One of the most amazing things about Elvis Presley are his fans. The amount of creative, well-educated and dedicated people among them who manage to do continuous in-depth research and writing about the man besides having successful professional careers and active family lives is simply astounding. One of their key figures who for decades has helped to better understand Elvis Presley’s life, career and cultural impact on many different levels is Nigel Patterson from Australia. The Memphis Flash has talked to the Elvis expert about his passion for the King and what interests him most: Elvis‘ films and books.
The Memphis Flash: Nigel, most English-speaking Elvis aficionados are familiar with you as Honorary President of the Elvis Information Network (EIN), an Australian fan club that runs one of the, if not the most prolific and informative websites on Elvis Presley: www.elvisinfonet.com. Apart from that, not too much is known about you (at least not in Germany). Please do tell us more about yourself, your background and what made you such an expert on everything Elvis.
Nigel Patterson: I am originally from Northern Ireland and my family moved to Canberra, capital city of the “lucky country”, Australia, in the early 1960s. While I knew of Elvis and seen some of his movies I did not become a fan until early 1969 when on a school excursion to Griffith, a small town in the winery region of country New South Wales. As I would learn later Griffith was also a hot spot for dope production in Australia (but I digress)! While on the bus we were listening to 2CA, the only commercial radio station in Canberra at the time, and Edge of Reality came on. I was hooked the moment I heard it and my interest in things Elvis quickly grew from there.
The Memphis Flash: Sounds like a fun way of being introduced to Elvis ;-). The psychedelic Edge Of Reality from the movie Live A Little, Love A Little (German: Liebling, laß‘ das Lügen, 1968) was a hit in Australia, right? It’s relatively unknown in Germany though. Let’s give it a listen.
Audio Edge of Reality – Complete Masters
The Memphis Flash: How was being an Elvis fan like in Australia in the late 1960s?
Nigel Patterson: Living “downunder” in a snail mail and pre-Internet time we relied on primarily newspapers and magazines for our news of overseas stars. I started buying the newsstand magazine Elvis Monthly (which, due to its small size, fitted nicely into the inside pocket of my school jacket and served me well when I became bored with scholarly instruction), subscribed to Rocky Barra’s Strictly Elvis and submerged myself in various popular Aussie magazines including Movie News, Everybody’s and the Australasian Post, as they regularly featured Elvis on their cover and had feature articles inside.
In the early 70s I joined my first Elvis fan club, run by Bob Stephens in Sydney and I started contributing to Rex Martin’s fantastic Worldwide Weekly Elvis News Service and later Elvis Monthly.
The Memphis Flash: Some great magazines that have iconic status among fans today. I’ve seen that there is an → interesting interview with Rocky Barra, the guy behind Strictly Elvis, on EIN. Besides magazines films soon became another great interest of yours?
Nigel Patterson: From my childhood years growing up during the silver age of television I always had a fascination with TV shows and films. In the late 1970s-early 1980s I became a reviewer for the Brisbane Film Group (BFG) enjoying working “flexi-time” (before it was introduced to the bureaucracy) as I was given free tickets to watch and review films screening usually at 11 am in the morning. I remember the first time I asked my boss if I could take an early, long lunch and he looked at me as if I was from another planet! In those days we had a regimented 12:30-1:30 lunch period. A few years later flexitime was the norm. Most of my reviews for the BFG were of horror movies as classic titles like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night and the underrated Happy Birthday To Me were enjoying peak popularity. My involvement with the Brisbane Film Group was the genesis of my interest in a more analytical approach to the Elvis film canon.
The Memphis Flash: But then Elvis had to take a back seat?
Nigel Patterson: My connection with ‘things Elvis’ waned during the 70s due to heavy work and family commitments (I have two adult daughters, four grand-children and my son recently turned 18…..despite my prediction he wouldn’t make it to 10!).
The Memphis Flash: Sounds like a very busy home ;-).
Nigel Patterson: It is. Then in 1986 I heard a radio news item calling for Elvis fans to form a fan club in Canberra. I attended the meeting of around 15 fans at the Ainslie Football Club on a Sunday afternoon and the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) was born. I volunteered to be the Society’s newsletter editor and ended up producing more than 50 issues of The Man From Memphis newsletter in the ensuing years. By 1990, Val Williams, the force behind establishing the Society had moved to Sydney and the Society morphed into the ACT Elvis Presley Club. For a brief period the Club was run out of Sydney and in the mid-1990s I again took over its operation, renaming it as the Elvis Information Network (EIN).
The Memphis Flash: That’s how the EIN got started in the first place. I didn’t know that.
Nigel Patterson: I had a very clear idea that I wanted EIN to live up to its middle name and provide ‘something for everybody’ through the widest range of news, reviews, articles and interviews on Elvis. The advent of the Internet allowed this to become reality and EIN as an online organisation went live to air (so to speak) in 1999. Within 12 months we had established ourselves as being more than “just an online Elvis news site” and 15 years later we continue to be respected for our authoritative articles, reviews and interviews and sometimes (not as respected – lol) for our pages on ETA’s and Elvis conspiracy theories.
My view has always been that Elvis’ legend and socio-cultural impact goes way beyond just his music, live performances or films… and that if one is serious about fully understanding that impact, you must consider the ‘off beat’ aspects of his legend and legacy! Rightly or wrongly, both our Almost Elvis (ETA) and Conspiracy pages rank in our top 10 most visited list.
The Memphis Flash: No wonder, the ‚off beat‘ stuff is often so much fun to read. Besides, ETA’s and topics like „Is Elvis still alive?“ always get strong reactions from fans. It’s the same in Germany.
Nigel Patterson: My involvement in EIN these days is minimal (hence the “Honorary President” title) – after 40 years it was time to explore other passions including film and music (more generally). My long-time co-conspirator in EIN, Piers Beagley, most capably continues to drive EIN on a regular basis, aided by our roving international ambassador, Sanja Meegin. Piers has also taken our “members only” EIN quarterly newsletter (which celebrated its 100th issue last year) to a new level! My involvement is generally confined to the odd (sometimes very odd) book review or interview.
Away from Elvis, I have enjoyed a broad range of vocations (possibly suggesting I am easily bored). Currently I am in my 3rd tenure as a bureaucrat with the Australian Government. My resume includes everything from being a market research manager, real estate agent and medico-legal investigator to (community) radio disc jockey and having spent a fascinating three years as Manager of the Business Television Unit in a major Government agency.
The Memphis Flash: That sure is quite an eclectic resume.
Nigel Patterson: My personal interests are similarly eclectic ranging from a deep interest in classic television (a favorite being the Western genre) and obtuse film making (particularly the impressive and confronting outputs of obtuse directors like David Lynch and Lars von Trier).
On the musical front I will admit to not playing much Elvis these days (but in my defence I do read a lot of Elvis books!) and instead enjoy the musical offerings of the inimitable Dolly Parton, wonderful double entendre Blues of Dana Gillespie, sublime lyrical feel of singer-songwriter, Beth Nielsen Chapman, punk rock in the form of Billy Idol and The Go-Go’s, Johnny Hallyday – the very talented, charismatic and underappreciated “French Elvis”, and getting lost in the fun escape of being a ‘parrot head’, daydreaming I’m on a desert island with a warm breeze wafting around me as I sip “boat drinks”, all the while listening to the philosophical teachings of life’s great musical philosopher, Jimmy Buffett.
The Memphis Flash: Great way to spend your time. Nigel, when it comes to books about Elvis, there still is such an amount of new publications every year that it makes your head spin. Even if you are a die-hard Elvis fan, it’s almost impossible to read all of them. How would you describe and categorize the Elvis book market?
Nigel Patterson: It is indeed staggering how many new books on Elvis are released each year! The convenient, fast and cheap publishing options available today have seen an upsurge in the number of titles with 50 to 100 being published in digital format each year. The Elvis book canon is an eclectic one. Major categories are:
- Recorded music/sessions;
- Academic analysis;
- Elvis on film;
- Encyclopaedia/Elvis day-by-day;
- Elvis’ live performances;
- Elvis in the Army;
- Fan publications; and
- sheet music (here I mean sheet music books, not single sheet music).
A burgeoning genre is Elvis fiction with nearly 300 titles published! Within that genre ‘Elvis P.I.’ is a popular theme with several authors (including Daniel Klein and Daniel Hodjera) having released a series of books. There have also been hundreds of original and translated non-English books released in more than 20 countries.
The Memphis Flash: I know what you mean. Elvis in fiction is one of my favorite interests. Reminds me that my next article on Elvis in German literature (→ Jana Scheerer: Mein innerer Elvis/My inner Elvis) is long overdue. But there seems to be a growing interest to write about Elvis‘ movie career as well?
Nigel Patterson: The book library on Elvis’ films certainly has grown. For many years the only title was the Zmijewsky’s Elvis The films and career of Elvis Presley which was released in 1976. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that we saw more books on the subject. There are now around 20 titles and I am sure that number will continue to grow. In addition, there are numerous thought provoking journal and magazine articles on the Elvis film canon, including an obscure piece evaluating the Elvis film as an artefact of folklore and Steve Behling and Michael Stewart’s stimulating Project Elvis, which analyses the canon in the form of a molecular model replete with Elvis molecules and isotopes!
The Memphis Flash: Project Elvis indeed sounds interesting. Are you planning your own book on Elvis in the near future? I would love to see one…
Nigel Patterson: I have no plans for a book on Elvis’ films. I don’t believe there is much, if anything, I could add to what Susan Doll, Paul Simpson, James Neibaur, Gerry McLafferty, Douglas Brode, David Bret, Björn Eckerl and others have already published.
However, my passion is Elvis books! A work-in-progress (for nearly 20 years!) is my Elvis In Print: The Definitive Reference and Price Guide. Originally due for publication in the late 1990s, at the 11th hour publication plans fell through. My US publisher (Landmark Publishing) was bought out and the new owner decided to take the company in a different direction. Being somewhat disillusioned by what had been an 18 month process for no positive result and after consulting my good friend, the late Bill Burk in the US on the vagaries of book publishing, I decided to just keep adding to the manuscript – not hard to do the large number of new titles released each year – and publish it at some undetermined point in the future.
My manuscript currently exceeds 600 pages (not including visuals), contains around 230,000 words, with more than 2,700 book listings and entries for a further 1,000+ major magazine, journal, essays and dissertations appearing in published form, both physical and online. Unlike the few similar books released on the subject mine goes a step further by providing evaluation synopses for more than 3,000 of the entries. The synopses offer “my” largely subjective guide to the intrinsic narrative value and content of each publication as well as a general guide to each book’s potential financial value (to buy or sell).
The Memphis Flash: That sounds like a great book idea, a sure must have for Elvis book „junkies“. Nowadays, there a so many opportunities to publish without major publishing companies. Why don’t you give it a try?
Nigel Patterson: I suspect I won’t get Elvis In Print into print until I retire and have the time to properly edit it. The great thing is that I will be able to choose how I publish it without necessarily being concerned with using a major publishing company more interested in profit than product quality. The book has always been a labour of love and I’d rather release it in a form I am happy with than compromise its quality to satisfy commercial considerations.
The Memphis Flash: Nigel, you sure know a lot about Elvis’ movies and have proved to be very innovative in providing others with your knowledge. You started the first distance education film course called „The Elvis Film: Star Vehicle or ‚B‘ Grade Celluloid?“ later called “New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema” at Canberra College. What was the idea behind the course?
Nigel Patterson: Thank you for your kind words. Your readers may be interested to know that there actually have been Elvis film courses in various forms since the 1960s (so mine was not the first)! In those days they were usually run by fan clubs and then in the 1970s a number of organised film groups started examining the ‘Elvis film’ using a more analytical and theoretical approach.
The objective of my course, „New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema„, started out as a critical overview of the Elvis film canon. In its present form it blends basic elements of film theory with specific elements of Elvis films. Together, the components are designed to equip participants with an understanding of how the filmmaker has deliberately designed each film to influence our perceptions of Elvis and the world around him.
The genesis for my course occurred at uni in the mid-1970s but it took me another 15 years before it became a reality. I was attending the Australian National University completing my Bachelor degree and the ANU Film Group ran a weekend seminar analysing Flaming Star. Until that time I hadn’t thought about Elvis’ film canon as one which could be critically examined. That seminar piqued my interest but the demands of family, work and uni meant it would not be until the early 1990s that I first put together a basic treatise around the Elvis film. I have to say my initial approach was very agricultural. It wasn’t until Professor Susan Doll released her ground breaking book, Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image in 1998, that I moved my consideration of Elvis’ films to a more sophisticated level.
The Memphis Flash: Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image by Susan Doll really is one of the ground breaking book releases on Elvis. Amazingly, it’s relatively little known. Thanks again for recommending it. It’s such an enlightening read.
Nigel Patterson: Professor Doll is a prolific author about Elvis with around a dozen book titles. Many will be familiar with her mainstream, fan targeted books, especially her popular series of releases for Publications International including Best of Elvis, Elvis Album, Elvis Rock ‘n’ Roll Legend, Elvis Portrait of the King, Elvis American Idol and The Films of Elvis Presley. Professor Doll’s earliest major Elvis work was the very well received 1989 coffee table release Elvis A Tribute To His Life and her other releases include Elvis Forever In The Groove Recording Career 50th Anniversary, Elvis King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Elvis For Dummies.
However, most fans will be unfamiliar with her academic work Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image. In this book Professor Doll examines Elvis’ film career on a number of levels. Its core drivers are the interaction of Elvis’ cultural identity with his film canon, how his iconography (appearance and performance style) was mirrored in his films, the recurring motifs that occur (such as twins, his Indian heritage and the missing father… incidents reflecting events in Elvis’ real life) and dispelling the myth that all Elvis films were the same.
Professor Doll showed how there were in fact four distinct periods in Elvis’ film career, each period producing films with different underlying characteristics. For example, to say King Creole is a similar film to Blue Hawaii or The Trouble With Girls is erroneous. While the three films are consistent in that they feature Elvis and his music, narratively, structurally and in a general film sense they are different.
The first phase of Elvis’ film career was his 1950s productions and with the exception of Love Me Tender which wasn’t written for him, the other three, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole are all built around his “star image”. Phase 2 is the so-called “Presley travelogues” and certainly they have a common narrative structure which as Susan Doll observed showed a lack of care in their production.
The third phase, the late 60s films was an attempt to give the Elvis film an “adult-contemporary makeover” and its eclectic mix of politically incorrect comedy, spaghetti western, sex farce, period piece and contemporary drama is in some respects the strongest period in his film career…….in the sense that as these films were more contemporary and diverse they offered very different narrative and film nuances. They provided Elvis with an opportunity to stretch his acting but unfortunately by that time he was jaded with Hollywood. The final phase was his two concert films and they are essentially just that.
To categorise ALL of Elvis’ films as being “Presley Travelogues” is therefore invalid and overlooks the disparate narrative structures, filming and production qualities in the four phases.
The Memphis Flash: I wonder why Susan Doll’s findings still are not better known?
Nigel Patterson: It is fair to say that most serious authors on the Elvis film canon have borrowed, to varying degrees, from Professor Doll’s seminal work. It should also be noted that a number of the elements so well explained in her book certainly had been discussed before, for example, the inclusion of recurring motifs in Elvis’ films was identified by the late Elaine Dundy in her seminal book, Elvis and Gladys (published in 1985), but it was only on the release of Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs. Star Image that all of the threads were brought together in an eye-opening, cogent analytical approach to considering Elvis’ body of film work. I mean how many fans ever watched an Elvis film thinking that his on screen presence (“star image”) in some way reflected his cultural upbringing, that there were recurring motifs in his films or that in fact his celluloid films were not all similar?
The Memphis Flash: As far as I know, your film course is not running anymore. Could you please detail what the students of your course were able to discover about Elvis’ movies. Maybe you can do so by picking one of Elvis’ better known films as an example.
Nigel Patterson: New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema has been run six times, including three times online. It morphed from its initial incarnation as a one-day seminar to a more detailed 6 week course. It was offered by The Brain Gym and The Canberra College as an in-class/online subject and by EIN as an online course. The Course has the distinction of being the first one offered by The Canberra College as both an in-class and online subject. I am very proud of that achievement as it took it from being only a Canberra, Australia region opportunity to one available to fans and film students in five countries!
The course has evolved over time and as I mentioned earlier it is currently structured with two basic components: one provides participants with a knowledge of basic film theory and techniques with which to view any film or television program on a more critical level. Using basic film concepts participants learn how the different film elements of story, camera techniques, costume, lighting all come together to ‘deliberately’ produce a film outcome designed to influence the viewer. Some of the technical issues covered include the great use of camera ‘framing’ in King Creole, back-lighting in Loving You, incidental music in Flaming Star and ‘shaky hand’ camera technique in The Trouble With Girls.
The other component, largely based on the work of Professor Doll, offers insight to how different Elvis films are structured, the role of Elvis’ image’, his iconography, recurring themes (motifs) and political intonations in his films.
Together the two components provide an analytical framework for understanding and viewing any audio-visual product on a non-passive level. A fundamental objective of the completed course is that a person will never again view an Elvis film or their favourite TV program in the same way!
The Memphis Flash: I sure would like to attend your course.
Nigel Patterson: Essentially, as a niche interest, demand for the course was never going to be sufficient to afford it significant longevity and demand declined over time which, combined with my busy schedule, hasn’t seen it being held for over seven years. There are occasional enquiries about the possibility of reviving the course so you never know. If I can find the time…
The Memphis Flash: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Elvis and especially Elvis’ Hollywood career? What are the main reasons why the movies are ill-regarded by many fans, (music) critics and biographers on one hand and are increasingly appreciated by film connaisseurs like James L. Neibaur, Douglas Brode, Paul Simpson and Professor Doll on the other hand?
Nigel Patterson: I’d like to answer this important question in a number of ways. The biggest misconception! Many film critics view Elvis‘ body of film work as one-dimensional pop celluloid, a group of inconsequential, fluffy ‚B‘ grade movies with Elvis singing a dozen songs to a dozen pretty girls in a dozen different exotic locales.
As mentioned earlier, this description is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what the Elvis film canon actually is. In this respect I have already discussed the four distinct phases in Elvis‘ film career, each with its own set of narrative structure, iconography, recurring themes (motifs) and political intonations.
On a broader, more political level, there has been an unfortunate critical dismissal of Elvis’ career in the studio, on stage and on film. The level of criticism of Elvis’ film canon (and of Elvis’ career in general) has always surprised me. Critics typifying Elvis’ film career as being a ‘one note game’, ignores the fact that nearly half of Elvis’ films were not “Presley travelogues”!!!
In addition, many critics adopt a strident view, dismissing the “travelogues” as having little redeeming value. This is surprising as the criticism levelled at other similar genre type films does not, in my opinion, seem to be as consistently negative.
The Memphis Flash: You are right there. German light comedy musicals of the 1950s and 1960s still seem to be judged more favourably than the Elvis travelogues over here. And people tend to follow established views. Not one of the well-known biographies (i.e. Guralnick) speaks favourably of Elvis‘ films.
Nigel Patterson: Not being fluent in German (my high school experience learning German was not a success) I have not read Björn Eckerl’s Elvis Im Kino. I note from Björn’s very interesting interview on your site that he says Elvis films are seen as being quite silly and in one sense that is a valid observation.
My issue with the observation is that it tends not to be equally applied by film critics to the film outputs of actors like Astaire-Rogers, Martin-Lewis, Abbott and Costello, etc….whose films were often equally as silly (the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers collaborations excepted).
In my opinion, there has long been an underlying bias against Elvis and his films. This bias – in large part – arose because Elvis and his ‘devil’s music’ challenged core elements in music, culture and society and was instrumental in replacing its ‘mom and dad’ culture with a ‘teen culture’. Even when Elvis returned from the Army and his image was redefined for a family audience, lingering resentment to his ground breaking impact in the 1950s by elements holding power in socio-cultural and religious quarters ensured his recording and film work would not be fairly considered.
For example, film reviewers often have a fondness for the quite delightful but basic humour of the Abbott and Costello films, Martin-Lewis comedies and the “Beach” or Teen Angst-Car” movies of the 50s-60s (with often decidedly very low B grade production values), yet these are not as critically panned as Elvis films. In all of these cases there was a template approach to making the film, with common structural, narrative and star image considerations carefully moulded to affect the filmic experience.
Even the very funny slapstick shenanigans of The Three Stooges seems somewhat impervious to the derision often exhibited about Elvis films. That Elvis attracted considerable negative press about his recordings (the “devil’s music”) appears to have defined a broader critical norm for considering Elvis’ career.
Pleasingly, just as critical re-evaluation of Elvis’ recorded output has led to a greater appreciation of his skills as a singer-performer, today there is a growing number of critics who have come to view the Elvis film canon in a more positive light (as the growing library of books around Elvis Film attests). For the public though, the mass media messages that Elvis films were low brow, all the same and often silly, generally persists.
The Memphis Flash: Another common view is that the films were forgettable because Elvis Presley simply was not a good actor, an opinion film historian James L. Neibaur and director Norman Taurog have challenged? Who is right? And what about Björn Eckerl’s and Susan Doll’s perspective that the “good acting approach” to Elvis’ movies is misleading in most cases?
Nigel Patterson: A number of film historians and directors have noted that Elvis had potential to be a good actor as suggested by his performances in films such as Love Me Tender (although to me he comes across in his debut film as trying too hard and consequently appearing somewhat melodramatic), King Creole – a solid dramatic performance where Elvis portrayed a sense of vulnerability and Charro – despite several negative reviews of his performance, Elvis was nicely nuanced for his role in the spaghetti western.
Undoubtedly, Elvis was a good light comedy actor whose performances were natural and usually quite relaxed. He gave what directors expected of him/performed adequately in the “Presley travelogues” and displayed a deft Cary Grant-like touch in the underrated sex farce, Live A Little, Love A Little, his harried and perplexed Greg Nolan character bouncing off the great performance of Michele Carey as Bernice and the film’s various other offbeat characters.
Whether Elvis could have become a very good actor I really don’t know. I think by the early 1970s it was probably too late for him as not only was he tired of the “travelogues” but personal issues were becoming increasingly dominant in his life and affecting his creative ability.
I agree with Björn Eckerl and Susan Doll’s observation that the “good acting approach” to Elvis’ movies is misleading in most instances (King Creole, Wild In The Country and being exceptions). As a major part of the youth oriented genre, the Elvis film was not predicated on a need for good or method acting. Rather it was directed largely by Elvis’ ‘star image’ (specific persona) which implicitly overrides acting considerations. Star image was a natural by-product of the Hollywood star system which was prevalent from the 1930s to 1960s. Apart from Elvis, other actors whose films were designed for and reflected their ‘star image’ were Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire, Mae West and Martin-Lewis.
While in recent times there has been a critical re-evaluation of the Elvis film canon and greater appreciation of it as a ‘body of work’, it is reasonable to say that the same cannot be said of critical and public perceptions of Elvis as an actor. In one respect I suspect we haven’t advanced far beyond Variety’s comments in 1956 on his acting ability in Love Me Tender:
„Appraising Presley as an actor, he ain’t. Not that it makes much difference. The presence of Presley apparently is enough to satisfy the juve set.“
– Variety about Elvis in Love Me Tender
The Memphis Flash: These days Elvis‘ and Ann-Margret’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) celebrates its 50th anniversary. Among film historians the movie today is regarded as a pop culture classic. What do you think about it?
Nigel Patterson:Viva Las Vegas is a very likeable and well produced/directed film. Elvis and Ann-Margret have an appealing chemistry, the musical numbers are generally fine and for its time (particularly on the big screen) the race scenes are well shot and dramatic (viewed on a small screen TV the race scenes seem dated and lack visual impact).
My only criticism of Viva Las Vegas is that (and this is certainly not her fault) Ann-Margret gets the meatier role both narratively and musically (plus she avoids getting wet around the swimming pool). Obviously the early-mid 60s stylised Elvis family friendly image overrode any serious intention to allow Elvis to portray a harder edge on screen in 1964 (that of course would change, albeit too late, in the 3rd period of his film canon in the late 60s).
The Memphis Flash: Nigel, as an expert on Elvis and Elvis’ movies, if you had the once in a lifetime chance to advise Elvis Presley, who ended his movie career in 1969 being very frustrated with it, on a second run, how would you approach the task? What kind of role, film genre and director would you recommend? What would be the best way to go (keeping Elvis’ large and rather heterogenous fan base in mind)?
Nigel Patterson: That is a great question and the answer is both simple and quite complex, and for me, has long been a largely uneasy or unresolved one! I was first asked this question in the 1990s when I was running an early incarnation of New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema I was invited to participate in a film conference in Sydney. Part of my involvement was as a panel member at one of the plenary sessions. As I recall, the session was concerned with what was being referred to as ‘the pop culture film’. At the time the audience was more interested in the sci-fi genre than Elvis films but I was asked a question along the lines of how could Elvis’ films have been better.
My answer at that time was that given the cultural and marketing context in which Elvis’ career developed – youth oriented genre – it was always going to be difficult for him to achieve the same level of opportunity Sinatra and Crosby got to develop as actors and appear in serious, critically acclaimed roles. Elvis was more constrained by his ‘star image’ and the more sophisticated and focused marketing strategies that had developed by the mid1950s-early 1960s.
In particular we need to consider the changing film industry in the mid1950s-early 1960s. Up until the mid-1950s films were generally produced for three audience categories: adult, family (including teens) and very young (pre-teen) audience. Elvis and the rock ‘n’ roll explosion coupled with rising general affluence and, importantly, the arrival of a previously unheard of teen affluence, saw a new genre (teen film or youth oriented) and a re-defining of how films would be marketed, especially those directed at the “new” teen audience.
Sinatra and Crosby had demonstrated that singers could become very good actors and shine in dramatic roles. In Sinatra’s case when he took on this Oscar winning role in From Here To Eternity, his career was in a lull and his days as a ‘teen idol’ were over. This was actually a positive for him as he could redefine his career in a different direction without significant interference from Hollywood’s power brokers.
The Memphis Flash: Interesting. Paul Simpson, author of Elvis Films FAQ, mentioned something along the same line in the recent interview → Elvis in Hollywood.
Nigel Patterson: Whereas Crosby’s success as a recording artist lacked the context of being a classic teen idol and (quite instructively) this allowed him to move smoothly from lighter to more serious roles without alienating his fan base.
Elvis’ popularity and appeal to fans was on a different level to Sinatra and Crosby and I suspect the psychological needs of Elvis’ fans were also somewhat different to those of Sinatra and Crosby fans. When Elvis arrived in Hollywood the “teen” film genre was in its infancy and movie powerbrokers had a narrow focus on what “teen” films should be and how they were to be marketed. Essentially they were not considered to be serious films and their success at the box office was dependent on an insubstantial narrative peppered with musical numbers and puerile doses of humour. The same situation confronted artists like Mario Lanza, who also wanted to tackle more serious roles but saw his career stymied by narrow minded Hollywood preconceptions about what his films should “be” and how his films should ‘look’. Lanza, like Elvis, battled weight and addiction issues which resulted in his premature death in 1959 aged 38.
Producers like Hal Wallis and managers like Colonel Tom Parker were driven by the profit motive (in Wallis’ case he wanted to produce critically appreciated serious films and consequently relied on celluloid “popcorn” hits, such as Elvis films, to finance his more high-brow productions) and this meant the relative failure of Elvis’ more serious, musically sparse films could not be tolerated.
As for the Colonel there was no ulterior motive, it was simply about achieving a healthy balance sheet (profit). Björn Eckerl, in his interview with you, was right when he observed Colonel Parker as being an agent to ‘suppress the artist’. I particularly liked Bjorn’s comment “Parker embodies the rational counterpoint to Elvis’ sensuality”.
We can pose the question, if Elvis stood up to the Colonel (in the early 60s this was unlikely given Elvis’ upbringing and reverence for authority figures) would there have been more opportunities for stronger roles, roles which would stretch him well outside his comfort zone of essentially playing the star image of “Elvis”? Probably not given the combination of the way the industry had evolved in relation to family-friendly, ‘star image’ based films and their marketing.
If you look at other actors marketed in film around their ‘star image’ (typecast) it is hard to find one who experienced an effective balance between fan friendly and more serious, critically acclaimed celluloid output. Rock Hudson was critically acclaimed in the challenging film, Seconds, but that was a rare, uncharacteristic exception to the majority of his film output. Dean Martin’s film canon is characterised by light comedy, musical and light dramatic roles reflective of his ‘star image’ of being “cool” and “smooth”.
Some argue that had the Colonel planned Elvis’ film career with less emphasis on his star “getting $1 million” there would have been a better artistic outcome for Elvis. Undoubtedly this would have been the case but as with anything considered in hindsight, it is also worth considering how such a more balanced creative approach to Elvis’ film career would have impacted his ‘core’ films (the “Presley travelogues”).
While an admirable attempt, the move to a more adult ‘film Elvis’ in the late 1960s was doomed for a number of reasons, including that Elvis was bored with film making, the change was quite abrupt and Elvis fans were not receptive to the changed image. A more gradual move starting a few years earlier may have had a greater chance of succeeding.
Having said all this there was one almost insurmountable problem in Elvis’ career – the re-defining of him (post Army) for a family audience. This was a huge obstacle to Elvis being accepted in dramatic roles!! Considering that both Jailhouse Rock and King Creole did very well at the box-office while Flaming Star and Wild In The Country (Elvis’ only melodrama, German: Das Lied des Rebellen) didn’t symbolises the issue.
In this context the simple answer to your question is, if we did get a second chance at Elvis’ film career, you would have to say “don’t redefine Elvis for a broader audience”… but of course this limits his box office receipts and alienates part of his audience. Achieving a balance between Elvis’ desire to be a serious actor and his audience’s need for ‘travelogue” Elvis is most problematic as the following suggests.
In 2007, the ChokingPopcorn.com site published a great critique of the downfall of Elvis’ film career by a fan named Helen. In it, Helen perceptively commented:
„Nobody was interested in seeing Elvis act, as that was not in accordance with his image and his fans’ expectations of him. Production companies knew that fans were only really interested in seeing Elvis sing and dance, so this is the image of him that they reinforced in his films.“
As to the type of role if we were redefining Elvis’ film career… a contemporary drama (Elvis performed well in Change of Habit) or offbeat/quirky film would, in my view, would have been good fits to stretch Elvis the actor.
The Memphis Flash: What about contemporay directors?
Contemporary directors with an offbeat approach to film making such as → Tarantino would likely have struck a resonant chord with Elvis and in turn have had a conception on how to present him in a very different way to his expected ‘star image’.
Looking at the period of Elvis’ actual film roles (1956 to 1969) I think a Mike Nichols, Robert Altman or even Stanley Kubrick or Woody Allen would have pushed him outside his comfort zone with the potential to draw new and vital acting from him. We should never forget that at his core Elvis was a creative artist!
Pragmatically, the best opportunity for Elvis to achieve artistic success as an actor was probably in the 1970s when he had moved beyond being a teen idol. Hollywood would have redefined him from a teen idol into a more mature image. However, for the reasons mentioned before it was a case of Kismet – it simply wasn’t meant to be!
I am sorry that answer was so long and convoluted but the issues to me are both simple and complex.
The Memphis Flash: Fascinating stuff, Nigel. Lot’s to think about. But we haven’t talked about your favourite Elvis Film yet…
Nigel Patterson: (lol) This is where I will lose credibility! The first Elvis film I saw as a fan was Clambake (German: Nur nicht Millionär sein, 1967) in the summer of 69 (what a good title for a song). I convinced my father to take my younger brother Gary and me to the drive-in to see it. I think that was the last Elvis film my father ever watched! However I loved it – the combination of its story line, attractive characters, colour, comedy and good music resonated with me (don’t believe what others say about the songs in Clambake!).
As the drive-in was within walking distance of our home I went back the next night and was the solitary patron sitting outside the refreshment shop watching the film. There seemed to be funny things happening in the cars in front of me but I barely noticed as I was still not quite hormonally switched on and Clambake was why I was there (at that time)! So I have to say Clambake is my favorite but I also rate Blue Hawaii highly in the sense that is a highly enjoyable film experience and of course it was the template for subsequent “Presley travelogues” and simply the most perfect of them all with its cool narrative, vibrantly colorful location, attractive cast, wonderful music and of course, Elvis.
From a film technical perspective, King Creole stands out with its visual style, use of long and close up shots, framing – I could go on. The Trouble With Girls was also neatly filmed with some great camera work.
Like art criticism, the problem with film criticism is that it is an intrinsically subjective and biased endeavour. For example, Tickle Me (German: Cowboy Melodie) may have low production values and be derided by critics, but for many fans its wonderful mix of comedy and very strong music soundtrack make it a very enjoyable film to watch! So while a film may exhibit low production values it can still have value (an enjoyable viewing experience) for some or many viewers. That begs consideration of the different form ‘value’ can take in a film.
The MemphisFlash: Now, tell us the one reason why it is perfectly all right to love Elvis’ movies and openly say so ;-).
Nigel Patterson: It is important to recognise that there is actually much to like about many Elvis films and the myth they are not good movies and were universally panned is actually incorrect. If you read the film reviews of the day, and Michael Hoey includes a number of these in his excellent, recent book, Elvis’ Favorite Director The Amazing 52 Year Career of Norman Taurog, you find that at least some major critics, while maybe not effusive in their praise, nevertheless recognised positive and enjoyable aspects in Elvis films.
I am also a big fan of the 3rd period in Elvis’ film career, the late 60s films when they gave Elvis an adult makeover. Despite its initial panning, Charro is more than a half-decent spaghetti western (a pity they censored the nudity and violence in it), Stay Away, Joe may be politically incorrect but is loads of fun to watch, Live A Little, Love A Little – my goodness Elvis is in bed with a woman! – an underrated, fun and funny sex farce, The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get In It) a cumbersome title but a well-produced and costumed period piece albeit with slow narrative, and Change of Habit, now quite dated, but at the time a not unreasonable, if somewhat flawed attempt at socially aware drama.
So why is it OK to openly enjoy an Elvis movie? Quite simply because they were, and continue to be, fun!! They contain a good balance of story, music, attractive locations, engaging characters, glorious color, and of course, plenty of Elvis! Even those Elvis films with scant musical content may not be Oscar candidates but are generally well made productions, often clever and enjoyable to watch. Elvis films can (unfortunately not all of them – Paradise, Hawaiian Style being my pick as the worst of them) brighten one’s day!
The Memphis Flash: Nigel, many thanks for this great in-depth interview. I highly appreciate you taking the time. And I’m definitely looking forward to your book Elvis In Print: The Definitive Reference and Price Guide…
Nigel Patterson: Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about Elvis films. They are an often unfairly maligned part of Elvis’ career and IMO one deserving of greater appreciation on a number of levels. It is also one which will likely continue to elicit strong difference of opinion among film reviewers/critics.