Anatomy of a Scene: Speedway (1968)

It’s been a while since I have posted anything, and for those of you that are following this blog of my waffle, I apologise!  With “Anatomy of a Scene”, the intention will be to take a close look at a memorable scene (often from an otherwise forgettable film).

Mel Torme used to tell the old joke “What do you call a banjo at the bottom of the sea?  A good start”.   There is also the semi-joke “When is a musical not a musical?  When it’s an Elvis musical.”  Arguably, there is much truth in both jokes.  Banjos aside, Presley musicals were for the most part not musicals at all in the traditional sense, and were rarely marketed as such.  Often, Elvis was the only singer in the cast.  There were in most films no duets, no chorus numbers, no ensembles, no dance routines.  The only musical element was Elvis himself, singing a number of songs that were somehow shoehorned into a light romantic comedy.  Very few Elvis films had production numbers.  There are some exceptions, most notably “Jailhouse Rock”, “Didja Ever” in G I Blues, “What’d I Say” and C’mon Everybody” in Viva Las Vegas, and the title number in Frankie and Johnny.   Presley’s strangest production number came at the tail end of his film career and was “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad” in Speedway.

Other than Frankie and Johnny, this is the only other fully-fledged production number in the traditional Hollywood MGM musical style in a mid-60s Elvis movie (and arguably even before that – Jailhouse Rock is hardly a traditional Freed-unit style of number, for example). There are nods to the past in the clip below where these businessmen suddenly turn into chorus girls and do a dance routine, complete with high kicks and the like. It is a nod/homage/parody of the MGM musicals of the past and, while half-hearted, is at least a more imaginative staging than Elvis walking along a beach singing to a girl. On record the song sucks, on film it kind of works. In fact the worst thing about the routine in the film is not the song (which works in context, but should never have been released on record), but Elvis himself who looks thoroughly disgruntled and less enthusiastic than the rest of the cast.

A link to the song can be found here (right click and open in new window):  HE’S YOUR UNCLE, NOT YOUR DAD

In the 1950s, Elvis was portraying James Dean-like characters in his films (particularly in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole) – generally characters with a tough exterior and exuding sex appeal. G I Blues was something of a change to that, in that Elvis wasn’t giving the girl the run around, she was giving him the run around instead. But the film was clearly playing a joke based on Elvis’s previous film roles and his obvious appeal to the opposite sex (in other words, this would never happen in real life).

However, as the 1960s wore on, Elvis was portrayed as being controlled by the women of the films. They didn’t fall for him, he fell for them. If G I Blues, was playing a joke on Elvis’s real life appeal to women, in later films the joke was basically on Elvis himself. The tough, masculine image was being eroded away.  This wasn’t just portrayed within the films by his relationship with women. If we take a film such as Fun In Acapulco, Elvis plays a character with a past – a fear of heights following a circus accident. This doesn’t show him as the tough guy (despite the tough talk in places) any more than the fact that he allows himself to be managed by a small boy – something which scarily mirrors the way Elvis was a puppet during this period for Parker. This is also (I think) the last film in which Presley appears shirtless – another sign that his sex appeal is not only being played down by consciously eroded in the films (he is even well-covered in the bedroom scene in Live A Little, Love A Little, and not even once is allowed to attract the girls in the pool in Tickle Me). In Harum Scarum, Elvis is a Valentino-type figure – Valentino had been accused in the press in the year before his death of being responsible for the American masculinity crisis and had been likened to a “pink powder puff”.  For me, “He’s Your Uncle” is the climax of the erosion of Presley’s masculine image that had taken place throughout the 1960s; Elvis literally becomes a chorus girl.

While “He’s Your Uncle” sees a group of businessmen turn into a group of chorus girls, a remarkably similar scenario can be found in a scene in the Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You in which a group of jewellers start singing and dancing “My Baby Just Cares For Me”.  (right click and open in new window: link) Could Allen have been inspired by a song in an obscure Elvis musical?  Who knows!

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