The Movie That Killed Elvis Presley

G.I._BluesIt was March of 1960.  The teenagers of the world were rejoicing.  Why?  Because Elvis was getting out of the army.

Yes, Elvis “The Pelvis” Presley, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest rebel iconoclast, was finally leaving the U.S. Military and taking up his career as the sneering, hip-swiveling Rock ‘n’ Roller.  Elvis’ film career was foremost in the minds of his fans, right along with his music.

Before leaving to serve his stint in Germany, Elvis had made four films, each one fairly good, each one demonstrating a definite talent, a screen charisma, and a very real potential for Elvis’ real dream as a performer- to become a respected actor, like his supreme idol, James Dean.

After two years of serving his time for Uncle Sam, for his “comeback” movie, Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, chose a lightweight musical-comedy called “G.I. Blues”.  “Marlon Brando did a musical early in his career”, Elvis happily chirped at his back-from-the-army press conference.

Elvis, seemingly a nice guy, also had another reason for his film choice, saying “It was one way I had to show all the guys with whom I served in the army how much I respected them.”

A noble sentiment, however, “G.I. Blues” was to be the blueprint for Elvis’ future movie career (i.e. a lightweight frilly, frothy musical with a pretty leading lady, in this case dancer Juliet Prowse).

The screenplay was fine- if it had been written for Bing Crosby in 1936 or Fred Astaire in 1948 or even Frank Sinatra in 1954.  But the kids, Elvis’ rock hardcore fans, were waiting to see Elvis snarl and sneer, and rebel and fight the authorities, just like he did in his four pre-army films.

The earliest clue to the movie’s ultimate fate was Elvis himself, and his appearance.  Elvis’ world-famous sideburns were gone, shaved off in the military.  And he still danced, but he didn’t shake those legendary hips like he did before the army got him.  Yes, he seemed to sing, but not like Elvis, now more like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin.

The songs were okay, but they somehow had lost their bite.  Elvis was now all groomed, for “the whole family”, a clean, wholesome family entertainer.

In “G.I. Blues”, instead of singing “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Jailhouse Rock” or “Hound Dog”, Elvis sings “Wooden Heart”, “Frankfort Special” and “Tonight is so Right for Love”.  He even sings one of the songs holding a little puppet in his hand, singing to a set of twins he is baby-sitting.

I mean, heck, there’s nothing inherently wrong with singing to set of twins you’re baby-sitting while you’re holding a cute little puppet; it’s actually kind of endearing, but this guy is Elvis Presley and this was not the persona he was so well known and loved by many for.

Elvis attended a screening of “G.I. Blues” on September 12, 1960, with co-star Juliet Prowse; the film officially premiered on November 23, 1960. Now comes the killer; the start of the domino-effect that killed Elvis Presley and any hopes he ever had to become a “serious actor” a la Dean and Brando.

G.I. Blues, despite decidedly mixed reviews, was a box-office bonanza.

It rocketed to the #2 spot at the box office and ended 1960 as the 14th biggest box-office draw of the year, earning a robust $3.4 million dollars (about $26 million today).

OK. That’s fine, so “G.I. Blues” was a smash, now Elvis wanted to get back to some “serious business”, starring in some really meaty roles to get back his acting chops.

Elvis followed up “G.I. Blues” with “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”, both serious dramas… Both were big disappointments at the box-office. (“Wild in the Country” actually lost money, based on box office sales; his only movie to do that.)

Then the nail in the coffin. He came back with another colorful, glitzy musical/comedy called “Blue Hawaii”. This proved to be a huge smash, the biggest money-maker of Elvis’ career up to that point.

The die was cast. The pattern was set, and now the studio execs all felt that Elvis making lightweight musicals would mean big financial returns, and casting him in serious dramas, like he wanted, potentially meant box office flops.

Elvis was to spend the majority of the remainder of his once-so-promising movie career singing to cuties in bikinis, warbling half-baked numbers, getting in fights and, at film’s conclusion, getting the girl.  And the scripts (with the rare exception of 1963’s quite enjoyable “Viva Las Vegas”) were to get progressively worse and worse.

This brings up the question, “Why didn’t Elvis, one of the biggest stars in show business, exert his own authority?”-  “OK, I’ll make a crummy musical, you guys can make your loot, but let me star in a decent vehicle, huh?”  Turns out, he briefly flirted with that, but after the flops that were “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”, he shut up and just took the roles offered.  Being in crappy movies is better than being in no movies… right? Right?

Elvis remained quiet, swallowing what must have been a very hurtful dose of lost pride and dignity. The once-promising young rebel was to become a cornball caricature. His film career was to be by all reports, by far, the biggest disappointment of his career.

In the end, most of the 27 movies Elvis made in the 1960s resulted in him becoming viewed as “a joke by serious music lovers and a has-been to all but his most loyal fans”, according to historian Connie Kirchberg.

From there he slowly fell further- having an affair, getting a divorce, taking more and more prescriptions drugs as his health, and physique, rapidly declined.  Near the end, he could barely keep upright on the stage, holding the microphone stand for support, while he slurred his way through the lyrics.   As guitarist John Wilkinson stated:

He was all gut. He was slurring. He was so fucked up. … It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible. … I remember crying. He could barely get through the introductions…

In 1973, he overdosed on barbiturates twice, in one of the instances ending up in a coma for three days.

Then a book was published by three of his bodyguards that had been unceremoniously fired, in which they revealed to the public that Elvis, who had once criticized the Beatles for their drug use- the now cookie cutter clean Elvis- himself was taking numerous drugs daily.  15 days later, on August 16, 1977, Elvis was found on the floor of his bathroom and was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm after being taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital.

John Lennon was asked for a quote when Elvis Presley passed away in August of 1977.  “Elvis died in the army” was Lennon’s terse reply.

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Bonus Elvis Facts:

  • Elvis didn’t naturally have black hair.  He was born a blond and, when he got older, his hair was more of a sandy blond color.  He started occasionally dying it black all the way back when he was in high school and eventually just always kept it as black.
  • There are an estimated 50,000 people in the world today that make a living as Elvis impersonators.
  • Elvis had a black belt in Karate and loved the martial art so much he gave his instructor $50,000 to start a Karate school in Memphis.  He even once, when attacked on stage, used his Karate skills to physically toss a man off the stage before security could get to him.
  • Later a Karate instructor, Mike Stone, Elvis had recommended his wife go see ended up having an affair with her.  Elvis’ rage at the man grew so frantic that at one point one of his body guards and long time close friend, Red West, was concerned for Elvis’ health over the matter and considered hiring a hit man to kill Stone.  However, Elvis eventually moved on and the plans to have the instructor killed were canceled.
  • Elvis once wrote a letter to President Nixon asking to become an undercover narcotics cop. Nixon responded by personally giving Elvis a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge.
  • During Elvis’s autopsy, doctors found 10 different drugs in Elvis’s blood stream.
  • Elvis reputedly had an off-camera fling with every one of his leading ladies in movies and supposedly Juliet Prowse was no exception. (Even though- gulp!- she was the hands-off “property” of Frank Sinatra himself at the time!)
  • His musical career was much lesser after the army too, but he did have a few good songs. And he did revive his career as a live performer in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with his electric shows, though as noted the quality of performance rapidly deteriorated towards his end.
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  • Great article as always!

    Just one minor niggle, it should be “die” and not “dye” in …”the dye was cast”, as in a special shape used to form the shape of other things.

    It is only a minor thing though…

  • It’s all very well criticizing Elvis for making bad choices regarding his film career, but you haven’t walked in his shoes. Having grown up in severe poverty he had no wish to return there. You can’t blame him for that. “Serious” films were a risk, furthermore the fans loved the “Elvis” films, especially as it was the only way to see him after he stopped touring.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Holly: I don’t think Eddie was criticizing him. If I’m not mistaken, Eddie is a HUGE fan of Elvis and was more just lamenting that Elvis didn’t get the chance to do more serious films. And, of course, as something of a celebrity himself who has often had to do bad movies with the good to make a living, at least Eddie can relate to some extent on that; though, Elvis wasn’t so much needing to make a living at that point.

    • Elvis himself was extremely frustrated with the films he ended up doing. And he was embarrassed by them. Why he wasn’t able to insist on better material, and the non-musical serious scripts he really wanted, is complicated and not fully knowable to us. But he was public about his disappointment in the pictures he did and his fear that he’d lost respect for doing them. This is why the 68′ Comeback is such a triumph. He thought he’d lost his audience, lost himself, really. He was terrified of doing the special. But with the help of a great director, he was able to find himself again and pulled off an incredible show, singing like he’d been let out of a prison.

      • Have you ever noticed that look on Elvis’ face during the first stand up segment? He is clearly very nervous and like you say was worried he had lost it himself and lost the fans, then he starts to sing and the fans go mental and he has this sly look on his face like ‘wow, they still love me’. Love it.

  • When Barbra Strisand wanted Elvis for A Star is Born and Col. Parker put the brakes on that, i really think that is when Elvis started downhill. Parker said Elvis will not take 2nd billing to anyone,and would NOT play a washed up singer. I think this film would have given Elvis a huge boost for his career….tcb

  • First of all Eddie Deezen is not old enough to appreciate Elvis Presley’s movies. No body knows what or when his exact downfall was or what he exactly thought. Only Elvis knew. All of his movies was great. Another thing is that Eddie Deezen never mentioned the real reason why Elvis was on drugs. The real reason was that Elvis had such a busy schedule he started taking drugs to keep him awake for his performance then at night he had to take drugs to put him to sleep. After gaining all his weight and taking these drugs to control him on his schedule it overtook his organs and heart. The body can only take so much stress. So Eddie Deezen this whole story of yours is not accurate and is also your opinion.

    • lucilelace young

      I agree with John Doe.

      Those days, people just carrying on working… So Elvis kept doing his shows after shows. His lousy money minded manager had no regard for his health, treating him like money generating machine.

    • Sorry, wrong. Elvis started taking drugs in the service because of the hectic life. It was common back then. His hectic life continued after the service. But his drugs began as prescribed so he thought they were okay

  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    How about mentioning a few bonus facts about Elvis that REALLY have a bearing, even today, on the US and the world. i) In the afternoon opf October 28, 1956, Elvis takes the third version of Jonas Salk’s anti polio vaccine in front of the world’s media. Result? Six months later, his advocacy is credited with launching the exponential increase in the immunizxation level across the US from 0.6 to 80%. Polio is said to be all but erradicated from US soil by April, of 1957. ii) January 6, 1957. he asks Ed Sullivan to request from the 50 million watching his third appearance on his show, on his behalf, to send immediate emergency assistance to alleviate the plight of 250,000 hungarians seeking refugee status following the invasion of their country by the Soviet Union, Result, in the next 11 months, Elvis fans send US$6 million, the equivalent of USD$49.5 million in 2016 US$. The International Red Cross distributes these funds, converting them into ´perishables and non persishables and sending them with the help of the US Army, which flies them in some 100 sorties to both Vienna and London, where they all settled for life. iii) June 28, 1957, Elvis agrees to appear but not sing, at the Shower of Stars, an event Danny Thomas has been trying to use as a launching pad to get the funds he needs to start contruction of his dream, St Jude{s. Elvis draws 14,000 donors to an outdoor stadioum, bringing them form TN,MS and AR. iv, v= and Vi) in March of 1961, after already becoming both the US personal largest tax contributor, without being in the list of the 1000 wealthiest americans, as well as the most celebrated US Army regular recruit in its history, he becomes the second largest contributor to the construction of what became, the year later, and is still today, the state of Hawaii, largest contributor, the USS Arizona Memorial, visited thus far by 66 million paying customers. I can go on, and on, and on….

    • Elvis did a concert in Hawaii during the production of Blue Hawaii to help funding of the memorial. You can find it on YouTube. Hopefully it’s still available. I saw it and it was great. Many of his great 50s hits with some of the released hits while in the service. Even did the knee slide on stage singing Hound Dog.

  • I don’t think it is fair to blame one movie for Elvis’ death 17 years after it was released. A lot happened in those 17 years.

    Sure, it is clear with hindsight that Elvis could have had a more fulfilling career and happier and longer life if certain things had been different in those 17 years, but GI Blues is not to blame for his death.

    In fact, the success of GI Blues and Blue Hawaii and the corresponding failure of Wild in the Country and Flaming Star demonstrate that this is exactly what the public wanted from Elvis at the time. As Elvis was getting older, so were his fans. They were getting married and having kids and therefore wanted a more family friendly Elvis.

    GI Blues and Blue Hawaii were very good movies compared to a lot of the dross that followed (I’m looking at you Paradise Hawaiian Style, Tickle Me and Harum Scarum), but there were still gems in there, like Speedway, but the quality of the movie output wasn’t down to Elvis, it was the lazy writing and production, to earn a fast buck. He made 3 movies each year for 7 of the years in the 1960s and 2 in the other 3, there is no way there was a focus on quality.

    It is widely reported that Elvis was frustrated with the work schedule and the quality of the output and I think most people wish he would have stood up to Parker and changed direction, but when you are getting (half of) $500,000 + 50% of the profit off of every movie, I don’t think we can blame him for losing those arguments.

    Also, the article seems to jump from the movie issue directly to drug and Elvis’ health issues. There was a ton of stuff going on in Elvis’ life between GI Blues and 16 August 1977. there was clearly a lot of negative stuff going on and a lot of weak people failed to give him the tough love he so obviously needed. it is very easy for us to assign blame in hindsight, but I am sure it was very different and difficult to live through for everyone concerned and I do not blame anyone.

    Elvis had arguably the best years of his career between 1969 and 1975 that need to be remembered. Above all Elvis was a complicated genius, who died too soon. We are all sad that he died so young, but we should all be grateful for what we got from Elvis. Although, from the other comments, I understand that the writer is a big Elvis fan, I for one do not believe that articles like this help to keep Elvis’ memory alive, at least not the way I would like him to be remembered. Lets not try to analyse where it went wrong, lets just celebrate what went right as there is so much of it.

    TCB Long Live The King

  • The writer’s statement that, “His musical career was much lesser after the army too, but he did have a few good songs”, I believe is a little bit of an understatement to say the least. Elvis had many good songs after he left the army, far too many to mention here. He in fact remained red hot for three straight years until early 1963 when he started to falter and then went into the doldrums throughout the mid 60’s before getting hot again right after his big Television special and then remained so with many big hits with his last one being “Burning Love” in 1972. He was still churning out top 40 hits at the time of his death.