The New York Times published its review of Elvis’ first movie “Love Me Tender” on November 16, 1956. Fortunately, it is back in print as part of the Times special commemorative THE KING, containing 80 articles about Elvis. Just the title was enough to tell me there was no way the review would be positive: “Culture Takes A Holiday.” When I read that, I knew Elvis was going to get clobbered.
His acting début was at the mercy of Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, generally considered America’s foremost movie critic from the early 1940s to the late 1960s. How do you like that name? — Bosley Crowther. Sure sounds like a stuffed shirt who couldn’t stand Rock & Roll, doesn’t it?
Well, old Bosley held back from being nasty for one paragraph, and then he started slamming Elvis: “The picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves.” A well crafted line, to be sure, but oh so nasty. Then it got nastier: “Mr. Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of one of the slavering nags.”
Oh, that’s pretty mean. Bosley Crowther rated Elvis’ acting ability just slightly higher than a horse. So, what do you think he said about Elvis’ singing ability? How about: “Mr. Presley’s farm-boy does some grotesque singing before he is done – and it isn’t good.”
OK, to summarize: Bosley said the movie made him barf, Elvis acted like a horse, and his singing was grotesque. What else could Bosley find to knock? How about Elvis voice? “A lot of noise… It is a sort of frenzied puffing of throaty and none too melodic tones that heave out of Mr. Presley’s system.” Wow. “Frenzied puffing.” And the heaves again. Bosley gets minus points here. Can’t use a nifty word twice in the same story.
Then came something that might be taken as complimentary. Describing Elvis’ performance in his singing scenes, Bosley wrote, “It is frantic and vaguely orgiastic.” Bosley would flip if he could see today’s music videos. Nothing vague about them.
Next Bosley described Elvis’ acting as follows: “As for the characterization of a jealous farm-boy that Mr. Presley gives, it is turgid, juicy and flamboyant.” Now, that was real praise. How did that square with the comparison of Elvis’ acting like a horse. Confusing, but I liked the change in direction. Bosley went on to say: “With his childish face, puffy lips and wild hair, he might be convincing as a kid with a load of resentment in his system.”
My spirits were up after reading these words of modest praise. Then Bosley turned black-hearted again and said: “But, he’s not much more than a singing ‘heavy’ in this film.” And finally, Bosley praised Elvis a little while hammering his co-stars, Richard Egan and Debra Paget: “He certainly goes at this job with a great deal more zeal and assurance than the rest of the actors show.”
Of course, it didn’t really matter what Bosley Crowther thought or wrote. With Elvis’ legions of young fans, there was a built-in audience for the film “Love Me Tender.” I have always thought Elvis did a credible job in the role.
Bosley Crowther’s movie review was such a hoot to read fifty years later. It wasn’t all negative, and it gave origin to the strangest title to ever appear in Elvisblog: “Turgid, Juicy and Flamboyant.” As Dave Barry would say, that would make a good name for a rock band. Come to think of it, so would “Vaguely Orgiastic,” “ Frenzied Puffing,” and “Slavering Nags.”
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