Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Elvis: 75th Anniversary DVD Collection Review
Written by General Jabbo
Counting the two concert documentaries, Elvis Presley appeared in 33 movies during his career. To celebrate what would have been the King’s 75th birthday, Warner Brothers has collected roughly half of these films in the largest collection of Elvis movies to date. Simply titled Elvis: 75th Anniversary DVD Collection, the box set features 14 Presley feature films and three documentaries, including: Jailhouse Rock; It Happened At The World’s Fair; Kissin’ Cousins; Viva Las Vegas; Girl Happy; Tickle Me; Harum Scarum; Spinout; Double Trouble; Stay Away, Joe; Speedway; Live A Little, Love A Little; Charro!; The Trouble With Girls; Elvis: That’s The Way It Is; Elvis On Tour; and This Is Elvis.
In Jailhouse Rock, Presley stars as Vince Everett, a man sentenced to prison for accidentally killing a man in a fight. While in prison, he learns about the music business from his cellmate Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), himself a former country singer. After Everett’s release from prison, he eventually becomes a recording and movie star. His lust for fame and money make him forget everyone who helped him along the way though. Jailhouse Rock features some of Presley’s best music, including the famous title song dance sequence and the DVD is supposed to include a commentary, featurette and Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo. None of these bonus features are included on the DVD however, an obvious mistake by Warner Brothers.
The Century 21 Exposition is the setting for It Happened At The World’s Fair. Presley stars as Mike Edwards, a crop duster whose partner Danny Burke’s (a pre-2001: A Space Odyssey Gary Lockwood) gambling problems lead the pair to go hitchhiking cross-country to find work to pay off their debts. They end up at the 1962 World’s Fair when a man and his niece Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu) pick them up along the way. When Sue-Lin’s Uncle Walter (Kam Tong) is unable to take Sue-Lin to the fair, Edwards volunteers to do so while Burke offers to go look for his friend Vince Bradley (H.M. Wynant) to hit him up for money. After Sue-Lin eats too much, she gets sick and sees the nurse Diane Warren (Joan O’Brien), who Edwards immediately hits on. When she resists his advances, he pays an uncredited Kurt Russell to kick him in the shin so he is forced to see the nurse. A number of the characters turn on each other, but in typical Elvis movie style, everyone lives happily ever after. The movie even ends with the song “Happy Ending.” It Happened At The World’s Fair is still early enough in Presley’s film career that he is focused and into the film. Likewise, the soundtrack is a lot stronger than what was to come.
Presley plays dual roles in Kissin’ Cousins. The first is as Army second lieutenant Josh Morgan while the second is as his backwoods cousin, Jodie Tatum. Captain Salbo (Jack Albertson) complains to General Donford (Donald Woods) that he wants a Pentagon tour of duty so he can see his wife more often. Donford agrees, provided he complete Operation Smoky in three days, otherwise he will be shipped to Greenland and take Morgan with him. Operation Smoky involved convincing the Tatums to let the government build a missile base on top of their mountain, something Morgan gets tasked with doing. While there, he falls for his distant cousin Azalea (adorably played by Yvonne Craig) while his cousin Jodie (who looks and sings remarkably like Josh) falls for Army stenographer Midge (Cynthia Pepper). When Morgan is moving too slowly for Donford’s liking, the general shows up with a group of Army troops to try and get the deal settled, only to get forced to eat possum tails, drink moonshine and get assaulted by the “Kittyhawks” — a group of wild women who prey on unsuspecting men. Distant cousins or not, this theme likely wouldn’t fly today nor would the stereotypical portrayal of rednecks, but the film has an innocent (and very low budget) feel about it and is not meant to be taken seriously. The title track, “Echoes of Love” and “Once is Enough” are standouts from the fun, but nonessential soundtrack.
Presley’s focus returns in Viva Las Vegas — often cited as one of his best films. It helps that he had a dynamic costar in Ann-Margret and the chemistry between the two onscreen was such that it fueled rumors of an affair off-screen. Presley stars as Lucky Jackson, a racecar driver headed to Las Vegas to participate in the city’s first annual Grand Prix. An Italian driver, Count Elmo Mancini, decides he wants Jackson to drive for him, offering to give up racing so he could be with Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret). Jackson refuses his offer though. Mancini proceeds to tell Martin about another driver’s crash and she worries for Jackson’s safety and is upset when he doesn’t want to give up racing. Ann-Margret sings “My Rival” at this point and it marks one of the highlights of the film. In spite of the rushed ending, all of the scenes with Presley and Ann-Margret together are great, as is the majority of the soundtrack — save for the bizarre version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” that Presley was forced to sing. The DVD includes a commentary by Elvis in Hollywood director Steve Pond, a retrospective featurette and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound as well as the original mono.
In Girl Happy, Presley portrays Rusty Wells, a singer in a Chicago nightclub band that is about to leave for spring break in Fort Lauderdale to chase women until their boss, Big Frank (Harold J. Stone) extends their stay at the club. Big Frank changes his tune when he finds out his daughter Valerie (Shelley Fabares) is gong to Fort Lauderdale for spring break with some girlfriends. He hires Wells and his band to watch her and keep her out of trouble. Wells begins to fall for Valerie and offers to watch her on his own, relieving the band members of their duties. When Valerie tells her father she has fallen for Wells, he is shocked and says that he was only being nice to her because he had paid him. Valerie is crushed and decides to make Wells earn his money by going on wild drinking binges and partying. Fabares is fun and is arguably the highlight of the film. The movie is entertaining, but definitely light-hearted fair and thin on plot. The soundtrack features a couple good songs though, most notably the title track and “Puppet on a String.”
Presley once again plays a singer in Tickle Me starring as Lonnie Beale. He goes to work taking care of horses at an all-girls spa and ranch. The women there pay $500 per week to essentially be reconditioned into hotties — only in an Elvis film! While there, he meets and falls for fitness instructor Pam Merritt (Jocelyn Lane), who is the victim of several kidnapping attempts due to people knowing she has a map of her grandfather’s buried treasure. Merritt sees Beale kissing her boss, Vera Radford (Julie Adams) and leaves, refusing to believe his explanation that she came on to him. She drives into an old abandoned town to look for her treasure and Beale follows her with fellow ranch employee Stanley Potter (Jack Mullaney). We are treated to a fun flashback scene to the old western days with Presley as the milk-drinking Panhandle Kid. The trio then spends the night in an old wax museum. It is here when Tickle Me becomes almost like a Scooby Doo episode, with its haunted houses and men dressed as monsters. This movie is just strange enough that it works and the soundtrack is filled with recycled old songs, including numbers from the classic Elvis is Back! so the music is top notch.
With Harum Scarum, Presley hoped to deliver a Rudolph Valentino-style role. Sadly the script was a joke and fans instead were treated to one of Presley’s worst films. Presley stars as Johnny Tyronne, an American, action movie star visiting the Middle East to promote his new film, Sands of the Desert. Prince Dragna (Michael Ansara) and his lady Aishah (Fran Jeffries) invite him to be a guest of Dragna’s brother, King Toranshah (Phillip Reed). After seeing Tyronne karate chop a cheetah in one of his films (Hey, it’s an Elvis film), a group of assassins are convinced of his prowess and drug him. They take him to see Sinan, lord of the assassins, who wants him to kill the king for them. While there, he meets Princess Shalimar (Mary Ann Mobley) who is posing as a slave girl when in reality, she is the king’s daughter. When she finds out that Sinan is back, she knows her father is in danger and helps Tyronne thwart the plot to assassinate him. The film is full of ridiculous clichés and forgettable songs and Presley looks bored out of his mind. Things would soon get better for Presley though.
While not much different that his other films (Presley plays singing racecar driver Mike McCoy) the fun at least returns to Presley films with Spinout. The movie begins with McCoy getting run off the road by a crazed fan but he still makes it to his gig where he performs “Adam and Evil” and “Stop Look and Listen” with his band. These songs, along with the title track, “All That I Am”, and “I’ll Be Back” were the strongest soundtrack songs Presley had sang in sometime and his enthusiasm for them comes through in the performance. While at the club, he meets author Diana St. Clair (Diane McBain) who wants him to be the subject of her book about the perfect American male. She has marriage on her mind and is set on McCoy. Howard Foxhugh (Carl Betz) then approaches McCoy and offers $5,000 for the band to perform at his daughter’s birthday party. McCoy caves and the band plays the party only to find out Foxhugh’s daughter Cynthia (Shelley Fabares) is the same fan who ran McCoy off the road. She is a spoiled rich girl who wants and expects to marry McCoy while her dad wants McCoy to drive his new racecar, the Foxhugh Five. While this is happening, the band’s drummer Les (Deborah Walley) reveals her crush on McCoy. Three women, all with marriage on their mind are seemingly after McCoy. Who does McCoy pick? The ending may surprise you. Better music, a better cast and a twist at the end make Spinout a winner.
Presley is Guy Lambert — an American singer on tour in England — in Double Trouble. While performing at the club, Lambert meets Jill Conway (Annette Day) a pretty redhead who resists Lambert’s advances because, unbeknownst to him, she is not yet 18. She is also set to inherit a large sum of money when she does turn 18, a point of contention with her uncle Gerald Waverly (John Williams) who has been dipping into the inheritance. Her uncle sends her to Belgium for school, which she readily agrees to when she learns that Lambert will be performing there. While on the boat, a pair of thieves takes Lambert’s suitcase to smuggle diamonds into the country. Lambert notices that he’s had to save Conway twice and that someone tried to run him over. The pair go on the run trying to save their lives and let Conway make it to age 18 to protect her inheritance. This is a decent film with some clever twists and amusing cameos from the Wiere Brothers as bumbling cops and from a talking parrot that inadvertently gives away plot points.
Stay Away, Joe stars Presley as Native American bull-rider Joe Lightcloud who manages to convince his congressman to give his family 20 heifers and a quality bull so they can raise them. If they prove to be successful, then the government will help them out. Problems arise from the family though when, at a party celebrating Joe’s return, the family in a drunken haze mistakenly cooks the bull. Joe has his friend Bronc Hoverty (L.Q. Jones) get a new bull and Hoverty gets one that is supposedly Blue Ribbon, yet when the bull gets there, all he does is sleep. Meanwhile, Joe’s father Charlie (Burgess Meredith) has been selling off the cattle to pay for improvements his wife wants made to their home. The government learns what has happened and is not pleased. Meredith’s character is an odd sight, with his dark makeup and strange demeanor. Thomas Gomez as Grandpa is depicted as a stereotypical Native American. All that was missing was for him to say, “how.” The Native Americans in this film were very badly stereotyped, even for 1968 and portrayed as wild, sex-crazed drunks. Presley seems to be enjoying himself and there are some nice scenery shots, but the title of this one seems appropriate. Stay away.
Presley once again plays a racecar driver in Speedway, this time starring as Steve Grayson. Grayson owes the IRS $145,000 due to mistakes in his return by his manager Kenny Donford (Bill Bixby). Susan Jacks (Nancy Sinatra) shows up at Grayson’s trailer and he mistakes her for a fan. Turns out, she is working for the IRS, who are about to audit him. Donford’s gambling and fuzzy math have led to the repossession of not only gifts Grayson has bought for others, but many of Grayson’s possessions as well. The pair is put on an allowance — $100 per week for Grayson and $50 per week for Donford — until their debts are paid. After wooing Jacks, Grayson manages to get her to convince R.W. Hepworth at the IRS (Gale Gordon) to let him keep some of his earnings to pay off the innocent people who’ve had their lives ruined by Donford’s stupidity. Light on plot, Speedway is like a poor man’s Viva Las Vegas. That’s not to say there aren’t any plusses though. Bill Bixby is great in his comic role, playing a likable sleazebag and there are a few fun moments on the soundtrack, including “Let Yourself Go” and Sinatra’s “Your Groovy Self,” the latter being the only time a non-Elvis track appeared on one of his soundtracks.
In Live a Little, Love a Little, the focus, as in the last few movies Presley made, was more on the acting than the music. Presley stars as Greg Nolan, a photographer who meets a rich socialite named Bernice (Michele Carey). After drugging him, he finds out he has lost his job and his apartment due to the extended length of time he has been away. She feels guilty and gets him a new apartment, but it is expensive and he has to take two jobs to pay for it — one at a Playboy-style magazine called Classic Cat and the other for a much more conservative fashion magazine. Mike Lansdown is the Hugh Hefner-esque publisher of the former and doesn’t want Nolan wearing a tie because it cuts off the circulation, while Penlow (Rudy Vallee) prefers the sharp-dressed man. This leads to some amusing scenes of Presley changing in the stairwell as both jobs were in the same building. Carey is great as the eccentric Bernice, who places a wooden divider on her bed so she and Nolan can sleep together without him worrying about her advances. Similarly, Dick Sargent is fun as former Bernice love interest Harry and makes a winking nod to his old TV show when he tells Nolan he should get a job in advertising. This film is most notable these days for launching “A Little Less Conversation,” which became a hit three decades later. It also features a cool psychedelic dream sequence set to “Edge of Reality.” A socially relevant Elvis movie in 1968? Go figure.
Presley is Jess Wade in Charro!, a man framed for stealing a cannon from the Mexican army. Wade was once part of Vince Hackett’s (Victor French) gang and Hackett wanted revenge for Wade not only leaving, but taking his girl Tracey Winters (Ina Balin) with him. They make wanted posters saying Wade is the only identifiable member of the men who stole the cannon as he has a scar on his neck (which was placed there because Hackett had him branded). Hackett intends to hold the cannon for ransom and he also uses it against the local townspeople when his brother is jailed for shooting the sheriff. Critically panned, Charro! nevertheless marks a move to more serious roles for Presley. It is the only movie that he does not sing in. The only Presley vocal comes from the title song, played over the opening credits. Worth a look for fans of westerns.
The Trouble With Girls was Presley’s penultimate film of the 1960s. He plays a Chautauqua manager who has made his way into smalltown Iowa for the fair. He tries to prevent his pianist Charlene (Marlyn Mason) from organizing the workers into a union. At the same time, he has to deal with nepotism, as the town’s mayor wants his daughter cast in the lead role of a play instead of the more talented current lead, and the murder of a local druggist, for which a Chautauqua troop member was initially blamed. When the killer is revealed, he exploits the murder which at first enrages Charlene, but he convinces her it was the only way to get a fair trial. Look for a great cameo by Vincent price as Mr. Morality and some fine Presley singing performances, including “Clean Up Your Own Back Yard” and his remake of “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” Presley gets less screen time than usual in this film, but it is a little different for him and shows what might have been.
With his movie contracts fulfilled and the success of the ’68 Comeback Special and subsequent live shows in 1969, the time was ripe for a concert documentary. Elvis: That’s The Way It Is Special Edition captures material from shows filmed in August of 1970. We see the band in rehearsal, where Presley keeps everyone loose by joking; yet he is clearly in charge. An overlooked aspect of Presley’s is his involvement in the musical side of his show. Here we see Presley directing backup singers and helping with arrangements. The songs sounded exactly the way he wanted them to. The live performances show Presley at the peak of his vocal and physical abilities. Highlights include blistering versions of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Suspicious Minds” and the powerful vocal workout of “Just Pretend” that Presley mistakenly says is from his country album. This is the one-disc version of this show. The two-disc special edition includes the original theatrical cut, which includes more fan interviews. This version focuses mostly on Elvis.
Elvis on Tour attempts to recapture the magic of Elvis: That’s The Way It Is from two years earlier and largely succeeds. The documentary follows Presley on his 15 cities in 15 nights tour in 1972 and shows candid backstage footage, studio footage and footage of the band rehearsing and singing gospel numbers in their off time. It also features the first-ever performance of "Burning Love," Presley’s last top ten hit in the U.S. It is one of the first films after Woodstock to use the multipanel format and it makes its debut on DVD here. The DVD also contains no extras — disappointing given all that was filmed.
This is Elvis chronicles the King’s life from his beginnings in Tupelo, MS, to his meteoric rise to the top to his tragic fall and death at a young age. The film goes in chronological order and it mixes reenactments and narration with actual archival footage of Presley, going as far back as his 1956 TV appearances and as recent as images of his funeral procession. It talks about the racism Presley dealt with for his music sounding “too black” and how parents felt threatened by him in general, his move to Hollywood and his return to live performances. It pulls no punches in dealing with Presley’s drug use, but overall paints a balanced picture of the man. He was a great talent, but he was human.
It’s fascinating to watch these movies in order and see the progression from eager young actor to bored formula actor to reenergized stage performer. Elvis Presley was a unique performer and these DVDs show what a talent he was musically and, in some cases, what he could have been on the silver screen.
Article first published as DVD Review: Elvis: 75th Anniversary DVD Collection on Blogcritics.