Elvis Presley stars in trailer for 1956 film Love Me Tender
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Happy Birthday to Debra Paget. The actress, who turns 88 today, was Elvis’ first movie co-star and set the template for what was to come. Although they didn’t share an on-screen kiss, The King insisted they locked lips for promotional shots. Off-screen, the besotted star proposed to her, but she was already secretly in love with one of the richest and most famous men in the world. Elvis and Debra first met on June 5, when both appeared on the Milton Berle Show. It was the moment the singer shocked conservative America with his pelvic gyrations. Berle seized the moment to try it himself but talented dancer Paget later said she was too busy rehearsing her own routine to pay teh singer any attention, although she pretended to scream with excitement for a sketch on the show where they were introduced.
At the time, Debra was already an established Hollywood star at 22, with 19 films under her belt. That same year she also starred opposite Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in Cecil B DeMille’s Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. The director didn’t screen test her, saying he knew she was “touched by the hand of God.”
By contrast, Love Me Tender was The King’s first movie – and the last time he appeared with his natural, lighter hair colour. Originally titled The Reno Brothers, its name was changed when the soundtrack ballad sold over a million copies. The King’s role was also expanded. Its success meant future projects would be shaped around Elvis and, usually, his music, often to the detriment of the movie and the star’s own acting abilities.
Like many of Elvis’ co-stars, Debra later commented that he could have been a very fine actor If he had been given meatier roles. Like so many of his co-stars, she also found herself pursued by him. But she was the first and, many believe, set the template for Elvis’ “obsession with the ‘Debra Paget look.'” It was even reported that young Priscilla Beaulieu updated her hair and make-up when she heard about it.
Elvis soon established a pattern that would follow him on every film set, “flirting with Paget almost from day one and following her around the set like a lovesick puppy.”
He also went to meet her parents and was determined to marry her.
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Paget later recalled in 1997: “I was very shy, very quiet and very immature for my age. I was in my very early 20’s but I was emotionally more like a 16-year-old. Elvis and I just sort of came together like a couple of children really.”
Debra also took him home to meet her parents who he charmed with his manners, leaving the room once to go and get Mrs Paget a chair: “From the time he first came to the house, my folks considered Elvis a member of the Paget clan – which I believe, he reciprocated. I had the feeling that our closely-knit family life resembled his own.”
The besotted star would even drive over at night and park nearby, watching the house jealously to see if Debra had any other callers.
Like Elvis, Debra was deeply religious but also had a wilder side – which would be exposed three years later in one of the most provocative scenes ever seen on screen at that time. SCROLL DOWN TO WATCH
From the start, Elvis thought she was “the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.”
In 1997 Debra revealed: “Following the film, he did ask me to marry him but my parents objected to my getting married. I cared about Elvis, but being one not to disobey my parents, that did not take place.”
In fact, she was actually already engaged in a two-year affair with the billionaire industrialist and film producer Howard Hughes – a man far more rich, famous and powerful than Elvis.
But Debra always spoke highly of Elvis in the following years, saying: “He was a precious, humble, lovely person. Elvis had a lot of talent; there was a lot of depth they never used. He could have been a fine actor.”
In 1958, Debra travelled to Germany to film Fritz Lang‘s epic two-part historical Indian saga, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. The latter contains an extraordinarily daring (for the time) snake dance sequence, where the star appears to be almost entirely naked.
Back in the US, her career was in decline with diminishing film roles and a few TV appearances, mainly in Westerns like Rawhide and Johnny Ringo.
Her parents might not have wanted her to marry Elvis, but she made two short-lived mistakes – a four-month marriage to actor David Street in 1958, followed by an even shorter marriage to director Budd Boetticher, from who she separated after just 22 days.
Her third and final marriage lasted much longer. In April 1962 she married American-Chinese oil magnate Ling C Kung and entered a world of extraordinary power and wealth.
Her husband’s father HH Sung was the richest man in early 20th-Century China. His aunt Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was First Lady of the Republic of China, who Life Magazione called “the most powerful woman in the world.”
Debra had one son, Gregory Teh-chi Kung. Her husband’s position and her new family prompted her retirement from acting in 1964, although the marriage ended in 1980.
She never reamrriaed or returned to showbusiness but became a born-again Christian in the mid-1980s and worked on numerous faith-based projects including hosting her own show on a Christian network.
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