Elvis 75th Birthday Collection [DVD review]

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Starring: Elvis Presley, Charles Bronson, Barbara Eden, Tuesday Weld, etc.
Directed By: Various

Running Time: Various
Ratings: Not Rated

Back Cover

Elvis 75thIncluded in the Elvis 75th Birthday Collection is Presley’s wildly successful acting debut as the brother of a Confederate soldier in the touching western “Love Me Tender,” his critically acclaimed performance as a half-Kiowa American Indian in “Flaming Star,” and his dramatic portrayals of a struggling young boxer in “Kid Galahad,” a troubled young writer in the coming-of-age story “Wild in the Country,” and a riverboat gambler in “Frankie and Johnny.” The collection also showcases some of Elvis’ most exuberant musicals with the seaside romp “Clambake” and the family comedy “Follow That Dream.” The seven films in the Elvis 75th Birthday Collection celebrate the consummate performer that was Elvis Presley; with simple, powerful storytelling, iconic charm and high-energy musical numbers, these movies are a must-own addition to any DVD collection.

Movies

More than thirty years after he (supposedly) died, seven of Elvis Presley’s movies are gathered together on a format he never could have foreseen in his hip-shaking, jump-suited prime. But if the tabloids have been right all these years, The King is alive and well and appearing infrequently in 7-11s in the middle of the night – and to celebrate his 75th birthday he might want to put the Twinkies down and pick up this boxed set instead.

Made at the height of his fame as Elvis attempted to invade Hollywood, these films sure did cut to the chase – in “Flaming Star,” Presley’s title song plays over the opening credits, and the first scene has him singing a musical number as well, all within the first four minutes and before there’s any semblance of plot.

Co-starring a babelicious Barbara Eden, Elvis is a half-Native-American named Kiowa Pacer, trying to walk a slippery line between the warring worlds of whites and Indians. He explains such things to the Indians as tigers, whether the Earth is round, and why he can’t choose between the two worlds. Watching the 1960 flick all these years later, you can see why it was hard for Elvis to be taken seriously as an actor. Just a simple affirmative “uh-huh” reeks of Elvis stereotype, and takes him out of the cowboy realm. Nevertheless, his iconic stature simultaneously makes him hard to take seriously and impossible to take your eyes away from.

“Clambake” is a lot of fun, starting from the upbeat, goofy theme song. Elvis blows into Florida wearing a smart suit and driving a fancy car, the son of an oil tycoon who just wants to blow off his dad and bake some clams.

Old-timer, looking Elvis’ swanky car up and down: “That radio of yours, it’s ringing like a telephone.”

Elvis: “That is a telelphone.”

Old Man: Sure must have an awful-long cord!”

Yep, these old movies offer plenty of entertainment, even in more ways than originally intended. In “Clambake” Elvis sings duets while riding on a motorcycle along his car-driving co-crooner, Bill Bixby is really entertaining as a fun-loving, lady-luring boat racer in a role millions of miles from anything Hulk-ish, and the music is a lot of fun.

The same holds true for “Frankie and Johnny,” which continues the trend of casting Elvis opposite women who most modern thirty-something men probably feel a bit guilty about finding attractive in all those Nick at Night reruns. This time it’s “Beverly Hillbillies” star Donna Douglas instead of Eden (or Shelley Fabares from “Coach”), and like most Elvis movies it features a musical number within the first five minutes.

Many of the supporting actors who surround Elvis are a bit lacking here, and in many of the Elvis films. But watching the pop culture god walk among mere mortals, it’s downright mind-boggling to imagine what it must have been like to share the screen with the man in his prime.

“Frankie” casts Elvis as a hard-luck gambler and deep-in-debt riverboat entertainer whose stage show alongside Douglas is endangered when a fortune-teller urges him to find a red-headed good-luck charm. Douglas does a good job of putting Elvis in his place, while convincingly carrying the torch. The title song – full of bright costumes, belted-out melodrama, and a .44 handgun – is by far the highlight of the flick, and its final performance at the end of the film packs some extra firepower.

At the beginning of “Kid Galahad,” a greasy-haired freeloader sits on the back of a truck and, as it rambles down the road, sings: “The man who can sing/when he hasn’t got a thing/he’s the king!”

Whether his characters have money or not, Elvis can always sing – and he does that quite a bit as Walter Gulick, a chivalrous soldier who blows into a tiny mountain town looking for a few bucks – even if it comes from his gloved fists.

Charles Bronson plays Elvis’ world-weary corner-man in the film, and it’s as strange watching the old-timey training scenes (rowing machines, medicine balls) as it is watching “Raging Bull”-like close-ups of Elvis taking bloody punches to the face.

“Hey Walter,” Bronson advises helpfully at one point. “In case you want to duck once in a while – it ain’t against the rules.”

If you’ve ever wanted to see Elvis driving a Model T while singing with an even rarer sight – a smiling Bronson – in the backseat, this is the film you’ve been missing all your life.

1956’s “Love Me Tender” gives us Elvis’ first performance, while 1962’s “Follow That Dream” is the weakest of the group while attempting humor and tension that never arrives.

While none of the films would be worth a look without Elvis, none of them are “bad” either – indeed, out of the 31 films he made, there is certainly worse material out there. It’s also interesting that despite a revolving door of co-stars and directors, the films are remarkably similar in look and tone.

Every one of these movies has been released on DVD previously – and no Blu-ray is available – so this new boxed set is hardly cause for pelvis-thrusting in the streets. Wise man say, only fools rush in – but as long as you know what you’re getting and don’t already have these films in your collection, it’s worth the low MSRP of $39.99.

Crave Factor – 5

Extras

A hunk-a, hunk-a burnin’ bonus features would have been nice, but most discs contain nothing more than the theatrical trailers. Although it’s always fun to watch old movie ads (are they seriously going to give the entire plot away?!?), in 2010, such a lack of fan-friendly value is as inexcusable as an uneaten peanut butter-and-banana-sandwich.

Crave Factor – 1

Video

2.35:1 Widescreen (“Kid Galahad” is 1.85:1 and “Frankie and Johnny” is 1.66.1)

Fox appears to have put most of their effort for this release into the box set case. They certainly didn’t sink much effort into re-mastering these films, which look at times like hey were simply transferred via machine with minimal supervision. All in all, it isn’t anything bad enough to bother your average casual viewer, but Elvis fans looking for a fresh peek at their larger-than-life hero might be disappointed.

Crave Factor – 3

Audio

Dolby Digital Surround Sound

Keeping with the trend, there’s nothing special here sound wise. It’ll get the job done for Elvis fans, but don’t expect any sort of invigorating mix showcasing one of the world’s most famous voices.

Crave Factor – 3

Menu

Menus are basic, simple, easy to navigate and hardly worth mentioning. Since the box set assembles previously-released DVDs and repackages them, the menus have no resemblance to one another, and the “75th Birthday” theme isn’t acknowledged in any way. Come on Fox, would it have killed you to put together a cake with an off-camera voice saying thank you, thank you very much?

Crave Factor – 2

Conclusion:

If you’re an Elvis collector, chances are you already have these films in your collection. If you’re simply looking to get some Elvis movies, however, it’s as good a start as any. For an Elvis fan, it’s a good place to dwell, and far from heartbreak hotel.

Overall Crave Factor – 4

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