An Elvis Story

When people learn of my father’s movie career, the first question they invariably ask is, “Did you get to meet Elvis?” YES. In fact, I did.  If I hadn’t already been swept away in my generation’s culture tsunami of “Beatlemania”, this might have been a more-earthshaking event in my young life. Still, to my 12 year-old eyes he appeared larger than life—possibly not of this planet—as though he’d just stepped through the celluloid looking glass to shake my hand.

This autographed photo was a gift to my father from Elvis after they’d made their third picture together. The inscription reads:

To Young Doug
These 3 pictures have been a gas.

Sincerely,
Old Elvis Presley

The inside joke: Elvis called Dad “Young Doug” because of an MGM public relations announcement, which referred to Dad as “young producer Douglas Laurence”. In the mid-1960s when my father joined MGM, the old movie studio hierarchy was still intact, so a producer in his early forties could be considered a young Turk.

My mother, Frances, is a writer, who has published three books and several articles. Here’s a story she wrote about the second Elvis movie that my dad produced, Stay Away, Joe. (One caveat: at the time she wrote this, “Indian” was a politically correct term for “Native American”.)

Wasn’t it Murphy who once said that whatever could go wrong, would go wrong? His prophecy was never truer than in the business of making movies. No matter how carefully planned, every movie’s schedule goes awry somewhere on the way to the finish.

For example, take my husband’s simple little comedy called “STAY AWAY, JOE” starring Elvis Presley. Filmed around Sedona, Arizona, it suffered so many setbacks and casualties that its director commemorated one Saturday’s work as BLACK SATURDAY.

About forty-five minutes from town, the crew built the set of a broken-down farm, with Grandpa’s tipi next to a barn, a corral, and the family shack. A created stream with a deepwater ditch crossed the dirt road leading to the shack.

Elvis played a light-hearted half-white, half-Indian rodeo star returning triumphantly in his new white Cadillac convertible, won at the annual Madison Square Garden rodeo—using it to herd a small number of cows home over the rugged terrain to surprise his family.

Saturday’s shooting schedule included dogs, horses and some welcoming neighbors played by real Indian extras. The bad karma began early with the news that nine of Friday’s printed ‘takes’ had been ruined by a loose screw in the camera magazine, and had to be reshot.

Katy Jurado was rushed to the nearby hospital with an unknown ailment, but recovered by Monday.

Needed for the first shot of the day, the ‘Congressman’s Car’ was 30 minutes late. The dog trainer’s car broke down on the way to the set, causing a forty-five minute delay.

An old Model A Ford had to be hauled to the top of the hill, but both four-wheel drives that could do the job were away on errands. Another wait!

Actresses Joan Blondell and Quentin Dean were still in Sedona waiting to be picked up. The producer’s car was sent for them. At least Elvis reported to work on time, weak and dizzy with the ‘flu’.

The stock truck, about which much of the day’s filming was centered, inexplicably caught fire.

Arrived at last, the scene between Miss Blondell and Miss Dean was postponed because Dean’s hat had been left behind.

It was decided to shoot a cattle scene. But something scared the herd, which galloped toward the actors huddled about the wrangler’s fire. Subsequently, the Arizona official, there by state law, fell from his horse and broke his ankle trying to avoid the stampede.

In trying to scramble to safety, Miss Blondell ran shoeless through the fire, and acquired second and third degree burns on each foot.

The first-aid man also stumbled and fell, suffering such severe cuts on his chin and neck that he had to have many stitches.

Between scenes, the lady trainer’s dogs were shut in her station wagon, which was parked on an incline in rows with other cars. This time she hadn’t bothered to set the brake. As she walked in front of her wagon, her Great Dane pushed against the gearshift, disengaging it. Her wagon rolled forward and pinned her between her wagon and the car in front. Black Belt master Elvis was the first to hear her screams and race to her rescue. He was able to lift the front end up off the ground and hold it long enough for others to move her out and cart her off to the local hospital with broken bones. One of the wranglers took over the care of her pack of dogs, still needed for atmosphere.

The Chapman crane, needed for many shots, suddenly broke a mainspring.

At the end of this nerve-wracking day, the director, his assistant, and his cameraman were the last to leave for Sedona. After finally getting their gear loaded in their car, they discovered its gas tank was completely out of gas.

As a tension breaker, Miss Blondell (a great cook) invited all of them—actors, crew, director, and producer—to her place for a meal. Thomas Gomez (Grandpa) helped prepare her delicious lasagna.

After dinner they all sat around telling stories and laughing at the dreadful day they’d had. Suddenly Miss Blondell noticed that Elvis, the producer, and the director were absent. She found them in her kitchen. The director was washing the mountain of dishes, Elvis was drying them and the producer was putting them away. Pleasantly shocked, she gave them all hugs and said she’d never seen anything like this in all her years in the business and thanked all three many times.

But their crowning near-disaster came some days later. While shooting a scene in the corral, the huge bull stepped on Elvis’s boot toe, flattening it. He had pulled his toes back just in time. Elvis was so furious that he chased that bull around the corral until he managed to corner it. Then with all his strength he delivered it a haymaker – POW– right between its eyes. The bull staggered, knees buckling, but managed to stay on its feet. Vindicated, Elvis happily nursed his very swollen hand for the rest of the week.

***

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One thought on “An Elvis Story

  1. It’s because of “Uncle” Doug and his relationship with Elvis that I became a big fan of the King. Your father was a good man. My father, Tom Summers, loves him dearly.

    Sympathies,

    S. Thomas Summers (Scott)
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

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