Hollywood's exploitation of Elvis

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
May 1, 2021

King Creole Movie Poster
King Creole Movie Poster
In Hollywood, there is a genre of film called the exploitation movie, an umbrella term describing a movie where quality is sacrificed for cost and the moviemaker appeals to his audience by bizarre themes (drug use, wanton violence, kinky sex), adherence to a formula (as in beach party or zombie films) or the exploitation of a popular act, character or personality – for example Tarzan, the Norwegian ice skating queen Sonya Henje or, for that matter, Elvis Presley ... Not all exploitation films are bad. Easy Rider, a classic biker movie, revolutionised Hollywood and is still fresh today ... But artistic success is, to the producers and studios, incidental. These films exist primarily to make a profit.

And that was the cold, hard credo which governed, confined and eventually destroyed Elvis' movie career. In four early movies – Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star and Wild Is The Country – he was challenged to act, given the opportunity to establish his own screen presence like his idols Brando and Dean. And later, as the formula ceased to generate box office bucks, he was given a freer rein in The Trouble With Girls, Live A Little Love A Little and Change Of Habit where he relished his new found freedom and his personality, on screen, felt almost as fresh as it had in his best earlier movies.

This doesn't mean that all the other movies were bad. Viva Las Vegas, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, Fun In Acapulco, It Happened At The World's Fair, Roustabout, Girl Happy, Tickle Me, Spinout, Frankie And Johnny and Speedway are all good fun and, though none are perfect, they deliver the formula – Elvis, songs, beauties and an exotic, foreign or picture postcard landscape – in an entertaining fashion. Loving You was a slick, diverting, sentimentalised rock and roll movie – teenage rebellion was a popular motif among makers of exploitation movies. Double Trouble, Stay Away Joe and Harum Scarum are bizarre but entertaining. As, for the most part, is Kissin' Cousins. Kid Galahad and Charro! were intriguing failures. At its blandest, the formula gave us Paradise Hawaiian Style, Easy Come Easy Go and Clambake.

French - Jailhouse Rock Poster
French - Jailhouse Rock Poster
The cast of personnel recruited to make and star in these films is intriguing. Norman Taurog, who directed nine Elvis films, had previously helmed six romantic musical comedies exploiting the appeal of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for Hal Wallis, a producer more legendary for his longevity and commercial nous than greatness. Paul Nathan, Wallis' associate producer on Wallis' Elvis movies, had graduated from the Martin and Lewis films too.

Sam Katzman, the producer who pioneered the budget-slashing approach to Elvis' movies with Kissin' Cousins and Harum Scarum, was known as King Of The Quickies and his CV included such exploitation classics as Zombies Of Mora Tu, How To Succeed With Sex and The Fastest Guitar Alive, a Civil War musical which Elvis may have turned down and marked the beginning and end of Roy Orbison's acting career.

Clambake is a genuine oddity. A musical comedy directed by first timer Arthur H. Nadel, who had hitherto only made TV Westerns, and scripted by Arthur Browne Jr, who had spent almost his entire career writing TV Westerns. Browne never wrote another movie and Nadel only directed one more: a World War II thriller called Underground starring Elvis' musical nemesis Robert Goulet. Anthony Lawrence, who helped Allan Weiss out scripting three Elvis films was also a graduate of TV Westerns and the only non-Elvis film Weiss ever scripted was the so-so Western The Sons Of Katie Elder Starring John Wayne.

Richard Thorpe, who helmed Jailhouse Rock and Fun In Acapulco, had cut his teeth on the Tarzan movies. He was, at least, a true professional, like Gordon Douglas, who shot Follow That Dream, a superior musical comedy illuminated by Elvis' fine comic performance as an innocent at large and by a sharp script from Charles Lederer, who had written such classics as His Girl Friday for Howard Hawks.

French - Viva Las Vegas Poster
French - Viva Las Vegas Poster
The best Elvis films often had decent scriptwriters; Guy Trosper and Nedrick Young – the latter won an Oscar for The Defiant Ones – on Jailhouse Rock, Hal Kanter on Loving You and helping out on Blue Hawaii, Clair Huffaker, adapting her own novel for Flaming Star, Clifford Odets, albeit past his best, on Wild Is The Country and Sally Benson, Oscar-nominated for Anna And The King Of Siam, on Viva Las Vegas!

In contrast, Stay Away Joe and Live A Little Love A Little might have benefited from a writer with greater celluloid experience than Michael A. Hoey, who had penned The Navy vs The Night Monsters (an exploitation sci-fi majoring on the charms of Mamie Van Doren) and was a dialogue coach on Dr Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine, a camp, largely mirthless spy spoof that Taurog directed between Elvis films.

The approach to hiring Elvis' co-stars, especially his lead actresses, was almost as quixotic. Donna Douglas and Mary Tyler Moore were imported after success on TV. Suzanna Leigh, Jocelyn Lane and Annette Day were British by birth or training, pretty and, one assumes, cheaper than the likes of Joan Blackman and Shelley Fabares. Yet in his best work, he sparkled playing off the likes of Juliet Prowse, Marlyn Mason, Joan O'Brien and Ann-Margret and had a real rapport with Fabares. The older women in his movies – Carolyn Jones (King Creole), Angela Lansbury (Blue Hawaii), Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout), Julie Adams (Tickle Me), and Joan Blondell (Stay Away Joe) – were often more charismatic and characterful than romantic leads like Dolores Hart, Joan Freeman or Laurel Goodwin.

Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley in Change of Habit
Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley in Change of Habit

Stella Stevens, a far better actress, should have been the lead in Girls! Girls! Girls! but rebelled after reading the script and only recanted after being threatened with suspension. Was her curious supporting role punishment for her intransigence? Stevens insisted that, for an actress, starring opposite Elvis wasn't good for your career and the record largely proves her right. Quentin Dean, Elvis' girl in Stay Away Joe, has disappeared so completely there are fan sites appealing for news of her whereabouts.

That is one striking aspect of Elvis' movie career. The number of careers it ended. Other cast and crew to take the final big screen bow in an Elvis film include Allan Weiss, Anthony Lawrence and Dodie Marshall (Easy Come Easy Go), Jimmy Hawkins (Spinout), Annette Day (Double Trouble), Gerald Drayson Adams, Michael Reed (Harum Scarum), Michael A. Hoey and Norman Taurog (Live A Little, Love A Little), Peter Tewksbury, Mauri Grashin (The Trouble With Girls). Nicola Jaffe, later the voice of Thelma in Scooby Doo, only had one un credited movie part after featuring in The Trouble With Girls.

The miracle, given the bizarre way Elvis' films were cast and crewed, is not that some of his movies were critically panned. It is that he made any good or half-decent movies at all. He was sold, as his character in Loving You put it, like a 'monkey in a zoo' in most of his movies. Getting stuck in that big Hollywood rut – a rare professional defeat for a man who so wanted to be taken seriously – haunted him for the rest of his life.

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