (1961), then Girls! Girls! Girls! and ends with Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1962). There are also military themes with GI Blues (1960), Kissin’ Cousins ​​(with two Elvises for the price of one, 1964) and Easy Come, Easy Go (1967) in which Elvis is a professional soldier. Sometimes he returns from his military service, as in Blue Hawaii.

The public demanded the presence of songs in the films, because at that time, Elvis no longer gave concerts. To see him sing, you have to go to the cinema. And even when he’s not playing a singer, the plot finds a pretext for a microphone to appear in front of his mouth. And regularly, to sing nonsense that has nothing to do with the rock’n’roll that made it famous:

The films selling him almost in his own role, and Elvis adoring cars, we very often find him driving the vehicles of the moment on the screen, from the Chevrolet to the Cadillac via the Dodge Charger. Several of the intrigues are resolved during a car race (Viva Las Vegas, Spinout, Speedway), but we will also see Elvis piloting a helicopter and a plane, among other things.

At the heart of it all, there is always the recipe created with Loving You and the passing years, less and less original plot and always more girls, trips, songs with variable quality and cars.

A breathless recipe from 1964

In 1964, eight years after his first appearance on the screen (including a two-year break to do his military service) and after the phenomenal success of his Viva Las Vegas, Elvis suffered the full brunt of the discovery by the United States of the Beatles. . While the young British group plays concerts and sells millions of records, Elvis purrs at the cinema, has not been on stage for six years and only releases the soundtracks of his films.

The box office begins to suffer the effects of these successive events. The takings really drop from Harum Scarum (1965), in which Elvis plays an actor who travels to the Middle East to promote a film and finds himself in an unlikely conspiracy affair, all interspersed with filler with no less than eight (bad) songs.

Where his films brought in $100 million (figures adjusted for inflation) on average, Harum Scarum reaped around $30. This first slap is mitigated by the fact that even with such a significant drop, the project is profitable studio.

The feature films therefore continue to follow one another, among which the disastrous Clambake (according to some sources, the film that Elvis hated the most), the story of a millionaire’s son deciding to change his identity to discover the “real life and engage in a boat racing competition. The film falls below the 20 million mark. The enumeration of the following feature films is superfluous: if all are not ashamed, none will be a resounding success.

In 1968, seeing the recipe exhausted to the core and seeking to show that it still exists artistically, Elvis shoots a TV show broadcast on NBC at the end of the year. It shows him master of his music, king of rock’n’roll and a beast of the stage. He will never make a film again, will chain original records, concerts and meetings with his audience until his death in 1977.

Should we catch up on movies?

Here are 5 films worth watching for the curious:

  • Jailhouse Rock: A cult choreography on the title track, long takes allowing the actors to show what they are capable of, the theme of sudden fame that can turn heads and a supporting role from Dean Jones, what more could you ask for?!
  • King Creole: Only of the first films of Elvis to have “bidé”, Bagarres au King Creole allows the actor to give everything he has in this dramatic role. Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) is directing. Be careful though: the depiction of the female characters shows the weight of the years.
  • Loving You: A scenario that fits on a metro ticket, but at a time when the recipe was not yet one. It exudes an old-fashioned charm, the music is very good and the color adds a real plus to the visual quality of the film.
  • Follow That Dream: Gordon Douglas was a talented director and it shows in the way Elvis plays and shows he was comfortable in comedy. A little too many songs no doubt, but clearly at the top of what the singer’s filmography offers.
  • charro: The inspiration from Italian westerns impacts Elvis who finds himself for the first and only time in his career with a beard! The film is not accompanied by any song and signed by the excellent director Charles Marquis Warren, whose works are always worthy of the glance. It is one of the last three Elvis films released in 1969.

These actors played Elvis on screen:

See the slideshow


Elvis: these actors played the King on screen

13 pictures

* The titles of the films have been kept in their original version for easier reading and the references to the songs linked to them.

** For comparison, this corresponds to 1 million dollars according to 2022 inflation.

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