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teaser Speedway (1968)

Can you name another movie that combines the exciting worlds of auto racing and tax evasion? We defy you to name one other than Speedway (1968) which features our boy Elvis as Steve Grayson, famous stock-car champion. His nemesis is played by Nancy Sinatra who had just enjoyed a number one chartbuster ("Something Stupid") with her dad Frank the previous year. They make a real swinging couple and it's only appropriate that her solo number is entitled "Your Groovy Self." (Sinatra was still the model hipster since her 1966 recording of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'").

Bill Bixby, two years after his stint as My Favorite Martian but ten years before The Incredible Hulk, also shows up as the racing champ's goodtime buddy, a guy with an obsession for gambling and easy women.

This is the film with the infamous "love trap trailer" - a secret den of iniquity where Elvis seduces his prey with wild animal recordings, fake radio announcements, and a remote-controlled clock. Don't ask us how it works. We only know it's a lethal combination.

And if you're curious about the score for Speedway, you should know that it includes "Suppose," "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," "Let Yourself Go," and "There Ain't Nothing Like a Song," which was originally slated for use in Spinout, another Presley feature, but was later axed. The real highlight of the recording session for Elvis was meeting billionaire politician Nelson Rockefeller who was in the adjacent studio recording an album of patriotic recitations.

Producer: Douglas Laurence
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Phillip Shuke
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editing: Richard W. Farrell
Music: Jeff Alexander, Mel Glazer, Lee Hazlewood, Stephen Schlaks
Art Direction: Leroy Coleman, George W. Davis
Cast: Elvis Presley (Steve Grayson), Nancy Sinatra (Susan Jacks), Bill Bixby (Kenny Donford), Gale Gordon (R.W. Hepworth), William Schallert (Abel Esterlake), Ross Hagen (Paul Dado).
C-95m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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Speedway (1968)

Released in June 1968, Speedway holds a prominent place in the Elvis Presley lore and literature not because of any virtues of the film but because of the juncture it represents in his career. Speedway was released the month that Elvis began work on The '68 Comeback Special, which became a creative high point for the singer and spearheaded his return to the concert stage. It was also the last official "Presley Travelogue," that pejorative term that Elvis himself used to refer to his musical comedies of the 1960s.

The Presley Travelogues were musical vehicles developed especially for his star image and singing talents. They followed a rigid formula that was developed by Presley's long-time producer Hal Wallis for G.I. Blues (1960) and then firmly established by the time Blue Hawaii (1961) was released. The formula called for Elvis to play a roving maverick with an exciting, adventurous job who finds himself breezing through an exotic or popular vacation spot. And, whether the character was a race-car driver, airplane pilot, boat captain, trapeze artist, or rodeo rider, he could also sing. The Presley Travelogues averaged nine songs per 90-minute running time. The plotlines followed the ups and downs of the romance between Elvis, a cocky ladies' man, and the leading lady, a nice girl who tries hard to resist his charms.

When Elvis first arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, he planned to parlay his success as a singer into movie stardom like so many had done before him. Elvis's view of stardom included branching out into challenging roles in order to become a serious actor. But, his manager Colonel Tom Parker and Wallis had different ideas. After several popular musical dramas and a stint in the army, Elvis found himself starring in G.I. Blues, biding his time until more serious roles were developed for him. Unfortunately, Wallis was not inclined to cast his latest star in other genres, though a few other producers did with varying degrees of success. The box office popularity of the Presley Travelogues quickly became a trap. Presley was not under an exclusive contract to Wallis, and he was free to make movies elsewhere, but the Colonel agreed with Wallis's strategy and most often made deals at other studios in which his one and only client would be cast in a musical comedy with the familiar formula intact. By 1964, Elvis realized that his opportunity for serious roles in prestigious dramas had passed, and he began to resent his movie career, repeatedly referring to his musical romances as Presley Travelogues.

Speedway was produced by Douglas Laurence for MGM and does not stray far from the formula. Presley stars as stock-car racer Steve Grayson who arrives in Charlotte, North Carolina, expecting to compete in the big race but finds himself in trouble with the IRS instead. Between the mishandling of his winnings by manager Kenny Donford, played broadly by Bill Bixby in the style of a supporting comic character, and his own tendency to give large wads of cash to those in trouble, Steve is broke. A mini-skirted IRS agent named Susan Jacks, played by Nancy Sinatra, is sent to straighten out the wayward race-car driver. Susan tries to make Steve see the seriousness of the situation by talking payment plan and budgets, while Steve tries to persuade the business-like agent that she is too serious by talking romance and love. About a dozen songs were selected for the soundtrack, but only seven made it into the film.

The Presley Travelogues are soundly condemned by biographers and music historians, partly because Elvis himself hated them so much and partly because these writers tend to blame Hollywood for the shift in Presley's career from notorious rock 'n' roll singer to benign movie star. Yet, fans have always supported Elvis's film career, while contemporary audiences enjoy these musical comedies because they are suitable viewing for all ages. Those who condemn Elvis's entire film career for general reasons fail to see the individual strengths of specific films. For example, Speedway offers an energetic performance by 1960s icon Nancy Sinatra at the height of her popularity as well as a pop-art-inspired set design. Both characteristics capture the flavor of the 1960s-not the psychedelic vibe of the rebellious counterculture but the color and vitality of the "go-go" era.

Sinatra had known Presley since 1960 when she met him at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, after his arrival from Germany upon his discharge from the army. She presented him with a gift from her famous father, because Presley was about to star on Frank Sinatra's next television special. After appearing in several youth-related films and teen musicals, including For Those Who Think Young (1964), Get Yourself a College Girl (1964), and The Wild Angels (1966), Nancy Sinatra was associated with the hip youth culture, an image that was cemented with her 1966 hit single "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Between her personal association with Elvis and her star image, Sinatra's appearance in a Presley Travelogue seemed inevitable. The producers of Speedway made sure to reference Sinatra's hip image and hit song through her costumes: Susan Jacks wears mini-skirts with matching knee-high go-go boots. Sinatra's cache with the youth crowd was so strong at this time that the producers asked her to sing a solo in the film. At the local nightclub for the racing set called The Hangout, Sinatra (as Susan) performs "Your Groovy Self." The tune was written especially for her by her producer, Lee Hazelwood, and not by the usual songwriters associated with the Presley camp. "Your Groovy Self' was included on the Speedway soundtrack, marking the only time that a solo song by another performer appeared on a Presley album.

The Hangout is decorated with a racing-car theme, including booths made from the front halves of automobiles. The primary-color scheme of red, yellow, and blue, together with the car-shaped booths, are reminiscent of the scale and colors of pop art, which is all nicely captured by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg-one of the best in the industry. The dcor is fun, clever, and campy, though reviewers complained about its artificiality at the time of the film's release. However, the pop-art aesthetic of The Hangout undoubtedly inspired the retro design for the hip eatery Jack Rabbit Slim's in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994).

Though Elvis starred in four more films after Speedway before happily giving up his movie career to return to concert performance, the final four veered from the Travelogue formula. Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) is a sex farce in which Presley's character actually spends the night with the leading lady; Charro! (1969) is a western in the style of Sergio Leone's Italian westerns; The Trouble with Girls (1969) is a period musical in which Elvis played the manager of a traveling chautauqua; and Change of Habit (1969) features Elvis as an unconventional, idealistic doctor whose ghetto practice treats minorities and the underprivileged. The last phase of Elvis's Hollywood career represented an effort to cast the singer in updated material, but it was too little, too late. By this time, Presley was so disillusioned that he couldn't get through his contractual obligations fast enough.

The month that Speedway was released to unenthusiastic reviews, which urged the singer to seek better material, Elvis began work on a television Christmas special for NBC-TV that became the turning point in his career. The show, which is now referred to as The '68 Comeback Special, eventually aired on December 3, 1968, but it was actually produced during the summer months. The creative personnel behind the special wanted to capture what they felt was Elvis's genius - his music. They wanted to prove that the singer's original 1950s music had been essential to the development of rock 'n' roll and that Elvis Presley wasn't some relic from the past stuck in formulaic movies with mediocre soundtracks.

Presley loved the idea behind the special, which included four production numbers and two segments in which he performed live before a studio audience. Costumed in a black leather outfit for the lives sets, Elvis looked fit and youthful. More importantly, the special challenged Presley to record some of the best music of his career, and it reminded him that he loved to perform before a flesh-and-blood audience. After the success of the special, Elvis and the Colonel made the decision to return to live performances and get out of Hollywood as quickly as possible. The special, which aired in December 1968, also reminded audiences that the real Elvis Presley was not the guy they had seen in Speedway a scant six months earlier, but the King of Rock 'n' Roll who could still rock the house.

Producer: Douglas Laurence
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Phillip Shuken
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Original music: Jeff Alexander
Editor: Richard Farrell
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Don Greenwood, Jr.
Cast: Steve Grayson (Elvis Presley), Susan Jacks(Nancy Sinatra), Kenny Donford (Bill Bixby), R.W. Hepworth (Gale Gordon), Abel Esterlake (William Schallert), Ellie Esterlake (Victoria Meyerink), Birdie Kebner (Carl Ballantine), Paul Dado (Ross Hagen), Juan Medala (Poncie Ponce), Himself (Richard Petty), Himself (Buddy Baker), Himself (Cale Yarborough), Himself (Dick Hutcherson), Himself (Tiny Lund), Himself (G.C. Spencer), Himself (Roy Mayne).
C-95m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Susan Doll

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