Judge Bill Treadway reviews his favorite Elvis film. Huh, favorite Elvis film. Most people haven't even seen an Elvis film.
With his foot on the gas and no brakes on the fun!
The year was 1966. Elvis Presley was on top of the world, with one hit record and film after another. But the year 1966 was not a very memorable year filmwise for the King. Paradise Hawaiian Style played like a lesser sequel to the vastly superior Blue Hawaii. Frankie and Johnny was deep-sixed by an unlikable heroine and a rather boring screenplay. Easy Come, Easy Go was completed but still unreleased, and there was a rumor that Presley carried a deep dislike for the finished product.
In between those average films there was Spinout, a superior outing for the King that contains none of the problems that made the aforementioned pictures weak and inferior. With the anniversary of his death coming up, Warner Bros. has reached into the vaults to issue six Elvis films for the first time on DVD. I now continue my journey through these releases with Spinout.
Facts of the Case
Mike McCoy (Presley) is a man who personifies duality. He is both race car driver and leader of a four-piece band. He soon finds himself up to his neck in female trouble. Three different women all lust after Mike: Cynthia (Shelley Fabares, who costarred with Elvis in the 1965 classic Girl Happy), who nearly kills Mike after running his beloved car off the road; Diana St. Clair (Diane McBain, Parrish), a best-selling author in the Helen Gurley Brown mode; and Les (Deborah Walley, Beach Blanket Bingo), his drummer and pit crew member.
Complications abound. Cynthia's father Howard (Carl Betz, The Donna Reed Show) wants Mike to represent his business at an important race. Diana decides to make her romance with Mike the subject of her next book. Lt. Tracy Richards (Will Hutchins, who costarred with Elvis in Clambake), a clumsy cop, has fallen head over heels for Les, who loves Mike, who loves—well, you're just going to have to see Spinout to find out.
While I have always said that King Creole is the best film Elvis Presley ever made, Spinout comes very close to taking that honor. It is probably my personal favorite of the 33 films Presley made. I remember when I first saw the film: It was your typical balmy summer day in August. Turner Classic Movies was running a day-long Presley marathon, and Spinout was the first film featured. I sat down expecting a pleasant yet predictable musical comedy. I wasn't prepared for what I was about to receive instead: a savage satire of the entire genre.
Why does Spinout work better than most of the other Elvis vehicles of the period? For starters, the scenario is completely unpredictable in execution from start to finish. We assume we know what direction the story is going to take, but then the film takes one pleasant detour after another. By the time we reach the surprisingly effective and unexpected conclusion, we realize that Spinout is an accomplished satire, ticking off the standard clichés and turning up the heat. No other Elvis comedy ever took the chances Spinout does.
The screenplay is credited to George Kirgo and Theodore J. Flicker. Kirgo is unknown to me except for the scripts that he would later contribute to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Flicker is a familiar name. As writer and director, Flicker was responsible for three definitive black comedies: The President's Analyst in 1967, Up in the Cellar in 1970, and the TV movie Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? in 1973. What marked Flicker's work was his gift of creating comic gold from increasingly absurd situations but also populating these situations with lively, three-dimensional characters. That gift is fully evident in Spinout. It may be the blueprint for the later Flicker films, as Spinout shares its jaded comic tone with Analyst and Bed and prefigures the liveliness of Cellar.
One of the trickiest aspects of mounting an original musical is determining how to place the numbers successfully within the story. Some musicals of the period floundered because of the inability of the creators to do that. In Spinout, each song is successfully and seamlessly integrated into the film. Each song feels organic and unobtrusive. Of course, the songs are also among the best in an Elvis film, with "Adam and Evil" and the title tune being particular highlights.
Some critics still insist that Elvis was no actor, but that is an unfair assessment, as Elvis proved he had a genuine acting talent. After stunning dramatic performances in several key films, Presley was led into standard, predictable vehicles by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker, like many business managers, was obviously concerned more with Elvis's strength as a money machine than with nurturing his acting ambitions. That is why so many of his movies are pleasant but contrived fluff. Look hard enough, though, and you'll see real acting talent—an ability to create a fully dimensional person rather than a caricature. Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Wild in the Country, Kid Galahad, It Happened at the World's Fair, and Change of Habit provide solid evidence of that fact. Spinout contains confirmation of a side that was first seen in the underrated Tickle Me: the talented farceur. Elvis uses his natural charm and electricity with the camera for his performance in Spinout. He also realizes that the key to making Spinout a successful film is to play this material absolutely straight. If he had played any scene with a wink of the eye, the satire would have fizzled significantly. By making the correct acting choices, Presley gives a performance that helps make Spinout soar even higher than expected.
Of course, Presley is surrounded by a fine supporting cast. After several flat and/or irritating female leads, director Norman Taurog did his homework and cast three actresses who had strong presence and chemistry with the King. Shelley Fabares returns from Girl Happy to appear in the second of three movies with Presley (the third would be the mediocre Clambake, released in 1967), and the chemistry is still strong and potent. Deborah Walley is given a reprieve from the beach pictures and given a smart, well-developed character to play. Diane McBain is the epitome of the cool blonde who falls for Presley. There are other fine performances too, particularly from Presley regular Will Hutchins as a traffic cop who falls for Walley; Carl Betz as the father of Fabares's debutante, and Jack Mullaney as Presley's odd sidekick Curly.
Warner Bros. presents Spinout in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. After seeing the opening credits play out in 2.40:1 anamorphic, it was a bit of a disappointment to see the picture expand to 2.35:1 at the credits' conclusion. However, nothing of consequence is lost with the minor adjustment. The transfer is the best I have seen to date on an Elvis film. Colors look sharp and vivid in every scene. Blemishes are kept to an astonishing low. Edge enhancement is nonexistent. Some light grain is all that prevents me from giving a higher score.
Audio is the standard Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix used by Warner for the catalog discs. Usually a 1.0 track gives me substantial reason to cringe: The telltale marks include tinny sound, hollow vocals, and hiss in the background. I was expecting the worst in this regard with Spinout and was pleasantly surprised. The sound is anything but hollow and tinny. It vibrates with vitality and brightness that were most likely unheard since the original theatrical release.
The sole extra feature is a gallery of Elvis Presley theatrical trailers: Spinout, Double Trouble, Speedway, and The Trouble with Girls. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen. Look at the final trailer and see the genesis for that ever-popular Hollywood standby: the misleading trailer.
As is the case with the other Elvis DVDs, Warner fails to mention that subtitles are also offered in Bahasa, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Thai in addition to English, French, and Spanish. It is a shame that Warner Bros. neglected to mention this, but at least I am here to point it out to you, dear readers.
Warner Bros. has made all the Elvis discs affordable to own, with a $14.95 price tag. Spinout is the best of the six Elvis films Warner has to offer and is well worth a purchase. If you are still unsure, either rent it or check out the film when it appears on Turner Classic Movies. Spinout is scheduled for August 16th, 2004, as part of a day-long Presley festival, as are several of the other films in this DVD series. Do check it out if your cable server carries TCM.
How could I find the King guilty? Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailers
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