The New York Times is something of a strange old bird, with very clear ideas of what it likes, what it doesn’t like, and what it approves and does not approve of. For the most part, Elvis Presley falls into the latter. Even on the day after Presley’s death, the newspaper seemed to struggle to say something positive about the singer. In a lengthy piece, Molly Ivans concentrated not on Presley’s singing or his long list of hit records, but his movies and live appearances. She portrays him as a has-been who “was once the object of” adulation. She says he made 28 films (an incorrect figure), “nearly all of them second-rate” and says that Love Me Tender opened to “unanimous jeers from the critics”.[i] There is a concentration on his lifestyle, his weight and his diet , with those pesky peanut butter and banana sandwiches getting their almost obligatory mention.
But what exactly was it that the newspaper didn’t like about Presley? Well, the basic reason appears to be that it saw Elvis as a charlatan, as someone who tried very hard to be something he was not. I co-wrote an article (with Mark Jancovich) last year on the newspaper’s treatment of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and the conclusion of that article fits the paper’s view of Presley very well: “The problem was not films or stars (such as Karloff) that knew they place but rather those (such as Lugosi) with [pretentions of] the middlebrow”.[ii] I should explain this further by saying that Karloff was viewed by the paper as knowing his place and not taking either himself or his films particularly seriously. Meanwhile Lugosi was viewed as someone who took himself much too seriously and was therefore derided for trying to be something he wasn’t. And it is a similar stance that the paper takes with Presley.
Let’s take this examination back to (nearly) the beginning, and the now famous article by Jack Gould reviewing Presley’s notorious appearance on The Milton Berle Show in 1956. Already there are references to Presley’s perceived pretension. Gould writes that Presley was “attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp”. [iii] Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (“fancies himself as terribly sharp”). In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the “hootchy-kootchy” but then adds that is “hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist”.
A similar theme is continued by Bosley Crowther in his review of Love Me Tender. Iwans has already told us the film was jeered at by critics and, in the case of Crowther, she isn’t lying. Crowther, always one for an impressive turn of phrase, writes that “the picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of the slavering nags”.[iv] How’s that for a put-down? Loving You, from the following year, is hardly welcomed with open arms either. “Does Elvis sing?” the writer asks. “More of less” is his answer.[v] There is a tendency in these film reviews to poke fun at Presley’s mannerisms and country-boy persona: “’Uh need somebody,’ he informs the smitten young Dolores Hart, squinting over her shoulder (probably towards the nearest exit).”
Bearing this in mind it seems rather ironic that it is in Presley’s most ambitious film (king Creole) that he receives a good review for his performance. Presumably it was rather a surprise for reviewer Howard Thompson as well, as he starts his review with the words “As the lad himself might say, cut my legs off and call me Shorty! Elvis Presley can act”.[vi] To be fair, it is Presley’s director and co-stars who gets most of Thompson’s adoration, but at least he is afforded with a compliment of doing a “good, convincing walk-through” of his part.
This isn’t the only positive article on Presley in the NYT in the 1950s, either. John S Wilson wrote a lengthy article in January 1957 praising Presley’s first two albums, and states that they show he has “an impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent.”[vii] He gives particular praise to Long Tall Sally, So Glad You’re Mine and Anyplace Is Paradise. Despite this, a later article by the same writer refers to Presley’s singing as a “piercing yawp.”[viii] I don’t know what a “yawp” is, but it sounds painful and might require medical treatment.
The New York Times had a similar view of Presley during the 1970s, and again often insinuates that Presley was trying to be something he wasn’t. There is also a recurrent theme of Presley as a money-making machine. The review of the Legendary Performer album from 1974 accuses the album of being just another compilation “tricked out” with the booklet and a “listing of his barefoot-boy-made-good career”.[ix] Note once again the seeming animosity at the country boy not knowing his place in the world, and trying to “make good”.
There is also a scathing review of Elvis on Tour in which the writer suggests that the directors were “inhibited by the magnitude of their latest subject, Elvis Presley. Or perhaps – dare I say? – his minitude.”[x] Once again, there are assertions that Presley is simply surrounding himself in paraphernalia in order to look better than he actually is. He is “fancily” photographed. There are “split-screen frills”. Elvis wears a “rhinestone-studded Batman costume” and is deemed not worthy of the 2001 opening. Likewise, the arrangements of the On Stage album are considered in a review to be more “appropriate to a Las Vegas production of the Old Testament”. [xi] Just as unflattering is the review of Elvis Now, in which Elvis is accused of singing “continuously out of tune” on Hey Jude (I wouldn’t actually disagree with that!), and that “he doesn’t really understand the phrasing it requires”. [xii] In other words, he is attempting to sing something he really isn’t capable of.
Once again, there are a few decent comments scattered about amongst the pages of the NYT in the 1970s (other than the famous review of the Madison Square Garden concert). A review of a Nassau Coliseum concert from 1975 finds the singer’s youthful sexuality gone, but “in its place there is a wonderfully relaxed, ironic affection that can be almost as nice”.[xiii] The writer also finds him in better form than two years earlier at the same venue, where he was “fat, lazy and ineffectual”.
The idea that the newspaper is most critical of people trying to rise above their station, or attempting to be something they are not, is verified in the reviews of the 1960s movies. In his review of G I Blues, Bosley Crowther is pleased to see that Presley has turned into “such a fine young man”.[xiv] Crowther likes the film because it is unpretentious, and it is pretention that troubles the NYT and its writers so much. The somewhat more pretentious Wild in the Country, for example, is classed by the same writer as a “sentimental lot of nonsense”. [xv] However, the straightforward musicals that many of us now condemn were often given favourable comments. Kid Galahad is rather ridiculed, but “for a film about a singing prize-fighter (which is silly enough) it will do”.[xvi] Howard Thompson tells us of Roustabout that there are “worse things than an Elvis Presley movie – far worse.”[xvii] The same author comments that “coming on a balmy day, with no pretensions of art, ‘Viva Las Vegas’, the new Elvis Presley vehicle, is about as pleasant and unimportant as a banana split.”[xviii]
So, the treatment of Presley by the New York Times is not all that different from other stars that it saw as style (or ambition) over substance. When these stars tried to be taken seriously (and we can assume that Presley’s grandiose entrances and lavish costumes of the 1970s fit into that category – at least according to the NYT), then they would be looked down upon as not knowing their place and of being pretentious. But, when Presley was making his series of cheap and cheerful, unassuming movies in the 1960s he was (maybe a little grudgingly) welcomed, and by the time of the mid-1960s these films were treated like old friends – familiarity really didn’t breed contempt in this instance. The NYT was happy – Presley was just a likeable, unassuming young guy with relatively little talent (in their opinion) who had found his place in a string of banal but pleasurable films – films with no pretention of high art whatsoever.
[i] Iwans, Molly. “Elvis Presley Dies; Rock Singer was 42”. NYT. August 17, 1977, p. 43
[ii] Jancovich, Mark and Brown, Shane. “’The Screen’s Number One and Number Two Bogeymen’: The Critical Reception of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the 1930s and 1940s”. In Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas (Eds) Cult Film Stardom: Offbeat Attractions and Processes of Cultification. London: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).
[iii] Gould, Jack. “TV: New Phenomenon” NYT. June 6, 1956, p. 67
[iv] Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen: Culture Takes a Holiday”. NYT. November 16, 1956, p. 22
[v] H.H.T. “Elvis Presley Meets Success in ‘Loving You’” NYT. July 18, 1957, p?
[vi] Thompson, Howard. “Actor with Guitar”. NYT. July 4, 1958, p. 15
[vii] Wilson, John S. “Elvis Presley: Rocking Blues Shouter”. NYT. January 13, 1957, p. X16.
[viii] Wilson, John S. “What Makes ‘Pop’ Music Popular?” NYT. December 8, 1957, p. SM13.
[ix] Dove, Ian. “Elvis Presley ‘Legend’ Presented Anew”. NYT. January 16, 1974.
[x] Canby, Vincent. “Screen: Elvis on Tour”. NYT. June 7, 1973.
[xi] Heckman, Don. “Presley’s Back, The Nice are Leaving”. NYT. August 30, 1970.
[xii] Heckman, Don. “Presley – Has the Rocker Become a Crooner” NYT. March 12, 1972.
[xiii] Rockwell, John. “Presley Treats Fans to His Best”. NYT. July 21, 1975.
[xiv] Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Elvis – A Reformed Wriggler”. NYT. November 20, 1960.
[xv] Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Presley is a Problem Again”. NYT. June 10, 1961
[xvi] Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: A Ferocious Elvis Presley”. NYT. March 7, 1963.
[xvii] Thompson, Howard. “Elvis Presley stars in ‘Roustabout’”. NYT. November 11, 1964.
[xviii] Thompson, Howard. “Elvis Presley Teams with Ann-Margret”. NYT. May 21, 1964.