Director Don Siegel Recalls
The Making of Flaming Star
Between 1945 and 1981, Don Siegel directed 35 Hollywood feature films.Flaming Star in 1960 came right in the middle of Siegel’s career and closed out his most prolific period in the late 1950s. While not considered one of filmdom’s A-list directors, Siegel brought a workmanlike reputation to the 20th Century Fox project with Elvis Presley in the marquee role. He even had some experience with a teen idol, having directed Fabian in Hound Dog Man the year before.
Two years after his death in 1991, Siegel’s commentaries on his films were collected into A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. The book was divided into chapters for each of the director’s films, with Chapter 21 being devoted to Flaming Star. The following information comes from that volume.
Nunnally Johnson, one of the industry’s most respected writers (The Grapes of Wrath, The Three Faces of Eve), wrote the original screenplay with Marlon Brando in mind for the role of Pacer. (“Incredibly, it became a vehicle for Elvis Presley,” Siegel commented.) The script was based on a novel by well-known Western writer Clair Huffaker. After reading the screenplay, Siegel sensed problems and felt the need to have a “straightforward chat” with producer David Weisbart.
Siegel’s first question of Weisbart was, “Why Presley?” The producer responded, “He’s a big box-office star. Don’t you think he can do it?” Avoiding a direct answer, Siegel said, “Surely you are aware of the need to refocus on the script?” Weisbart then noted of Presley, “Certainly he’s no Brando. On the other hand, Brando’s no Presley.”
• Flaming Star script required “considerable” rewrite
The two finally agreed that, with Presley in the lead, the script required a “considerable” rewrite. There was a hitch, though. Nunnally absolutely refused to alter his screenplay. Fortunately, Huffaker agreed to tackle the job. Still, whatever the script’s final form might be, Siegel was still worried. “Would the public accept a serious story with Elvis playing a half-breed?” he wondered. And Siegel told Huffaker that there was another problem. The studio wanted Elvis to sing at least ten songs in the picture. “Supposing,” the director suggested, “we had Elvis sing over the main titles and sing one simple song at the party, less than a minute into the picture?” Huffaker responded, “You’ll never get away with it.”
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