Elvis on film, 1956-58

Elvis Presley’s first appearance on film was not in a musical, but in a Western set at the end of the American Civil War. Love Me Tender, directed by Robert D. Webb, was released in November 1956. Self-evidently, Elvis does not play ‘himself’ in this context, or even a version of himself: he has a relatively minor role (third in the billing) as one of four brothers in what is primarily a family melodrama. Elvis’s growing popularity as a singer (following his first recordings and TV appearances) became apparent once the film was in production: his part was expanded, and he was given four songs to sing. However, to the dismay of his fans, he was actually killed off in the closing scenes.

By contrast, the films I want to discuss here were all conceived as starring ‘vehicles’ in the wake of Elvis’s early musical success. Loving You (directed by Hal Kirtner, 1957), Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) and King Creole (Michael Curtiz, 1958) are all films about the discovery and early success of a young singer and performer. While there are some obvious differences, each of them has some striking similarities with Elvis’s own rise to fame. In all three cases, the Elvis character is shown to overcome early obstacles, not least to do with his own background and temperament. He is aided in this by older characters who serve as mentors or managers; and while these characters are ultimately benevolent, they also face others who are less so. To a greater or lesser extent, all three films are essentially about the music business – although their views of that business are decidedly ambivalent.

In Loving You, the Elvis character (Deke Rivers) is a delivery boy with a talent for singing, who is discovered by a tough and determined music publicist, Glenda Markle. Deke sings with the country-and-western band that Glenda manages, and quickly rises to the top of the bill. Jailhouse Rock finds Elvis playing Vince Everette, a construction worker who accidentally kills a man in a bar-room brawl. While incarcerated, he is taught guitar by a washed-up country singer, Hunk Houghton; and on his release, he is helped to success by another female manager, Peggy van Alden. In King Creole, Elvis plays Danny Fisher, who abandons his attempts to graduate from high school in favour of a job singing on New Orleans’s Bourbon Street. He comes into conflict with a criminal club-owner, Maxxie Fields, but is encouraged and protected by Fields’s mistress, Ronnie, and by an honest club-owner, Charlie LeGrand. In each case, the film ends as the Elvis character looks set to move on to wider national success.

Clearly, there are elements of a familiar ‘rags to riches’ narrative in all three films; and in this respect, they can be linked back to a much older tradition of Hollywood musicals. However, there are also elements of the much more recent ‘juvenile delinquent’ movie cycle here. While Jailhouse Rock reveals little about Vince Everett’s background, in the other two films the Elvis character is shown to come from a background that is in some way troubled. In Loving You, we learn that Deke was brought up in an orphanage, from which he eventually escaped: he took his name from a tombstone in a nearby cemetery, on the basis of an inscription that read ‘he was alone but for his friends, who miss him’. In King Creole, Danny Fisher still lives at home, although his father appears to have been broken by the death of his mother: the family has been forced to move to a down-at-heel part of town after his father was unable to hold down a job. These factors are shown to have a continuing influence on the characters’ behaviour: Deke is partly driven by his desire to find friends and family; Danny’s concern about his father makes him an easy target for manipulation by the evil Maxxie. In all three films, the Elvis character is shown to have a propensity for violence when provoked. Vince’s arrest in Jailhouse Rock follows a fight in which he mistakenly kills a drunken woman-beater; in Loving You, Danny gets into a protracted brawl when provoked by a boyfriend who is jealous of his appeal; and in King Creole, his graduation from school is prevented when he attacks a couple of classmates who are laughing at him.

In these respects, the films undoubtedly overlap with the juvenile delinquent cycle. This is particularly apparent in the case of King Creole, where Danny appears caught between the need for money (and the temptations offered by Maxxie and his gang) and his innate good nature. Indeed, it’s notable that the leading part was originally intended for James Dean, in the role of a boxer, as in the original novel. The film also sees Vic Morrow as ‘Shark’, in a reprise of his delinquent role from Blackboard Jungle. Danny resists getting involved with Shark’s gang, and even defends one of its weaker members, who is dumb; and it is only his desire to help his father that ultimately draws him in.

In all three films, the Elvis characters are generally shy and inarticulate, and sometimes surly towards those in authority; although only in the latter part of Jailhouse Rock does Vince come across as unpleasantly selfish and arrogant. In terms of ‘violence’, they may be short-tempered, but they are always well-intentioned and honourable: they stand up for themselves, but they also frequently protect others from harm. At this point in his film career, Elvis is not exactly a troubled delinquent of the James Dean or Marlon Brando variety; but neither is he simply a ‘clean teen’, on the model of other singing idols of the time (Frankie Avalon or Pat Boone, for example).

This ambivalent ‘edginess’ is also partly apparent in the music itself. In each of these films, Elvis’s music is represented as something new, and to some extent a challenge to established musical forms. In Loving You, he brings a fresh voice and style to the fading country-and-western band that Glenda has been managing; while in Jailhouse Rock, his music is also seen as more appealing than the old-fashioned country style of his prison mentor. When his manager Peggy arranges a recording session for him, he asks to listen back to his first attempts, and then decides to sing the song again with a more rhythmic, less crooning vocal style. If these two films explain something of Elvis’s relationship with country music, King Creole focuses on his other major influence, African-American music. Remarkably, the opening scenes feature him singing an earthy, bluesy call-and-response song with the black food-sellers in the street outside his family’s apartment.

Elvis’s music and performances are clearly identified with youth, at least in the early stages. This becomes a particular focus in Loving You, which – like some of the earliest rock-and-roll movies (Don’t Knock the Rock and Shake, Rattle and Rock in particular) – seeks to address some of the generational animosity the music was provoking. When local citizens in a town pointedly called ‘Freegate’ attempt to ban one of Deke’s performances, Glenda is required to take on City Hall: she gives them a lecture on the history of adult concerns about young people and music, going back to the Charleston and early jazz, as well as Stravinsky and Debussy. Rock-and-roll, she claims, is simply a ‘harmless outlet’ for the young, rather than a dangerous influence: ‘you can’t blame the behaviour of young people on music’. The Mayor and his cohorts eventually agree to a television debate about the issues, in which Deke is exonerated (needless to say); and in his final performance, even the censorious old ladies in the audience are seen joining in the enthusiasm.

Of course, any apparent subversion here is partly to do with sex appeal. Especially in the first two films, a great deal is made of Elvis’s appeal to screaming audiences of girls and young women, which derives as much from the characteristic pelvic twists and gyrations of his dancing as from the music itself. (His television appearances at this time were famously shot from the waist up, in order to forestall any over-stimulation among the audience.) This appeal is not only recognized by the more sexually experienced older women, but affects them as well: Glenda’s energetic, businesslike support of his career in Loving You is complicated by her attraction to him; while Ronnie in King Creole is a troubled and somewhat vamp-like ‘fallen woman’, whose love for Danny is ultimately doomed.

There are signs that the Elvis characters experience sexual desire in their own right. In Jailhouse Rock, Vince aggressively kisses Peggy, and follows this with the memorable line, ‘that ain’t tactics, honey, it’s just the beast in me’; in King Creole, Danny deceives the innocent Nelly into going to a hotel room with him, but eventually thinks better of it. Yet despite this, all three Elvis characters remain curiously innocent. At several points, they seem nonplussed or mystified by their sexual appeal; and even the romantic clinches are strangely mechanical. In Loving You, Deke ultimately chooses the homely country girl Susan; while in King Creole, the death of Ronnie enables him to turn back to the wholesome and devoted Nellie. In both cases, the innocent younger girl represents the authentic moral values that Elvis is at risk of losing by virtue of his success. Only in Jailhouse Rock does the Elvis character end up with the (slightly) older manager, Peggy.

As I’ve suggested, these films are all to some extent about the music business itself. They all show how ‘Elvis’ (or his various fictional surrogates) is tutored and guided by older, more experienced characters; and they also show how he is at risk of exploitation. Of the three, King Creole is the least directly concerned with the business as such (which may reflect the fact that this was not an aspect of the original novel). The evil Maxxie is a club-owner, who is contrasted with the honest Charlie; but he is more of an all-purpose gangster, in line with the film’s hard-boiled film noir style.

Jailhouse Rock provides more direct insight into the operations of the industry. Vince’s cell-mate Hunk recognizes his talent and tutors him on the guitar; although he also conceals the fan mail he receives after a performance by the inmates is broadcast on television, and convinces him to sign an unfair contract. However, his promoter Peggy is a consistently honest broker, who at one point is herself deceived by a disreputable record company executive. Notably, she succeeds in taking on the music business as an independent, by making, distributing and publicizing his records through their own company. She tries to keep their relationship ‘businesslike’, although of course she eventually falls for him. Perhaps more strikingly, this film is the only one of the three to show the potentially negative consequences of fame: after Hunk is released, Vince treats him as a kind of flunkey, and when he attempts to sell their record company, Peggy accuses him of being dominated by a ‘lust for money’. Vince may be essentially good, but he has to overcome his selfishness and learn to love if he is to come to terms with his success.

In fact, it’s the earliest film, Loving You, that offers the most detailed and complex – and to some extent, satirical – picture of the music business. In this respect, it may owe something to what Doherty calls ‘imperial’ films like The Girl Can’t Help It. Glenda is portrayed as a skilful and calculating operator: she understands how to maximize Deke’s appeal, and how to make the most of publicity opportunities. She encourages some older ladies to voice their disapproval of his performance, recognizing that this will encourage his younger fans; and when a potentially scandalous photograph of him kissing a determined fan is published in the newspaper, she is excited by the publicity. As I’ve described, she displays great skill in handling the controversy that erupts towards the end of the film.

From time to time, Deke expresses concern about this: he finds the publicity ‘fake and phoney’, and accuses her of ‘selling’ him like ‘a monkey in a zoo’. While she seeks to overcome Deke’s reluctance and uncertainty, Glenda is also inclined to shift his image in a more glamorous, showbizzy direction: at one point she buys him an ostentatious new outfit that clearly makes him uncomfortable (although he wears it). She also deceives him at various points, in one instance spinning a yarn about a rich benefactor in order to encourage him to take possession of a flashy white convertible. At one point, she responds to the accusation that she is simply ‘selling sex’ with a forthright capitalistic argument: ‘sex is a healthy American commodity,’ she says. ‘It sells cold cream, steam engines, shampoo, real estate and toothpaste. It can sell singers too.’ Yet as with Peggy, there is no implication that Glenda is merely cynical, or that she has anything other than Deke’s best interests at heart – and while it’s clear that she desires him, her affections ultimately turn back to the more age-appropriate character of her ex-husband Tex, the leader of the band.

As this implies, the images of youth and of pop music in these films are quite ambivalent. In all his various roles, ‘Elvis’ may be troubled, but he is fundamentally good: he is authentic, honest and straightforward – if perhaps a little too trusting and naïve, and occasionally simple-minded. He may be misunderstood and unfairly treated by those in authority, but he is not fundamentally resistant to authority per se. Despite occasional confrontations with adults, he is mostly polite and respectful. While he is sometimes short-tempered, surly and even arrogant, he is very far from delinquent material. Yet Elvis’s authenticity, and even his apparent innocence, depends upon (and is constructed by) the business of which he becomes a part – and this is a business that might easily seek to exploit or manipulate him

As these films proceed, Elvis gradually accommodates his on-screen persona and his music to the demands of show business. Like Glenda in Loving You, the films seem designed to assure anxious adults that rock-and-roll is really nothing new, and that it is far from threatening. In the first two films, his music is still understood primarily in terms of its youth appeal – although in Loving You, there are certainly signs that it might eventually attract a wider following. Yet by King Creole, youthfulness no longer seems to be an issue. While the film appropriates some elements of the Dean/Brando teenage rebel character, it leaves Danny reconciled to family life: his final song is sung, not only to the wholesome Nelly, but also to his father, with whom he is finally reunited.


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