BearManor Media, USA, 2013, Softcover, 361 pages, Softcover, Illustrated, Acknowledgements, Index, ISBN-13: 978-1593937553
Softcover edition ..............................................................Kindle edition
Read EIN’s interview with Michael Hoey
(originally published in 2007 and shortly to be UPDATED with new questions and answers in 2014)
About the director: Norman Taurog was one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. He was, and still is, the youngest director to win an Academy Award (for Skippy in 1931). He also directed Spencer Tracy in his Oscar-winning role as Father Flanagan in Boys Town.
Norman Taurog (far right) at the 1931 Academy Awards Ceremony.
Other notable figures in the picture include George Arliss, Louis B. Mayer and Lionel Barrymore
During Taurog’s 52 years career he directed 87 films and worked with many of Hollywood’s greatest names. Taurog made nine films with Elvis.
Norman Taurog’s Elvis Films:
Girls! Girls! Girls!
It Happened At The World’s Fair
Spinout (called California Holiday outside the USA)
Live A Little, Love A Little
About the author: Michael Hoey (above) has the credentials to write about Hollywood and the film industry. He is a multi-award winning film and television editor, writer, director and producer. He was a friend of Norman Taurog and also Elvis, being involved in six Elvis films. Hoey wrote the screenplay for the politically controversial, Stay Away, Joe and the delightful (and underrated) sex farce, Live A Little, Love A Little, and was a contributing writer to four other Elvis films. On television, one of Hoey’s highlights was a multi-year run writing and directing the very popular show, Fame. His other books include Elvis, Sherlock and Me: How I Survived Growing Up in Hollywood and Inside Fame on Television: A Behind the Scenes History.
In his latest book, Elvis’ Favorite Director: The Amazing 52-Year Career of Norman Taurog, Michael Hoey has crafted a finely tuned narrative balance between three core elements: Elvis, Norman Taurog and Hollywood. Glorious chapters of in-depth discussion and fascinating minutiae about Elvis films are interspersed with equally fascinating chapters bringing to life the excitement and glamour of Hollywood and many of its most famous stars.
In fact the cast of stars Taurog directed reads like a who’s who of film royalty! Among them are Spencer Tracy, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Ethel Merman, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Maurice Chevalier, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jane Russell, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Director Norman Taurog with Cary Grant and Betsy Drake
Based on countless hours of research and similarly countless interviews with people present during Taurog’s career, Hoey’s work is imbued with an authoritative legitimacy which goes way beyond the flimsy, third hand approach adopted by many mass market authors.
Hoey’s discussion of Taurog’s films includes a detailed description of their filming and insightful discussion of the logistical and other issues that arose, all blended nicely with stories from behind the scenes which entertain and inform our knowledge and understanding of Elvis, Norman Taurog, the film industry and its larger-than-life stars.
The author also covers in detail Norman Taurog’s personal life from his early acting endeavours and move to Hollywood at the age of 17 to his two marriages, family and serious health issues which, in Taurog’s final years, meant his body was wracked by pain before ultimately costing him his life. The picture painted of Norman Taurog the person is of a genuine and uber talented human being with a great interest in those he worked with; an astute director who knew how to get the best out of a film script, be it great or mediocre.
Hoey is a gifted writer and his luculent discussion of both Taurog’s and Hollywood’s early years is impressive; his attention to detail bringing to life the romance and atmosphere of a golden time in Tinseltown’s rich and sometimes scarred history.
Michael Hoey had an interesting entry to the inner world of Hollywood. His account provides insight to the political influences which affected Hollywood and social mores of the early 1960s:
I was then moved up to temporary film editor to finish what work was needed and to make eliminations in the film based on a series of censor notes from the Shurlock Office and the Catholic National Legion of Decency. The Chapman Report was based on a novel by Irving Wallace that had caused quite a stir when it first came out, due to its depiction of a medical sex survey………….
However the big problem was that they had summarily dismissed the film’s ending and wanted the studio to shoot a new one. Jack Warner was wringing his hands in dismay; if the Legion gave the picture a “C” (condemned) rating as they had threatened, then members of the Roman Catholic faith would be forbidden from seeing it both in the United States and throughout the world. After listening for what seemed like forever to the arguments going back and forth between Warner, his executive vice president Steve Trilling, and the representative from the Shurlock Office who had brought the notes, I decided to put in my two cents and asked Warner if I could make a suggestion. His answer still rings in my ears all these many years later: “Why not, kid? Everyone else has.” My suggestions, including a way to satisfy the Legion’s demands about the ending, must have impressed Warner, because the next morning I was called up to Steve Trilling’s office and informed that Jack Warner was promoting me to producer.
Elvis’ bad movies
From Michael Hoey’s Introduction to Elvis’ Favorite Director:
Norman Taurog is unjustly accused of directing most of Elvis Presley’s bad movies, but his detractors forget such other directors’ mind-numbing Elvis vehicles as Clambake, Easy Come, Easy Go, Harum Scarum, Frankie and Johnny and Kissin’ Cousins. Directorially speaking, all of Taurog’s Elvis films retain the same professional style as his earlier award-winning films. He wasn’t a celebrated director in the manner of a Hitchcock, Ford, or Wilder, but he was a top craftsman in his field.
On Norman Taurog’s career and Elvis’ film canon Hoey offers valuable analysis and insight as well as a plethora of little known and fascinating facts.
In discussing what is the exemplar for the ‘Elvis film vehicle’: Blue Hawaii, Hoey perceptively observes:
One of the big mysteries to me is why actress Angela Lansbury agreed to play Elvis’ mother. Her performance as a clueless Southern belle is so over-the-top that it is almost embarrassing. She certainly wasn’t in need of work; she had already made three films that year including a well-received role in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), and would soon appear in her Oscar nominated performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Director Norman Taurog, Elvis and Juliet Prowse on the set of G.I. Blues
And how many fans knew that the original choice to play Elvis’ leading lady in Blue Hawaii was his G.I. Blues co-star, Juliet Prowse? The story of how Prowse lost the role reveals much about precious ego in the entertainment business.
Hoey weaves a detailed panorama which at times is enthralling and at other times humorous. He notes that director Taurog’s penchant for strong physicality in his films was evident from his early years:
The ambitious stunts that Taurog staged for the Lige Conley two-reelers sometimes took their toll on the cast. An article in the February 10, 1924, Los Angeles Times detailed the list of injuries that took place in just one day of filming of a burlesque football game for a Conley two-reeler called Pigskin that Taurog directed for Jack White: Otto Fries received a sprained knee while dragging five men the length of a football field, Jack Lloyd suffered a cut nose and a scraped wrist when a break-away scoreboard fell on him, and the star, Conley, skinned his wrists while hanging from the cross-bar of a goalpost.
About the filming of the 1936 film, Strike Me Pink, starring Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman, Hoey observes an important element of Taurog’s impressive directorial style:
The stunning finale on Dreamland’s rollercoaster ride, which Taurog and second unit director Gil Pratt shot mostly at the old Cyclone Racer ride in Long Beach, is filled with awe-inspiring sight gags and stunts that hark back to Taurog’s days with Larry Semon.
New York Herald-Tribune review of It Happened At the World’s Fair (1963):
“…inoffensive bit of escapist fluff, like a marshmallow frappe with a musical topping.”
Film lovers will enjoy non-Elvis chapters dealing with Taurog’s work with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant and his six films with (Dean) Martin and (Jerry) Lewis. There are also fascinating accounts of the tense, behind the scenes dramas in filming movies such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and the difficulties faced while filming with the legendary and well- loved Spencer Tracy. Tracy’s deep-rooted psychological issues and fits of depression during the filming of Boys Town led to bouts of drinking and production delays for the studio.
Norman Taurog with acting legend Spencer Tracy during the filming of Boys Town
However, the reasons behind Taurog’s disdain for one of Elvis’ musical heroes, Mario Lanza, may cause dissonance for some Elvis fans. In relation to the filming of Lanza’s The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Hoey records:
Taurog managed to keep his leading lady [Kathryn Grayson] from killing her co-star [Lanza) and to keep his own temper under control….
On the tangential issue of Lanza’s relatively early passing (and similarly that of Elvis, Judy Garland and Robert Walker), Hoey insightfully questions whether there might not be a self-destructive chromosome in the DNA of some creative personalities!
Given the period of Taurog’s career, Hoey brilliantly weaves a multi-varied, mosaic of early 20th century social history into his narrative, evoking wonderfully full and expressive images of characters, places and times gone by. From the little remembered, but horrific Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 (which in the USA alone claimed the lives of 675,000 people), to the ‘romantically’ well-remembered Prohibition era:
Prohibition had become the law in 1920, when thirty-six states approved the 18th Amendment, one of the most unpopular laws in the history of the country, and with it came the speakeasies and bootleg liquor. Never was any law so flagrantly violated; some of the popular clubs in Los Angeles that surreptitiously served liquor at that time were the Vernon Country Club and a number of clubs along Washington Boulevard near the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, soon to become MGM, including the Kit Kat Club, Harlow’s Café, Monkey Farm and Fatty Arbuckle’s The Plantation Club. One of the largest sat on the corner of Washington and National Boulevards, the Green Mill. A huge Normandy—style farmhouse that occupied a block-wide lot, the Green Mill was one of the most popular night spots in town, and it was there that Norman Taurog, with his friend and fellow director Al Santell and two young ladies, drove up to the entrance at 11:30 one evening in December of 1923, only to be confronted by Federal Prohibition agents conducting a raid……………
Annette Day has the distinction of appearing only one film, Double Trouble. In Elvis’ Favourite Director we find out what she is doing today!
This film poster for Skippy, one of Norman Taurog’s most famous films starred his nephew, Jackie Cooper. Sadly, Taurog and Cooper were not to enjoy the greatest of personal relationships
In both an indictment of one aspect of the often overly legalistic and opportunistic capitalist system and also an account of ‘spin-off’ merchandise marketing in the first half of the 20th century, Hoey recounts this story related to Taurog’s film version of the Skippy cartoon character (created by Percy Crosby):
“From 1928 to 1937 Crosby produced 3,650 Skippy strips, ten books of fiction, political and philosophical essays, drawings, and cartoons, as well as numerous pamphlets while mounting a dozen exhibitions in New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Paris and Rome of his oils, watercolors, and other paintings and drawings.” In addition there were Skippy dolls, toys and comic books, guaranteeing Crosby the amazing Depression Era sum of $2,350 a week. However, according to his daughter, Crosby’s Skippy trademark was pirated by “a bankrupt peanut butter company that later merged with a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune in illicit sales under the Skippy brand name.” Crosby fought to reclaim his copyright, but after years of court battles, his health declined and he became an alcoholic, eventually suffering a mental collapse.
The inclusion of reviews of Elvis’ films (the late Bosley Crowther, long time film critic for The New York Times makes numerous appearances throughout Elvis’ Favorite Director) allows the reader to obtain a feel for how Elvis was perceived, including the recurring theme of Elvis’ appearance and the slide in his box-office appeal.
In a review of California Holiday, one London reviewer commented:
Apart from any other considerations, Elvis is now getting decidedly tubby*. To be brutally frank he is becoming too old for such goings-on, and while he hasn’t yet reached eligibility for the mutton-lamb comparison, he should take stock seriously of where his career is going. I can think of more careers that have been ruined by trying to repeat earlier successes, and let’s face it most of his films here have played to half-empty cinemas.
*Reviewers note: TIME magazine in its review of Spinout (aka California Holiday) also commented on Elvis’ weight gain
Tickle Me is a film which divides fans and critics. A “quickie” filmed in only 23 days it is often unfairly criticised for its low production values including non-location filming (a cost saving measure), lack of “new” songs (another cost saving measure) and a routine script (re-written in parts by Norman Taurog and Michael Hoey). In this reviewer's opinion, much of the criticism is undeserved; as while not the greatest film ever made, Tickle Me does feature a strong set of musical numbers, interesting, quirky characters and abundant doses of humor throughout its inoffensive and pleasant narrative. After all, the film is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek ‘B’ grade outing and not Hamlet or Macbeth!
Michael Hoey was involved with Norman Taurog in the making of Tickle Me. In Elvis' Favorite Director, Hoey provides a neat overview and appreciation of the film including media reviews of Tickle Me which are particularly interesting when they comment on Elvis’ performance and the direction of Norman Taurog. The Hollywood Reporter opined:
Tickle Me is the latest Elvis Presley, somewhat better than average in this special class, which means it will do Presley business with a plus. The Allied Artists release is a comedy with songs, and Norman Taurog has directed with a light and innovative hand, so the comedy is frequent enough to make it pleasant…..Directed well, as he is here by Taurog, Presley has a facility for genteel comedy. He seems to be kidding himself, not taking his romantic charms too seriously, in a manner that is ingratiating. ………..(Jack) Mullaney is very funny, and Taurog has wisely given him footage to develop.”
And the Variety review commented on the ghost sequence:
“Screenplay …is wispy thin, but allows singer to rock over nine numbers from past albums to good effect. He gets good comedy backing from a competent cast and a flock of young beauts [sic] cavorting in near-bikini attire, and a wind-up finish, fast and corny, should tickle the palates of his natural audience as well as furnishing a field day for moppets.”
Hoey’s ability to craft his words and build the moment is nicely on display in this passage:
Elvis certainly loved women and they certainly loved him and on Tickle Me he was surrounded by women. There were, count ’em, 16 beautiful ladies, all dressed in a variety of skimpy outfits and eagerly hovering around him. For Elvis it was a veritable smorgasbord of pulchritude.
Norman Taurog, Michael Hoey, Elvis and Nancy Sinatra on the set of Speedway
There are many amusing and informative anecdotes throughout Elvis’ Favorite Director:
The songs for Double Trouble were probably some of the worst selections in any of the Presley films up to that time. I heard rumors that Elvis was particularly upset with “I Love Only One Girl,” which was a flat-out rip-off of the old French folk tune “Aupres de Ma Blonde,” and an even worse version of the World War I era nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald” with some lame new lyrics stitched together by Randy Starr. Starr’s other contribution to the soundtrack, a lugubrious ballad called “Could I Fall in Love,” wasn’t much of an improvement, which is perhaps why Norman staged it with Annette Day’s character falling asleep at the end.
One of the major strengths of Elvis’ Favorite Director is the painstaking research undertaken by the author. As a Hollywood insider, Hoey was able to access information the media cannot, and in so doing is able to report accurately on issues, rather than based on conjecture or rumor as is commonplace in contemporary media.
On the logistics of filming It Happened At the World’s Fair, Hoey writes:
The fact that Elvis would be working within the Fairgrounds with hundreds of spectators milling around was a cause of deep concern for the Colonel and MGM, so a large contingent of Seattle police, augmented by plainclothes detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, were assigned to protect the star.
And in relation to the financial success of Elvis’ films and his salary:
Spinout would gross only $1.77 million and be ranked #57 in the box office poll for the year. 1966 would also be the final year that Elvis would place among the top ten boxoffice draws in the annual movie exhibitors’ poll. In spite of these dire indications, MGM decided to extend their contract with Elvis for four more films, with his fee set at $850,000 for each with profit sharing at 50%.
The Elvis film that influenced Quentin Tarantino
If you said that an Elvis film had influenced Quentin Tarantino, most people would look at you as if you were crazy. However, in Elvis’ Favorite Director, Michael Hoey reveals what Tarantino borrowed from Speedway for his cult film, Pulp Fiction.
Hoey’s record of Norman Taurog’s final years is appropriately compassionate. Legally blind and becoming increasingly reclusive, Taurog’s health issues worsened with circulatory problems resulting in amputation of his toes. His body would then battle cancer until his death in 1981 aged 82. It was a sad end to a wonderful career.
Reflecting back on Taurog’s Elvis films, Hoey offers this insightful comment:
Taurog did his best to protect Elvis, perhaps too much; and if he can be faulted for anything, it would be that he relied too much on broad visual humor to liven up what he correctly perceived to be weaknesses in the scripts.
As a measure of the character of Norman Taurog and what Elvis thought of him, Hoey states:
Within a year of completing Live a Little, Love a Little, Norman Taurog was totally blind. In spite of this he never displayed any signs of self-pity or depression; in fact he always made a point of being cheery and upbeat. Elvis would occasionally visit him whenever he was in town, and I would pick him up and take him to lunch as often as I could.
Elvis’ Favorite Director is dotted with archival photos and film stills of Norman Taurog, Elvis and many other great Hollywood stars. The only thing missing is a chronological listing of the Norman Taurog film catalog.
Verdict: Michael Hoey’s latest book, Elvis’ Favorite Director: The Amazing 52-Year Career of Norman Taurog, is a thoroughly engrossing, wonderfully entertaining, well-crafted and insightful record of its subject(s). It is rich in textured information, which unlike the information found in many other books about Elvis, adds appreciably to the complex tapestry that makes up his life and career. As part Norman Taurog biography; part Hollywood, Elvis film and socio-political history and part delightful anecdote, Elvis’ Favorite Director is an energetic narrative canvas which is essential reading for anyone interested in Elvis, the incredible (indeed it was amazing!) career of director Norman Taurog or the colourful history of Hollywood. A cracking read!!
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