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Elvis in Hollywood

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About halfway though the made-for-video documentary Elvis in Hollywood (1993, BMG) comes the transfiguration of Elvis Presley’s hair, and let me tell you, it is scary. It’s in the first of the clips we’re shown from his second movie, 1957’s Loving You — a scene of the star giving sexy lip to Lizabeth Scott. Unlike his debut, Love Me Tender, this film’s in color and set in the present. And something’s different. Elvis looks a little uneasy, his sneer seems pasted on, and his hair is… is… his hair is blue. Instead of its natural dark brown, El’s hair has been coiffed into an ebony superhero helmet, and the highlights are blue.

That’s the sign that Loving You was the first of the real Elvis movies, those bland, campy sausage links that strangled the star’s spontaneity over the next decade. It was also the anomaly out of the four ’50s films covered by this hour-long documentary, which mixes clips, interviews, and previously unseen screen tests, outtakes, and home-movie footage. Granted, the singer had already begun to package himself by 1956 — the unselfconscious joy of his early Sun records quickly hardened into the playful self-parody of RCA hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” — but when he hit Hollywood, the image pros took over. Loving You isn’t terrible (at least it lets Presley rip into “Mean Woman Blues”), but in its innocent creation of formula lay the future bloat; in Elvis’ blue hair lay the destruction of a vital pop force. The tragedy is the he collaborated.

All this is plain to see in the video if you read between the lines. Directed by Frank Martin in cooperation with Elvis Presley Enterprise, Elvis in Hollywood covers the period from Presley’s first screen tests in April 1956 to his induction into the Army in early 1958. The overall tone is starry-eyed, especially the dreadful cracker-barrel narration. In fact, Elvis in Hollywood would be just another cellophane-wrapped religious relic — except that the interviewees keep insisting on the subject’s humanity.

“He was a casualty of Hollywood,” says Jerry Leiber, who with his songwriting partner, Mike Stoller, is the most caustic of the voices here. More genteel speakers testify to the seriousness with which the singer took his film career. Presley had worked as a movie theater usher before he hit it big, committing Brando and Dean to memory; part of genius was to channel their rebellious energy into musical terms. But Hollywood was always the goal. While he only vaguely grasped his effect on pop music, Presley understood movie stardom. George Klein, a member of Elvis’ early entourage and one of the interview subjects, tells of the star, faced with his Army stint, worrying whether rock & roll would be around when he got out. If it was a fad, then the best insurance was to squeeze out another movie before joining up.

That movie was 1958’s King Creole, possibly the best of the Elvis flicks. For once he was surrounded by quality goods: A solid director, (Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz), a decent story source (Harold Robbins’ A Stone of Danny Fisher) , and a sympathetic cast (Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, and Walter Matthau). In such company, the star shows real progress from enthusiastic but awkward performances of his first three films (the third was Jailhouse Rock, an intriguing mix of MGM swank and snarling Leiber-Stoller rock). “I think Elvis became the actor he wanted to be with King Creole,” says costar Jan Hunter. “I Think everything after that was downhill.

Well, that’s not to say that 1964’s Viva Las Vegas doesn’t belong in the Camp Hall of Fame. And it’s pretty clear that Elvis would never have been the actor that Brando was, even if Leiber thinks he could have if he’d studied at the Actors Studio. In all the interviews here, Elvis comes across like a good-hearted kid who believed that to become a movie star, you had to treat everyone nice, learn your dialogue, and listen to your manager. And if your manager and the studio were loath to mess with a formula in which the movies sold more records, the records sold more movie tickets, and everyone made money — well, disappointments were for keeping to yourself.

If we’re lucky, there won’t be an Elvis in Hollywood: The ’60s — the smell of lost potency would be too overpowering. While Presley would roar to musical life with his 1968 comeback, his film legacy is finally about as meaningful as Madonna’s. So who’s to blame? Col. Tom Parker? Sure, but also the star. Elvis broke the rules for everyone except himself. B.