Elvis Films FAQ by author by Paul Simpson ('Elvis The Rough Guide') is a recently published 400-page marvellously entertaining look at Elvis’ movie career and with a very engaging agenda covering all aspects of this important part of his legacy.
EIN was extremely impressed with Simpson’s thorough look at this somewhat overlooked part of Elvis’ legacy - but we had some questions we thought needed answering!
Author Paul Simpson kindly agreed to a pre-Christmas interview.
Now Updated with more about Col Parker - plus Elvis and his fight scenes
EIN – Paul thanks for agreeing to an interview at this busy time of year.
Firstly, it’s been almost ten years since your ‘Elvis Rough Guide’ was re-published. What have you been doing since then, and how long have you been working on your book 'Elvis Films FAQ'?
Paul Simpson: The day job: looking after a soccer magazine and a business magazine for Haymarket Publishing. I started Elvis Films FAQ about two years ago. It became a labour of love.
EIN – Elvis’ films were a relatively small part of your ‘Rough Guide To Elvis’ so why did you decide to write an ‘FAQ’ book about Elvis’ films rather than the surely more important Elvis music?
Paul Simpson: Honest answer, because no one asked me to write a book on his music.
Yet the films had always intrigued me. They gave me my first glimpse of Elvis when they ran on British TV and, as I began researching the book, I realised that becoming an actor was the first spark of ambition in Elvis as a boy. Growing up in grinding poverty in the deep South in the 1930s and 1940s, the movies were an escape for Elvis, but they also gave him permission to dream of a different life for him and his family. If he hadn’t have wanted to be the next Tony Curtis or James Dean, he might never have revolutionised popular culture as he did.
EIN – Did you have anything to do with the Mike Eder ‘Elvis Music FAQ’ book released in parallel with yours?
Paul Simpson: No, I knew it was coming out that was all.
EIN – Recently the Elvis book-world seems to have focussed more on the deluxe photo-books like Erik Lorentzen's and Jo Pirzada’s releases. Have you been following the Elvis book market and do you think the time is right for a more text-based book?
Paul Simpson: Absolutely. The books that inspired me – and made me think more deeply about Elvis and the significance of his life, talent and career – weren’t glossy photo tomes they were Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, W.A. Harbinson’s audacious Illustrated Biography (despite the title, the words were even more important than the pictures), Martin Torgoff’s The Complete Elvis (especially Lester Bang’s hilarious fantasy about Dylan meeting Elvis in Vegas), Elaine Dundy’s Elvis And Gladys (even though some of it is a bit odd), Ernst Jorgensen’s book on the music sessions and the first Elvis book I ever read, Jerry Hopkins’ biography. They fired my imagination. It would be good to read new books of that quality about him today. You might think it’s hard to find something new to say but people said that about the Beatles and Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive new book on them, Tune In, has received rave reviews.
Bill Bram’s Frame By Frame, which explores nine of his movies in depth, was an invaluable help to me in my research. It’s sadly out of print but it sheds a lot of insight into Presley’s personality, working life and talent. (see EIN exclusive Bill Bram interview linked below)
EIN – The first five chapters look into Elvis films in detail, so I was stunned by the amount of research you must have done to write another 60 chapters into every alternate aspect of Elvis’ movie career. How on earth did you decide what parts to focus on with these extra themes?
Paul Simpson: Some were obvious – his directors, co-stars and writers – but most just came out of the research and a lifelong obsession with the King.
EIN – Did you have to watch every Elvis movie several times?
Paul Simpson: Yes and it was usually a pleasure.
EIN – Really! - how many times can anyone watch Clambake?
Paul Simpson: I could watch it every year for the rest of my life – although I’d probably fast forward through the Confidence scene.
EIN – Which Elvis movie do you think is the most underrated?
Paul Simpson: The Trouble With Girls is a beguiling, Altmanesque tale of a travelling carnival, with Elvis as the manager of the dizzy troupe. It’s not perfect – Sheree North is encouraged to overact wildly in the sobering up scenes, which drag – but the King gives a charming, fluid performance and interacts beautifully with Marlyn Mason and Edward Andrews. It has a proper soundtrack and Clean Up Your Own Backyard is, for me, his best musical performance in a movie since Trouble in King Creole. Sadly, by the time it was released, the world had stopped watching his films.
EIN – Which Elvis movie do you think is the most overrated?
Paul Simpson: Paradise Hawaiian Style is the worst of the travelogues. Kissin’ Cousins drags with all those durned kittyhawks! They are the only films I find really hard to watch. Even Easy Come Easy Go is less painful on the eye.
EIN – I liked your idea that the momentum for Elvis to actually start making great quality movies was reached at King Creole - but then completely killed off by his going into the army.
What do you imagine might have happened movie-wise had Elvis not gone into the army? Do you really think he could have made something meaty such as ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’ or ‘Touch Of Evil’? What about Elvis in ‘Some Like It Hot’?!
Paul Simpson: Unlikely – if only because Colonel Parker would have been horrified by the idea. Yet as Don Siegel, who did such a good job with Flaming Star, pointed out, it was possible for Elvis to be a singer and an actor. It worked for Crosby, Dino and Sinatra. Even Lee Strasberg, doyen of the Actors Studio, was so intrigued by Elvis he went to the trouble to watch Wild In the Country. He felt it was a waste of Presley’s talent, but the fact that he bothered to see it shows that Presley was not, at that stage, a joke in Hollywood.
Presley was also undone by a change in popular culture. The early 1960s, pre-Beatles, were much less innovative than the late 1950s. For Hal Wallis, who had invested so much time, faith and craft in King Creole, putting him in something like G.I. Blues was a safer option. One of the consequences of the kind of success Presley enjoyed, is that it encourages conservatism. To outsiders, it looks as if an artist that so popular can do anything. Yet from the inside, it can be imprisoning. If you’re going to seel two million copies of the Blue Hawaii soundtrack, why risk all that and do something edgier like Flaming Star?
That was Parker’s philosophy and one that Wallis – and other producers – came to endorse. The only party that didn’t think that was the route to go was Elvis himself. As Tony Bennett said once, Elvis became a money making machine and that ultimately undid him.
It didn’t help that when he did make films as good as Flaming Star the studios marketed them as if they were the same old fare.
EIN - Elvis' legacy covers all bases - televison, fashion, most importantly his music - and then even something as crazy as jumpsuits - why do you think Elvis' films are worthy of a stand-alone book who so many in the sixties were so lame?
Paul Simpson: They were integral to his life, ambitions and the best – Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Follow That Dream, Blue Hawaii, Roustabout, Viva Las Vegas, The Trouble With Girls – stand on their own merit. Many of the others – especially Wild In The Country, Change Of Habit, Kid Galahad, even Speedway – have redeeming moments. They gave us some bad songs but plenty of great ones, not just the obvious numbers but Young And Beautiful, Crawfish, Clean Up Your Own Backyard, Bossa Nova Baby. And some hidden gems – Suppose, Sand Castles, I Don’t Want To, Stay Away, City By Night etc. I also think the way the movies were made sheds a lot of light on the general workings of Elvis Presley Inc, the corporate machine.
EIN – Your book also discusses Elvis film documentaries and later DVDs. For some reason you mention the excellent "He Touched Me" Gospel DVD yet don’t note anything about ‘Elvis 56 In The Beginning’? Surely this is another key exploration of Elvis history not to be missed?
Paul Simpson: Yes I should have, that was an unforgivable omission.
EIN – A trickier question. What on earth happened to ‘Hard Headed Woman’ in King Creole. The main single yet basically cut from the film?
Paul Simpson: There is extensive debate about this but Gordon Stoker has said it was cut right back because the writer, Claude De Metrius, wouldn’t give Parker and Hill & Range a cut of the royalties. This might be true although he did write Mean Woman Blues and Dixieland Rock which both made the final print. I suspect it was cut for more mundane reasons: at 116 minutes, the movie had a longer running time than the usual Presley film. Producers often cut the wrong number – dropping Sand Castles but keeping A Dog’s Life in Paradise Hawaiian Style – so that may well be what happened.
EIN – I loved your often-humorous look at the sillier side of Elvis’ movies. How on earth did you come up with ideas like "How To get Cast In An Elvis Movie", "How Long Can Actresses gaze adoringly at Elvis While He Sings to Them" and even a chapter on them speeding up the one song ‘Girl Happy’ for release?
Paul Simpson: Usually from the research. Joan O’Brien talked to Tom Lisanti about the difficulty of acting as the King’s leading lady when he was singing to you on screen. The speeding up of Girl Happy has been a subject of hilarious, intelligent debate in those parts of the internet that are forever Elvis and it seemed to me to typify the rather misguided way RCA, Parker and the studios tried to remake Presley to make him more ‘relevant’ after the Beatles.
EIN – In your exploration of Elvis’ films what were the new facts you discovered that most surprised you?
Paul Simpson: That Jerzy Kosinski wanted him to play the Peter Sellers role in the movie Being There. Apart from that, exploring the movie songs led me to the Aberbach brothers and Freddy Bienstock, aka Freddy the Freeloader as Elvis called him. I hadn’t really paid enough attention to that aspect of the Presley industry and I found that fascinating – they way the ran a conveyor belt that sometimes had songwriters like Tepper and Bennett producing five songs in one afternoon.
EIN: One of your extra chapters talks about the importance of the Fight in an Elvis movie. It seems incredible that it is actually hard to name an Elvis movie without a fight sequence.
Elvis loved karate as a sport, but don't you think that the Elvis fight became an demeaning and unnecessary joke in his later films?
Paul Simpson: In the rebellious 1950s, a good fight was integral to a certain kind of teen movie - and they seemed to suit such films as Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Later, they seemed to send a coded message to Elvis's male fans – he may be singing to children but he hasn't gone completely soft – and the star seemed to enjoy making them and staging them.
As budgets shrank and plots changed/grew stale, the fights looked less convincing. Sometimes, directors realised this and played them for laughs – in Speedway, Taurog has Elvis sending a guy along the hotel lobby floor and into the elevator with one punch. Yet these scenes probably remained the one aspect of moviemaking that Elvis never tired of. Indeed, you could say Stay Away, Joe is the ultimate Elvis fight movie because eventually fisticuffs completely take over the picture which ends with a hell of a fight that destroys the Lightcloud family home. In Live A Little Love A Little, he looks more at ease punching Red West than romancing Michelle Carey.
My favourite fight scenes are: Elvis preparing to defend himself with broken bottles in King Creole and defending his mother's honour in Flaming Star. Don Siegel stages the latter fight brilliantly, it's brutal, dirty and emotionally charged. The way Elvis, as Pacer, leaves the scene of the fight is magnificent. You can see the quiet pride in a mission accomplished in the way his body moves. For me, that's non-verbal acting of the highest order.
EIN – I’m one who believes that Elvis would have had a more satisfying career with a new manager after his return from the army. Surely the proposed 1962 US tour would have been better for Elvis’ career? Yet your book in some ways exonerates Col Parker. Are fans wrong for always blaming Col Parker?
Paul Simpson: I didn’t try to exonerate him, I just wanted readers to make up their own minds. Let’s be clear, I’m with Dave Marsh on the Colonel. It takes a peculiar kind of genius to stand that close to someone as great as Elvis was and completely miss the point. Parker deserves the credit for making Elvis but then he unmade him with his unimaginative strategy of doing one thing that worked – the movies, live concerts – for so long they stopped working.
I think Parker viewed everyone – except possibly his wife – as a rube waiting for him, as a crafty carny, to con. And I think he saw Elvis that way, hence his ever-increasing slice of the action. I’m not saying he could have prevented Elvis’s death but the punishing concert schedule Parker arranged certainly contributed to it. His relationship with Elvis was truly mysterious as that story about him howling like a stuck pig when his client forgot his birthday illustrates.
EIN: You said that... "It takes a peculiar kind of genius to stand that close to someone as great as Elvis was and completely miss the point. Parker deserves the credit for making Elvis but then he unmade him with his unimaginative strategy of doing one thing that worked – the movies, live concerts – for so long they stopped working." -
but Elvis fans commonly believe that when it came to Elvis' movies Parker just took the money and ran.
As Elvis directors have stated, "the best way to keep Parker happy was to include a dozen songs".
Did Col Parker really contribute any 'Technical Advice' to Elvis' films, since the film credits imply that the scoundrel was actually paid money for this role?
Paul Simpson: There is conflicting testimony on how much influence Parker had - and how much/what kind of technical advice he dispensed on the movies. He had very little sway on Viva las Vegas until near the end, when he intervened to correct what he saw as George Sidney's bias to Ann-Margret, yet on Roustabout, he charged $25,000 for dredging up memories of his carny past and quite a few of his suggestions made it into the film.
The most succinct way of answering the question is to say that he did give advice but it varied widely from film to film. It was his idea to work with Sam 'King of the Quickies' Katzman, a decision he regretted after Harum Scarum. He could – and did – use his influence with the studios to achieve his goals – he may have been responsible for the sudden insertion of more songs into Wild In The Country – and he suggested some of the titles (Clambake). Yet on other films, like It Happened At The World's Fair, The Trouble With Girls and Change Of Habit, he barely seemed to have any impact at all.
Part of his technical advice may have entailed keeping a close eye on Elvis on set, either personally or through his proxies, and, as the films wore on, making sure his increasingly reluctant star turned up reasonably on schedule and in the right frame of mind.
History does suggest that Parker's line that all he did was sign contracts and count the revenue was, as is so often the case with the 'Colonel', pure hokum.
EIN – I loved your comment, "By the time Norman Taurog directed 'Live A Little Love A Little' he was nearly blind! But if you want to see what an Elvis film might be like without Norman Taurog's involvement then check out Paradise, Hawaiian Style!"
Surely the movie companies realised that Elvis deserved better directors after the success of Viva Las Vegas?
Paul Simpson: The movie companies did, but I think Taurog was almost part of the package. Irwin Winkler did try not to use him on Double Trouble – to the point of walking off the lot – but they couldn’t sway MGM who, presumably, had asked Parker. For the Colonel, Taurog was the ideal director: on time, on budget, just demanding enough of his increasingly alienated star and not liable to have any funny creative ideas.
George Sidney did a fantastic job on Viva Las Vegas but he committed two unpardonable sins as far as Parker was concerned: giving too much screen time to Ann-Margret and going over budget – and that ate directly into the fees Elvis and his manager earned from the film.
EIN - Elvis was the greatest entertainer in history - why was he so weak as to not say "NO" to puerile crap like 'Old MacDonald's Farm' or 'Queenie Wahine'?
Paul Simpson: Because, as Sam Phillips observed, in day to day life he suffered from a colossal lack of normal self-confidence. Parker preyed on that with cautionary tales about stars who had gone broke or disappeared and encouraged Presley to do as he was told. In fairness to Elvis, he did walk out of the studio before finishing Old MacDonald but you’re right, he should never have recorded that – or quite a few other songs – or performed them on film.
EIN – Both Stella Stevens and Marianna Hill noted their contempt for Elvis. Don’t you think this was plain jealously because Elvis didn’t want to get them in bed?
Paul Simpson: That’s a bit harsh. Stevens and Hill both felt that acting in an Elvis film was a professional indignity that could endanger their careers and they weren’t wrong: Stevens is best known for Girls! Girls! Girls!, The Nutty Professor and Peckinpah’s lovely Western Ballad Of Cable Hogue but never quite became the star she looked destined to become. Hill spent three years on TV after Paradise Hawaiian Style and is now probably best known for being assaulted by Clint in High Plains Drifter. Their comments probably also reflect Hollywood’s professional snobbery about Elvis.
EIN – Unbelievably some fans love Elvis' fluffy soundtrack songs over material that we would consider far more worthy. The G.I. Blues soundtrack sold far more that the creatively satisfying ‘Elvis Is Back’. Do Elvis music fans have no taste? Is it their fault that Elvis was dragged along the god-awful 60’s travelogues treadmill?
Paul Simpson: Fans have to take some of the blame, G.I.Blues also outsold From Elvis In Memphis which, in artistic terms, is plain ludicrous. Yet Parker’s insistence on not putting hit singles like It’s Now Or Never on the albums didn’t help either.
EIN - 'Do The Clam' charted #4 in Australia, going higher than Love Me Tender or Kentucky Rain – You described that song for the choreographer as a "bad day in the office" - So is there any hope for us?!
Paul Simpson: Probably not. I must admit that during the book I often found myself singing or humming Harem Holiday and I have a sneaking affection for songs like Fort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerce, One Boy Two Little Girls, He’s Your Uncle Not Your Dad, El Toro and Beach Boy Blues, to name just a few guilty pleasures from the films.
EIN – Elvis’ soundtracks were in general very lame. So in your opinion, what Elvis soundtrack songs were that bad as to have a negative effect on his career?
Paul Simpson: Smorgasbord, Old MacDonald, Queenie Wahine, A Dog’s Life, Double Trouble, Dominic, Frankie And Johnny (more the arrangement and the performance than the song itself), Sound Advice, There’s No Room To Rhumba, Barefoot Ballad, all come to mind.
Hal Wallis, Elvis, The Colonel
EIN – So do we blame Col Parker or RCA?
Paul Simpson: Parker mainly. Joan Deary said that as soon as the first movie contract was signed, RCA realised they had essentially lost the creative direction of Presley’s career to Parker and the studios – that became especially true in the 1960s, when the films were being churned out at the rate of three a year. Steve Sholes hated may of the songs but obviously felt there was nothing he could do.
EIN – Tepper/Bennett composed 43 songs that Elvis recorded for his movies. They are probably pulling more royalties that Otis Blackwell did for his classics ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ ‘Fever’, ‘All Shook Up’, Return To Sender’ etc etc, this is surely a major artistic unfairness?
Paul Simpson: In Sid and Roy’s defence, they did give us New Orleans. But nothing they did is on a par with Blackwell’s best songs so yes it is unfair.
EIN – I was interested in how you looked at Elvis films as a parallel to his own life.
In 'Wild in the Country' you note Elvis’ character, "It's like I'm always walking around with a cupful of anger, trying not to spill it." That line, uttered by Elvis in his seventh movie, reflected his real personality much more accurately than most fans would have suspected at the time.
… There must also have been anger about the way his movie career was progressing."
In 1960 Elvis’ career had once again hit an all-time high. The money was rolling in and he was Number One once again, so was this the point Elvis should have made a stand for better movie scripts? Did he let his fans down?
Paul Simpson: He let himself down. I’m with Bruce Springsteen on Elvis: he gave the world more than we had any right to expect from one man.
EIN – Jerry Leiber said a pertinent comment in an interview. He said that Col Parker asked them to sign a contract that was a blank piece of paper - and so discussed it with partner Mike Stoller.
"Breaking up with the Presley outfit was like throwing away a license to print money. After all this work, I really hated to do it, but I was really offended. I told Mike Stoller I didn't want to work with this jerk (Col Parker) anymore.
I asked Mike, "How do you feel about this?" Now Mike is a very measured and modest with very good manners. He paused for a moment, and then he said, Jer ....tell him to fuck himself!"
Was Col Parker really that scared of creative musicians getting to "his boy"?
Paul Simpson: Absolutely. He was incensed that Leiber and Stoller broke through the chain of command to sell Elvis the lovely ballad Don’t. Their suggestion to Jean Aberbach that their friend Nelson Algren would love to work on a film with Presley effectively led to them being exiled from ‘Elvis World’. I’m not sure whether, as Dundy suggests, Parker hired Nick Adams to spy on Elvis but it wouldn’t surprise me. The pity is that Elvis, who felt at utterly at home with musicians, felt so insecure among actors and directors that he often withdrew from them. He had opportunities to engage with Wallis, George Sidney and Gordon Douglas, who did such a sublime job on Follow That Dream, but he didn’t and that isolation was one of the reasons he never achieved his goals as an actor.
EIN – Everyone knows the story of Barbra Streisand and the ‘A Star Is Born’ offer. However I cannot see Elvis really wanting to play a "fading star with issues of drunkenness, drugs and love affairs" however appropriate that might have been at the time.
Should Elvis have taken up the challenge?
Paul Simpson: Yes and Jerry Schilling, who was there when the offer was made, told me he desperately wanted to but he knew instantly how many obstacles he would have to overcome to play the part. I love Kris Kristofferson but think Presley would have been a fascinating match for Streisand. You can be kind to Parker and say he was worried that his client’s problems might have been exposed on set. Or you can say that his demand for a hefty fee and top billing reflected his characteristic shortsightedness. Could he not see that a starring role in a film of that magnitude would, at that point, have been the challenge Presley would have relished – and focused on – and, in financial; terms, have been a massive boost for the King’s record sales?
EIN – Is Tarantino’s ‘True Romance’ the best movie Elvis never made or is it David Lynch’s ‘Wild At Heart’?
Paul Simpson: The Fugitive Kind is probably the best movie Elvis never made. Based on Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending which, Dundy convincingly argues, was inspired by the playwright’s interest in Presley.
The film’s director Sidney Lumet, after watching Elvis on set, always regretted he didn’t cast Elvis though he knew that such a decision would have sparked a lot of critical sneers.
After that I’d say Mystery Train, True Romance and Wild At Heart.
EIN – Do you ever want to see an Elvis film again?
Paul Simpson: Absolutely, am looking forward to seeing the King on Bluray – although I think it may be a while before someone releases Charro! In that format.