When it comes to Elvis Presley movies, there’s a perception that for the most part, they’re dismissible, formulaic and completely superficial. There’s the other side of the argument, however, that without them we wouldn’t have nearly the amount of music that we have of Elvis, which in many instances was precisely the point. To be sure, these films were created to get butts into theater seats, but, even more importantly, they were geared towards selling soundtrack albums, which in many instances were far more profitable. Not that this was a new approach taken to a popular singer.
“There was a tradition going all the way back to Al Jolson in the early pop era,” explains Susan Doll, author of, among other books, The Films of Elvis Presley. “A tradition of pop singers already having an image, because they were already a performer, then showcasing that image in a series of films and sometimes fine-tuning that image in the films. That was kind of the tradition of grooming a popular singer into the movies. So there was Jolson, there was Bing Crosby, and there was Frank Sinatra. Even the opera singer Mario Lanza, who was very handsome and very masculine, Hollywood tapped into. They created a series of vehicles to showcase him. Elvis was a big fan of Mario Lanza, and he also really followed Sinatra’s career. In his mind, when he was being courted for the movies, that’s how he saw his career going in terms of becoming an actor: Using his singing popularity and then filtering that into an acting career.”
Just as it was Susan’s interest in Elvis and film in general that filtered into not only her career as an author but as a Professor of Film Studies at Ringling College of Art and Design, specializing in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
“I’ve written several books on Elvis over the years,” she explains, “but the starting point is that Elvis was the subject of my dissertation at Northwestern University. The point of the dissertation, because I got a degree in Pop Culture and Film Studies from there, was how his career was managed based on specifically controlling a star’s image. At the time, there was nothing scholarly written on him; not even a definitive biography. It was still in the era, I think, of the first 10 years after his death and there were very few serious pieces about him. A lot that was out there were bios by people who had worked for him, or bios by people who were sensationalizing the ‘he died of drugs’ thing. And people were in shock that he’d had a drug-related death.
There was this battle for the first few years after his death of he was a drug addict versus he was not a drug addict,” Susan continues, “and that kind of really got in the way of any kind of assessment of his contribution to pop culture. So I got into looking at his career after a documentary came out called This is Elvis, and I saw how orchestrated his career had been. As I started looking into it, I discovered there was a lot of planning and control over his career once he became famous. How that occurred and why that occurred was the subject of my dissertation, and I was just lucky enough to get a deal for a coffee table book that was a positive depiction of his contribution to culture. Then I kind of got a little bit of a reputation for writing positively about Elvis, and that let to other types of books.”
While her book may have taken a positive slant towards the Elvis movies and helped paint the picture that they represented a wonderful period, the truth was a little bit different. “No,” she says, “they weren’t all wonderful.”
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