Interview with HOLLYWOOD INSIDERS!
In the course of his screen career, Elvis Presley made 31 movies, a mother lode that has been mined and re-mined by eager Elvis hagiographers for every last glittering nugget of Presleyiana. But sadly neglected in the decades-long fuss over what Elvis sang, wore, and said have been the authors of those movies: the Presley screenwriters.
In some sense, this neglect is a reflection of the prevailing Hollywood attitude toward the writer: that he or she is the low man on the totem pole. In certain cases, the writers themselves have discouraged investigation, knowing full well that many Presley movies are hardly considered prime examples of the art of screenwriting. This, in itself, raises other questions: Was there a formula for writing a Presley movie? How closely did writers have to adhere to such a formula? Who came up with the formula, and why? And what was Elvis really like?
We asked a group of obliging screenwriters these questions, and more. The resulting conversations were frank, funny, and eye-opening, about Elvis Presley and his movie career and, more generally, about writing for Hollywood. For all these writers, there was life both before and after Elvis.
Allan Weiss was an associate of renowned producer Hal Wallis when he earned the first of his six Presley movie credits: "Blue Hawaii" (1961; story), "Girls! Girls! Girls!" (1962; story), "Fun in Acapulco" (1963), "Roustabout" (1964; story), "Paradise, Hawaiian Style" (1966), and "Easy Come, Easy Go" (1967). He is also an established playwright.
Noted screen and television writer-director, memoirist, and raconteur Hal Kanter was also working for Wallis when he both wrote and directed "Loving You" (1957) and later wrote "Blue Hawaii"; his other screen credits include "About Mrs. Leslie" (1954), "The Rose Tattoo" (1955), and "Let's Make Love" (1960), and he won new fame producing television's award-winning "All In the Family".
Edward Anhalt is a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Panic In the Streets" (1950) and "Becket" (1964)) who also turned his hand to a Presley movie, "Girls! Girls! Girls!", for Hal Wallis.
Writer-director Theodore J. Flicker ("The President's Analyst" (1967), The "Troublemaker" (1964)) and writer George Kirgo ("Red Line 7000" (1965), "Don't Make Waves" (1967) teamed up to write "Spinout" (1966) for producer Joe Pasternak; both have remained active in films and television.
HI: How did you all end up writing movies for Elvis Presley?
HAL KANTER: I had directed a picture at RKO called "I Married a Woman" (1958) --
HAL KANTER: It was with George Gobel, whose TV show I'd written and directed. George had made a picture earlier called "The Birds and the Bees" (1956), which hadn't been successful, so they called me in because I had experience with him from the TV show. Now I had previously written five or six pictures for Hal Wallis.
HI: A key figure.
HAL KANTER: That's right. So for several years, I kept saying, "I want to direct the next picture," and Hal would say, "Yeah, one of these days, one of these days. Not this one. Another one." One day I was having lunch at Lucy's restaurant [across from Paramount], and I ran into Wallis and he said, "Listen, I'd like you to come and see a test that I've made with a new kid. And if you're interested, maybe you can work on a show with him." I said, "Who is it?" And he said, "Elvis Presley." I said, "What?" At that time, Elvis Presley was like a joke. But he said, "Just come and look," and he set up a screening.
ALLAN WEISS: I was working for Wallis and had the privilege of being present on the day he made Elvis' test. No one had any expectations; he was such a strange, quiet fellow -- so completely foreign. But he sang, and read a scene from [N. Richard Nash's play] "The Rainmaker", and answered questions asked from off-screen -- and it was phenomenal. It was an amazing experience to be there. One of those life-changing experiences.
HAL KANTER: He was charming and witty and completely unafraid of the camera.
ALLAN WEISS: Hal Wallis had an eye. He signed people before they got famous. Sign them to a long contract, and then he wouldn't have to pay them very much. But what an eye. He had seen Elvis and he made the test -- which still exists, by the way. It's an important piece of cultural history and it's still around, in some Paramount vault probably.
HAL KANTER: I went back up to Wallis' office, and I said, "He was wonderful. He just blew me out of the theater!" And Wallis said, "I'm glad you feel that way. Would you like to do the picture?"
HI: Edward Anhalt, you were also under contract to Hal Wallis when you wrote for Presley?
ANHALT: Not under contract. I worked with him for seven years, but I had no contract because he wanted to be able to fire me.
ANHALT: He was always firing me.
HI: And you'd say, "Okay, fine"?
ANHALT: "I'll see ya." And then he'd call me, and there was never any discussion of him firing me. He'd say, "You want to do a picture about so-and-so?" and I'd say, "Yeah," and I'd go back to work.
HI: So how did you get involved with "Girls! Girls! Girls!"?
ANHALT: It was a deal I made with Wallis: I would do a Presley picture and he'd let me do Becket.
HI: So in a way, Elvis Presley is responsible for "Becket"! What made Wallis think you could write an Elvis movie?
ANHALT: I don't know. I guess I'd been around him so long, he figured I could do anything.
HI: Theodore J. Flicker and George Kirgo, you teamed up to write "Spinout" for another producer, Joe Pasternak. How did that come about?
GEORGE KIRGO: Well, we were latecomers to Presley -- 1966. He'd already made most of his movies -- all, of course, incredibly wonderful pictures.
GEORGE KIRGO: I first met Flicker in New York; I was writing a live Timex television special.
THEODORE J. FLICKER: It was called "Accent on Youth"; the host was Fernando Lamas!
GEORGE KIRGO: A spokesman for youth if ever there was one.
THEODORE J. FLICKER: And Paul Anka was on it, and he was young -- or at least short.
GEORGE KIRGO: And Flicker's troupe, The Premise players -- it was Flicker, Jim Frawley, Joan Darling, a bunch of people -- were also on the show. I despised him: he wanted the whole show to be about The Premise! Then I moved to L.A. and Frawley threw a party. Teddy was there and there was no one else to talk to --
THEODORE J. FLICKER: Needless to say, we both had such smart mouths that we got a real kick out of each other.
GEORGE KIRGO: He told me that he was supposed to do a movie for Sonny and Cher at MGM; I was at Paramount then finishing up with Hawks [Kirgo wrote Howard Hawks' "Red Line 7000"].
THEODORE J. FLICKER: Joe Pasternak called me and said, "The studio thinks that these two kids, Sonny and Cher, are going to be stars. What if you wrote and directed a picture for these kids, Sonny and Cher? You know, like "A Hard Day's Night"?" And I said, "I would love it!"
GEORGE KIRGO: Now this was a Friday when we talked, and over the weekend, Sonny and Cher were out and Presley was in.
THEODORE J. FLICKER: Joe called me and said, "The studio's decided that Sonny and Cher are not going to be big stars, and so they've cancelled the project. I feel terrible about this. But I've got an Elvis Presley picture going. You could write that, but you can't direct it because Norman Taurog" -- he won an Academy Award for "Skippy" (1931) -- "has already been signed to direct it." And I said, "Fine. The only thing is, this I won't write alone." I said, "I know who I want to write it with -- can I bring another writer in?" And he said sure, so I called George.
GEORGE KIRGO: He told me it was for Joe Pasternak, and I said, "I know Joe. Okay. What's it about?" And Flicker just shrugged and said, "We'll figure something out."
HI: Was there a formula that had to be followed in writing an Elvis Presley movie? Any guidelines?
ALLAN WEISS: You had to make room for 12 songs. And they had to be integrated.
ANHALT: Pretty simple. All you had to do was find out how many songs he wanted, and write the dialogue in between the songs.
THEODORE J. FLICKER: We had a meeting with the head of the studio, and he said, "We need this fast," and we said, "We can do that." He said, "And we need it good."
GEORGE KIRGO: We started to fool around and we invented song titles.
GEORGE KIRGO: And then they'd be sent off to Nashville or New York or wherever. My favorite -- it was a race car picture, and we were thinking about rules for the road -- was "Stop, Look, and Listen (for Love)"! It was a howl.
HI: Hal Kanter, "Loving You" was only Elvis' second film. Was there a formula in place even then?
HAL KANTER: There was no formula at the time. It hadn't been established yet.
HI: So you were kind of lucky?
HAL KANTER: I was lucky, and naive! I was listening to my own drummer.
HI: So how did you come up with the story?
HAL KANTER: Wallis had a first draft of a script, and he said, "It needs something." I said, "What?" And he said, "A complete rewrite!" [Laughter]
HAL KANTER: I had just finished directing this project at RKO, so I said, "Okay, but this time I have to direct." And my agent at the time, George Rosenberg, set up a deal. I threw out practically everything and started to work.
HI: It was a pretty bold story, semi-biographical in that it was about a young guy's ascendancy to pop stardom, including examinations of the loss of privacy and the manipulations of a controlling manager.
HAL KANTER: Exactly. We took the manipulative manager and turned him into a woman.
HI: Were you actually looking at Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager? Did you know anything about him?
HAL KANTER: No, I knew very little beyond the way he was portrayed in the popular literature of the time. You know: that Elvis was nothing without this man? After I got to know him a little, I'd have to agree that Tom Parker was a master of manipulation, but particularly of his own image. He was a kind of carnival pitchman.
ALLAN WEISS: He was born in Holland, but he'd come to America and went to live in the South and decided to style himself a Colonel. Bought his way into all that. He'd actually worked in circuses. He was a promoter.
HAL KANTER: He asked me to write his autobiography! I said, "If I write your autobiography, will you write mine?" [Laughter]
HAL KANTER: He said, "If you write it, it'll be a best-seller. Before it's published, it'll be a best-seller. I can guarantee it." I said, "How can you guarantee it?" And he said, "The whole book'll be underwritten; I'm going to sell ads. RCA said they'll take the back cover!"
HI: I can't believe this guy! He was on top of every angle!
ALLAN WEISS: For "Roustabout", I went and spent a weekend with him, to get a bit of circus background. And I got back and Wallis says to me, "You had an expensive weekend." I thought he meant because I'd been staying in the best hotel -- but it wasn't like Wallis to be so tight. It turned out that he'd received a bill from Parker, charging him for the time the Colonel'd spent talking to me. He was all about money.
HI: He'd do very well today, wouldn't he?
HAL KANTER: He did very well then. I told him we should do his life as a movie instead of a book because, I said, "Your fans are people who don't read. But they do go to the movies!" And I told him I knew the perfect person to play his part: W. C. Fields. And he dropped the subject and never mentioned it again. I think he saw himself as more the Paul Newman type.
HI: Anyone else have any personal contact with Colonel Tom Parker?
ANHALT: As little as possible. [Laughter]
GEORGE KIRGO: On "Spinout", we'd done a bunch of drafts, and finally one got sent to Parker. We'd already met him once, when we'd started on the movie: "How do you do, you come highly recommended, Joe Pasternak thinks the world of you." But now he actually read the script, came into our office, threw it on the desk, and said, "This is great. Just one thing: put a dog in it." [Laughter]
HI: And did you?
GEORGE KIRGO: Yep. He later became Lassie. [Laughter]
THEODORE J. FLICKER: Even before that, he had something to say about the script. Pasternak had given us the line for the story: the daughter of the richest man in the world is going to have her birthday, and for her Sweet Sixteen party, she wants her father to invite the biggest singing star in the country to be the only one there and to sing just for her. So we sat down, and we tried to imagine what Elvis' life was like. And we wrote that -- as if we were writing a real movie! [Laughter]
THEODORE J. FLICKER: The next thing we knew, the head of the studio called us in and said, "The Colonel read the script and said, 'When I want to do Elvis' biography, I'll get a hell of a lot more than a million dollars for it.'"
HI: With all these people trying to take a hand, it must have been tough nailing down a story line.
GEORGE KIRGO: It was hard to nail down the title! Pasternak kept running in -- [imitates Pasternak's trademark rasp] "Okay, boys, it's called "Never Say Yes". Then the next day, "It's "Never Say No"." Then it was "Never at Midnight". Then "Always at Midnight". Then "After Midnight". Teddy and I wanted to call it The "Singing Racecar Driver". [Laughter]
GEORGE KIRGO: But Joe said, "No satire!" This he says to Flicker and me! The picture didn't even start out as a car movie. We had a pretty simple premise: three women are after Presley. We did a draft. And then we're called into the studio head's office: "Sit down. Have a cigar."
THEODORE J. FLICKER: And then he says, "We can't accept this script. There's no racing in it." And we said, "Racing? You didn't tell us you wanted racing!" And they said "Viva Las Vegas" [a racing picture] was our biggest grosser!" And they said, "You could put racing in it, couldn't you?" And we said, "Sure! We could put racing in it!" [Laughter]
ANHALT: Presley liked cars, so a lot of the pictures had to do with cars. He liked Hawaii, so it seemed as if everything took place in Hawaii.
ALLAN WEISS: Yes, they were always looking for exotic locales. Sometimes it was tough. "Fun in Acapulco" was especially tough because Elvis had been quoted as making a remark -- and I'm sure he was misquoted -- that was demeaning to Mexican women. So he was persona non grata down there. We had to shoot all the backgrounds in Mexico, but basically make the movie in Hollywood, matching in the backgrounds. Not easy, let me tell you.
HI: Hal Kanter, you wrote "Blue Hawaii", which again had that kind of exotic locale. Was that by request, or had you been to Hawaii, or --
HAL KANTER: I'd been in Hawaii during the war and vowed never to go back. It's like Far Rockaway with palm trees. [Laughter]
HAL KANTER: After I'd finished the "Blue Hawaii" script, Wallis wanted some changes, but by that time I was committed to another project, so I couldn't do them. Then, much later, I got a desperate call saying they were shooting in Hawaii and they needed some dialogue repair -- I'm paraphrasing! So I did it, and I felt that it was a rewrite I should have done in the first place, so I said, no charge. After a little while, I get a call from Wallis thanking me for this rewrite I'd done for free and saying he wanted to give me a bonus: a free trip to Hawaii for me and my wife! I said thank you very much, but no thank you.
HI: You're probably the only man in history ever to turn down a free trip to Hawaii.
HAL KANTER: Wallis was so surprised. Didn't understand it.
HI: It sounds as if these two producers, Hal Wallis and Joe Pasternak, were very hands-on.
HAL KANTER: Wallis was probably the most accomplished producer I ever worked for. And the most versatile.
ALLAN WEISS: He knew everything about making movies. He'd produced Casablanca (1942), "High Sierra" (1941), "Now Voyager" (1942). And then he found Presley. Brilliant.
GEORGE KIRGO: I loved Joe Pasternak. He was a Hungarian refugee who was very good at making B-movies with big stars. Deanna Durbin movies -- and he made "Destry Rides Again" (1939). He was a hustler, but very focused on the job. He was always trying to get free rewrites, or having us do extra scenes. And we used to get paid for every 30 pages we turned in!
GEORGE KIRGO: Yes! That's how he did it! One time, Joe was going away to Palm Springs and he wasn't going to be able to approve our next check; we only had 11 pages in hand. So we told the secretary to make three copies of the 11 pages, and we called Joe: "Okay, Joe, we're sending you 33 pages." So he approved payment, and then, after, we get a call from him in Palm Springs, and he's gasping: "Same thing! Same thing! Three times the same thing!" And we said, "It's called self-defense, Joe."
THEODORE J. FLICKER: I remember we had a secretary from the olden days -- she'd been there forever. And one day Pasternak came up and said [imitating the Pasternak growl], "You didn't write any pages today!" And we said, "How do you know what we wrote today?" And he explained that studio policy was for the secretaries to report how many pages the writers gave them every day to type! Well, we were the wrong two people to tell that to. Thereafter we didn't give her any pages to type, and Joe kept coming in and saying, "You haven't written anything! You haven't written anything!" And then one day we gave her a hundred pages. We said, "We usually write a hundred pages a day when we're hot." [Laughter]
THEODORE J. FLICKER: But my favorite story from that picture: this is at MGM in a period when no movies were being made. We're practically the only people on the lot, I think we're probably the only two writers in the whole Thalberg Building. It was ghostly. And my typewriter key stuck. So I called the typewriter department and said, "Could you send somebody up to fix my typewriter?" And the guy said, "What's the matter? "I said, "The key is stuck." And he said, "That's not worth sending a mechanic up to repair it." So I hung up, picked the typewriter up, and I threw it on the floor. [Laughter.]
THEODORE J. FLICKER: It was like an office-size Underwood or something. I call him back, I say, "Gee, my typewriter fell on the floor," he says, "We'll send somebody right up." So they send up a new typewriter. Now George and I are working and, quite often we wrote vigorously. You know, we carried on the way we used to carry on! And I made some explosive gesture, and the sleeve of my coat caught in the carriage return arm, and I swept this new typewriter onto the floor. So we called them up, we said, "You're never going to believe this, but we accidentally dropped this typewriter." So they come right up with another typewriter. And George and I are working, and he keeps staring at my typewriter. And finally, he can't bear it. He comes over to my desk, and he picks it up and throws it on the floor. [Laughter.]
THEODORE J. FLICKER: Next person to appear is Joe Pasternak. "Three typewriters? In one day?"
HI: Let's get down to brass tacks and talk about Elvis. What kind of person was he?
GEORGE KIRGO: A singer. [Laughter]
HAL KANTER: I spent some time with him before he came out to do "Loving You"; I got to know him a little. It was when he was giving a tremendous concert in Shreveport, Louisiana -- the first of his many "farewell concerts." I went with him from Memphis to Shreveport, and a lot of what I observed there, I went back and rewrote and put in the picture.
HI: Really? So you kind of got to know Elvis as a human being, rather than a legend?
HAL KANTER: I think I did, yes. We had a very very nice, warm relationship...while we were working. But it was very temporal. Very fleeting.
HI: Do you think that was because of the way he was forced to live?
HAL KANTER: I don't know. One little incident: the morning after that trip to Shreveport, I met him for breakfast. And I was wearing a shirt: a black suede shirt. And he admired the shirt. I said, "You like it?" And I took it off and gave it to him. And he couldn't get over it. He thought it was the most wonderful gift he'd ever gotten.
HI: Well, how many other people actually gave him the shirt off their back? [Laughter]
HAL KANTER: But now the next time I saw him in Hollywood, he was wearing that shirt. And I said, "Hey, that's a great looking shirt. Where'd you get that?" And he said, "Oh, some fan gave it to me."
HAL KANTER: And I knew then, that was all, man.
ALLAN WEISS: He was isolated, probably by his fame. And strangely remote. But always polite.
GEORGE KIRGO: He was very polite, but he always seemed out of his element in one-to-one conversation. He wasn't comfortable. He was comfortable on a stage with 50,000 people around him, but not in a small group. He was friendly, but not intimate.
ALLAN WEISS: For years, even after I'd done several pictures with him, he always called me "Mr. Weiss." So I started calling him "Mr. Presley." And then he said, really kind of shy, "Why don't you call me Elvis?" And I said, "I will, if you'll call me Allan."
ANHALT: He was really shy, I think. He was a country boy. A farm boy. Very shy with women.
HI: What kind of things would you do?
ANHALT: Mostly drink.
HI: Did he ever talk to you about himself? About his career, his life?
ANHALT: No, you couldn't. We'd talk about music.
HI: Really? Did you like his music?
ANHALT: No. [Laughter]
HI: Did you go to nightclubs?
ANHALT: No. He wouldn't go anywhere except with his crew.
HI: Ah, the famous Presley posse. What about that? Truth or fiction?
THEODORE J. FLICKER: They were always there. This was a guy who lived in the middle of a crowd. I took one sniff of that and I just . . . I never went down to the soundstage again.
ALLAN WEISS: Some of them were all right. Not educated, but with a kind of native intelligence. They took care of him. Protected him. He just couldn't live in any kind of normal way.
GEORGE KIRGO: The entourage was always waiting to be called. Interesting. Usually in a group like that, there's a clown that keeps it going. But I think Elvis was the one who kept his going. He needed a crowd, but he didn't need them as individuals.
ANHALT: I guess he was afraid, really. Which is an odd thing, because he seemed so extroverted [on-screen]. I guess he wanted people around him that he thought he could trust.
HI: What did you think of him as an actor?
ANHALT: I thought he was very good, but of course no one ever gave him much of a chance.
HAL KANTER: He had very good instincts. Philip Dunne [writer-director who helmed Presley's "Wild In The Country" (1961)] and I were comparing notes several years later about our experiences working with Elvis, and he said that Elvis had a natural ability to perform in front of a camera. He could have been an excellent movie star, and not just a freak attraction, if he hadn't limited himself, and had done things like a drama or a light comedy.
HI: But that never really happened.
HAL KANTER: Never. It never happened because Tom Parker wouldn't allow it to happen. Tom Parker knew that the real money for him and for Elvis and for a lot of other people wasn't in the movies, but in the music.
HI: That's kind of sad, isn't it?
HAL KANTER: It's very sad. Because I think Elvis wanted to do more.
ALLAN WEISS: He did. And when he began to realize that it wasn't going to happen, he just started walking through the movies. All that natural gift, that extraordinary ability he had, squandered. A shame.
HI: Were any of you surprised by his end?
GEORGE KIRGO: Not surprised, really. But what a waste. 42 years old.
ALLAN WEISS: I remember something he said to me -- "Do you know what I'd give to go out at one in the morning to get a hamburger? To go to the movies?" He was stifled by his fame. Crushed by it.