Judge Bill Treadway may not be the king of the speedway, but The King is the king of everything!
Smooth, fast, and in high gear!
By the late 1960s, Elvis Presley was tired of his usual fare. Speedway would be the last of The King's typical musical-comedy vehicles. After Speedway, he would embark on a series of ambitious, markedly different films. With the approaching 27th anniversary of Presley's death, Warner Bros. has issued six of his MGM films on DVD. I previously reviewed The Trouble with Girls and now find myself on the Speedway.
Facts of the Case
Racecar driver Steve Jackson (Elvis Presley, Spinout) is a nice guy. Generous with his money and time, he soon finds himself in a dilemma. His friend and manager Kenny Donsford (Bill Bixby, Clambake, The Incredible Hulk) has managed to mess up Steve's tax return, placing him $145,000 in debt to the Internal Revenue Service.
With an IRS collection agent (Nancy Sinatra, The Wild Angels) on his tail, Steve must find a way to regain solvency. The solution: the next Speedway Race with a top prize of $170,000. Only two problems: his car is a wreck and he has fallen for the collection agent!
Speedway began life as a vehicle for Sonny Bono and Cher, then one of the most popular music acts in the business. Alas, their debut feature, Good Times, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection) did not fare well at the box office and MGM changed its mind. They next offered the script to Elvis Presley, who accepted based on the advice of his manager Colonel Tom Parker. (Some would call Parker a parasite rather than a manager, but that's a whole can of worms we will not go into here.) After Elvis came on board, MGM cast Nancy Sinatra, then a hot commodity with her hit song "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Also, her surprisingly good performance in Roger Corman's 1966 masterpiece The Wild Angels helped ease any fears of her acting ability.
Speedway is far from great art. I'm not even sure it is a good movie. It is merely a breezy entertainment, and on that level, it succeeds beautifully. Speedway seems tailor made for those, like me, who do not care for racecar driving. Enough is shown to give the audience an idea of what car racing is like. With Oscar-winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg's superb anamorphic Panavision photography, you can smell the burning rubber and taste the exhaust.
The acting is why Speedway works as well as it does. There are those who insist that Elvis couldn't act, but if you look at some of his more serious fare, you can see evidence that The King was a natural, underrated actor. Elvis had ease and charm that few could imitate, and those attributes manage to help lift the thin material of his films, including Speedway, higher than one could expect. Unfortunately, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, felt that pushing Elvis into more routine movies was a safer route than more challenging material. Maybe so, and perhaps we were robbed of some brilliant performances. Nancy Sinatra is also very good in the thin role of the attractive nemesis. She manages to invest her character with both determination and warmth, which makes the eventual 360-degree turn into romantic interest completely convincing. The thin material is bolstered by familiar faces in supporting roles, such as Gale Gordon (The Lucy Show), William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show), and Carl Ballantine (McHale's Navy), and real life racers such as Richard Petty and Tiny Lund. But, the real standout is Bill Bixby as Elvis's troublemaking pal. Bixby shows a real gift for comedy, which is shocking if you are only familiar with his dramatic turn on The Incredible Hulk. Bixby's set-up and delivery of crucial punchlines would have surely earned him an Oscar nomination had the rest of the film been better than it was.
Of the seven songs Presley sings, the best are the title tune and "Let Yourself Go," both of which would have made first-rate singles. [Editor's Note: An alert reader from an Elvis fan message board pointed out that both these songs were released as singles, and both were flops. Thanks for keeping us on our toes.] The soundtrack includes the nifty Nancy Sinatra tune "Your Groovy Self." This was historical in its own right, as Sinatra became the first artist other than Elvis to appear the soundtrack of one of his films.
In regards to the video transfer, there is some good news and bad news. First comes the bad news. Although Warner Bros. presents Speedway in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, we are not getting the complete image. The laserdisc and Turner Classic Library transfers presented Speedway in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio. A direct comparison of the two will show that while it is far from a hack job, it would have been nice to have Speedway in the complete ratio. Now comes the good news. This new transfer is a much sharper and better looking print. The colors are lush and color-corrected. The previous transfers had some transitional problems in which colors would suddenly change or appear in the incorrect shade. (For example, blacks often looked greenish.) Blemishes are not as plentiful as in previous prints. Some sneak through, but for the most part, Warner Bros. has done a good job minimizing the damage. Grain is still a problem, but it isn't as pronounced as in the previous transfers.
Previous Elvis discs offered surprisingly good sound, but Speedway's Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio transfer is a disappointment. The racing sequences and musical numbers sound bold and sharp, but mix fails with the standard dialogue. It is mixed far too low, forcing you to constantly adjust the volume.
The keep case lists only English, French, and Spanish subtitles. For those Elvis fans who understand Bahasa, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, or Thai, these languages are also available.
As is the case with most Elvis discs, the sole extras featured here are theatrical trailers for Speedway, Spinout, Double Trouble and The Trouble with Girls. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen
Warner Bros. has made all the Presley discs affordably priced at $14.95 each. Speedway is not the best Elvis film out there in DVD land, but it is far from the worst. It is worth at least a rental.
I find The King innocent on all charges, but Warner could have given Speedway a bit more care when transferring to DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailers
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