Sunday, May 1, 2011

Speedway (1968, Norman Taurog)

In a recent episode of "Khloé and Lamar", it was revealed that Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom has been paying rent for 22 of his friends.  Victim of a big heart?  Sure.  Hanging out with the wrong crowd?  Absolutely.  But those answers are too easy.  There is a reason why over sixty percent of NBA players are broke five years after retirement: often the people with the most money have no concept of its value.  That and the entourage.

Elvis's own entourage, The Memphis Mafia, a group of twentysome good ol' boys, many of whom Elvis's childhood friends he "rescued" from poverty, followed Presley everywhere he went on his dime.  Historian Patrick Humphries summed up the Mafia as "Elvis' bodyguards, babysitters, drug procurers, girl-getters, mates and carbuyers."  I wonder how much of Presley's earnings were seen by him in his heyday:  not only was the Colonel reaping upward to 50%, many of the Memphis Mafia were getting upwards to $500 a week.  They partied with Elvis every day and every night, trafficking the drugs Presley requested and taking pills just to keep up with one another.  And they nearly despised Priscilla who made (most of) them move out of Graceland after the wedding in 1967.

Lechers, probably, but that isn't to say the Mafia was all bad:  in some ways the Memphis Mafia may have prevented the actual mafia from stepping in and trying to overtake Presley's career in a way that dogged Frank Sinatra's career.  Realistically, it probably wasn't too dissimilar from an actual job for many of them, waiting on the King's every whim, day or night.  To live near Elvis was to have a seat aboard the gravy train:  his concept of wealth was the ability to lavish gifts onto others.  He gave to charities and he gave frivolously.  It is only natural that people took advantage of this generosity, much like Jamie takes lecherous advantage of Lamar Odom.

Speedway is a strange narrative of a problem only relevant to such a minority of celebrity.  Elvis plays stock car racer Steve Grayson with all the same problems as Elvis:  he has more money than he knows what to do with, so he spends it on the most frivolous gimmicks imaginable with the intent to lure women.  His lecherous "manager" Kenny (Bill Bixby) is his childhood friend who Steve shares his women and bankbook with.  Kenny's love of luxury and gambling get Steve unknowingly in trouble with IRS, and agent Susan Jacks (Nancy Sinatra) swoops in to investigate.

In film is more overtly sexist than most Elvis pictures, and for much of the film Steve and Kenny live out a bros-before-hoes philosophy, pulling the obnoxious Gene Wilder trick of self-referentially stating your intentions clearly through the fourth wall though the women are too dense to pickup "I have a little trick of my own, [it'll only take a minute]" is a double entendre.  Steve is the kinda guy that can owe the IRS insurmountable sums, strong-arm (and sweet-talk?!) a female IRS agent, and still have everything work out for him.  But like any Elvis picture, it's more morally ambiguous than that.  Steve (like Elvis) is also extremely charitable, dishing out money to help an out of work racing buddy who somehow is the father to five motherless girls all between the age of three and six. 

What begins as buying a hot dog dinner turns into a real-life Elvis situation of buying automobiles to help the family.  Steve encounters Ellie (Victoria Paige Meyerink), a precocious young girl (the only way they show up in any Elvis movie), and even sings her a slightly creepy song about how it would probably be inappropriate for the two of them to get married, but reassures her that she will be a beautiful woman.  For the record, that didn't exactly pan out.

Nancy Sinatra appears courtesy of two number one singles ("These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and "Somethin' Stupid") and a dropout by Petula Clark.  Her performance is passable, but the chemistry uninspired but, to be fair, you could probably say that about many of Presley's performances.  She does get to perform a snaky "Your Groovy Self", much in the same vein as "Boots".  Sinatra has a great mod look that isn't really used in the film, and her lip-syncing skills weren't exactly up to par.

A performance I was much more into was a straight-faced daffy, choreographed number by Presley and businessmen in an IRS office called "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad".  Taurog's earnest style treats the material like it's Vincente Minnelli.  You'd never use the word "sublime" to describe the musical numbers in an Elvis comedy, but it's not for any lack of effort on Taurog's behalf.  It's ridiculous, campy and a joy.

It's notable that Speedway doesn't really pan out for its hero in the end.  Unlike Viva Las Vegas, after having to also build an engine overnight, Steve fails to win the big race.  The movie ends with him still being on the hook for $137,000, still enabling (or is it, being enabled by) Kenny, and everyone is blissfully ignorant because Elvis and Nancy kiss.  It isn't troublesome that Steve wrecked his car twice in 24 hours, there is no fear of Steve falling into the same trouble as the disabled Abel Esterlake.  The moral is youth known no bounds, and the consequences are as light.  But say what you will, it can't be called hypocritical.  Elvis lived his life the same way and managed to get out of his soured movie career.  Speedway would be his last significant box-office success and his last traditional, teen-oriented musical-comedy.  He would finally be able to take on more "adult" roles, which is pretty funny considering the lifestyle perpetuated by Speedway, a Peter Pan syndrome enabled by uncountable sums of money, was how he would continue living until his death in 1977. -- *½ / four stars

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