'The Elusive Norman Taurog'

Paul Simpson investigates the legacy of Norman Taurog - to try and discover why he was chosen to direct more Elvis Presley films than anybody

EIN Spotlight by Paul Simpson -

Who was Norman Taurog? - It is a legitimate question because he remains one of the most elusive characters in Elvis Presley’s remarkable career. Even in Starmaker, the memoirs of Hal B. Wallis, for whom Taurog produced six Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movies and three Presley flicks, he seems a bit player.

Taurog is not the kind of director to be revered at film school - and film author David Quinlan describes his Presley films as "the only dull spots" in the filmmaker’s career.

So what was Taurog's background and how did he get to direct so many Elvis movies?

In this EIN Spotlight respected author Paul Simpson takes a detailed look at Taurog's career...

UPDATED below - with some fascinating background information thanks to EIN reader Frank Locke.
'The Elusive Norman Taurog' - Who was Norman Taurog?: Marty Lacker read our spotlight (below) and commented..
... To answer your question as to who Norman Taurog was, he was one of the nicest and kindest people we knew in Hollywood and Elvis and most of us guys really liked and respected him.
He did 9 Elvis movies because Elvis liked working with him, in fact Mr Taurog was almost like a father figure to Elvis because he really cared about Elvis personally and his well being unlike others in Hollywood we worked with.
I never heard a disparaging word about him from anyone.
 - Marty

The elusive Norman Taurog

Who was Norman Taurog?

It is a legitimate question because he remains one of the most elusive characters in Elvis Presley’s remarkable career. Even in Starmaker, the memoirs of Hal B. Wallis, for whom Taurog produced six Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movies and three Presley flicks, he seems a bit player.

Taurog is not the kind of director to be revered at film school. Part of his enduring appeal for Hollywood – where he made 180 movies – was that he lacked the usual directorial vices. There is no evidence that he was a great womaniser (two marriages is modest for Hollywood), hit the bottle or suffered from delusions of his own genius. No cult of the auteur surrounds him – anyone who studies his work for hidden messages, stylistic motifs or a consistent artistic vision will do so in vain.

Elvis gets presented a ham (for his acting?) - while Norman Taurog looks on..

In his respected guide to film directors, David Quinlan describes Taurog as a "prolific, efficient director of entertainers – as opposed to actors" and describes his Presley films as "the only dull spots" in the filmmaker’s career.

In his book Elvis’s Favorite Director: The Amazing 52-Year Career Of Norman Taurog, writer and producer Michael A. Hoey, who worked on five Elvis movies, depicts the director as an astute filmmaker with a knack for getting the best out of material and a "talented director with a marvellous sense of story". Yet to others, he was a competent journeyman who, given a sow’s ear, seldom delivered a silk purse. Gene De Ruelle, second assistant director on Double Trouble, said Taurog reminded him of golfer Lee Trevino’s quote: "The older I get, the better I used to be." In his view: "He was engrossed in himself. By and large, if the actors didn’t mistake and the camera was okay, he printed."

Taurog’s pragmatism impressed Colonel Tom Parker, who scrutinised production costs as ardently as box-office returns. His recommendation for the director to film Blue Hawaii – "Mr Taurog doesn’t watch the clock, is a hard worker and knows what he’s doing" – certainly defined his expectations, and partly explains why such gifted directors as Michael Curtiz, Don Siegel, Gordon Douglas and George Sidney only ever made one Elvis movie.

The clinching argument, for Parker, was that "Taurog … works very well with Elvis, Elvis has great respect for him." That was partly true. Presley had asked for Curtiz, who had inspired him in King Creole, to direct G.I. Blues. The Hungarian genius was busy (and died of cancer in 1962). And so it came to pass that Taurog, who had shot his first movie in the silent era would make nine Presley pictures, more than any other director.

Ironically, the most vivid vignette we have of Taurog is from Peter Biskind’s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a classic account of Hollywood’s travails in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966, when Double Trouble was in production at MGM, producer Irwin Winkler shocked Parker by asking to meet the director. Waiting in front of the Thalberg Building the following day at 11am, Winkler was astonished to see an elderly gentleman totter out of a car. When the producer congratulated Taurog on having a chauffeur, the director replied: "I’d like to drive myself, but I can’t see in one eye and the other one’s going real fast." (At this point, he still had three Presley movies to complete: Double Trouble, Speedway and Live A Little Love A Little.)

Biskind’s anecdote illustrates how far Presley’s stock had fallen by 1966 – even at MGM, which had signed him to a new four-picture contract in January. It also highlights why Taurog, who was 67 when Winkler met him, was no longer at the top of his game.


Director Norman Taurog, Elvis and Juliet Prowse on the set of G.I. Blues

An on-set report on G.I. Blues, by Murray Schumach for the New York Times, portrays Taurog more sympathetically, saying he had a "reputation for knowing how to work with child actors and young actors". The director tells Schumach: "Presley is a natural for the movies. There is no stiffness with this boy. He is the most relaxed boy you could want. He reminds me of Crosby and Como. He is a good listener. When you have a good listener, you have a good actor."

The Bing Crosby comparison is intriguing. Taurog had directed the crooner. Blue Hawaii, the most successful artistic and commercial collaboration between Elvis and Taurog, was an entertaining take on the Crosby musical comedy formula with the King as Bing.

As a young cinemagoer in Mississippi, Presley had enjoyed some Crosby musicals but the template, as Elvis’s friend Jerry Schilling told me, "suited the Colonel – they were the kind of films he’d enjoyed as a younger man – more than Elvis."

Born in Chicago on 23 February 1889, Taurog was a child actor in the theatre and made his mark in movies as a teenager. In 1920, he started directing two-reel silent comedies, many starring the versatile Larry Semon, whose inventive slapstick would influence Laurel and Hardy. Lucky Boy (1928), a Jazz Singer-style talkie, was his first feature.

By this time, the director probably already looked, as Quinlan puts it, "like a minor character from one of his own films … round-faced, blue-jowled with a bee-stung lip, a wisp of hair and large, inquisitive eyes", he could have played a "querulous minor gangster".

The poster for Skippy, his oscar winning film that starred his nephew, Jackie Cooper.

The 1930s was probably Taurog’s golden age. He won the best director Oscar for Skippy, an adaptation of a comic strip about a mischievous but well-intentioned boy. He also made Boys Town (with Spencer Tracy in Oscar-winning form as a priest building a home for orphaned boys and young Mickey Rooney impressing as a young delinquent); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (probably the best movie adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic), the charming Deanna Durbin musical Mad About Music and We’re Not Dressing, a superior screwball comedy featuring Crosby, Carole Lombard and Ethel Merman.

The 1940s were not as rewarding but Taurog still made some good films, notably Broadway Melody Of 1940 (in which Eleanor Powell nearly outshines Fred Astaire); Girl Crazy (one of the best Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland collaborations); The Beginning Of The End (a strange docudrama about the atomic bomb) and the entertaining That Midnight Kiss, in which Lanza, one of Elvis’s great vocal idols, got his first leading role as – of all things – a singing truck driver.


In the 1950s, Taurog made Room For One More, a delightful family comedy starring Cary Grant; six Martin-Lewis movies (of which Jumping Jacks and The Stooges are probably the best); The Stars Are Singing (an above average Rosemary Clooney musical) and The Birds And The Bees (a decent musical remake of The Lady Eve).

After that, even Quinlan loses interest in Taurog. After the misfiring Visit To A Small Planet, a Gore Vidal satire smothered by Jerry’s Lewis (below, right) frantic slapstick, Wallis asked him to direct his new protégé, Elvis.


Taurog had a useful knack of giving untried actors confidence. Directed by him in Dr Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine (1965), Susan Hart recalled: "I don’t think I had anybody assure me the way Norman Taurog did to make me feel completely at ease."

Biskind’s image of Taurog as a doddery old gent is slightly deceptive. On Skippy, when his nephew Jackie Cooper couldn’t cry on demand, he threatened to take the boy’s pet to the dog pound. He’d endured Tracy’s depressive drinking during Boy’s Town and kept his cool when Lanza, discovering the joys of bourbon with David Niven, misbehaved on the set of The Toast Of New Orleans.

Taurog wasn’t as stern on Presley’s movies but sometimes laid down the law, insisting his star try another take. On Tickle Me, when Elvis and actress Linda Rogers (who had previously dated) were teasing each other during a scene, Taurog admonished them: "I don’t know what you guys have going on between you but Elvis, look here at the camera".

That said, there are few anecdotes to suggest that Taurog tried to help his star act – as, for example, William A. Graham did (to Parker’s consternation) on the set of the star’s last feature film, Change Of Habit.

Would the movies have been better if Taurog had been more confrontational? Curtiz’s autocratic artistry brought the best out of Elvis in King Creole but that was a classy project, with a decent script and a stellar cast. Would such tough tactics have worked on something as inconsequential as Spinout?

To be fair, Taurog was hardly in a strong negotiating possession with MGM or Parker. How many studios, in the late 1960s, would hire a partially sighted septuagenarian director whose recent CV had been dominated by exploitation flicks (apart from Elvis and Martin and Lewis, he also made star vehicles for Pat Boone, Troy Donahue, Frankie Avalon, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), musical comedies and spoofs such as Dr Goldfoot And the Bikini Machine, a cult classic fondly remembered for its army of bikini-clad robots and a decent theme tune, The Bikini Machine, sung by the Supremes.

At MGM, he became the de facto Elvis director, as Winkler discovered when he tried to get TV sitcom director Rod Amateu to shoot Double Trouble. Winkler and fellow producer Judd Bernard were so convinced Taurog wasn’t right for the job, they quit the set in protest, finally backing down when MGM told them, Bernard said: "Either Taurog does it or there is no movie."

Taurog’s first Presley picture, G.I. Blues, was a fast, painless hit, a watchable musical comedy glowing with old school Hollywood production values in which the star looks engaged, especially opposite Juliet Prowse, an unconventional, charismatic leading lady.

Blue Hawaii perfected the travelogue formula, with gorgeous scenery, pretty girls, enough conflict to justify a fight scene, and an album’s worth of songs. Some numbers – especially Can’t Help Falling In Love and Hawaiian Wedding Song – are beautifully staged. In between, blandness is a constant threat – which may explain why Taurog allowed Angela Lansbury to ham it up as Elvis’s mother. Although Hoey accuses her of overplaying, the movie is more entertaining whenever she’s on screen.

Taurog instinctively understood the formula for the "Presley travelogues", as the star called them. When Hal Kanter rewrote Blue Hawaii, he suggested that decent pineapple boss Jack (John Archer) should turn out to be Elvis’s father. Already uncomfortable with the idea of his hero returning to Hawaii from Europe and not visiting his parents for four whole days, Taurog – probably rightly – nixed that idea.

The monstrous success of Blue Hawaii meant the die was cast. Even as scripts, songs and cast deteriorated, Taurog persevered, bringing a professional focus, a work ethic, and a filmmaking sensibility honed during the 1930s and 1940s’ heyday of the studio system.

Girls! Girls! Girls! (1963), a musical comedy that, as it accelerated to a confused denouement, hinted that budgets were already being trimmed, was Taurog’s last film for Wallis. It’s not clear why they parted ways but Wallis would ask John Rich (Roustabout, Easy Come Easy Go) and Michael Moore (Paradise Hawaiian Style) to make his last three Elvis films. The best of these, Roustabout, was commercially and creatively more satisfying than Taurog’s later offerings.


Tickle Me (1965) marked a departure for Taurog. Up to this point, within obvious limits, his Elvis movies had had some vague allegiance to realism. It Happened At The World’s Fair (1963), an underrated Presley film, being a case in point, making the most of superior production values and a better than average cast (Joan O’Brien, Gary Lockwood and Yvonne Craig and charming child star Vicky Tiu) and a plot in which the hero’s character actually changes (he finally applies to join the space programme).

Yet from Tickle Me onwards, Taurog seemed to gently send up the formula he had helped perfect (often by taking elements from screwball comedy or throwing in some slapstick) while keeping the action moving – and the songs coming – fast enough to distract the audience

This strategy succeeded in Tickle Me, a fascinating amalgam of the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis and Elvis. Taurog encouraged Elvis to send himself up nicely, cast Jack Mullaney, an ersatz Jerry Lewis, as the King’s buddy and maintained a brisk tempo. It worked reasonably well in Spinout too but not for Double Trouble. An audacious attempt to combine music, comedy, mystery and a talking parrot, Elvis’s 24th movie needed focus, not the dismal, dated slapstick of the Wiere brothers, a trio of bumbling detectives imitating the King’s hero Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

By the time he came to direct Elvis, Taurog was more at ease with music (staging such numbers as Didja Ever, Hawaiian Wedding Song and He’s Your Uncle Not Your Dad with aplomb – and happily recording the inevitable, bizarre dance scenes in Spinout and Speedway) and comedy than drama or action.


Norman Taurog, with Michael Hoey, Elvis and Nancy Sinatra on the set of Speedway

His race scenes in Speedway were some of the dullest in Elvis’s movie career although, to be fair, he could barely see the cars when he shot them. His instinct, when presented with a fight scene, was to play for laughs – the punchy exceptions being It Happened At The World’s Fair and Live A Little Love A Little.

Yet you can’t fault Taurog for lack of effort. His best Presley films – Blue Hawaii, It Happened At The World’s Fair, G.I Blues – have a momentum that’s hard to resist. Even on Double Trouble, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Live A Little Love A Little, Spinout, Speedway and Tickle Me, he is not phoning in his direction. As Tony Pellum notes in his Flickdom review of Double Trouble: "Taurog, the workhorse, was perhaps the only Elvis director who could have shot ‘Old MacDonald’ as if it meant something." To see what Taurog’s nine movies could have been without him, watch Paradise, Hawaiian Style, a below-par travelogue in which, for the first time, the King’s discontent is virtually visible on screen.

That said, the New York Herald Tribune’s review of It Happened At The World’s Fair as an "inoffensive bit of escapist fluff … like a marshmallow frappe with a musical topping" could be applied to many Taurog/Elvis films.

More background on Director Norman Taurog --- Thanks to EIN reader Frank Locke

Child actor Jackie Cooper was Norman Taurog's nephew, which was correctly noted in the "Skippy" photo. Jackie Cooper wrote his autobiography in the 1970s. It was titled "Please Don't Shoot My Dog" and it related the tale of what Taurog did to get his nephew to cry. Needless to say, it wasn't threatening to take his dog to the pound. And what follows is one of the ugliest stories of child abuse I have ever read.

It was a threat to shoot and kill Cooper's dog if he didn't cry for a particular scene. It was an act that today would've landed Taurog in jail for what he did to Cooper. Cooper had a problem when it came to crying scenes in his movies, and on one particular occasion, Taurog made the threat with the blessing of Cooper's grandmother, who was on the set as Cooper's guardian. When Cooper failed to cry on command, Taurog picked up his dog and with a gun in hand, and his grandmother, walked outside of the set, where Cooper heard a shot and then the yelping of his dog. He figured he had been conned but the trick worked, Cooper broke down and cried and the scene was completed. Only trouble was, Cooper continued crying after the scene was completed. And cried for a good long time.

He was so traumatized and in shock over what happened, that he had to be given a shot just to get him to calm down and go to sleep. His beloved mother, who was in poor, deteriorating health, made the effort from that moment on to always be with her son on the set and to work with him for crying scenes.

Cooper never related what his mother's relationship with her mother and with Taurog was like after that scene. I imagine it couldn't have been too good. And as the movie studio was MGM and under the eyes of Samuel Goldwyn, Taurog and Cooper's grandmother dodged arrest. Goldwyn had ordered studio doctors to prescribe Judy Garland drugs to help control her weight. It was Goldwyn who started Judy down that long, destructive road that would lead to her death in 1969 at age 47.

Whatever one thinks of Taurog, his methods were a little unusual. He was good at his craft and perhaps he learned in the 30s that you can push an actor, especially a child actor too far. Cooper and Taurog had a complicated relationship that continued after that incident. Cooper never knew who his father was and related a tale of talking to his uncle not long before his mother died, to thank him for something. What it was, he never knew. He wondered if his uncle had helped save his mother from a bad marriage or if Taurog was in fact his dad? He never found an answer. Cooper's mother died when he was 19. One can't read that section of his book and not wonder how could adults be so cruel to kids back in those days, especially kids who became the breadwinners and meal ticket for their families.

The rest of Cooper's book wasn't as bad as that section and even as an adult studio executive, he saw parents and family members who did the exact opposite of his and Coogan's family members: adult family members or guardians who walked around on eggshells around their star kids. He thought that extreme was just as bad as the one he had endured. He kept in touch with Taurog, up to his uncle's death, but whatever he felt about him, he kept it to himself. If you can find a copy of Cooper's autobiography, buy it.

It had some humorous stories and observations about adult stars he worked with as a child, some he liked (such as June Marlowe, the actress who played 'Miss Crabtree' in the "Our Gang" comedy shorts), some he did not (Wallace Beery). Anyone thinking about pushing their child out to be a star should be required to read that book. And I'm not saying that Taurog was a bad man. The scene in question had to be done and he had tried other things to get Cooper to cry before pulling that trick and nothing had worked. Cooper's reaction had to have frightened him too and I don't think he ever tried repeating it on another child star. Once was enough
- Frank

What you can fault Taurog for is lack of imagination. Rich (Roustabout) and Sidney (Viva Las Vegas) gave their formula movies more style, range and conviction and Gordon Douglas’s Follow That Dream was more quirkily distinctive than anything Taurog made with Presley.

Taurog’s ninth Elvis movie is the most intriguing. Live A Little Love A Little was a full-blown attempt to revive the screwball comedy he knew and adored – and update the King’s image (he even goes to bed with his leading lady, Michelle Carey). Despite some familiar absurdities, Taurog’s swansong has many moments that are memorable for the right reasons, and a dream sequence in which Elvis sings with a man dressed as a dog. Shaken out of his recent on-screen lethargy, Elvis relishes his scenes with rival tycoons Don Porter and Rudy Vallee.

Taurog retired after that, becoming a director of the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, and bearing his ill health – blindness and circulatory problems – with grace, courage and humour before his death, on 7 April 1981, at the age of 82. The fact that Elvis sometimes visited him in Hollywood in the 1970s suggests the King felt no ill will towards his former director for his Hollywood hell.

Yet Taurog wasn’t, as Hoey suggests, Presley’s favourite director. The rapport between star and moviemaker helped them endure their share of professional indignities. But it was Michael Curtiz who, as Elvis said, taught him what being a film director really meant. It’s not Taurog’s fault, but if the King had made nine movies with Curtiz, he might be more highly regarded as an actor today.

Spotlight written by Paul Simpson (images by Piers Beagley)
-Copyright EIN March 2016

Paul Simpson is the author of Elvis Films FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The King In Hollywood

EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.


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(Note - If you don't use outlook express simply email piers@elvisinfonet.com )

'Elvis Films FAQ' Book Review: Elvis' Hollywood years are full of mystery, and supposedly 'Elvis Films FAQ' covers them all! Elvis Films FAQ by author Paul Simpson explores his best and worst moments as an actor, analyses the bizarre autobiographical detail that runs through so many of his films, and reflects on what it must be like to be idolized by millions around the world yet have to make a living singing about dogs, chambers of commerce, and fatally naive shrimps.
After all if Elvis Presley had not wanted to be a movie star, he would never have single-handedly revolutionized popular culture.
Yet this aspect of his phenomenal career has been much maligned and misunderstood – partly because the King himself once referred to his 33 movies as a rut he had got stuck in just off Hollywood Boulevard.

It is a mightly entertaining book - but go here as EIN's Piers Beagley investigates to see whether this new book by author Paul Simpson really answers all the questions you need to know ....

(Book Reviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)



DON'T MISS these recent, previous fascinating EIN Spotlights by Paul Simpson

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Interview with 'Elvis Films FAQ' author Paul Simpson: "Elvis Films FAQ"  was reviewed by EIN as one of the best Elvis books published in 2013... "Paul Simpson examines every angle of Elvis’ film career and writes about it in a very engaging and enjoyable style. The real triumph of this book is that it will make you want to watch all of Elvis’ films one more time! Highly recommended."

While Elvis' Hollywood years are full of mystery, and Elvis Films FAQ covers them all! Elvis Films FAQ explains everything you want to know about the whys and wherefores of the singer-actor's bizarre celluloid odyssey; or, as Elvis said, "I saw the movie and I was the hero of the movie."
"Elvis Films FAQ" was without doubt one of the best Elvis books published in 2013 and EIN wanted to know more from its author Paul Simpson.
(Interviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)


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