Bill of "Elvis: Frame By Frame"

Bill Bram is the author of the recently published book, Elvis: Frame By Frame.

Examining 9 of Elvis' narrative films it is a resonating commentary which provides rare insight into the making of each film.  It offers a fascinating perspective thanks to its finely balanced blend of interviewee contributions and actual archival film material.

Bill recently took time out to talk to EIN about how he researched Elvis: Frame By Frame. In his intriguing interview, Bill discusses many fascinating and little known issues including:

  • that Steve McQueen was very interested in making a film with Elvis!
  • the controversial "rage reduction" scene in Change of Habit
  • do outtakes still exist from Elvis' films?
  • the destruction of many of Elvis' personal scripts with handwritten notations

The Interview

EIN: Who is Bill Bram?

BB: An average “hard core” Elvis admirer that has been reading Elvis books, since 1975/76 and, of course, watching his films over and over again. I am an Engineer and live and work in New York

EIN: Why did you write "Elvis: Frame By Frame"?

BB: Having read just about every book on Elvis, most of them lacked the details about Elvis’s films that I felt was needed. Biographies such as Hopkins’ book, from the early seventies, glossed over the films, as did most biographies that came afterwards. I’ve always loved Elvis’s films.That’s how I got to know Elvis. During the seventies and eighties, this was the primary way for me to see Elvis sing an just recite dialogue. I enjoy watching and listening to Elvis. In 1986 I wrote an article about "Follow That Dream." I went down to Florida, and tracked down many of the local people that worked on that film and talked to them. I also visited the locations used in the film.

When I got back home, I continued my research and found many more people. I decided this type of research was needed for all of Elvis’s films. I’ve been reading English fan magazines for many years, like "Elvis Monthly." Many of the writers in these publications have been asking questions about the films that needed to be answered – so this project was my best attempt to address those questions.

EIN: "Elvis: Frame By Frame" is materially different from many other books about Elvis’ film career. How do you consider it to be different from other books about Elvis’ films?

BB:  I wrote the book the way I would want an Elvis movie book to read. I was interested in the direct quotations of the people who were there making the films with Elvis. I was also interested in new stories about Elvis' films. I was tired of reading a re-hash of stories I have read many, many times. I went to great length to quote the interviewees accurately. I am not that interested to read an author’s interpretation of what an interviewee said about Elvis. I would rather let the reader draw his or her own conclusions from the exact words that were said to me. I wanted to document the memories of as many people as possible who had direct involvement with Elvis’s films.

The format is similar to what a running commentary is like on some DVD’s. Each chapter of my book begins with a synopsis of what I un-covered, followed by direct quotations of the interviewees, starting with anecdotes on how the film was cast all the way up to and including the wrap party, if there was one. I tied their comments together with my questions. I tried to present as much new information as possible. I think, even for the most hard core fan, there will be alot of new information about these films. Also, my book is not an Elvis movie picture book. It is primarily text with a few rare photos and some location photos. I realize this may dissappoint some readers, but I did the best I could with the resources available to me.

EIN: What are some of your favorite Elvis movie books?

BB: There are several excellent books on Elvis’s films, that have been published. One of the best books ever written on Elvis’s films is Gerry McLafferty’s, Elvis Presley In Hollywood: Celluloid Sell Out. Gerry provides tremendous insight into Elvis’ films from all the pre-existing information out there. Bernard and Julie Roughton have done some excellent articles on New Orleans and Hawaii – related to the films. Bernard has also done some really great videos on movie locations, well researched and thorough.

But most Elvis movie books, especially those that were published in the 70's, 80's and 90's, present a brief synopsis of the film, a few photos and maybe a critique of the film. If “behind the scene” information was included, it was extrapolated from the publicity information released by the movie studios at the time. That information may or may not be accurate. The Publicity Departments at the movie studios, I found, often embellished what actually happened. In addition, I wasn’t interested in doing a critique of Elvis’s films. I am just an admirer of his films with an interest to know what happened during the making of the films.

EIN: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

BB: I started in earnest around 1999, of course I’d been an avid Elvis reader since the seventies. But in ‘99 I had the free time and extra resources to do the kind of job I felt was needed to track down the people and look at the movie files. Since that time I have interviewed over 300 people, scouted and found dozens of movie locations in and around Los Angeles. I also purchased many scripts, including several of Mr.Taurog’s personal scripts.

I was upset to learn all of Elvis’s personal scripts were recently destroyed in the fires of Malibu. They should have never been sold off by Graceland in the first place. Elvis’s handwritten script notations would have been priceless to see. This is a tragedy I am still quite upset about. It was my dream to someday look at those scripts.


EIN: You original objective was to write a behind the scenes account of all of Elvis’ narrative films but you ended up focusing on 9 films. Why was this?

BB: The films addressed in my book were based on the amount of new information I could dig up. I would have loved to have done "Jailhouse Rock," for instance. But the few people I could find that worked on "Jailhouse Rock" had limited memories to share. There just wasn’t enough new information I could write about for "Jailhouse Rock" – as much as I love the film. I wanted to do justice to the films I chose.

Regarding"Clambake" and "Easy Come," I was able to track down many, many individuals that worked on those films and had new and interesting memories to share. I also looked at the associate producers’ movie files, on "Easy Come." Even though these films are considered "bottom of the barrel," I still love to watch them and find behind the scene information fascinating.

EIN: The back of your book states that no expense was spared locating people that worked on Elvis' films. What did you mean by that?

BB: I expended many, many thousands of dollars of my own money – spent over eight years. I don't expect to recover the amount of money I invested in this project. If I were married, my wife would have divorced me by now. But it was a labor of love, and something I felt needed to be done, before it was too late. I spent most of my money on postage, phone calls and traveling related expenses. The people that worked on Elvis’s films are dropping like flies. Had I started ten years earlier, I could have gotten to many, many others. I wish the Graceland staff were at least attempting to document the memories of the people that worked with Elvis on his films– like an oral history.

EIN: What were some of your favourite highlights while preparing the book?

BB: During the making of "Change Of Habit," you may recall there is a "rage reduction sequence." That is the scene where Elvis holds the little autistic girl, played by Lorena Kirk, in his arms to release all of her inner rage and anger. Well during that scene, the actress playing the part, apparently became very, very upset – almost as if she was actually going into a quasi "rage reduction."

This scene was being orchestrated, off camera, by the actual doctor who discovered this procedure. Mary Tyler Moore became very upset that the little girl was being treated in this manner and demanded filming stop. My understanding is she stormed off the set. This procedure, by the way, as a way of treating autism has since been outlawed in the medical community. 

Another, interesting story I dug up was the incident during "Roustabout" when Elvis cut his forehead above his right eye. This was during the karate sequence, on location in Thousand Oaks, in front of the Mother’s Tea House set on the old Alan Ladd Ranch. You may recall Elvis does a short karate display, to take out three college students that are harassing him. I located Glenn Wilder, the stuntman who was blamed for injuring Elvis during that scene.

The story goes Glenn clipped Elvis above the forehead with his heel during a flip in the air. Well Glenn insists that Elvis fell on his heel by accident. Glenn and Elvis had an entire karate sequence choreographed – much longer than what we see in the final print. A longer sequence exists some where on film. Glenn told me that when Elvis’ buddies started giving him a hard time over hurting Elvis, Elvis told his cronies to leave Glenn alone it was his fault, not Glenn’s.

EIN: In preparing "Elvis: Frame By Frame" you interviewed literally hundreds of Elvis’ film co-stars and production personnel. Who were some of your favourite interviewees and why?

BB: Jane Elliot, who worked on"Change Of Habit" and Jon Peters who co-produced "A Star Is Born" provided some fascinating information for my book. Jane Elliot, especially, had some insight that really blew me away. She spent a lot of time with Elvis and talked with him a great deal. She provided some insight on what may have been troubling Elvis towards the end of his life and his movie career in general.

Jon Peters told me that it was he, more than Streisand, that wanted Elvis to work on "A Star Is Born." It turns out that Peters was and is a big Elvis fan. But there were many, many other interesting interviews, like Doug Laurence, who produced several Elvis films, including "Live A Little, Love A Little." Laurence told me he had asked Steve McQueen, a personal friend of his, if he would be interested in doing a film with Elvis. McQueen said,"Absolutely!" A movie with Elvis and McQueen would have been amazing.

EIN: How did you find the movie locations?

BB: This was one of the most personally rewarding aspects of my project. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to include many of the locations I was able to find in my book. I am not sure there is enough interest in this sort of thing. I found many, many movie locations, the list is quite long. A couple of the photos I took are posted on Gerry McLafferty’s site:

I even hired a Land Surveyor at one point to help me scout a location.  I purchased many movie photos. I was especially interested in photos where the geography/terrain can be seen in the background. These photos were used to track down sites by matching existing geography to the geography/terrain in the photos taken on location at the time of filming. Not as easy a process as it might sound. I also used video capture software to create stills directly from the DVD’s or videos. Any clue I could dig up, I would use and follow-up to track down these sites. I loved doing that. I asked many of the interviewees questions about locations and they thought I was nuts, but I asked anyway! There are several more locations I’d love to find but so far have had no success.

EIN: A fascinating chapter in your book concerns the films Elvis did not make, most notably  "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand. By the mid 1970s Elvis’ physical and emotional state was not healthy. Could Elvis have handled the role?

BB: Definitely, at that time in his life it was not too late for Elvis to bounce back. In retrospect, this was his last real opportunity to prove to the critics that Elvis was an excellent actor. After 1974 Elvis’ health declined rapidly and I am not sure he was physically and emotionally prepared to handle a film like this after that time frame. Certainly after “Elvis: What Happened?” was published he was not mentally prepared to handle a film like this. That book was the last straw in many respects.

There are several scenes in “A Star Is Born” that were tailor made for Elvis. I wish he had done the film. Had he insisted to the Colonel that he wanted to do the film, he would have worked on that film. But Elvis convinced himself not to do the film either because of what he was being told by those around him or because he simply changed his mind and felt the story was not right for him at that time. The Colonel, of course, had his own set of reasons.

EIN: A part from "A Star Is Born," what other notable films did Elvis and the Colonel decline to be involved with?

BB: There is an interesting story that Hank Moonjean told me. Hank was an associate producer on “Spinout.” He told me that Elvis was seriously considered for the role in “Being There.” The film that ultimately starred Peter Sellers in the mid seventies. Now before your readers scuff at that notion, they should read the novel. The part was intended for a younger character who is a bit of a stud, but very naïve. Elvis would have been great for that role. In many ways it was very close to the role he played in “Follow That Dream.” Sellers does an excellent job in that film, but he had a different approach. The role was never directly offered to Elvis or the Colonel because of his failing health towards the end of his life.

EIN: Your book contains many great stories about Elvis and adds to our understanding and appreciation of him as both a person and as an actor. What things most impressed you about Elvis as an actor/star?

BB: I would say number one he was a gentleman and a professional – almost to a fault.  Always courteous, polite, knew his lines and did his job to the best of his ability. I know this isn't news to us fans but I don't think this can be said often enough. Especially when it comes from people we don't hear from that often, that is people outside the inner circle looking in from a professional stand point. Their observations were very important to Elvis while he was working on these films. I think our perspective of Elvis can be distorted, somewhat, by all the accounts from the so-called inner circle. People close to a situation don't always see the big picture as clearly as someone on the outside.

The people I spoke with, for the most part, had no hidden agenda or gripes. They told me exactly what they could recall in a believable fashion. Elvis knew he set the tone and attitude of the film since he was the star, so he was always upbeat, positive and made sure everyone was happy. I admire this greatly.

EIN: Elvis: Frame By Frame also includes three appendices with production details from"King Creole" and highlights from the movie files for "Roustabout" and"Easy Come, Easy Go." Why did you choose these 3  films to be the subject of the appendices?

BB: Primarily because I had access to those files and they supported the information and interviews presented in my chapters. The appendix related to “King Creole” was especially important to me because it presents the day-by-day itinerary of exactly what scenes were shot on what day and in what order. This was important to me because, number one, we now know for certain “Danny” and “Hard Headed Woman” were shot in their entirety. In addition, we can appreciate the sequence of what scenes were filmed in what order. I think this provides another element of understanding into the movie making process and the challenges Elvis faced on a daily basis while making this important film. It was also important to me to know whether a scene was filmed on a back lot, on location, or inside a sound stage.

The other two appendices present selected highlights from various memos I reviewed (“Roustabout” and “Easy Come”). These memos explain, for instance, why the Blackwell/Scott version of the title song for “Roustabout” was not used. Your readers may be surprised when they read the primary reason was not the "dirty connotation" behind some of the lyrics. These details were important to me.

EIN: Colonel Tom Parker - a positive or negative influence in the progression of Elvis’ film career?

BB: The Colonel was short sighted about Elvis’s potential as an actor and I think it was one of Elvis’s biggest regrets as an entertainer. My book offers some insight into the Colonels' thought process in this area. 

I would not blame the Colonel entirely, because Elvis was ultimately  responsible for the course of his movie career. He should have put his foot down more often. I present the facts and the stories and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions on this issue.

EIN: We presume your research uncovered much more about Elvis’ films than is included in "Elvis: Frame By Frame." If this is correct do you have any plans for a follow up volume?

BB: I have enough info to do interesting chapters on several other films. I have not yet decided on what I will be doing with that.

EIN: By the late 1960s the public’s interest in Elvis’ films was waning and his box office receipts falling. A change in artistic direction was attempted. Who made the decision for the change?

BB: Good question. I am not 100% sure of the answer, but it was probably Elvis. The Colonel agreed only because he saw the box office sales dwindling so he knew “Harum Scarum” wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

EIN: Was it a case of too little, too late?

BB: Another good question. I would say yes it was too little, too late. An Elvis film needed three ingredients to succeed from an artistic stand-point: the right screenplay, the right director, and the right supporting cast. Elvis tried to change the direction of his career with “Charro,” “Trouble With Girls,” “Live A Little, Love A Little” and “Change of Habit.”

The primary missing ingredient, with these films, was the right screenplay. There was some decent directors and supporting players working on these films, but the screenplays just weren't right for one reason or another. To develop a career as a respected actor takes time, money and patience. Elvis, the Colonel and the studios weren’t willing to make that investment.

EIN: Artistically, was the change in direction successful?

BB: To some extent yes. I think there are some scenes that work in his later films and some scenes that don’t. Micky Moore told me, and he is entirely correct, when Elvis was surrounded by competent actors it elevated his performance. He rose to the challenge.

EIN: Elvis as a serious actor. Could he have achieved what Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra did?

BB: I think Elvis could have achieved the same status and level of respect as a Kevin Costner, for example. Elvis was less and less interested in doing music in his films and I think, had he lived, he would have done straight dramas, action movies, or a combination of both.

EIN: It is EIN’s opinion that Elvis’ body of film work is often unfairly maligned. What is your view on this issue?

BB: I agree. I love watching his films, that is how I became aware of Elvis. His films sparked my interest to learn more. I think a certain amount of who and what he was, as a man, comes through in his performances - even on the lessor films. If one watches closely, you can catch a glimpse. His films are his primary visual legacy. I've trained myself to ignore all the negative statements I've read and heard about Elvis and his movies.

Poster for Elvis Film Festival held in 1999

EIN: Bill, in your opinion, could Elvis’ film career have been handled any differently?

BB: Absolutely, I wish Elvis put his foot down more often and demanded script approval. I don’t understand, completely, why he signed movie contracts without first having script approval. I would imagine Colonel Parker convinced Elvis that the movie studio people knew best and Elvis just went along.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those conversations between Elvis and the Colonel. The Colonel obviously had a very convincing pitch. Elvis was very smart and understood his audience.  He didn’t want to disappoint his fans.

Elaine Dundy asked a good question in an article I read somewhere, “Why didn’t Elvis have an acting coach?” The answer was Elvis and the people advising him (i.e.the producers) probably felt it would adversely affect his natural performing style. Elvis definitely had an inherent natural ability that Hal Wallis, David Weisbart and others recognized.  None the less, I think an acting coach may have helped towards the later part of his film career with the screenplays that were being chosen for him.

EIN: How should Elvis’ body of film work be remembered?

BB: From the perspective of Hollywood and the movie studios, a tremendous success story. From Elvis' perspective, only a partial success; there were too many forces operating against Elvis to allow him to fulfill his dream. His dream was to be a respected dramatic actor. We were all robbed by Elvis' early demise, because he could have done a lot more. I am happy we have so many hours of Elvis on film to enjoy and remember him by. Elvis’s films are entertaining. His films are his primary visual legacy. We have many recorded examples of Elvis' ability and potential to be an outstanding dramatic actor.

EIN: What are your ideas for future film related projects?

BB: Many people wonder if the Elvis movie out-takes still exist, as do I. This is the final frontier for unreleased Elvis footage. I asked this question to many of the movie producers, cameramen and editors I interviewed. They couldn’t give me a definitive answer, as most of them have been out of the industry for quite some time. Some said "yes –they still exist,"others said "no." But my gut feeling is that they do still exist for most if not all the films. We’ve seen silent out-takes from "Jailhouse Rock" for instance. And I am 95% sure Twentieth Century Fox has the out-takes for "Wild In The Country," "Love Me Tender" and "Flaming Star."

Is there enough interest? How well did the re-edited version of "Elvis: That’s The Way It Is" do? The Sony, Paramount and Fox executives need to be on-board – they need to be convinced it is worth digging through their vaults for an out-take of "Wisdom of the Ages" from "Harum Scarum." I think it’s worth it, I’m sure many would agree. Apparently this can be quite an expensive process. At the very least I’d like to see a DVD with running commentary by the people who worked on some of the films. I know, for instance, there are enough people still around to do justice to "Roustabout," one of my favorite films.

EIN: What is next for Bill Bram?

BB: Right now, I am not sure.

EIN: Bill, Many thanks for taking time out to talk to us.

BB: It was my pleasure.

July 2008

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