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Explaining Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows: The Performances is easy enough: the King of Rock 'n' Roll burst on the public scene in a series of television appearances in 1956 and early 1957. Although he first guested on the Milton Berle and Steve Allen shows, the world remembers Presley's three nights on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety program as history-making events. Allen and Sullivan hated Rock 'n' Roll but were in a ratings war, and Sullivan bid high -- $50,000 for three appearances.
The ability to see for one's self how Elvis stormed the airwaves is the basic appeal of Image's The Performances disc. He's at least as interesting as The Beatles, already covered in an excellent disc set called The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles. This new Elvis disc is actually a cut-down of the three full hour-long shows released in 2006 as Elvis Presley - The Ed Sullivan Shows. The new disc skips Sullivan's other guests and goes right for the Elvis material.
The September 9, 1956 show also featured The Vagabonds, Dorothy Sarnoff, Amru Sani and the dancers Conn & Mack. Sullivan had suffered a serious auto accident not long before, and was being replaced weekly by guest hosts like Phil Silvers, Red Skelton and Patti Page. Crazy as it may sound, the exuberant host for Presley's first appearance is the one and only Charles Laughton. Backing up the singer on all three shows is the vocal group The Jordanaires.
Presley has two spots on the first show, and although he's a natural, he looks a little keyed up at the beginning. The curse of Elvis' career makes itself known right off the bat, as he plugs his new Fox movie Love Me Tender before singing its hit title song, a re-lyric job on the standard Aura Lee. From the very beginning, Colonel Tom Parker is clearly calling the shots to turn Elvis into a money machine. His stage 'tics' look a bit forced, to the point that he pulls faces. He's either uncomfortable or thinks the whole thing's a bit corny and wants to show that he's cool. We can easily imagine suspicious adults concluding that Presley is an insincere joker mocking the variety show format. In reality, the conservative Sullivan, who spends plenty of time chastising youth behavior, was vocal about Presley's respectful and gentlemanly behavior.
Elvis sings Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender and Ready Teddy, in which he does some shakin' and dancing. Then he finishes with Hound Dog. We see plenty of Elvis's physical 'dancing' bits. Charles Laughton's amusing exit line is, "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast" -- followed by a plug for civil defense.
Sullivan is back for the October 3 show; it's always a shock to see that grim-looking man presiding with his calculated but awkward delivery and his oddball remarks. Sullivan imitates Presley's hip wiggle, and says, "He just does this, and everybody yells!" After that encouragement to raise the roof, he then thanks the kids for not yelling during the songs, like an anal junior high school principal.
Girls do scream when Elvis goes "ummm!" during a repeat of Don't Be Cruel. We soon realize that he'll be singing the same songs all over again, just five weeks later. He sings Love Me Tender again, straighter but less happier.
Sullivan promises a "real big shew" for Elvis' third appearance in early January, '57. But something's different. Except for one short cutaway to his guitar, the cameramen film The King only from the waist up, reportedly because a rumor made Sullivan think that Elvis's gyrations were just too vulgar. Complacent 50s America saw his dancing as adapted burlesque bumps and grinds -- too much activity below the waist. Or to be blunt, racist white America knew "jungle dancing" when they saw it, and wanted to keep that black influence at bay. Of course, Presley's stock in trade was adapting black music and dance. He could get it on the radio and TV when the black artists couldn't.
Presley fans have to be satisfied with finger snapping and shoulder swinging through a medley of Hound Dog, Love Me Tender and Heartbreak Hotel; after Don't Be Cruel and Too Much, Elvis finishes with When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again and a gospel song, Peace in the Valley. He mentions Tom Parker, plugs a new movie called Running Wild that must have been re-titled, and touts for a benefit show for Hungarian relief. Sullivan wraps things up calling him a "Real decent fine boy" (apparently when bisected at the waist) and the CBS eye fades out with the screaming of unseen fans.
Some okay extras fill out the rest of the disc; most of them appear to have been put together in 1992. An explanation of Ed Sullivan's auto accident gives a background for the popular columnist and radio & TV host, without mentioning his alleged political work with Anti-Communist opportunists (see Sullivan's Wikipedia Entry. Sullivan's $50,000 deal with Tom Parker netted him an enormous 72 million viewers for the third Elvis appearance.
A gallery of "Elvis Moments" shows clips of Sullivan lecturing kids on their behavior. We see Elvis and Rock 'n' Roll lampooned in comedy skits by John Byner and Jack Carter. Some home movies from 1955 show an early Elvis performing. Elvis associate Jerry Schilling's home movies are included as well -- bits from movie sets, riding horses with Priscilla Presley and little Lisa Marie. A group of 1992 remembrance interviews are offered with personalities Sam Phillips, Gordon Stoker, Marlo Lewis, Wink Martindale and George Klein.
Image / Graceland / SOFA's DVD of Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows: The Performances is of good quality, limited only by the original kinescopes of the Ed Sullivan performances. Filmed directly from a TV monitor, the images are more than a little distorted. On a normal scan Presley looks too thin, and spreading the picture on a wide screen monitor makes them look a little more normal. Considering that most viewers in 1956 saw the show on fuzzy 16" monitors, the B&W images look just fine. Menus are helpful and the extras are fun to check out. The obvious buyers for the disc are Elvis fans, but the Truly Faithful will already have the complete shows released three years ago. The curious and budget minded will find this disc a good value.
A couple of women of different ages watched a bit of the Presley appearances with me ... fifty-three years later they still find him cute, personable and definitely magnetic. That's the same reaction of the female cadre that was in charge of MGM Home Video in the middle 90s -- they thought his movies were terrible and hated the 60s styles of his co-stars, but their attention was definitely held when he performed: "Boy, he can really dance."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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