“I get tired of playing a guy who gets into a fight, then starts singing to the guy he’s just beat up.” - Elvis Presley
When Elvis Presley entered the film business in 1956, he was unknowingly just two years into a career that would outlive everything and everyone, including him. More than a quarter century after Ed Sullivan Show cameramen were instructed to film him only from the waist-up, the once controversial torso can be seen on every beach towel and wall clock in America. Although in the mid 1960s, it was unclear if Presley would ever recover from the heavy toll movie contracts had taken on his recording career. Though financially successful, the singer’s films were routinely panned, with one critic famously declaring them to be a “pantheon of bad taste.” But what the public didn’t know, was that Presley was privately devastated by the films he was making and increasingly aware of the damaging effect to his career. He became so disillusioned that he later claimed some of the scripts would make him physically ill. Even more distressing was the fact that his initial foray into cinema had been rife with promise.
“A Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood.” – producer Hal Wallis
While still in high school, Presley worked as an usher at Loew’s State Theater in Memphis. He took in the latest movies with a mixture of admiration and awe, particularly idolizing James Dean. Dean’s rise to prominence coincided with a cultural shift among youth, and there’s no doubt that Presley’s enthusiasm for the actor was bolstered by their resemblance in fashion and taste. A few years later, when the recordings he made on Sun Records made him a national phenomenon, he jumped at the chance to appear in movies. But while Elvis saw an opportunity to transition to serious films, those around him saw an opportunity to capitalize on his appeal. Immediately after leaving Sun Records for RCA Victor, Presley’s new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, set a mandate for keeping his new client successful. Parker wielded particular power over the young singer, who was unsure of how to respond to the unprecedented attention that greeted him wherever he went. And while Presley ultimately trusted Parker, the manager’s domineering presence and involvement in all aspects of his career would eventually lead to misgivings and resentment. Especially when it became clear that quality and artistic value would not be considered when making business decisions.
In 1956, Elvis signed onto appear in his first feature film. The movie was titled The Reno Brothers, and would co-star Deborah Paget and Richard Egan. Wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, Presley did not want to sing in the film, though this was in direct conflict with what his manager had envisioned. Parker had architected a business model in which the films and film soundtracks would effectively promote each other, securing enormous profits for both his client and himself. What solidified the direction of Presley’s movie career was his September 9th appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. During a break in filming, Presley appeared to perform the yet-to-be-released single, “Love Me Tender.” Just two weeks after the show aired, RCA announced that advanced sales had seen the song go gold before it was even released. Promptly, the film title was changed and Elvis’s role in the film was significantly expanded. Prior to it’s national release, Presley returned to Memphis to attend a private screening at Loew’s State Theater. In the following weeks, Love Me Tender would debut at number two at the box office, bested only by James Dean’s posthumously released film, Giant.
Eager to capitalize on the success of Love Me Tender, three more Presley pictures were made over the following two years. Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were all massive hits, though it was King Creole that had granted Elvis his best notices to date. Both the New York Times and Variety had high praise for the film and Presley’s performance. Many saw Elvis in a new light and even established actors like Robert Mitchum had begun to regard the singer as a peer. In 1958, Mitchum had personally approached Presley about taking a role in his new film, Thunder Road, although Parker ruined the deal when he demanded more money than what the studio offered. And while it may have seemed like singer and manager would eventually both get what they wanted, the United States Army would force Presley to forge a new path once more.
On December 20, 1958, the most famous singer in the world received his draft notice. After securing a sixty-day deferment in order to complete the filming of King Creole, Presley was officially inducted. Despite believing that his draft would effectively end his career, the performers popularity only surged during his absence from public life. Honorably discharged on March 5, 1960, Sergeant Elvis Presley returned home to Tennessee to huge fanfare. Filmed and released soon after his return, G.I. Blues would be his first movie since his stint in the army. Hugely successful, the box office returns empowered Parker to continue with the formula they had first enacted in 1956. Although at Presley’s behest, two feature films that diverted from this formula were slated for 1960 and 1961. Those films, Flaming Star and Wild In The Country were the only Presley movies that ever lost money. Parker used this to convince Elvis that fans did not want to see him in serious acting roles. For the next few years, Parker held Presley to a hectic filming schedule that left little time for anything else. Three films per year plus accompanying soundtrack albums and EPs saw the quality of his recording career slowly wash away. By 1967, the accompanying soundtrack to Clambake posted record low sales for a new Presley album.
“I’m never going to sing a song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.” – Elvis Presley's reaction to hearing “If I Can Dream,” 1968
In 1968, Colonel Tom Parker made a deal with NBC for an Elvis Christmas special to be broadcast in December of that year. But director Steve Binder thought a holiday program would be a wasted opportunity. Seeing this as a chance for the singer to repair his image, Binder brought his ideas to an enthusiastic Presley. The special would now be built around acoustic performances and bigger, theatrical music numbers. While Parker was unhappy with his diminished role behind the scenes, the new concept had reinvigorated Presley, who was deeply depressed by the current state of his career. What had inspired him most of all was the song “If I Can Dream.” Written by songwriter W. Earl Brown, the song was based on a conversation between Binder and Presley, in which Elvis expressed his sadness and concern over the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Though Parker discouraged the recording, Elvis loved the song and performed it with an emotion and immediacy that had not been present in his work in years. Brown later said that after the recording, all of the back up singers had tears in their eyes.
“If I Can Dream,” was the finale to the NBC special that is famously referred to as the “’68 Comeback Special.” For Presley it marked a critical and commercial return to form. Revitalized by the success of the show, he immediately embarked on a string of recording sessions. Released in June 1969, From Elvis in Memphis gave the performer his first non-gospel top ten hit since “Bossa Nova Baby,” six years before. The new album and special had also coincided with the end of Presley’s film career. No longer bound by contractual obligations, Elvis was finally free to focus on his singing career.