In the 1950s, Elvis Presley was sexy and dangerous and the establishment were afraid of him. He could only be shown on television from the waist upwards lest his hip gyrations send the young women of America into a libidinous frenzy. By the mid-1960s, he was the star of increasingly bland mainstream entertainments, the type your elders think you’d like. And like most youngsters, they rebelled. The most recent film in this box set, Speedway, was made around the same time as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, two films which transformed Hollywood. Speedway can really only be viewed from the other side of the barrier that those films created, as the product of an earlier era and a different universe. And it’s not even forty years old yet.
The previous decade, Elvis clearly had sex on his mind, as much as could be suggested given the censorship of the time. Now all he wants is to kiss the girls, and that’s enough to send them into raptures. He’s past the big three-oh by now, but he still has his looks. When once he had proper directors, like Don Siegel and Michael Curtiz, he now has hacks.
Viva Las Vegas, made in 1964, is something of a transitional film. Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a racing car driver in town for the Las Vegas Grand Prix. He needs to raise money for a new engine, but in the meantime Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) catches his eye. But on the racetrack and in life he has a rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Will Lucky lose the race and the girl?
By this time, an Elvis picture still had the budget to be shot in CinemaScope. He also had in George Sidney an able director of musicals – not in the Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli league, but someone certainly capable of staging song and dance numbers. He also had a strong co-star in Ann-Margret. Sidney certainly makes the most of her figure, frequently clothed in tight clothes redder than her hair. One scene transition cuts from her breasts all but colliding with the camera to a tight close-up of her equally tight behind. More importantly, she can sing and dance up a storm, which spurs Elvis to give more of himself than he would normally be asked to on screen in the Sixties. Viva Las Vegas determinedly lightweight, with a slim plot and a dozen numbers over a short running time, but it’s fun.
Compare that with Harum Scarum (originally released in the UK as Harem Holiday). This has a plot that’s silly even by usual standards. Film star Johnny Tyrone (Elvis) is touring the Middle East to promote his latest movie…only to be kidnapped by a gang who seem to have taken his film a little too seriously and want him to carry out a hit for them. The director is Gene Nelson, a TV veteran who rarely ventured into the cinema, though one of his other big-screen films is another Elvis vehicle, 1964’s Kissin’ Cousins. Elvis’s co-star is Mary Ann Mobley, a former Miss America who also co-starred with him in the same year’s Girl Happy - pretty, but no real actress. The film has a rather flat, televisual look to it, despite being in colour at a time when only the USA had colour television – an impression compounded by its not being shot in Scope. It gives the sense of being cheap and quick.
At least with Speedway we’re back on the wide screen, though like Clambake it’s the low-budget Techniscope process. The wide screen and a slightly longer running time shows off some decent speedway footage with several racing stars playing themselves. The plot is the usual fluff, with racing driver Steve Jackson (Elvis) falling foul of the IRS, in the shapely form of Susan Jacks. Playing Susan is another stronger-than-usual female lead, namely Nancy Sinatra. Sinatra by now was a huge recording star, though somehow didn’t click in films: this was her last acting role. She does get to sing “Your Groovy Self”, which became the only number not sung by Elvis to appear on an official Elvis album. Bill Bixby is entertaining as Steve’s manager. He’d co-starred with Elvis in Clambake, and he has a genuine rapport with the King. And to think this script was originally offered to Sonny and Cher…
Elvis only made four more films as an actor. As Hollywood transformed, this kind of squeaky-clean entertainment seemed passé. Nowadays they’re so dated as to become kitsch. If you want to see what Elvis was about, see his best films from the 1950s, or his best concert films like Elvis: That’s the Way it Is. Of the three in this set, Viva Las Vegas is the best, Speedway is watchable in an undemanding way, while Harum Scarum is for completists and diehards only.
This box set collects three films Elvis made for MGM, whose rights have since passed on to Warners. Each film is on a single-layer disc, encoded for Regions 2, 4 and 5. Only Viva Las Vegas is available separately.
However, the best film gets the worst presentation. Viva Las Vegas is in its original 2.35:1 ratio but non-anamorphic. That does have an effect on the transfer: the aerial shots of Las Vegas during the opening credits are notably artefacted. The picture is a little too soft throughout. I don’t think there’s much excuse for a non-anamorphic transfer of a Scope film nowadays. Viva Las Vegas has thirty-two chapter stops.
Harum Scarum is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, opening up the ratio a little from the intended 1.85:1. It’s certainly sharper, though the rather flatly-lit look (and some grainy stock footage insertions) is the fault of the original. There are twenty-five chapter stops.
Speedway is anamorphic 2.35:1 and looks much better, sharper and more colourful, though I suspect the reds are over-vivid on purpose. Given the limitations of the Techniscope process, the picture is a little grainy but that’s to be expected. There are twenty-seven chapter stops.
All three films present their original mono soundtracks in Dolby Digital 1.0. Nothing to complain about here, as that’s the way they were made and all three discs sound absolutely fine. Each film has an Italian dub (also single-channel mono) as an alternate soundtrack, and several subtitle options.
The only extras are trailers. Viva Las Vegas has only its own trailer, which is non-anamorphic 2.35:1, running 3:11. Harum Scarum has an “Elvis Trailer Gallery”, comprising three which can be selected individually or together. First off is a film not in the box set, 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (anamorphic 2.35:1, running 2:31). Next up is the Viva Las Vegas trailer, which is anamorphic this time, though distinctly blurring. Finally, there’s the trailer for Harum Scarum itself, anamorphic 1.78:1 and running two minutes exactly. On the Speedway disc is a different trailer gallery, comprising Spinout from 1966 (2:17), 1967’s Double Trouble (2:31), Speedway itself (2:33) and 1969’s The Trouble with Girls (2:15). All four trailers are anamorphic 2.35:1.