I would never claim to be an expert on Elvis Presley. I’ve liked a lot of his music, I’ve seen some of his films, but I’m not the sort to make a pilgrimage to Graceland or even stop by if I’m in Memphis. But there is one work of his that I’ll make time for: his goofy racecar-driving, talent-show-performing, Ann-Margret-romancing 1964 movie, Viva Las Vegas
The story of it is simple in the bones. Elvis plays Lucky, a racecar driver headed back to Los Angeles to meet up with his friend Shorty (Nicky Blair) and hand over the money he’s raised so they can buy a new engine for his car. While stopping over in Vegas, he runs into both an Italian Count (Cesara Danova), who tries to recruit him to drive the Count’s car, and Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), the stunning redhead that they both immediately fall for and whom they spend a night looking for in Vegas before running across her teaching swimming at a local hotel. Complications ensue as Lucky loses his money trying to woo the charming Rusty, who’s having nothing of this guy, and he and Shorty (who’s shown up to drag him to LA) end up working for the hotel to pay off Lucky’s hotel bills.
In the coming days, Lucky gets to know Rusty better and she starts falling for him as they spend time touring the Vegas environs; driving, flying a helicopter tour and water skiing before meeting Rusty’s father (played by in-everything-character-actor William Demarest). The Count is still lurking around, trying to make time with Rusty, but he’s getting nowhere until Lucky offends Rusty by refusing to even consider giving up the danger of auto racing. The Count moves in, but Lucky is not to be denied and continues his wooing until he wins her back. Oh, and he wins the auto race and everyone is happy. Pretty simple.
But. This is 1964, the tail end of the golden age of the MGM musical, and the devil is in the details, and what a delight of 1964 detail this movie is. There’s several songs by George E. Stoll, beautiful use of the area (which makes it a damn shame whenever you get obvious studio work with painted backdrops instead of location shooting), 1964 fashions all over the place, and most especially there’s a sense of fun to the whole thing. Even when there’s a setback in the movie, it’s with an air of “oh, this will all work out folks, let’s enjoy the show” and it makes the movie a joy to watch to me. It’s a confection of a flick.
Part of the reason for that (hell, most of it) is just how damn fun Elvis and Ann-Margret are together. This was really early on for Ann-Margret, and you can totally see how the studio wanted to angle her as a female Elvis, putting her on an equal footing in the movie and giving her just as much of the spotlight (something which apparently angered Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker). Anytime they’re on the screen, they just light the place up and are fun, bantering back and forth or smiling at each other or performing a dance number (and make no bones about it, Ann-Margret had moves). Then Ann-Margret has solo scenes that she just slays in (there’s a one-take number where she has to perform the song, get the steps right and also operate kitchen appliances, including an electric bread knife, that’s impressive as hell). Ann-Margret really is one of the reasons to see this; it’s a damn shame that she didn’t have the solo film career she really deserved after this.
But then there is Elvis. I watch this movie and I wonder…is Elvis a good actor? Is he a bad actor that knew how to work with his lack of gifts? Does it even matter? In the beginning of the movie, where it’s essentially just him, he’s not that great, but when he runs into Ann-Margret it just doesn’t matter anymore; she elevates his game and they fit so well together as scene partners that whatever his actual acting abilities are, they look damn good. (Besides, he gets to do song performances in this as well and in his natural element he has charisma for days.)
Final judgement, I do love this movie. It’s 1964 in a nutshell, the waning glory days of the movie musical combined with Elvis as a symbol of the tidal wave of change that was about to really hit the USA, wrapped up in a sunshiny bow where even when the Count seemingly dies in a terrible accident in the final race (his car flips over, lands on its side, and another car rams into the roof at high speed) he immediately shows up in the next scene, seemingly uninjured, at the wedding. It’s just that kind of movie and I love it for it.
Boy, does the camera love Ann-Margret. But wow, there’s some creepy short-short butt shots when she first arrives.
Sure is fortunate that besides being a race car driver, Lucky is also a skilled entertainer who can perform with showgirls, lead Texans in a rousing chorus of “Yellow Rose Of Texas” and serenade a girl he’s just met with a guitar!
I can’t stress enough how good Las Vegas looks in this movie, both the downtown and the magnificent surrounding area shots from Hoover Dam to elsewhere. I did muse during the final race through the small towns that surround Vegas at the time as to whether the Grand Theft Auto V people had based a lot of the desert areas of that game on shots from this.
The screenwriter for this, Sally Benson, has two other big pieces of movie history (though she wrote several other screenplays). Her two books of semi-autobiographical essays became, like Jean Shepherd 20 years later with A Christmas Story, the basis for the classic Meet Me In St. Louis. Her other major screenwriting triumph, however, was about as far away from that as possible, as she was one of the writers on what I think is one of Hitchcock’s finest, Shadow Of A Doubt.
The car Elvis drives in this is 100% one of the main inspirations for the Mach 5 in Speed Racer. (His looks when driving as well, with pompadour and goggles.)
The bright, MGM look of this movie hits it’s climax in Rusty and her father’s crazy boat home. If you can’t see all the details, rest assured that for some reason they have violins hanging as decorations on the walls. It’s pretty damn great.
Finally, there’s some fun race car stunts in this. The golden age of car stunts in movies is just barely getting started in 1964, but you can see what’s yet to come with some serious crashes in this. (Including, of course, our old friend: the car that explodes just from tumbling.)