Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Spinout, the ultimate Elvis 60’s movie

When I was a kid I watched a lot of Elvis movies. Some stuck with me more than others. When I saw "Spinout," I wanted the car he drove (a Cobra 427) and I wanted the life he led- a singing racecar driver who camped out in between races and shows, and, of course, the girls. It was #vanlife and Elvis and miniskirts rolled into one convenient, 93-minute package. I was hooked.

I realized that I might be the biggest fan of “Spinout” when Mike McCoy was named head coach of the San Diego Chargers several years ago and I didn’t hear any jokes about Elvis’ character in "Spinout," also named Mike McCoy. So I made one on Twitter, and nobody got it (this is not new regarding my jokes on Twitter). Then, every time I heard the actual Mike McCoy’s name for the four years he was head coach of the Chargers, nobody followed it up with a “Spinout” joke. Not even Chris Berman, who makes references to anything and everything. Chargers Mike was just “the real McCoy.”

"Spinout" is the ultimate Elvis 60's movie. It is, unintentionally of course, a combination of the best elements that continually showed up in Elvis' movies without some of the worst elements (there are a few things that are cringey, but for a 60's movie it's not bad) and deserves a better reputation than "one of the many movies Elvis made."

At the time, of course, it was just that. "Spinout" was the third movie for Elvis in 1966, after “Frankie and Johnny” (a movie based entirely on the plot of a song) and “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (an atrocious attempt to re-capture the “Blue Hawaii” magic). Like all of Elvis’ movies, it made money (he is the only major film star in history to turn a profit every film), but it was quickly forgotten about.

Because in 1966, Elvis was yesterday’s news. The Beatles released “Revolver” that summer, and the Beach Boys put out “Pet Sounds” that same year. “Wild Thing” and “Summer in the City” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” all hit number one. At the box office, Elvis was competing with “Alfie” and “Farenheit 451” and “Blow-Up.” The same month “Spinout” came out Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded The Black Panthers.

A comedy about a singing race car driver was not going to stick.

To be fair, “Spinout” only sticks today because of Elvis. Anyone else in the main role and there’s no reason to watch it. But Elvis is good, even when the movie is bad. He’s often the only believable actor in his movies, because he would have preferred to be a dramatic actor than anything else. So why is “Spinout” the ultimate 60’s Elvis movie? Let us count the ways.

He’s a singing race car driver

rear projection tech has definitely improved

It's the stereotypical Elvis movie role, but he only played a singing race car driver three times in the 31  movies he made. However, one of those three times is in "Viva Las Vegas," which is the movie most people think of when they think about Elvis in the movies. That’s because of Ann-Margaret and the catchy title song and the fact that it’s in Vegas and that he re-gained his reputation as a tremendous live performer playing there and did I mention Ann-Margaret? Nobody considers that Lucky Jackson, Elvis’ character, is actually a con-man singing race car driver. After the money he needs to buy a new race car engine gets sucked down the pool (an awful, awful, plot point), Lucky tries everything. He tries to be a singing waiter, he tries to win a talent contest…. He tries to con people out of money to get enough to buy a new race car engine and eventually convinces Ann-Margaret’s dad to give it to him. 

What kind of redeeming character is that?

His other singing race car driver role is “Speedway”, which a lot of people get confused with “Spinout.” “Speedway” is the one with Nancy Sinatra as the IRS agent in charge of making Elvis pay his taxes because his manager, Bill Bixby, is a degenerate gambler who loses Elvis’ money but they’re still friends anyway (an oft-used plot point in Elvis movies- also true for “It Happened At The World’s Fair”). “Speedway” is brutal all the way through. Of course the teaming of Sinatra and Presley was way hyped, but they have about as much chemistry as a cardboard box and another cardboard box.

In “Spinout,” Mike McCoy is a singing racecar driver whose backup band happens to be his pit crew. There are no degenerate gamblers in the bunch.

He’s a gypsy

Is that the wire on the tent or a fold in the photo?
In most Elvis movies he doesn’t really appear to have a home. In “It Happened At The World’s Fair” he and his degenerate gambler buddy who loses all his money are cropduster pilots who just seem to go from field to field. In “Roustabout” he is a gypsy and a carnie in one fell swoop. “Follow That Dream” is an early #vanlife story. “Viva Las Vegas,” race car driver going from place to place. "Charro" is your standard Western wanderer. Even in "Jailhouse Rock" he has no real reason to stay anywhere.

“Spinout” takes this idea to the next ridiculous level by having Elvis and his team go from place to place in a historic 1929 Duesenberg towing his race car, a Cobra 427. When they get to somewhere they want to camp they all set up and the only girl in the group, Les, his drummer, also happens to be a gourmet cook and whips up a fantastic meal while the boys set up camp, complete with ridiculous individual pop-up tents that actually “pop up” when you pull a cord (and the stagehand in the studio pulls the guide wire that’s not seen because of the careful lighting attached to the top of the tent to raise it up).

Completely illogical, implausible, and impractical. And course, when I was 12 and first saw this movie, I absolutely loved it and wanted to live exactly like that.

Obviously the "man without a home" plot point was used countless times in films before Elvis and has continued to be used countless times afterwards. Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was a wanderer. The idea really took off during The Great Depression when it seemed like half of America became itinerant wanderers- and usually ended up in California. It's why Route 66 is a thing. "It Happened One Night," "Sullivan's Travels," and so on. John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood made entire Western careers out of being guys traveling without a home. "Shane" is an amazing example.

The interesting thing about all these movies is that they all came out before the genre-changing "Easy Rider" in 1969. Even Eastwood's tour-de-force "Man With No Name" trilogy was done before Captain America and Billy got on their bikes. But it made such an impact that you can't watch a "road" movie without thinking about it. This is a good and bad thing, because it both colors the earlier movies as "simpler," meaning more nostalgic, and as "unrealistic," because it doesn't show the real problems of being on the road. Of course, Kerouac's "On The Road," which came out in the early 50's in book form only showed that it wasn't easy even when Hollywood would have you think that it was. 

Bad puns, jokes, and sight gags

"I seem to be bumping your binoculars." (actual line in the movie)
Every Elvis movie has bad puns, jokes, and sight gags. Here, they might be the best because the writers actually did something with their careers. Theodore J. Flicker went on to co-create the great  "Barney Miller," and George Kirgo was a prolific sitcom writer who was president of the Writer's Guild union in the late 80's, during a big strike where writers wanted compensation for home video rentals and sales, among other things.

The names of Elvis' backing band members are Larry, Curly... and Les. Les is a girl, but the other two band members always say things like "you cook great for a guy," which leads to her running gag line of "I'm not a fella, I'm a girl." Curly is the dumb one and is constantly making mistakes. Today we'd cringe at the character for implying that he's slow, but back then it was funny for the dumb one to continually repeat somebody else's lines. In this case, Curly repeats nearly all of Larry's lines but with a more ridiculous inflection. He also at first refuses to eat chocolate mousse because he thinks it's made from real moose.

 The police officer is named Tracy Richards (which often flies by people because the comic "Dick Tracy" is not as popular as it was in the 60's... or in the 40's. And yes, even the 90's, because Warren Beatty's version was weird even then). There's a running gag where one of the characters faints whenever he gets excited or nervous or upset.  Whenever one of the three love interests tells Mike McCoy that she's going to marry him and they kiss... wedding bells.There's even a callback joke involving cars going into the water. Overall, it's enough wordplay and plotting to show that some thought went into this... not a lot, but some. And "some" means a lot more thought than most of Elvis' other 60's movies.
A cast of regulars

the three main people in this pic were in at least two Elvis movies
Elvis was in three movies a year from 1963-1969, and most of them were shot on the Hollywood backlots and surrounding areas one after the other. "Spinout" was shot in February, March and April of '66 and was released in October. For a full 90-minute movie, that's fairly quick to go from nothing to theatres in nine months.

Casting the parts, therefore, couldn't have taken long either. It's pretty likely that they just looked at who had played similar parts before. So all Elvis' movies, and especially "Spinout," are easy to watch because you've already seen these people playing this part before. Hell, it's true for Elvis' parts, so it makes sense for everyone else.

"Spinout" required a father and a daughter, three members of his backing band- one smart, one dumb, and one girl who could do physical comedy- a sophisticated love interest, a lawman who never used violence, and a quirky character.

So they cast people who had played a father and a daughter, one smart backing band member, one dumb backing band member, and one girl who could do physical comedy, a sophisticated love interest, a lawman who never used violence, and a quirky character.

Carl Betz and Shelley Fabares played father and daughter for years on the very successful late 50's-early 60's sitcom "The Donna Reed Show." Jimmy Hawkins played the smart backing band member in "Girl Happy" (where Elvis' love interest is... Shelley Fabares). Jack Mullaney played a dumb guy in "Tickle Me." Deborah Walley had done physical comedy as one of the many Gidgets.

Will Hutchins played the punnily-named Tracy Richards, the policeman reluctant to use violence or a gun. That's because he had starred in a TV western series called "Sugarfoot"about an Eastern lawyer in the Oklahoma territory reluctant to use violence or a gun. He got cast because after "Sugarfoot" was canceled in '65, he shot a pilot for MGM and although that didn't get picked up, he was already hanging out on the backlot...

Diane McBain played a sophisticated love interest because she played a sophisticated blonde potential love interest on"Surfside 6," one of the five zillion young-detectives series on teevee in the early 60's ("77 Sunset Strip" and "Hawaiian Eye" the two prominent others) which were all produced by Warner Bros., all shot on the Warners backlot, and all used interchangeable scripts, actors and production staff. She had also guested on "Sugarfoot," but since she had no real interaction with Will Hutchins in "Spinout" it didn't matter. The same year as "Spinout" McBain played Pinky Pinkston in "Batman," which may actually be her most remembered role any more.

The quirky character was played by Warren Berlinger, who you may know as a "that guy" who appeared in plenty of teevee shows and movies. Maybe you know him as one of the guys who drove the motorcycle in the original "Cannonball Run." Maybe you remember him from "That Thing You Do!" And maybe you just don't realize you've seen him in a thousand things.
Kind of like everybody in Elvis movies.

The three love interests were the three different kinds of girls in 60's beach party-type movies- a brunette, a blonde, and a redhead. Like most of those movies and typical for Hollywood then (and now, honestly), "Spinout" is very white. Watching it recently, I can really spot only two non-white people- a couple of black extras in the first nightclub scene. Elvis does stop and sing a verse of a song near them, but no words, no distinctive moves. "Spinout" is obviously not the first movie to not feature any non-white people anywhere in the major cast, and certainly not the last, but it's worth noting anyway. Of course it would have been better for at least one of the girls or one of the band members or anybody not the butler- or all three- to have been a non-white person, but that was the beach party 60's movie. At least there wasn't a "Stepin Fetchit" character. Can't change what was, all we can do know is acknowledge this bad-in-retrospect oversight and make an effort to be better when they remake this someday- and it could be great!!!
And one final note- "Spinout" was a "Donna Reed Show" reunion without Donna Reed. While Carl Betz and Shelley Fabares had played dad and daughter on that show for the obvious connection, Jimmy Hawkins guested on that show because he had played Donna Reed's son in the movie that Donna is most remembered for today- "It's A Wonderful Life."   

The cars

when is a Cobra not a Cobra?
These are the best cars in any Elvis movie, and that is an Elvis movie hill I will die on. The opening scene is Elvis and Shelley racing each other- she's driving a Ferrari GT and he's driving a Cobra 427.

(When he gets shoved in the water, as seen in the photo, they most certainly did not sink a 427. Instead, that's a bizarre combination of an Austin-Healey with a fiberglass body. And it's on display with other Elvis/movie stuff at the Hollywood Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. Road trip?)

Now, I was a burgeoning car buff when I first saw "Spinout" as a 12-year-old, and the Cobra fascinated me- and then his regular car is a 1929 Duesenberg? Get outta town. That's three crazy good cars in the first 10 minutes of the picture.

And then it gets better- Carl Betz is- of course a car manufacturer, and he wants Elvis to drive his new race car in the upcoming race (because how could Elvis be a race car driver if there wasn't a race involved?). So they go to the track to test drive the car, which just happens to be the first McLaren (a top Formula One race team) ever made intended for customers. Not one of the first production models- the first one ever.

Then, at the climactic race (which, for some reason, was partially filmed in the Dodger Stadium parking lot- maybe an easier way to get extras?), there are at least a dozen great cars involved in addition to the Ferrari, Cobra, McLaren and the Duesenberg. There are a couple other Cobras (289's), and various Stingray Corvettes- stock and modified- and an orange thing called a Cheetah. Of particular note is the blue car that Elvis eventually uses to win the race (not much of a spoiler). It was a one-off by the car racing stunt coordinator for the movie, a fellow named Max Balchowsky (also one of the stunt coordinators for "Bullitt"), and called the "Balchowsky Old Yeller Mark IV" because it was originally yellow (and I would imagine that Max is the actual driver in those scenes). (this car guy's blog has screengrabs from every car in the movie.)

And the music

 You didn't think I'd forget about the music, did you? Elvis soundtracks are nobody's idea of really good rock'n'roll, but the theme songs are usually fair. "Spinout" is actually better than most because it is super catchy (and it's a shame it gets no airplay, or internet spins, or whatever the term is nowadays).
One of the film songs was not written for the flick but was picked no doubt because it had a bit of a travelling vibe to it, "Stop, Look, and Listen," which was recorded before Elvis by both by (warning: these versions are terrible) Ricky Nelson and Bill Haley and His Comets during times in their careers that they would not be fond of. 

"Smorgasbord," delivers on two common themes in the movie- food and girls. It is, as you would expect, clever in that winky "girls are to be consumed like food" kind of way which today would be frowned upon. Still, for what it is, it's clever.

The other notable songs in the film are "I'll Be Back," the finale which no doubt still gets used as exit music at Elvis impersonator concerts, "Adam and Evil," an interesting lyrically Bible-tinged/beat poetry combo, (note the black extras are most noticeable starting here at the 1:06 mark) and "All That I Am," considered the ballad of the movie- though it gets my vote for worst song. All the movie tracks were recorded in two-day period just before filming began (and yes, since it was done in LA in 1966, the backing band is The Wrecking Crew).

It's the three songs that were additions to fill out the soundtrack album that are actually the best ones on the record/CD/8-track/whatever. In a vague, not-serious-at-all attempt to keep up with the "Revolvers" and "Pet Sounds" of the world released that year, they pulled three tracks from Elvis' recording sessions done later that year in Memphis for his gospel album, "How Great Thou Art."

The first of the bonus tracks is so far away from race cars and gourmet cooks that it stands out even more- it's Elvis covering Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," and even Dylan admitted that of all the covers of his songs, that one "impressed me the most." It is damned good at that.

The second is a great cover of a reasonably obscure Clovers tune (they of the original version of "Love Potion #9") called "Down In the Alley," which shows off Elvis' love of doo-wop and group singing.

And the third one you know if you've ever watched an Elvis concert film, especially "Aloha From Hawaii"- it's his studio version of Don Ho's "I'll Remember You," written by Kui Lee. "Aloha From Hawaii" was conceived as a benefit concert for cancer research because Lee had been diagnosed with cancer shortly before writing the song. Elvis' concert version from 1973 spurred an big interest in the song, but Elvis had clearly been taken with it almost a decade before, thus its inclusion on the soundtrack.

To show how much better the "throw-in" songs are, when Elvis' estate did the box set "The Essential 60's Masters," those three songs were on it, but none of the movie songs (though "Spinout,"  "All That I Am," and "I'll Be Back" are on Volume II).

Finally, the finish

the Italian poster got creative
In the end of most Elvis movies, he gets the girl. They either get married or it's implied they're going to get married. (At the end of "Girl Happy," Shelley Fabares is wearing a white dress and Elvis is wearing all black, a wedding implication if there ever was one.)

At the end of "Spinout," because there are three love interests, Elvis marries.... none of them! Instead he somehow magically becomes a preacher and does the marrying- and goes back on the road with a new girl drummer. It may very well be the only time that Elvis doesn't end up with the girl in any of his movies (and since Mary Tyler Moore is already a nun in 1969's "Change of Habit," he couldn't have ended up with her anyway, which just makes that movie even weirder).

Since Elvis has insisted throughout the movie he will never get married, this actually makes sense. But has he learned from this experience? Will he be more aware the next time? With a wink and a nod, the answer is.... maybe.

Mike McCoy, back on the road where he belongs. Maybe he'll head to San Diego and become the next coach of the Chargers when they move back there, where they belong as well.

all photos from the Spinout page at

1 comment:

  1. Never expected a post on the King from the Fab Four Fanatic. But then, who doesn't love Shelley Fabares?