Review | Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows DVD

By: Paul Mavis
Source: DVD Talk
November 13, 2006

Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows DVDWhen I received the three screener discs for Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows, they were mailed to me without any packaging, so I had no idea what was on them; I just assumed they contained the three historic appearances Elvis made on the old The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and 1957. If somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why a couple of five or ten minute clips from those three shows needed to be spread out on three discs, I'm sure I just assumed that a load of extras would round the presentation out. I was more than pleasantly surprised to see, after putting the first disc in, that these were the entire, complete Ed Sullivan episodes - uncut, with all of the performers that appeared on the nights Elvis was scheduled, included. Now this is what vintage TV lovers have been waiting for: a DVD release that respects what TV lovers want: more TV. We want complete historical records, not edited down "best moments" clips. The Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows presents, in vividly clear kinescopes, the complete episodes for all three of Elvis' Sullivan appearances, right down to the live Mercury automobile ads (Lincoln Mercury was the show's sponsor) that Ed performed. It's an amazing historical record which puts the Presley performances in their proper context for the first time since they aired - with some surprising conclusions drawn from that context.

The grainy black and white image of Ed Sullivan intoning, "And here he is, Elvis Presley!" has been shown so many times in discussing the importance of Elvis' appearance on Sullivan's show, that you can forgive most people for thinking this was Elvis' first appearance on national television. But it wasn't. Actually, Elvis' TV debut happened in January, 1956, on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show, on CBS. Those six appearances really started the Elvis mania rolling, and Ed Sullivan took notice. He toyed with the idea of having Elvis on (for the relatively small amount of $5,000), but after a particularly bad experience with Bo Diddley, Sullivan swore off all rock 'n' roll performers from his show. Then, Elvis appeared on Sullivan rival Steve Allen's show, trouncing Sullivan in the ratings. Ed, who didn't like to be bested, acquiesced to the demands of the public, and booked Elvis for three appearances on September 9 and October 28, 1956, and January 8, 1957, for the unprecedented sum of $50,000.

Despite the earlier appearances on the Dorsey and Allen shows, in America, during the 1950 and 1960s, you hadn't officially arrived on the entertainment scene until you played the Sullivan show. And Elvis needed the mainstream legitimacy that Ed Sullivan provided. Ed Sullivan, who though talentless as a performer, connected with his vast TV audience by being totally himself. People trusted him, and his judgement and discretion when putting on an act for his show. There was a true spirit of variety to his Sunday night show, where an animal act was followed by an opera singer, who was followed by a magician, who was followed by a popular singer. Certainly, all of these acts didn't become famous, but if Ed felt they were appropriate for the millions of family audiences that tuned in every Sunday night, well, then they were good enough for John Q. Public. It's hard to believe today, but at the time, there were a significant number of Americans - both influential and the general public - who felt Elvis Presley was Enemy Number One in the continuous assault on traditional American values. His music was considered immoral, and his suggestive body movements were openly called criminal. So it was quite a turnaround in Elvis' career trajectory when he not only appeared on Sullivan, but garnered a personal endorsement from Ed (on his final third show appearance), who stated to everyone in America, that Elvis was a "real, decent, fine boy." Coming from Ed Sullivan, that was a powerful endorsement for a performer who was seriously likened to the Devil by millions of Americans. And forget all that nonsense about filming Elvis from the waist up; as Elvis would later state to both Ed Sullivan and Sullivan producer Marlo Lewis, that particular marketing ploy only enhanced the hysteria that the Elvis phenomena was causing - I suspect Ed Sullivan, the consummate showman, knew exactly what he was doing when he made it very public that Elvis' final appearance would be filmed from the waist up. A case could be made that had Elvis not appeared on, and received a personal endorsement from someone like Ed Sullivan, his career may have been seriously damaged due to growing public displeasure with his antics. But due to his Sullivan appearances, Elvis went from Spawn of Satan, intent on ruining the morals of young America, to that "fine boy," who also happened to sing. That particular image would serve Elvis well in his subsequent movies and public appearances, and Ed Sullivan had a big hand in cementing it with the public.

What's fascinating about Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows is that Elvis' appearances are now shown in their proper context. We see the entire Sullivan episodes on these discs, with Presley making appearances throughout the telecasts. What we are given, then, is an amazing time capsule of the times, as far as entertainment is concerned. We see the coming tsunami of modern rock 'n' roll, and how it will utterly sublimate the various other "respectable" acts that appear on the same show. Stars of Broadway, opera stars, and other "legitimate" entertainers that regularly appeared on Sullivan, would soon be eclipsed in the public's mind by new stars like Presley. Elvis represented the coming youth explosion that entertainment would cater to, while the jugglers, animal acts, old-time comedians and Broadway singers represented what the oldsters liked, and therefore, in a rapidly evolving society that obsessed on youth, they were soon to be discarded.

Which is why I found Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows so interesting, because the other acts found on these shows were so talented. After decades of just showing the isolated Elvis clips from the show on TV, the other performers who appeared on those particular shows have been forgotten. But for many of them, this was their big night, too - they just had the misfortune of being booked on the same show with the biggest cultural explosion of the latter half of the 20th century. You may think the exposure of being on a show that 70 million people watched would be an incredible boost to a career, but most viewers were just waiting around for Elvis -- the other performers, to the impatient viewer, were just filler. Shown in comparison with Elvis, where admittedly, the visceral impact of his debut has now been muted by the passage of time (as well as by the ridiculously elevated level of "shock" that America has now come to endure), many of these other acts come over rather well. What struck me first was how polished and professional most of the other acts were, in comparison to the charismatic, but obviously scared as hell, Elvis. This really was at the very start of his career, and it's apparent that he knows the stakes of his performances. His career is riding on these shows, and he's well aware of it. At times, he blows his lyrics (which was showbiz taboo at the time; a faux pas that would cost most performers their shot at the big time). Most disturbing, though, are several moments where he makes grotesque faces - either as a defense mechanism from nervousness or as an attempt at over-the-top humor - that doesn't go over with the audience at all. Overall, the performances are an odd mixture of innate showbiz instincts, magnetic audience attraction, obvious talent, and a still-developing stage craft. Most of the other performers, though, are cool as cucumbers; old veterans and pros of the show business era, like Senor Wences and Carl Ballantine, who know the performing ropes inside and out.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the discs, if you're watching strictly for Elvis, is the repetition of the same songs for all of his performances. He sings Don't Be Cruel and Love Me Tender three times each, and Hound Dog twice, along with three other songs, over the course of his three shows. Frankly, by the time the third disc comes, and you hear Don't Be Cruel come up yet again, you feel a little cheated. Ed's show was supposed to be the very height of variety, but the same songs repeated over and over again by Elvis quickly approaches tedium.

Still, it's undeniable that Elvis' personal appeal with the audience is overwhelming, and these appearances are absolutely necessary viewing for any Elvis fan.

Here are the breakdowns for the three Elvis appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show:

DISC ONE: September 9, 1956

Introduction by Charles Laughton

Five weeks prior to Elvis' first appearance, Ed Sullivan was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He was unable to appear for Elvis' first show, and actor Charles Laughton filled in as Master of Ceremonies for this particular show. Laughton is an absolute scream, trying to dole out Noel Coward witticisms to a bunch of teenyboppers who are on the edge of hysteria, waiting for Elvis. Laughton's punishment for their cultural backwardness? He reads poetry to them. For me, Laughton's knowing, bemused performance is worth the price of the discs alone.

The Brothers Amin
These tumblers put on a hellavanact. This kind of variety spot was standard filler for Ed's shows.

Dorothy Sarnoff sings "Something Wonderful" from The King and I
A total pro, her song comes off well, if stilted. This is exactly the kind of performer who prior to Elvis, took the entertainment spotlight in the media. After Elvis, Ms. Sarnoff (and others like her) would be just another Broadway performer in the eyes of the press.

Move to the Big M: Mercury

A perfect example of the live commercial spots they did on shows -- very entertaining, and check out that car, man. How cool is it that they include the televised commercial spots on these discs? This is vintage television at its finest.

The Vagabonds "Up the Lazy River
An accomplished knock-about comedy/musical group; they do a funny vocal bit.

Elvis Presley "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender"
Televised live in Hollywood, Elvis makes a stunning impact on viewers, who don't seem to care that he's nervous as hell.

Conn and Mack (Tap-Dancing Duo
Another standard variety act, but nothing special (despite Laughton's entreaties to the contrary).

Safe Buy Used Car: Lincoln Mercury
Another fun live commercial spot, with some great vintage footage of that "Big M" in action.

Charles Laughton reads "The Little Girl and the Wolf
Laughton kills reading some James Thurber; the audience is suspicious at first, but when he delivers the punch line, he has them in his pocket. A total ham -- and pro.

Amru Sani "I'm in the Mood for Love"
The first real clunker of the night. Sani is terrible in an overly emphatic rendition of this evergreen.

Carl Ballantine (Comedy and Magic)
The very epitome of the peripatetic vaudevillian, Ballantine slays the audience with his comedy magic routine, getting off a few (very subtle) off color jokes that had Ed been there, would have gotten Ballantine in trouble for sure. You may remember Ballantine as Gruber in McHale's Navy.

A Word About Next Week's Show
A peek at next week's show, including Ed's return.

Toby the Dog (Novelty Act)
Toby cowers a lot, but he does his bit adequately, if diffidently. His master doesn't speak up loud enough, though.

Wherever You Live! The Big M
Another word from our sponsor.

Elvis Presley "Ready Teddy" and "Hound Dog"
Elvis is back, and he rips it up with two good songs.

DISC TWO: October 28, 1956

Ed Sullivan finally makes an appearance on these discs, and to those who've never seen him before, it may be a little startling. Whether or not you can understand how this guy appealed to such a vast audience is beside the point: he made the show about the performers, not himself. But Ed still had an enormous ego, and he knew exactly what he was doing with his widely-caricatured mannerisms and stiff delivery. It was a hook for audiences to hang on him, and they embraced his calculated awkwardness.

The Little Gaelic Singers
An adorable group of singers, and everyone of them, technically at least, a better trained singer than Elvis.

1957 Mercury with Dream-Car Design
A nice animated teaser for the coming "Big M."

Elvis Presley "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender"
Elvis does his stuff for Ed, blowing lines and looking very uncomfortable during the ballad. The audience, barely containing their hysteria, are like lemmings, waiting on his every move, with barely contained screams held at bay.

Senor Wences
Incredibly difficult act involving the famous ventriloquist. Watch him switch effortlessly between two other characters and his own voice. Tough to follow Elvis, but he gamely moves through it.

The 1957 Lincoln
Another winning commercial from Mercury

Elvis Presley "Love Me"
Elvis does a tremendous version of Love Me, but still insists on making a face, which the audience doesn't like.

Joyce Grenfell "Countess of Cotley
Again, it must have seemed impossible for someone to follow Elvis, but the game English comedy legend Grenfell does her level best to keep the British end up. And she's quite good, as always. The audience, however, has no idea what she's doing.

Happy to Make Your Acquaintance and Big D from the Broadway musical "The Most Happy Fella"
Two extended pieces from Frank Loesser's marvelous Broadway musical. Good fun.

The Big Mercury for '57
Another word from our sponsor.

A Word About Next Week's Show
A peek at next week's show.

Elvis Presley "Hound Dog"
Elvis sings this again, and does nicely with it, even making fun of his not being able to do his trademark hip swiveling.

The One and Only Unus!
Terrific balancing act -- some amazing feats of strength and coordination. In no way intimidated by following Elvis.

Taking a Bow; End Credits
The end of the show, with Ed making a big deal about Elvis coming back for his final appearance after the first of the year.

DISC THREE: January 6, 1957

Ed knows this is probably the last time he'll ever have Elvis on again (which turned out to be true), so he teases the audience, getting them worked up for his final appearance.

Elvis Presley Medley "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Don't Be Cruel"
Elvis sings the same songs again. The audience laughs at Elvis when he almost says "racord" instead of "record" -- which throws him a little.

Ventriloquist Arthur Worsley
Rightly considered the greatest technical ventriloquist in the world, you will never see Worsley's lips move. And that's part of the problem -- it's essentially a single act, not a duo, and after awhile, you want to throttle dummy Charlie Brown. Edgar Bergen couldn't ventriloquist his way out of a paper bag, but he was hilarious, both as himself and as Charlie McCarthy, and that's why he's more famous.

Ed Sullivan Impressionist Will Jordan
Brilliant Sullivan impersonator.

Safe Buy Used Car: Lincoln Mercury
Another word from our sponsor.

Carol Burnett
She almost bombs by going on a bit, but when she finishes up with the Judy Garland-like routine of an old-pro singer, all is forgiven.

Elvis Presley "Too Much" and "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again"
I always enjoy watching The Jordanaires standing behind Elvis, trying to figure out what their various expressions mean. The jury's still out on that, I think.

Sugar Ray Robinson
In a totally bizarre moment, Ed Sullivan brings out the ex-champ, makes him eat crow about his recent loss in the ring, and dares to give him advice on how to box. Very uncomfortable.

Dancer Nanci Crompton
The beautiful ballet dancer does a wonderful number.

Leny Eversong "El Cubanchero"
Large singing star Eversong belts out a heck of a number, showing Elvis how it's done.

Clown Act "The Six Gutis
Ed always made sure to include an act for the kiddies, and this clown act from Germany is pretty good.

Taking a Bow
It was a great honor for a celebrity sitting in Ed's audience to be called on by Ed, and asked to take a bow. Tonight, two sports legends -- tennis' Don Budge and baseball's Jackie Robinson -- take a bow.

Comedy Dance by Bory and Bor
An amusing duet dance by one man.

Leny Eversong "Jezebel"
Large singing star Eversong sings out her biggest charting hit, and nails it to the wall. An amazing voice and presence.

A Dream Car in Dream Land: Mercury
Actress Millicent Deming drives a beauty of a Merc at Universal Studios, Hollywood, in this great vintage car commercial.

A Word About Next Week's Show
A peek at next week's show.

Elvis Presley "Peace in the Valley"
I love Elvis singing all of his big hits, but at least for me, Elvis singing gospel -- his stated favorite kind of music, not rock -- best showcases his talents. Here, he sings one of his best gospel songs, and the evident sincerity of his delivery (no mugging, no flubbed lines) shows the commitment he felt towards this genre. It's the best moment Elvis has on all of the Sullivan shows.

End Credits
The most important event in all of the Presley/Sullivan moments: Ed confers legitimacy and mainstream acceptance on rebel/Satan Elvis, declaring him a "fine boy." Enough said for America.

The DVD:

The Video:
I was shocked at the quality of the full screen kinescope images for Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows. They're simply the best kinescopes I've ever seen. I've been used to seeing the hazy, overlit or overly dark copies of these 16mm films, but these prints (taken from the original 16mm negatives, perhaps?) are terrific.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono track (if you want to here the shows the way they were originally recorded) or the Dolby 5.1 stereo mix are fine for these recordings. Occasionally, I heard some warbling on the tracks, but that most assuredly is from the original elements, not this particular mix.

The Extras:
There's a copious amount of extras on Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows, although they're mostly short little sound bites and interviews. On Disc One, there's an optional play button where you can watch Elvis' three numbers only, skipping the other acts on the show. As well, there are five short interviews with friends and co-workers of Elvis and Ed Sullivan, including Sam Phillips, found of Sun Records, Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, Marlo Lewis, the producer of The Ed Sullivan Show, Wink Martindale, game show host and friend of Elvis, and George Klein, a disc jockey and Elvis' friend. All the interviews were conducted in 1992, so there's a good chance you've seen snippets of these before. Each interview only lasts about three and a half minutes, but there's some good stories included. And finally, there's a very brief documentary called Why Ed Didn't Host Elvis' First Appearance, which only last three minutes.

On Disc Two, again, there's the optional play button where you can skip to just Elvis' numbers on the show. Next up are five intros done on The Ed Sullivan Show, promoting Elvis. They include: Two Months before Elvis' First Appearance (July 15, 1956); Patti Page Introduces Next Week's Headliners (September 2, 1956); One Week after Elvis' First Appearance, Ed Sullivan Returns (September 16, 1956); One Week before Elvis' Second Appearance (October 21, 1956); and Ed Introduces Elvis' First Motion Picture Love Me Tender (November 18, 1956). They're extremely short, but interesting nonetheless. And finally, there's Caught on Celluloid: The First Moving Pictures of Elvis Presley, which is rare 8mm footage of the first known filmed images of Elvis, a full six months before Col. Parker took over his management.

On Disc Three, there again is the optional button to play only Elvis' numbers on this particular disc. Next up are Jerry Schilling's Home Movies, which show Elvis on various movie locations and at home, all taken by his friend Schilling. Next are five moments from The Ed Sullivan Show that pertain to Elvis, including Ed Talks about Elvis in the Army (April 27, 1958), John Byner Comedy Routine ) June 21, 1964), Elvis and Colonel Parker Send a Telegram to the Beatles (February 9, 1964), Jack Carter Comedy Routine (November 26, 1965), Elvis and Colonel Parker Congratulate Ed Sullivan (November 18, 1966). They're short, but again, interesting. Next up are some Production Stills from Elvis' various appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. And finally, a really cool extra are documents from both Graceland and Sullivan archives, including hotel receipts, various and sundry bills, ticket stubs, and other minutia related to Elvis' appearance on Sullivan's show, and his stay in New York. You can zoom in on these documents and really read them (unlike most other DVDs where they have small print items), so if you're a freak about trivia, these extras are really fun.

Final Thoughts:
Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows is an amazing, full record of three historic moments in Elvis Presley's and Ed Sullivan's careers. Instead of just giving us the isolated Presley performances, Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows gives fans of vintage TV just what they want: entire programs, including their commercials. This gives the viewer a more complete picture of the times, as well as in this case, allowing some other talented performers -- who had the misfortune to appear when Elvis did -- a chance to shine. And don't worry about blurry, fuzzy, solarized kinescopes: the image quality for Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows are astounding. I highly recommend Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows.

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

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