Elvis and multiculturalism

I am involved in a discussion on TCB World that I really want to share – partly for the insights, but more to show that the complexity of Elvis fan thought is far more interesting than aliver or love child debates, or fighting over which were the real friends and which were the hangers on within the Memphis Mafia, Priscilla hating and whatever else it is that people think we get into. Or that so many fans do.

“vivaElvis” wrote:

Have you ever noticed that for a time when race and ethnics was a major separation in the US in the 60’s and the Civil Rights Movement was underway that many of Elvis’ movies have a multi-cultural cast? I was watching Stay Away Joe the other night with the family and noticed that most of the cast is native American. Then watched Paradise Hawaiian Style and saw that some of his leading ladies in the movie were of other nationalities. There’s also the movie Charro with Ina Balin who is Jewish, Fun In Acapulco with Ursala Andres who is Swiss, It Happened At The World’s Fair with the little Chinese girl (can’t recall her name), Girls! Girls! Girls! with the other two Chinese sisters, and Change Of Habit with Barara McNair who was African American. There might be more, but those are the ones off the top of my head.

There’s also other movies that feature African Americans in the casting such as King Creole, Wild In The Country, Roustabout, Viva Las Vegas, Frankie And Johnny, and The Trouble With Girls.

That is impressive considering that most Hollywood directors were scared to even cast blacks in their movies due to a racial society at the time. Indians were not given much respect then either. Just another way to prove that Elvis was no bigot or racist.

Rickb writes:

Interesting point but mostly those of other nationalities were in minor roles, unless the native American or Mexican heritage (Fun in Acapulco, Stay Away Joe) were the setting. I don’t think `Joe’ could be classed as a breakthrough film in depiction of native Americans. Films like In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner through this era made much more important advances

“Raised on Rock” writes:

Elvis Presley was for sure and this is well documented a guy that was clearly against any kind of racial/cultural discrimination and who saw all human beings as equal, he dated and befriended people whatever their color, or cultural background. His attitude about those issues does says a lot about him, but his attitude is mostly relfected in his personal life and music (mostly in his 50’s music right?). Not in films, as he had basically nothing to do in the roles he played after Blue Hawaii.

Sure he might had kissed a mexican girl in Fun in Acapulco, and was not at all an issue for him but just natural, while many other stars at the time (or even today) might simply refuse to that. So sure, every time he appered kissing the “international” girl does say something about our man, I will agree with you on that, but the movies itself, were not at all seen then as a multicultural statement but just: american star kisses the exotic girl, (that basically Girls Girls Girls)and the reason movies like Fun in Acapulco and Girls Girls Girls where done, and the (slight) multicultural suporting cast in some other films was merely a comercial strategy to sell Elvis movies outside the USA and bring somekind of exotic feel for the domestic audiences. (Well sure for the ultra racist audiences, that was to much, but I don’t think those people even care about Elvis and his “jungle music”).

Flaming Star was one that directly made a point on those issues, “The movie which focused on the complications of a bi-racial family was banned in South Africa due to the strict laws of racial separation there. Elvis was honored by a tribal council for his positive portrayal of a Native American”, so yeah sure, its not like Im saying you are wrong. But to extend that just because some none white american appeared in some second hand role on the rest of Elvis movie was some kind of statement is going a little to far.

Change of Habit as I said is another one that might be considered an statement on that. Not Stay Away Joe, as it actually recieved bad critics on that matter as it was another movie that depicted native americans as irresponsable drunks (although I´m sure if they had respected the original script which was very close to the original novel, a way diffrent movie for Elvis would have resulted, but the original intention was lost in the final product).

Me, as Monk37 writes:

even if you look at the 68 special, the audience is multi-cultural

I don’t think it’s an accident that the cast of Elvis movies were diverse – I mean – the little girl in Seattle’s World fair was Asian – and the theme of the world fair – and the movie by extension – was bringing people together through technology.

Elvis broke down racial barriers – and when he went to hollywood – Hollywood could see the opportunity for Elvis to continue promoting racial harmony – because Elvis was pretty much, the first and last entertainer that most of us could agree on, regarldess of what social subgroups we belonged to.

Even his 70’s stage wear drew images from cultures through history and time

I disagree though, the writers and producers of movies do have a social agenda – they want to change the world with entertainment nudging people, not lecturing or pushing

so showing Elvis, the man every woman wanted kissing all kinds of women from all cultures – it was to show that love is universal and that it transcends the natural variation within our species.

Having Elvis’s character interacting with and treating people as equal – at a time when there was segregation – was a political and artistic statement meant for people to see each other the same way.

That multiculturalism in Elvis movies was not common at the time – and frankly, still isn’t today.

Raised on Rock writes:

The multicultural influence on Elvis jumpsuits from the 70’s it is also a good point for sure. And of course the cultural impact he made back in the 50’s and early 60’s was not just about youth culture but pretty much about racial integration. Definetively when we talk about how Elvis change our world view, multicultural issues are included.

Sure Elvis earlier musicals up to Girl Happy (the golden hollywood era for Elvis) wanted to deliver an “Elvis for Everyone” point of view, and even in its most naive, for sure make a point that there where not cultural restrictions in Elvis public, and as I said earlier, the fact that for Elvis, to kiss and huge any co-star despite cultural back ground was not an issue at all, (as it might have been for other stars that could have simply refused) makes clear that for Elvis there was no such concepts as race and related status in his mind.

Sure, Elvis was an integrator I wouldn’t deny that, as Lester Bangs put it: “If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence… We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present… But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

So YES, Elvis Presley bringed us all together in a way few or maybe non artist/musicians/entretainers ever had, but it was Elvis, not the movies, that is to say, while the earlier musicals, from Blue Hawaii up until Viva las Vegas or Girl Happy, where still portraing what Elvis was or represented to his fans, for sure those movies, even in its most lame forms, where still testimony of that large cultural integration he embodied. But again, lets underline this: it was because of what Elvis was, not because any hollywood or writers agenda, (Flaming Star being the only exception), they where merely trying to make a whole lotta cash on what Elvis meant for us all, so a multicultural show case had to be included in the Elvis showcase, but that was that, the only agenda was comercial issues, not social, until they became mere exploitation.

After ’65, you can’t be serious to state Harum Scarum was aiming to change the world by its multicultural showcase. After ’65 the Elvis movies became a grotesque caricature of a once magic formula, and while they continue to show a multicultural cast, you can hardly think they where still making any impact in that area beyong what Elvis might still have meaned to a few, while to most, Elvis now meant zero. At the very center of all the racial and social issues of the mid 60’s, Elvis movies where a bad joke, although ironically, Elvis himself, the revolution he embodied back in the 50’s, had a lot to do in the social awarness of the young people making the real artistic-social statments in the 60’s.

The ’68 comback special was another chapter in the story, and the multi-cultural audience stuff, like the asian girl sitting beside Elvis while he sings Memories, that at the height of the Vietnam war, do was as much as an open statement as it was If I Can Dream. Director Steve Binder was well known for doing stuff like that on previous TV Specials and shows he directed. Finally Elvis was able to express his true feelings about what was going on socially, something that THE MOVIES, didn’t let him for almost a decade.

Monk37 writes:

I have training as a screenwriter and am currently developing a tv show project – which needs a “-verse” to exist in.

So like fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, refer to the Buffyverse – the world created by Joss Whedon that Buffy inhabits – so I am bringing that analysis to Elvis.

I don’t know that many people created a verse and then told stories within whatever that verse was – and it’s true – most who worked with Elvis viewed him as money machine – so I am not saying that there was a consistent thought

but I think that enough people in the film industry had elements of the Verse concept and they bring it through their department’s work – be it set decorating to scripts to blocking shots – it’s all non-directed process but a storytelling process nonetheless.

I am applying an Elvisverse overlay to all his movies – and see how they hold up – and they do.

His movies took place in the Elvis-verse – exotic locations and the worst problems are solved with karate and you get the girl the end – or marry her off.

Elvis’s characters had exotic jobs for the time period – never an office job – always one where you set your own hours, made your own sort of rules for behaviours, but in the end, was a decent, hardworking, compassionate person.

So Elvis movies, were about how to be in the world – the hardworking, doing what you love and living life to the fullest.

Elvis played a variety of racing vehicle roles – racers, pilots, adventurers – all of which are possible to become in this day and age – if you want to record music, you can do it, post it online and develop a following. Same for writing.

In the Elvis-verse, or Elverse – the problems were many but surmountable, with the right song, or enough charm/luck you make or a swift karate chop and the endings were varied, but happy for the most part.

Parker didn’t understand the artistry of Elvis – but he understood the appeal.

Elvis lets us put aside our cares and worries and be pure joy, celebration of human potential with diversity acceptance and tolerance as the norm, creativity and sexual goodness. For the runtime of a recorded concert or a movie – as Elvis said, no message, just pure entertainment.

Forget your troubles, c’mon get Elvis.

Raised on Rock writes:

What a fantastic post! and now I see where are you coming.

Yes I agree with 100%

I’ve always believe strongly that if the Elvis formula musicals would have ended in ’64, either for switching to dramatic roles or simply to finish with hollywood as he did in ’69, those golden era movies like Viva las Vegas, Blue Hawaii, Girls Girls Girls, or Fun in Acapulco, would no te be so underrated and bashed as they are today, and the critics will get the value of them and why they where so incredible succesful. Much to do with what you greatly expressed!

As you said, Parker, and I will add Hal Wallis to the equation, only understood the appeal but not the artistry (you really got it there), so by ’64, it was just image but no substance, as substance was Elvis past artistry, but as the Elvis formula movies, what a money making machine they where, became more and more identical from each other (and with cheaper budgets and plots), they became a cage for Elvis that prevented him to keep developing his artistry.

From 1957 to 1961, the movies showcase where Elvis was at the moment (that was in a way their succesful plot), by 1965, because of the formula trap that prevented him from being real, Elvis was nowhere, so the source of the magic was gonne (the movies lost the plot as Elvis artistic carreer looses the plot), and so, the movies became an empty image, and the appeal of them was gonne. That to me was the logic behind the failure of the once magic formula.

Mr. Wallis was cynical when in ’66 stated that he was getting out of the Elvis bussiness cause it was obvious times had changed and Elvis not, as he was mostly to blame to immobilize Elvis in the formula musicals, betraying a promise to Elvis that those where just a step that will lead to other kind of roles (the ones that Elvis wanted) by diminishing the glories of Blue Hawaii to mere cheap exploitation, using the money he made with Elvis to finance other more artistic movie projects, the once that Elvis should have been recieving by ’64.

Once in that hole, at the same time Wallis walked out, seems that Parker practicality was to keep milking the cow until it dies, rather that looking for a way out to that dead end road.

monk37:

Yes, you got it exactly.

and I think your assessment of when his movies were lifted from his life – like Loving You being a mild version of his own story or GI Bules being a version of his army time – they were charming and entertaining

but when they were just crap stories that anyone could have been in, Harum Scarum, Trouble with Girls, then they fell flat because they ignored the Elverse and were just about Elvis the Automatic Teller Machine.