Movies We Like
Viva Las Vegas
Elvis Presley’s film career can be seen in two halves. The first half is the '50s. It consists of just four films. It’s interesting. Elvis showed some potential and even ambition to become a serious actor. The second half is the '60s. Elvis made over twenty films in the decade: two or three a year. They’re not as interesting; most were totally forgettable, formulaic vanity projects. Elvis appears to have lost his ambition to be a real actor and was willing to accept any cookie-cutter musical as long as a paycheck was involved. However, many of those second-half films still have their fans. The one standout for me is Viva Las Vegas. It’s another cut-and-paste job. It’s fluff. But besides a couple of catchy songs and some fun actual Vegas locations, it has one very special thing going for it -- Elvis’ co-star.
Love Me Tender was Presley’s first film in ’56. He got third billing. It’s actually a pretty effective Civil War drama with Elvis also crooning the title song. His third film, Jailhouse Rock, was a solid B-movie drama/musical. His final film of the decade, King Creole, co-starred Carolyn Jones and Walter Matthau and was directed by Michael Curtiz -- you know the guy who directed Casablanca. When Elvis emerged in films, still at the height of Elvis-mania, it looked like he was going to carry on the Marlon Brando/James Dean torch of misunderstood youth rebellion and alienation as he tried to pattern his acting after them: mumbling, blatant sexuality, a coyness with the camera. But by the sixties, any pose of artistic rebellion had given way to capitalist goals. Elvis had done his stint in the army, he was now married and hanging around with Sinatra on television. And by the time we get to Viva Las Vegas in ’64, The Beatles are now king and Elvis is just a dated caricature of himself.
With alarmingly dyed jet black slick-backed hair, Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a race car driver hitting the Vegas tables in an attempt to win the cash to pay for a new engine. (Elvis seems to have specialized in playing racers and rodeo riders). While in a garage, he and his main racing rival Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova, best remembered as Mayor Carmine DePasto in National Lampoon’s Animal House) meet the stunning Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) and compete for her affection with a little innocent sexual harassment. Lucky goes on to win her heart by stalking her and even taking a job as a waiter at the hotel where she manages the pool. Rusty is an all-American girl, but (like Lucky) also has show biz aspirations. The two compete in a talent show against each other and wander around town singing songs. And then there is some kind of big Grand Prix race, which of course, (spoilers) Elvis wins.
Elvis never had another on-screen love interest to match him in charisma like Ann-Margret did (with apologies to Mary Tyler Moore, when she played a social-working nun in the otherwise terrible Change of Habit). At twenty, Ann-Margret had some minor pop hits and was known as “the Female Elvis.” Her third film was an adaption of the stage hit musical Bye Bye Birdie, which was in itself a spoof of Elvis-mania. For her next film, Viva Las Vegas, she was finally paired with the King himself. The two reportedly also had an affair off camera. (She called him her “soulmate” in her autobiography.) It’s clearly the most chemistry Elvis ever shared with a co-star. And as Rusty, she brings the movie and Elvis a well-needed dose of youthful, va-va-voom exuberance. Her costumes in the movie rarely include pants, as she usually struts around in short-shorts, bathing suits and dance leotards. Any time she hits the stage to perform, the film turns up a few notches; she may not be a trained dancer but her go-go dancing is unbeatable. She is so completely filled with bouncing, effervescent vigor that apparently Elvis’ notoriously controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was worried that she was going to bounce Elvis right off the screen -- so he had two of their three duets cut from the film. Elvis worried that director George Sidney (who had also directed the young starlet in Bye Bye Birdie), favored her and was giving her all the good camera angles. He might not have been wrong; when Elvis sings the pretty catchy “C'mon Everybody” the camera is usually far away from him, while the focus is actually on Ann-Margret’s shaking behind.
By the end of the decade, Elvis would be done with acting, but he did manage an artistic comeback as a singer through his televised concert and acclaimed tour. Due to his drug use, his health rapidly deteriorated and his behavior became more erratic before he passed away in ’77 at the young age of 42. Ann-Margret’s post-Viva Las Vegas career would be more robust. She would do a Vegas show and move between forgettable films (Made in Paris with Chad Everett!) and some hits (The Cincinnati Kid, The Pleasure Seekers) before peaking as an actress with her Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge in ’71. (She’s the best thing about the movie). She has continued to be a dependable actress since, with a wide variety of films, ranging from her great turn in Tommy (another Oscar nomination) to being the middle-aged object of Lemmon and Matthau’s lust in Grumpy Old Men. She would also score a bunch of awards on television, most notably in the TV-movie Who Will Love My Children? But for me, after stumbling onto Viva Las Vegas, Elvis proves watchable, but the go-go dancing pool manager is how I will always think of Ann-Margret.