1956 and 1969, Elvis Presley made 33 movies. Despite such touches of class
as a Clifford Odets script (Wild in the Country), Edith Head costumes
(Viva Las Vegas, Fun in Acapulco) and a psychological consultant
(for a scene with an autistic child in Change of Habit), none of
these flicks was anything more than a star vehicle, an excuse for the King
to sing a few songs, deck a few rivals, and woo a lot of ladies.
There's one other
recurring theme in this poor pastiche, one that has been ignored but
which foreshadows the future of The Big E better than any other element
of his cinematic career: food, and we don't just mean jelly donuts.
Just like his life,
Elvis's movies start out practically foodless, even though in his first
movie, Love Me Tender (1956), he manages to chew quite a bit of
scenery, especially as he lays dying. From there, we see a cinematic lifetime
of food, food, food and girls, girls, girls.
Elvis was known for
his huge appetites off-screen and offstage, and his tastes ran to the
biggest and most flamboyant. Here was a guy known for saucer-sized belt
buckles, fleets of Cadillacs, and diamond rings as big as a Holiday Inn.
The formal dining table in Elvis's estate Graceland is bigger than two
king-sized beds. The kitchen and breakfast nook rival a small apartment
in size. After all these years, even with readily available celluloid
and videotape remembrances of a younger, skinnier Elvis, we still think
of him as The Big E, with cheeks like a chipmunk's, perfect for storing
extra food. (Remember John Belushi's Saturday Night Live parody
of the King, complete with jelly donut reference?) To show how it all
developed, here are some of our favorite culinary moments with film star
- As Vince Everett
in Jailhouse Rock (1957),the King breaks his Love Me Tender fast,
starting with a critique of Big House cuisine ("I wouldn't feed this
garbage to a razorback hog," he notes, as he spears a forkful) which
leads to a dining room food fight. There's plenty more meaningful dialogue
in Jailhouse Rock, mostly proving Elvis is a beef kinda guy, especially
when faced with newfound singing success (says his business partner/love
interest: "Vince, I sold your record this afternoon." Elvis: "Swell.
I could tear into a good steak.") and climaxing with the bluff: "You
can only eat so much, you know." We'll see about that.
- New Orleans, one
of America's great food cities, hosts King Creole (1958), in
which street vendors sing en rondo of their 'taters, berries and gumbo
before the opening titles roll. Elvis' first song is about eatin' crawfish,
from which he segues into breakfast.
- G.I. Blues
(1960): Stationed in Germany, The Big E falls for a local minx (Juliet
Prowse, not Priscilla Beaulieu), a temptress sporting offers of liverwurst,
liederkrantz, pumpernickel, sauerkraut and apple strudel. His best pal
Cookie prompts, "A man can't do his best work on an empty stomach."
Twenty-five-year-old Elvis, meanwhile, excuses his zaftig-inducing appetite
thusly: "I'm a growing boy, ma'am."
- Doesn't it just
figure? In Blue Hawaii (1961), filmed in the land of luaus, fish
frys and roasted pigs, Elvis grows up on a pineapple plantation with
a mother named Sara Lee.
- Stateside once
again in Viva Las Vegas (1963), kitten with a whip Ann-Margret
spurns the King's amorous advances in a delicious duet. He: "How's about
having dinner at eight?" She: "I'd rather dine with Frankenstein in
a moonlight tete a tete." Could faulty table manners be the culprit
- A match made in
the kitchen: Elvis falls for chef's daughter Ursula Andress in Fun
in Acapulco (1963). Chef Dad supports our faulty manners theory
in noting: "You North Americans will never learn to take your time with
- The King enters
his cinematic foods-of-plenty stage with another 1963 release, It
Happened at the World's Fair. Cropduster Elvis refers to a couple
of comely lasses as "sweet potatoes," hitchhikes his way onto a produce
truck, woos a winsome egg roll vendor with a half-eaten lollipop, and
sings "I'm Falling in Love Tonight" while staring into a plate of food
in the restaurant atop Seattle's Space Needle. During a 35-minute sequence
on the fairgrounds, The Big E is seen buying, handling and/or eating
sno-cones, caramel apples, all-day suckers, egg rolls, popcorn, Belgian
waffles, cotton candy, and more popcorn. Later, he pays a pre-pubescent
Kurt Russell to kick him in the shins, likely in an act of culinary
- From the fair,
we move to the traveling carnival, where Elvis becomes a Roustabout
(1964) and learns such carney lingo as "front end" (concession stand),
"butcher shop" (candy stand), "grab joint" (hot dog stand), and "grease
joint" (hamburger stand). This is heaven, the land of 35-cent pizza,
15-cent sno-cones and 25-cent candy apples. Elvis refuses to join the
fire-eater in epee flambe'; "I gag on Spanish rice" is his excuse.
- As there was feast,
so was there famine. 1965 was a slim year for The Big E: Harum Scarum
takes place during the Fast of Ramadan, and Tickle Me
is set on an Arizona fat farm, where even the luaus are lo-cal. It's
starting to affect Elvis by the next year when, during Double Trouble,
he sings a version of the childhood song "Old MacDonald" in which misbehaving
farm animals become chicken fricassee, hamburgers, and pork 'n' beans.
- Fortunately, he's
saved by a movie named after a foodfest. The theme song for Clambake
(1967), sung to the tune of "Shortnin' Bread," informs us that "Mammy's
little baby loves clambake food." (Would Mammy's name be Gladys?)
- Unbridled grub
lust takes full control of the King by 1968's Speedway, in which
no less a woman than Nancy Sinatra tries but fails to overshadow Elvis'
habit. Elvis and Nancy express their mutual devotion in
a diner. His dinner order drives a car hop to tears. Sandwich after
sandwich trip past his lips. And how does speedster jockey Elvis celebrate
his latest racing victory? With a big ol' plate of beans and hot dogs!
Elvis released his
last movie in 1969. By then, he was in his mid-30s, he had grown those
horrid muttonchop (!) sideburns, and he no longer tucked his shirttails
into his pants. It's no wonder then that in that year's Change of Habit,
co-star Mary Tyler Moore declines his dinner invitation in favor of her
roommate's noodle ring. Next scene, Elvis admits he likes noodle
ring. So much for the King's cinematic swan song.
We all know, and would
just as soon forget, what comes next. Post mortem documentaries paint
a picture of an entertainer who exercised daily and moved like a kung
fu master in concert. But even those loving remembrances couldn't ignore
one of the King's greatest passions. Just after Cybill Shepherd (who,
like Elvis, is a Memphis native and a beef kind of person) informs us that
"Elvis had a gentleman's wit...I don't know how to explain that" in Elvis
Memories (1981), Graceland's cook Mary Jenkins reveals over a home
movie clip of The Big E and his burgers: "He loved hamburger, steaks,
roast beef, vegetables, string beans, creamed potatoes and sauerkraut."
(All in the same mouthful?) A couple of interviews later, wardrobe guy
Richard Davis admits he designed Elvis' trademark white cape and jumpsuits
because the King often split his pants onstage. (Where was spandex when
he needed it? On second thought, never mind.)
falls into place during the documentary Elvis Presley's Graceland
(1985). Priscilla B. Presley recalls the "now-famous Memphis to Denver
food run," when The Big E and friends one night hopped his jet The Lisa
Marie, flew to Denver, where they were met at the airport by a butler
carrying a silver tray of peanut butter sandwiches, and then winged it
back to Tennessee after the final burp.
Think about it: This
wasn't the trek of a food connoisseur; more likely, the fulfillment of
a dare based on the braggadocio of a penniless backwoods boy who grew
up hungry, who never missed a chance to satisfy his appetites once he
could afford to.
Forget the coroner's
report about heart attacks and addiction: Elvis Presley simply ODed on