Not many film actors have created genres unto themselves, and regardless of their wild variation in quality, it’s difficult to argue that the 31 feature films in which rock’n’roll icon Elvis Presley starred could be referred to as anything but “Elvis movies.” Yes, they might nominally be musicals, westerns, romantic dramas, comedies, sports movies, travelogues and whatever the hell Harum Scarum is, but these films are all essentially “Elvis movies.”
They feature Elvis Presley in some kind of easily identifiable profession (soldier, race car driver, lifeguard, navy diver, boxer, singer, doctor); The King sings a few songs; and there are usually a few women for him to choose from. They are highly specific genre films made to an obvious formula and designed to please Elvis Presley’s legion of fans. They are also highly maligned, and Elvis’ tenure as an actor is widely regarded as the true low point of The King’s career, rivalled only by his final years in Las Vegas, when the once vital performer had become a sad, bloated, house-of-mirrors version of his former self.
But as there is joy to be derived from Elvis’ final years (his voice was still beautiful, and his stage performances were often strangely poignant), there is also much joy to be had with The King’s cinematic output. Many of the films are bright, colourful and entertaining, and the very best of them – Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960), Wild In The Country (1961), Viva Las Vegas (1954), Change Of Habit (1970) – are far better than even that, rating as rock-solid cinema in and of itself. Though Elvis disavowed many of his own films (“I feel like a goddamn idiot breaking into a song while I’m talking to some chick on a train,” he told wife Priscilla of G.I. Blues) and most were seen as little more than contract jobs, “Elvis movies” are one of 1960s cinema’s true guilty pleasures.
All of which brings us to Norman Taurog. Though Elvis Presley’s movies are famous, and boast instantly recognisable titles, only the most hardcore of fans and true film geeks would likely be able to tell you who directed them. Sure, Michael Curtiz directed King Creole and Don Siegel helmed Flaming Star, but outside of these greats, The King’s helmers were hardly big names. $20 to whoever just named Boris Sagal as the helmer of 1965’s Girl Happy, and an extra $10 to anyone who knew that Gene Nelson called the shots on 1964’s Kissin’ Cousins.
Norman Taurog, however, was the most prolific of any director working in the strange and rarefied world of the “Elvis movie”, and boasts nine films starring The King on his lengthy resume. And while none of them rate among The King’s best, Norman Taurog was the go-to guy when it came to Elvis on the big screen. And if an auteur is a director that has distinct themes and stylistic impulses running through his or her films, then Norman Taurog is unquestionably an auteur.
Though soundly and roundly unappreciated and under-celebrated (though collaborator and author Michael A. Hoey did partially rectify that with his 2013 book Elvis’ Favorite Director: The Amazing 52-Year Career Of Norman Taurog), Norman Taurog had a long and storied career that began in the very early twentieth century on stage as a child actor. Taurog eventually shifted into directing, and helmed a huge array of short comedies before moving into features. At the age of 32, he became the youngest-ever director to win an Oscar, taking home the award for his film Skippy (1931), which featured child actor Jackie Cooper, who was Taurog’s real-life nephew. Taurog held this Oscars record until Damien Chazelle took home the gong for La La Land.
Norman Taurog directed seventy-eight feature films across his career, working with cinematic icons like Maurice Chevalier, Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy (who won an Oscar for his performance in arguably Taurog’s best film, Boys Town), Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and established himself as a reliable director able to get the best out of high profile players.
Taurog didn’t get in the way of his big name stars, but instead framed his films around them. He was a favourite of the studios because he could work so effectively with talent. “Taurog is not the kind of director to be revered at film school,” says author Paul Simpson. “Part of his enduring appeal for Hollywood – where he made 180 movies – was that he lacked the usual directorial vices. There is no evidence that he was a great womaniser (two marriages is modest for Hollywood), hit the bottle, or suffered from delusions of his own genius.”
This get-out-of-the-way-and-make-it-happen attitude saw Taurog tapped to direct nine films starring Elvis Presley, and each is a solid effort, considering some of the sub-par scripts that the director had to work with. Taurog’s first “Elvis movie” was 1960’s G.I. Blues, one of The King’s biggest hits. Presley stars as the wonderfully named (like so many of his characters) Tulsa McAuley, a singing soldier who eventually performs at a large Army show in West Germany, and gets the girl in the process. From there, Taurog worked solidly with Elvis right up until the end of his career, delivering a mix of strong and not-so-strong pictures.
His next “Elvis movie” was 1961’s Blue Hawaii, another big hit and the first of The King’s “travelogue” films, blessed with gorgeous Hawaiian scenery and a very funny performance from Angela Lansbury as Presley’s concerned mother. The pair stayed in Hawaii for 1962’s Girls! Girls! Girls!, in which Elvis starred as a charter boat captain come nightclub singer, and then moved through a host of other vehicles, with Taurog always getting the best out of his leading man.
1963’s It Happened At The World’s Fair (featuring Kurt Russell’s first ever appearance), 1965’s Tickle Me (one of Elvis’ goofiest, oddest and least known films), 1966’s Spinout (Elvis as a race car driver), 1967’s Double Trouble (a pretty poor effort, though it does feature Aussie legend Chips Rafferty in the supporting cast), 1968’s Speedway (Elvis as a race car driver again, but backed up by the excellent Nancy Sinatra and Bill Bixby) and 1969’s Live A Little, Love A Little (a slightly racier effort than Presley fans were used to) are for the most part colourfully entertaining, and all have stand-out musical moments.
Norman Taurog – who was ironically partially blind for the bulk of the movies that he made with Elvis – retired after Live A Little, Love A Little as his eyesight became increasingly poor. Taurog eventually became a director of The Braille Institute in Los Angeles, and suffered through years of pain and ill health before passing away in 1981 at the age of 82. Though never properly celebrated for his work, Norman Taurog remains an essential player in one of the most divisive periods of Elvis Presley’s extraordinary career. “He was one of the nicest and kindest people we knew in Hollywood, and Elvis and most of us guys really liked and respected him,” Marty Lacker – one of Presley’s Memphis Mafia pals – told The Elvis Information Network. “He did nine Elvis movies because Elvis liked working with him. In fact, Mr. Taurog was almost like a father figure to Elvis because he really cared about Elvis personally and his wellbeing, unlike others in Hollywood that we worked with. I never heard a disparaging word about him from anyone.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.