Released in time to honor/cash-in on what would have been Elvis Presley's seventy-fifth birthday, this set of seven films from MGM/Fox is nothing more than a simple repackaging of the seven single disc releases that came out on DVD a few years ago. If you already own those releases, you can move on, there's nothing to see here. If not, and you're an Elvis fan, you might just find that this reasonably priced collection is of interest. While none of the films contained herein are masterpieces, they're good fun even if they're not exactly high art.
Here's a look at the seven movies that make up the Elvis 75th Birthday Collection:
Love Me Tender (1956):
When Elvis sold millions of records and became a sensation on TV sets around the world it made perfect sense that he'd transition that star power and charisma to the silver screen. Directed by Robert D. Webb, Love Me Tender marks Elvis' first foray into the feature film world, and by many standards, it's one of his best.
The film begins when Vance Reno (Richard Egan) and his two brothers, Brett (William Campbell), and Ray (James Drury), return home when the Civil War ends with a large stash of money that they stole from the Union for the Confederacy. What with the war ending and all, they decide to lay low and keep the money in hopes of providing a better life for themselves and their family. Vance is shocked to learn when he returns that his girlfriend, Cathy (Debra Paget), has married his younger brother, Clint (Elvis Presley) after being told that Vance was killed in the line of duty. Vance decides to head to California to escape his broken heart but before he can leave, an investigator (Robert Middleton) who is fairly certain that Vance and his crew still have the money they stole, shows up wondering where it is.
Elvis is really only in this film as a supporting cast member and it's Egan and Paget who get the vast majority of the screen time. Regardless, it did well enough that it sent his film career off on a pretty strong starting note. In terms of Elvis' performance here, it's quite genuine and he actually suits the role of the naïve younger brother very well, showing a decent range and playing his part quite believably. Of course, there are a couple of musical numbers here but they're not specifically at the forefront of the picture (though his performance at the small town fair where he's shaking his hips and wiggling his legs feels out of place in the period setting in which the film takes place).
Shot in scope, the film has a fairly epic feel to it that suits the melodrama and brooding romantic underpinnings of the script quite well. The black and white photography is slick and professional looking. The scene in which the Reno family are hanging out on the porch and accompanying Elvis as he sings them a song is unintentionally humorous but outside of that, the picture doesn't feel nearly as campy or forced as many of his other pictures would. Elvis proved here that with decent material and a competent director that he could act. Of course, this didn't stop Hollywood from pigeonholing him and insisting that his musical bits be the center of his films from here on out.
Flaming Star (1960):
After Love Me Tender Elvis would make Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and G.I. Blues (widely regarded as some of his best films) before taking on the role of Pacer Burton, the son of a white father named Sam (John McIntire) and a Native American woman named Neddy (Dolores Del Rio). Since the Kiowa Indian tribe is looked down upon by many of the white settlers in the area, you can see how Pacer and his family might run into trouble now and again. Things get complicated for he and his brother Clint (Steve Forrest) when a nearby house full of white settlers are murdered by the Kiowa while the Burtons are left safe and sound. The townsfolk figure they might be in on this, and they take none too kindly to that.
Directed by none other than Don Siegel long before he'd be known for working with action icons like Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, Flaming Star again contains a pretty decent performance from Elvis. His acting is light on dialogue and high on moody camerawork, letting him work more with facial expressions than dialogue but this plays to his strong points. There are only two musical numbers here and they don't really feel out of place at all, while the cinematography from Charles Clarke ensures that the picture is consistently impressive on a visual level. The camerawork does an excellent job of capturing the dusty landscape over which the melodrama plays out, and Siegel's solid and workmanlike direction ensures that the picture moves at a strong pace.
As decent as Elvis is in the movie, it's Dolores Del Rio who steals every scene that she's in. We can completely buy her in the part and because of that, her conflict becomes fairly real to us. It's easy to sympathize with her as we get a grip on her feelings for both her family and her people. L.Q. Jones and Barbara Eden pop up in amusing supporting roles. This one turns out to be quite a bit more mature than most of Elvis' other films, and a fair bit more thought provoking at that.
Wild In The Country (1961):
In this next film, directed by Philip Dunne, Elvis plays a young man named Glenn Tyler who has recently been let out of prison where he did hard time for a car robbery that he insists he didn't do. Glenn winds up working at a distillery run by Rolfe Braxton (William Mims) who is interested in setting him up with his lovely daughter Noreen (Tuesday Weld), an unwed mother without a lot of suitors calling on her. Complicating things, however, is the presence of two other woman vying for Glenn's affections - his ex-girlfriend from high school, Betty Lee Parsons (Millie Perkins) and oddly enough a member of the parole board named Irene Sperry (Hope Lange) who has taken quite a liking to the handsome young man. Glenn's appreciative of the affections but really just wants the chance to ply his craft as a writer and make a better life for himself.
Overly long and featuring three songs that, while decent enough on their own, don't really fit the tone of the movie very much at all, Wild In The Country isn't very good. Elvis' character is a cliché and while his charisma and screen presence make him likeable enough, the rest of the cast don't really fare as well. The three female leads are all attractive enough and fun to look at but Weld is positively vapid in her role and Perkins and Lange fare only marginally better. The romantic aspects of the film are all overplayed and the dramatic aspects, those that should have held the story together and kept our interest, are merely afterthoughts.
Elvis as a troubled youth must have seemed like a perfect casting choice and again, he's not bad in the part, but there's so much sickly soap operatics up on the screen that it's hard to take any of it seriously enough for it to matter. Elvis made many movies that were much better than this one, but only a few that were worse.
Follow That Dream (1962):
In this film, the father son duo of Pop (Arthur O'Connell) and Toby Kwimper (Elvis Presley) collectively decide, along with a pretty orphan woman named Holly (Anne Helm) and a few other orphaned kids that rather than rely on a life of government subsidies and abject poverty that they should instead take over a plot of land owned by the state and start their own fishing business. After slipping through the fingers of a Florida state official named H. Arthur King (Alan Hewitt) they wind up on his bad side and it soon becomes apparent that he's going to do everything in his power to prevent this from happening. That won't be the only problem they face, however, as a local gang lead by Nick (Simon Oakland) and Carmine (Jack Kruschen) have their sights set on opening up an illegal casino in the area and taking it for all its worth.
Played more for laughs than anything else, Follow That Dream proves that Elvis actually had pretty solid comedic timing. His camaraderie with Pop and Holly works well and if it's a bit on the hokey and wholesome side of things, so be it. The film works in one more song than most of the others, and the four performances here don't feel nearly as out of place as they do in some of the more serious films contained in the set. This makes them easier to appreciate and enjoy as the just fit the tone of the picture so much more accurately. While this isn't the best picture Presley made, it's definitely one of the funniest and he steals the show as the good natured but dimwitted Toby. He uses his 'good old boy' charm to make the character his own the movie is all the better for it. Through in Helm as the film's requisite fox and you wind up with a well cast picture that provides plenty of laughs and some memorable music. The ending feels a little out of touch with the rest of the film but not necessarily in a bad way. There's lots of fun to be had with this one.
Kid Galahad (1962):
One of the many middle of the road pictures that Elvis would make throughout his career, this one finds him playing Walter Gulick, an all American guy who just got out of the army and is looking for work. He stumbles into a boxing training camp and hits up the owner, Willy Grogan (Gig Young) for a mechanics job. Grogan is none too keen on keeping him around until a young boxing pro (Michael Dante) shows up on the scene in need of someone to spar with. Gulick, of course, volunteers and despite the odds manages to take down the champ, instantly winning the affection and appreciation of the previously soured Grogan, who takes him under his wing. Grogan's fiancé, Dolly (Lola Albright), sees Gulick as the kind hearted guy that he is and gives him the nickname of Kid Galahad.
As Gulick works his way up the boxing ladder, trained by Lew Nyack (the mighty Charles Bronson), he soon realizes that this isn't what he wants to do and that he'd rather go back to trying to make it as a mechanic. Grogan's younger sister (Joan Blackman) falls for the kid, however, and much to Grogan's dismay, a local mobster (George Mitchell) decides that the time has come to fix one of Kid's fights...
Elvis looks awkward in the ring in this film. He doesn't look at all like a real boxer and doesn't look comfortable in the ring or in the roll. His scenes with Bronson are great and definitely stand as some of the high points in the film, but Elvis just doesn't seem all that cut out for the boxing life. He does better in the more dramatic aspects of the film, sort of fumbling his way through the more physical scenes, though the screen time he shares with both the lovely Lola Albright and the equally lovely Joan Blackman (let's face it, she's pretty adorable in this movie) work about as well as they need to. Cramming a half a dozen songs into the film probably wasn't the brightest movie in terms of having the film and its star taken seriously, but it's doubtless the producers cared much about either of those issues, they simply wanted to sell tickets and so we're left with a half a dozen awkward musical numbers in a film that really doesn't need them and probably would have been better off without them.
Frankie And Johnny (1966):
In this film, Elvis plays a guy named Johnny who makes a living as a gambler when he's not playing to an audience on the riverboat where he works and spends seemingly all of his spare time. He and his partner, Frankie (Donna Douglas) have got a pretty solid chemistry together and the crowds just seem to eat it all up. Part of this chemistry probably stems from the fact that they're an item off stage as well, and when Cully (Harry Morgan) writes a song for them called, you guessed it, 'Frankie And Johnny', you just know it's going to go over well - and it does, to the point where if the three of them could make it to New York City, Cully might just have a chance at making it on Broadway.
Frankie's got some pretty serious debt racked up from some bad gambling, so Johnny winds up talking to a fortuneteller who foresees that a redheaded woman will be his good luck charm. When he hears this, Johnny holds onto red haired Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovak) as tight as he can much to the dismay of her father and his boss (Anthony Eisley). Unfortunately for all involved, Nellie isn't likely to bring Johnny and the rest of the cast anything but one problem after the next.
Frankie And Johnny is really nothing to write home about. The film has one major flaw that's really hard to look past and that's that Elvis and Donna Douglas, while they look great together, don't actually have much chemistry on screen. Neither one appears to be all that into what they're doing and the intended comedy winds up suffering from one awkward delivery after the next. The musical numbers, of which there are a lot, do go some way towards saving the picture (Douglas is dubbed over in these scenes and it's sometimes painfully obvious) but not far enough to keep Frankie And Johnny from coming dangerously close to the bottom of the barrel. Elvis isn't bad on his own in the film and he occasionally rises above simply going through the motions, but occasionally isn't enough.
Last but not least, we're left with Clambake. This is a movie that takes a lot of flak and while most of the criticisms leveled at the picture are completely valid, there's a decent amount of entertainment value to be had from this film. Yes, Elvis is starting to get a bit of a gut and yes, it's really a rehash of ideas and whatnot from other films he'd already made but c'mon, it's Clambake!
Elvis plays a rich kid named Scott Hayward. His daddy ran an oil company and left him a fortune but there's really only one problem - Scott's bored. Sure, he can get pretty much any swinging chick he could want, but he keeps learning the hard way that they're only into him for his money. So what is a poor little rich boy to do? He heads to Miami where he meets a down on his luck water skiing teacher named Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins) and he swaps identities with him, that's what! As he wanders around the resort a new man he meets up with the lovely Dianne Carter (Shelley Fabares) who is obviously into him but easily lured away but yet another rich guy with the rich guy name of James J. Jamison III (Bill Bixby). Later he opts to help fix up an old boat to use in an upcoming competition and they soon strike up a friendship with Scott fulfilling the needs of the boats aging widowed owner and the owner giving Scott the parental leadership his real father never could.
Hokey, corny and as dumb as they come, Clambake isn't a movie for everyone but there's a charming naivety to it that, if nothing else, makes it work as good old fashioned mindless entertainment. A bubblegum pop picture in the truest sense of the word, there really isn't all that much of a story here so much as there is just a series of cornball set pieces but Elvis doesn't do bad with the material. The musical numbers are smooth, eschewing the pure rock and roll of some of his earlier recordings in favor of the style he'd adapt when he moved to Vegas and effectively became a lounge singer but in the context of the shallow world that is Clambake it works reasonably well.
You can't come out and make any realistic claim that Clambake is one of Elvis' best movies but you can't honestly call it one of his worst either. It rests very comfortably in the middle of the King's filmography, a spot it rightly deserves. A highpoint of mediocrity? Maybe, but turn off your brain and go with it, it's not such a bad trip to take.
Since these discs are identical to the ones that were released as single disc releases a few years ago, it stands to reason that the transfers are the same - this is a good and a bad thing. Each of the films is presented in its original aspect ratio, but Clambake, Frankie And Johnny and Follow That Dream are still non-anamorphic. This isn't as big a deal with Clambake since it's 1.66.1 but the other two mentioned are framed at 2.35.1 so the lack of anamorphic enhancement is a big issue.
That aside, the rest of the transfers are pretty decent. Love Me Tender looks very good in its black and white 2.35.1 scope presentation as do the later color pictures. There are instances where the pictures do show their age - Flaming Star looks soft, for instance, and Wild In The Country shows some color degradation in a few scenes - but generally the transfers are all perfectly watchable. It's a shame that MGM couldn't be bothered to fix some of the issues that are here and the non-anamorphic transfers are still weak, but such is life.
Love Me Tender has Dolby Digital Mono and Stereo tracks, Wild In The Country and Flaming Star each receive Dolby Digital 4.0 tracks, and the other four films are given the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono treatment - all in English, as they were shot. The quality is generally fine throughout the set but it's not hard to pick out problems if you listen for them. Love Me Tender is shrill and canned sounding in the high end while Wild In The Country suffers from periodic level fluctuations and might have you adjusting the volume with your remote now and then. The 2.0 Mono tracks seem to be a bit more stable and consistent than the 4.0 tracks for whatever reason. They're a little more simple, obviously, but they work well and don't really have any noticeable issues.
The best of the supplements is the commentary track from Jerry Schilling, a documentary filmmaker who was a close friend of Elvis' before he passed away. Schilling doesn't really do much here in regards to explaining the history or importance of the film, but he does do a fine job of relaying and sharing some interesting stories about Elvis as he knew him. Schilling does occasionally run out of things to say here and there and he tends to repeat information a few times - a moderator probably would have helped keep the pace moving - but overall this is a fairly enjoyable and personal look at Presley through the words of a man who knew him well.
There are also a few featurettes included here, starting with Elvis Hits Hollywood which is a twelve minute exploration of how and why Elvis wound up in the movies by way of some insightful interviews with a few of his friends and a few film historians and Elvis experts. The Colonel And The King is an eleven minute piece that spends eleven minutes explaining how Tom Parker became Elvis' manager and what their relationship was like, while Love Me Tender: The Birth And Boom Of The Elvis Hit is an interesting eight minute segment that explains how the song was written as well as why some of the other songs in the movie were used the way they were.
Rounding out the extras on this disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, trailers for Flaming Star and Wild In The Country, a still gallery of black and white behind the scenes photos and promotional shots, animated menus and chapter stops.
The rest of the films in the set only have trailers - Wild In The Country includes its own theatrical trailer and trailers for Love Me Tender and Flaming Star; Flaming Star has the same trailer selection as >Wild In The Country; Clambake includes its own theatrical trailer; Frankie And Johnny includes its own theatrical trailer; Kid Gallahad puzzlingly enough includes trailers for The Rocky Anthology and a few other unrelated titles; while last but not least, Follow That Dream includes its own theatrical trailer. Each disc also includes menus and chapter selection options
While many of the movies in the set are fun and some of the transfers are half way decent, the fact remains that this is nothing more than a repackaging of previous releases. Fans who already have those discs need not bother with this set as it brings nothing new to the table whatsoever, and in fact, it carries over some of the same old non-anamorphic transfers that plagued those earlier discs. With that said, the price is pretty decent on this set and if you don't already have the films and are interested in Elvis' films then there's some good fun to be had here at a fair price. Elvis' legacy deserves better, but it's still hard not to have a good time with this material. Recommended on the strength of the films themselves (assuming you don't already have them on DVD) rather than on the strengths of the DVDs.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.