Release Date(s)1966 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Elvis Presley’s full potential as a movie star was continually thwarted by his controversial manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who was actually Andreas Cornelis van Kuijik, an illegal alien from the Netherlands reportedly wanted as “person of interest” in a 1923 murder. For that and other reasons, Parker never allowed Presley to do concerts or make movies outside the U.S., Parker fearing arrest and extradition. He also restricted how Elvis would be portrayed in his films, and demanded exorbitant fees for Presley’s services, usually a hefty percentage of the box office take. As a result, the vast majority of movies in Elvis’s filmography are bland star vehicles. Among the roles Parker reportedly turned down on behalf of his client? Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Joker Jackson in The Defiant Ones, Bernardo in West Side Story, Chance Wayne in The Sweet Bird of Youth, Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, and John Norman Howard in the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star Is Born. If only.
Instead, audiences got Elvis movies like Tickle Me, Kissin’ Cousins, and Harum Scarum (all from 1965). He did a handful of pretty good movies early on, notably Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958), and a few others, and some of the later pictures, such as It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964), are enjoyable. But from 1965 onward, Elvis’s movies became increasingly mediocre.
An exception is Spinout (1966), which works partly because the screenplay is written almost as a spoof of the typical Elvis movie. It never takes itself seriously, the supporting cast is unusually good, and it has an upbeat energy sorely lacking in most of Elvis’s later films. It’s filled with same components one associates with his pictures and never deviates all that much from the long-established formula, yet Elvis’s 22nd movie gets a big shot in the arm from writers Theodore J. Flicker and George Kirgo. Unusual for an Elvis comedy, Spinout is actually funny. Intentionally.
This time Elvis is Mike McCoy, part-time racecar driver and full-time rock’n’roller. Though popular, Mike refuses to join the big-time music scene, preferring to tour modestly through the country with bandmates Larry (Jimmy Hawkins), Curly (Jack Mullaney), and Les (Deborah Walley), she a tomboy drummer long in love with Mike.
Mike races a Cobra 427 (towed around the country by Mike’s pristine 1929 Model J Duesenberg; ah, the simple life!) that is nearly wrecked when spoiled but perpetually cheery rich girl Cynthia (Shelley Fabares) runs Mike off the road. Later, Cynthia’s father, Howard Foxhugh (Carl Betz, who played Fabares’s father on The Donna Reed Show), proposes Mike race his new Fox Five Car at the big Santa Fe race, but contrary Mike wants no part of it. Cynthia becomes determined to marry Mike, and meanwhile best-selling author Diana St. Clair (Diane McBain), decides she wants to marry him, too.
All of this is routine stuff, but the half-dozen good performances, and especially Flicker and Kirgo’s script, agreeably acknowledging the absurdity of it all, raises Spinout a couple of notches above the usual Presley vehicle. Flicker wrote and directed The President’s Analyst the following year, directed episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and co-created Barney Miller with Danny Arnold. Kirgo apparently had an affinity with automobiles, having also penned Howard Hawks’ Red Line 7000 (1965) and two episodes of My Mother the Car, but he also wrote for such fine series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Adam’s Rib.
Their script has fast, funny dialogue and eccentric characters who move the story in unexpected directions. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the amusing nature of Elvis’s three sidekicks. Jack Mullaney, painfully unfunny in other films (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine to name one) shines as nitwit Curly and with marginally brighter Larry (were Flicker and Kirgo fans of The Three Stooges?), Mullaney and Hawkins are like Dumb & Dumber of the cardigan set.
Deborah Walley, too often wasted in Beach Party movies at AIP, has several good scenes with Will Hutchins as a gourmand highway patrolman. Warren Berlinger gives a spirited performance that’s a truly frightening genetic morphing of William Shatner, Ray Liotta, and Nathan Lane.
Many Elvis vehicles unwisely cast him as a hothead prone to pick fights. (Elvis must have loved shooting fight scenes; Spinout is one of his few pictures without one.) He’s unaccountably disagreeable in a few scenes here, too, but mostly this is one of those “likeable Elvis” movies, where his natural charm counts for a lot.
In clunkers like Harum Scarum, Elvis walks through all but the musical numbers, probably in part because he doesn’t know how to overcome weak material. But here he seems to be in on the joke, and draws from the performances of his supporting cast. (Also unusual: his bandmates do a decent job faking their instrument-playing.) His songs are slightly better than the bland numbers these later Elvis movies were usually plagued with: Am I Ready, Beach Shack, and I’ll Be Back aren’t bad. The title tune was one of several for Elvis written by Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood’s long-suffering ex-wife.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of Spinout, filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision, features a new 4K restoration derived from the original 35 mm camera negative. The image is impressively sharp and its look, heavy on bright, primary colors, is accurately rendered. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono), though monophonic, is about as perfectly presented as technology allows, and optional English subtitles are provided (main feature only). In a nice touch, in addition to chapter stops, the main menu also offers a song selection list to choose from.
Extras are limited to a trailer (which seems to have some jerkiness of motion issues) and two sub-par Tom & Jerry cartoons directed by Chuck Jones: Catty Cornered (6:27) and Filet Meow (6:25).
Harry Medved, Randy Dreyfuss and (an uncredited) Michael Medved include Spinout as one of their Fifty Worst Films of All-Time, though the “honor” is quite unjust. Even limited to Elvis’s filmography there are a dozen movies far worse than Spinout. Looking at the film with modest objectivity, one can recognize the comparatively good writing and performances, all of which adds up to perfect escapist fare for Elvis fans, and a film even non-fans might enjoy.
- Stuart Galbraith IV