Barbara Eden and Elvis were 2 icons of pre-2000’s entertainment. Their beauty and talent entranced audiences, so what could possibly go wrong when they put in the same film together?
Plenty of mistakes made while filming Flaming Star. It was the victim of poor marketing, a culture of racial segregation, poor box office returns, and more. It’s one of the least well-known films Elvis ever starred in. Despite being well-made and having an impressive legacy.
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The Making of Flaming Star
Colonel Parker worked with Elvis more than almost anyone else. They together since his first film, Love Me Tender, released on November 15, 1956. He negotiated a contract for 2 more films starring The King. 4 years later, work began on Flaming Star.
Elvis almost finished with his time in the army in 1960. He was filming G.I. Blues when David Weisbart approached him with the script for Flaming Star.
The film was based on the Clair Huffaker novel Flaming Lance. It told the story of a half-Kiowa Indian named Pacer. He gets pulled in 2 different directions when his mother’s tribe begins fighting with the citizens of his town.
The film wasn’t even originally intended for Elvis. It written as a dramatic piece with Marlon Brando in the lead and Frank Sinatra as his brother. Elvis and Steve Forrest turend out to the better fit for their parts thanks to their looks and accents.
David asked for a rewrite once the final cast planned out. Clair took a full 2 weeks to complete it and feels that it may have made the story better than the original.
Filming began on the Conjo Movie Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California on August 12, 1960.
Elvis doubted his ability to pull off the serious script, especially in a scene where his character attacks the doctor who didn’t arrive in time to save his mother. He wanted more time to prepare and kept pushing the filming as far back as possible, but the director amazed by the final take.
Elvis was in better shape than he’d been in years after his service in the military. He had the athletic ability to film convincing fight and chase scenes and ride his horse like a true cowboy. He also showed off a knack for convincing facial expressions.
Despite plenty of training, there were several missteps on set. Elvis went sailing down an embankment when he misjudged a punch in a fight scene with Steve Forrest. Steve got dragged by a horse in a different scene.
The set closed on October 4, but Colonel Parker left it open for visitors, tourists, and journalists. It helped drum up interest in the project but wasn’t enough to keep it safe from poor box office returns later.
Cutting the Music
Elvis wanted to focus on acting for Flaming Star instead of singing. He wanted to taken seriously as an actor and be known for something other than musicals with no substance.
Flaming Star had almost no songs. The only one of his films that had less music was Charro, another Western that only featured one song.
The original version of the title song, Black Star, can found on the 1991 box set Collector’s Gold. Cane and a High-Stretched Collar was fun but over within the fim’s first half-hour.
A 4-song version of Flaming Star shown on November 25 at the Academy Theater in Inglewood, California. It got such a poor reception that most of the original music cut.
Summer Kisses, Winter Tears removed after negative reactions from preview audiences. They laughed at him singing around a campfire with Indians playing war drums. The original version can only heard on the German Elvis: Double Features CD collection.
Elvis wanted the song “Britches” cut out because he meant to sing it while riding his horse and didn’t think this would look believable. He made the right call because it also elicited laughter from preview audiences.
The title track stayed at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 7 week. A compilation album Elvis Sings Flaming Star reached #96 on the Billboard 200. Another album called Flaming Star and Summer Kisses reached #11 in the UK for 4 weeks.
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The Reception of Flaming Star
Twentieth-Century Fox focused their marketing efforts for Flaming Star on spreads in magazines. They put out a full-page spread in the November 2, 1960 issue of Variety and said it would be one of their 4 primary films for the holiday season. They also put out a 2-page ad on November 16.
One of the major problems with these ads was the unfulfilled promises they set forth. They told theater owners that there would be 4 songs in the film, even though there were only 2 in the final releases.
Variety’s in-house reviewer gave his opinion on Flaming Star on its national release date, December 21, 1960. He predicted it would become successful and appeal to a larger audience than Elvis’ previous films
Flaming Star was a critical darling and gave Elvis the best reviews of his career. They called his performance believable and powerful and said it showed he was improving as an actor.
G.I. Blues came out a month before Flaming Star and earned almost twice as much, bringing in $10 million in ticket sales. It reached #2 in Variety’s list of top-grossing movies and #14 on its list of highest box-office earnings.
Flaming Star had a budget of $1.7 million and only earned $2 million. It also only reached #12 on the Variety box office survey.
This disparity showed that audiences preferred seeing Elvis in light musicals. The release of Flaming Star changed the trajectory of his career because studios gave him roles audiences would like instead of the serious fare he craved to sink his teeth into.
How Barbara Eden Got the Role (and Why She Thinks It Failed)
There were several important side characters to fill in Flaming Star to cast, and they all added to the story. Dolores Del Rio came back to the world of film after 10 years and added a compassionate air to Pacer’s mother Neddy. John McIntire brought dignity to his father Sam.
One of the most difficult to cast was potential love interest Rosyln Pierce. Barbara Steele was the first choice, but her British accent was too strong for a Western. David Weisbart also allegedly thought she wasn’t a good actress and was too tall and said, “I don’t like the leading lady towering over Elvis.”
A serious fight caused her to leave. The filmmakers then had to go to their next choice, Barbara Eden. She was a relative unknown at the time, but David thought she was beautiful and a fitting replacement.
Barbara was thrilled to take on the role. She appreciated that playing a cowgirl would mean that she didn’t have as much focus on her clothes and makeup. Her costars still made her nervous, though.
Barbara wasn’t sure about meeting a major star like Elvis. Her sister had convinced her to watch him on the Ed Sullivan Show, and she was instantly impressed. She thought he had an impressive level of stage presence and sex appeal.
What she didn’t know was that he was nervous to meet her as well. He was already a fan of her husband Michael Ansara who played the role of Cochise in Broken Arrow. She asked him how he ever had time to watch TV with his busy schedule, but he admitted it was a necessary escape. He watched it at night while hiding in his hotel room to avoid the crowds of raving fans outside and loved it.
Barbara and Elvis worked well together and got along like old friends. She was impressed by his gentlemanly manner, his dedication to his craft, and even his surprising ability to ride a horse like a seasoned pro.
Barbara said in an interview with Fox News that Flaming Star got excellent reviews but “didn’t make a penny.”. She believes that one of the primary reasons for this was that the King of Rock and Roll only sang 2 songs in it. She also says the poor financial results were a shame because it was one of the only films where he got to show off his true talent.
Flaming Star’s Legacy
Flaming Star is one of the most obscure films in the Elvis canon, but it’s still beloved amongst his fans and those who like a serious Western. It also made a major impact on films and the culture of the world.
Wah-Nee-Ota inducted Elvis into the Los Angeles Indian Tribal Council. It was a way to honor the impact he made by portraying a half-Indian.
Not everyone appreciated the mix of races. Flaming Star came out at a time when fears of miscegenation were rampant. The movie was banned in several countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in an effort to silence its message of unity between races.
Flaming Star even appeared in famous pieces of art. Andy Warhol painted a diptych of Elvis’ cowboy cane. He used it to make several silkscreens, the largest of which is titled Elvis Times Eleven and still hangs in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. They made far more money than the film, selling for over $380 million.
Despite its poor box office returns, the British Film Institute put Flaming Star on its list of their top 100 Essential Westerns in the 1980s. It forever stands as an important film and one of the many where critical opinion and box office returns don’t match up.
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