Hal Wallis and Elvis Presley

By: Elvis Australia
Source: www.elvis.com.au
May 2, 2010

Hal B. Wallis, C.B.E., was born, Harold Brent Wallis on 14 September 1899 in Chicago. He died on October 5, 1986. He was an Academy Award-winning American motion picture producer. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1922 where he found work as part of the publicity department at Warner Bros. in 1923. Hal Wallis received sixteen Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, winning for Casablanca in 1943. For his consistently high quality of motion picture production, he was twice honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He was also nominated for seven Golden Globe awards. He won two Golden Globe awards awards for Best Picture. In 1975, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement.

Within a few years, Wallis became involved in the production end of the business and would eventually become head of production at Warners. In a career that spanned more than fifty years, he was involved with the production of more than 400 feature-length movies. Wallis left Warner Bros. in 1944, after a clash with Jack Warner over Warner's acceptance of the Best Picture Oscar to Casablanca, to work as an independent producer, enjoying considerable success both commercially and critically. Among his financial hits were the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, and several of Elvis Presley's movies. ; Loving You 1957, King Creole 1958, G.I. Blues 1960, Blue Hawaii 1961, Girls!, Girls!, Girls! 1962, Fun In Acapulco 1963, Viva Las Vegas 1964, Roustabout 1964, Paradise Hawaiian Style 1966 and his last eith Elvis - Easy Come, Easy Go in 1967.

Among the many significant movies he produced was Casablanca, one of the most honored movies in Hollywood history, as well as True Grit, for which John Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1969.

Hal Wallis's Hollywood career began with a job at Warner Brothers in the early 1920s. In 1925 he became the studio's director of publicity. By 1931 he was producing films, his signature production being 1942's Casablanca. At Warner Brothers an important relationship developed between Wallis and Joseph H. Hazen, who was a vice president at the studio. Both became disgruntled there and moved over to Paramount together in 1947. When they set up shop at Paramount, Wallis and Hazen formed their own production company, Wallis-Hazen, Inc. Wallis became president and Hazen was vice-president and treasurer.

Elvis Presley

Financial problems caused the two men to legally dissolve their partnership in 1952, but they continued to work together producing films on a one-at-a-time basis. It was during this period that they produced the Presley films for Paramount. Under their agreement, Hazen was credited with being executive producer of four Elvis pictures (Fun in Acapulco; Roustabout; Paradise, Hawaiian Style; and Easy Come, Easy Go). As independent producers under the Paramount umbrella, Wallis and Hazen shared copyright claims to the Presley pictures.

Hal Wallis disagreed with Hazen over Elvis' acting talent

Being on the legal and financial side of the partnership, Joseph Hazen had far less direct contact with Presley than did Hal Wallis. That didn't stop him, however, from voicing his opinion about Elvis.

After the initial screen test, both Wallis and Hazen agreed that Elvis could act.

Hazen, however, thought Elvis had real potential as a serious actor, while Wallis was convinced the public would never accept Elvis as a straight actor. Hal Wallis controlled the creative side of the business, though, and so he overruled Hazen and cast Elvis in musical comedies.

Hal Wallis was always on the watch for new talent. He had produced Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis's films, but by the mid-fifties he realized the two were drifting apart and Wallis needed a new celebrity in his stable of stars. Experience had taught him that, when it came to pop singers, voice was secondary to 'magnetism'. He found what he was looking for when he saw Elvis Presley perform on CBS-TV's Stage Show in early 1956. 'He knew he had found his answer to Martin and Lewis in one performer', Bernard F. Dick, biography, 'Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars', noted. 'To Wallis, Elvis was a media celebrity who could easily fit into the movie-cum-music that had become a Paramount staple.' The producer moved quickly.

Before even meeting Elvis, Wallis negotiated with Colonel Parker to get Presley under contract.

Elvis could act, but to Wallis that was secondary

The screen test that Wallis arranged proved to him that Elvis could act. In his biography, however, Dick contends that from the beginning Wallis never intended to cast Presley as a serious actor. 'Wallis knew the public would never accept Elvis in straight roles', wrote Dick. 'They wanted the singer; if they could have the actor too, all the better.' If Elvis had dreams of becoming a serious actor, then he signed on with the wrong producer. Hal Wallis initially hoped to use a gradual build-up approach with Elvis, and so for his debut film Wallis planned to have Elvis appear as a minor character in The Rainmaker. When that fell through, though, Wallis reluctantly loaned Elvis out to 20th Century-Fox, who cast Presley in Love Me Tender. When that film proved so successful, Wallis abandoned the gradual approach and cast Elvis in the lead of 1957's Loving You. Wallis, however, did not put aside his belief that Elvis' magnetism was more important than his acting. In the following paragraph, Dick explains how Elvis came across in his first Hal Wallis film.

Wallis let Elvis act in King Creole but songs came first

Hal Wallis was so pleased with Elvis' acting in Loving You, that he decided to give Presley a greater challenge in his next Paramount film. The producer had the perfect vehicle. It was loosely adapted from Harold Robbins's 'A Stone for Danny Fisher', the movie rights to which Wallis had purchased for a mere $25,000. Mindful that the serious story still needed to be song-driven, Wallis shifted the setting from Chicago to New Orleans. The producer then put the film in the capable hands of his close friend and favorite director, Michael Curtiz.

Wallis, Elvis, and Colonel Parker were all pleased with the start of Presley's film career. All three were confident that Elvis' stardom could survive two years away in the army. When Elvis went away in 1958, Hal Wallis began planning for his return. A new four-year, four-film contract was drawn up, and the producer sketched out a film concept to capitalize on Presley's army experience. As Elvis' hitch drew to a close in the fall of 1959, Wallis went to Germany to meet with Elvis and film backgrounds for G.I. Blues.

Elvis and Hal Wallis Standing meet in Germany.
Elvis and Hal Wallis Standing meet in Germany.

Despite the immense influence Hal Wallis had on his career, Elvis never had a close personal or professional relationship with his chief Hollywood producer. When Elvis kept declining his dinner invitations in 1957, Wallis thought Elvis was snubbing him. Eventually he realized that his young star felt uneasy around film executives in general. Elvis preferred that Wallis deal with him through Colonel Parker, and Wallis had no problem with that. He was used to dealing with actors' agents and managers. Some would argue, though, that Elvis damaged his acting career by distancing himself from Wallis and the other producers who had so much control over his films.

G.I. Blues

A rare behind the scenes shot of Elvis talking to Producer Hal Wallis.
A rare behind the scenes shot of Elvis talking to Producer Hal Wallis.


When Elvis returned from the army in 1960, Hal Wallis was waiting with a new four-year contract that he had prepared. In addition to making four pictures for Wallis, Elvis would also be allowed to do two outside pictures the first year, one each in the second and third years, and two in the fourth. Financially, it was a good deal: $125,000 for each Wallis production, plus $50,000 per film for expenses. Each film would involve eight weeks of work; if longer, Elvis would receive two weeks' salary, with the expense allowance prorated. After that, it would be salary only, prorated for a five-day week, at $21,875 weekly.

Hal Wallis : Going into the army certainly changed Elvis,he had become more mature because being in the army was unlike anything he'd known before . His sense of humour also developed along with his career as a soldier. The sideburns went , too, and he looked tougher, harder and leaner, and he just couldn't wait to get back to filming either. To begin with, Elvis was nervous that his two-year lay-off away from the cameras might mean he would have to start learning to act all over again, but in fact he slipped straight into it,though I guess it helped making a picture like 'G.I. Blues' which reflected his time in the army.

However, Hal Wallis barely had G.I. Blues in production when he learned that Colonel Parker had negotiated with 20th Century-Fox for Elvis to do another picture. Parker was within his rights according to the contract, but the Colonel's timing irritated Wallis. G.I. Blues and Flaming Star were both released during the 1960 holiday season, and thus competed with each other for the Presley film audience. The outcome, however, fully vindicated Wallis's vision of how Elvis should be used in films. The light, musical comedy G.I. Blues was a big hit, while the dramatic Western 'Flaming Star' struggled at the box office.

Elvis Presley and Hal Wallis on the set of 'Roustabout', 1964.
Elvis Presley and Hal Wallis on the set of 'Roustabout', 1964.

By 1966 Hazen didn't think Elvis was worth the money

Only when money issues arose did Hal Wallis consult with partner Joseph Hazen about Elvis. For instance, in 1966 Colonel Parker insisted that Wallis start paying Elvis $500,000 per movie, plus 20 percent of the profits. Wallis felt he could not OK the deal without checking with Hazen first. Hazen objected. By then Hazen had concluded that Elvis' Hollywood career was coming to an end. The final deal with Parker was signed in April 1966. Later, in a letter signing off on an Easter 1967 release date for Easy Come, Easy Go, Hazen wrote, 'I strongly believe that this will be Elvis' last good picture'. While the film was Elvis' last one for Wallis-Hazen at Paramount, hardly anyone in Hollywood considered it a 'good' one. Keeping Elvis off TV during the movie years of the sixties was a strategy that Colonel Parker credited to Hazen. In a 1963 letter to Hazen, the Colonel wrote, 'We do not mix our motion picture career in any way with a television career, especially if we are not in on the profits of a picture. This I learned from you a long time ago, and I am grateful for the teachings'.

Hollywood overused and exploited Elvis

'Allowing Elvis to make thirty-one movies in twelve years (1957-1969) was blatant exploitation', biographer Bernard F. Dick contends. So what share of the blame, if any, does Hal Wallis deserve for that exploitation? Certainly it was Wallis who created and popularized the light, musical screen formula that Hollywood eventually used to box in Elvis, blocking any chance of his becoming a serious actor. But Dick comes to Wallis's defense. 'Even if Elvis had made all of his films for Wallis, the producer would never have given Elvis such over-exposure, because he knew it would result in surfeit'. Dick puts the ultimate responsibility on Elvis himself. 'There is one biography of the entertainer that, while acknowledging Wallis's role in shaping Elvis' film career, also alleges that the producer ‘eventually ruined him', notes Dick. 'Actually, Elvis ruined himself; what Wallis did was turn a rock 'n' roller into a movie star, whose iconic stature rests more on his recordings and documentaries about him than on his thirty-two films, only nine of which were by Hal Wallis'. Of course, a great many of Elvis' devoted fans can never be convinced that their idol was to blame for the demise of his once promising Hollywood career. To them Hal Wallis is also shielded from any culpability by the giant shadow of Colonel Parker, upon whom Elvis fans love to fasten the blame for every misstep in Elvis' career.

Elvis Presley Photos Elvis Presley on the set of G.I. Blues - Paramount 1960
Elvis Presley Photos The G.I. Blues Recording Sessions : April 1960

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