Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Viva Las Vegas is a musical comedy film released in 1964 written by Sally Benson and directed by George Sidney, who also co-produced. The film stars Elvis Presley as a down-on-his-luck racing driver in Las Vegas attempting to secure funds for an engine for his car to compete in the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix while also falling head-over-heels for the beautiful swimming instructor at his hotel. The film also stars Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova, William Demarest and Nicky Blair. The film is probably most famous for its theme tune of the same name sung by Presley as well as the off-screen romance between him and Ann-Margret. The film wasn't a critical success when it was released but was a big hit with US audiences, earning more than $9.4 million domestically and becoming one of the biggest films of the year. It is also one of just two Elvis films, along with Jailhouse Rock, that have been officially released on every home video format in the US.
What's it about?
Racing car driver Lucky Jackson and his mechanic buddy Shorty arrive in Las Vegas to compete in the forthcoming inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix. With their custom-built car short of an engine, however, the race is on to raise some money to purchase one before the race starts. With Lucky living up to his name in the casinos, they soon have the money needed but disaster strikes when Lucky loses the lot in their hotel swimming pool after he is pushed in by the hotel's swimming instructor Rusty Martin while rejecting his advances.
Unable to buy the engine or even pay for their hotel room, Lucky and Shorty have to work in the hotel to pay off their debts although the incident in the pool doesn't dampen Lucky's attraction to Rusty. As their chief rival Count Elmo Mancini prepares for the race and also tries to woo Rusty, Lucky's hopes appear all but dashed until he enters the hotel's talent competition...
What's to like?
In the Sixties, Las Vegas was far more glamorous and gaudy than the billion-dollar tourist trap it is today and few films feel more at home in Sin City than this one. Indeed, the film (and it's title tune, of course) have become so synonymous with the city that they have embraced both it and the King in the years since. But Viva Las Vegas is more than just a twinkly look back at the bright lights of Fremont Street— the film is awash with colour and energy bursting from the screen thanks to the wonderful performances of both Presley and Ann-Margret. You could argue that Presley hasn't as much to do differently from his usual schtick but Ann-Margret is every bit as compelling, kinetic and charismatic alongside her iconic co-star. What surprised me even more is how good Presley is when he isn't singing; the comedy scenes between himself and Danova or Ann-Margret feel natural and not out-of-place for the sort of simple slapstick you'd expect from romantic comedies such as this.
Not being hugely versed in Presley's filmography, I must say that this is better suited to him than his earlier movie Jailhouse Rock which thus far has been my only other yardstick. This is much lighter in tone and fits him better, feeling as short, fluffy and enjoyable as one of his records, and speaking of which, the film's soundtrack contains a number of high-quality songs that deserve to stand out on their own. Of course, the song Viva Las Vegas crops up three times in the course of the film but other highlights include The Lady Loves Me, which featured Ann-Margret on vocals with Elvis and her solo song Appreciation, which comes along with a classic Hollywood musical presentation, backing dancers and colourful mood lighting.
- The film is the shortest of Elvis's career but also the most successful, beating the previous record holder Blue Hawaii. It also comprehensively beat the first film of The Beatles—A Hard Day's Night—despite being released in the same year at the height of Beatlemania.
- The film caused serious disagreements between the director George Sidney and Elvis' long-time manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker. Parker disagreed with Sidney apparently allocating more time, cameras and shoots for the musical numbers featuring Ann-Margret and was worried that she would overshadow Elvis. When the film went over budget as a result, Parker slashed the budget for all films for the rest of Presley's career. Sidney refused to credit Parker as a technical adviser in the film's credits.
- In the UK, the film and soundtrack were retitled Love In Las Vegas to avoid confusion with another film called Viva Las Vegas. In fact, that film was previously known as 1956's Meet Me In Las Vegas but was retitled for the UK market for unknown reasons.
What's not to like?
Even his ardent fans would struggle to argue that the King was much of an actor or that his films were essentially extended music videos for his songs. I didn't have much expectation watching Viva Las Vegas and while he clearly radiates charisma when he's performing, his delivery as an actor feels somewhat stilted. In a sense, he's too big of a presence to blend into a crowd. It could only be Elvis because he's unique and such a character that it's hard to take him as anything other than Elvis. It's interesting to think how he might have coped in a more dramatic role when he didn't have to rely on his singing to bail him out. I believe he might have been capable but sadly, we only really get to see him as a pop icon here. This is especially true during the racing scenes. The external shots of the cars veering across the road are exciting and well filmed but close-ups of the King behind the wheel feel underwhelming and almost silly.
The film also doesn't give much time or space to its supporting characters such as the enigmatic Count Elmo or Lucky's sidekick Shorty. With a bit more thought and less focus on its two stars, the film could have provided a more solid narrative than what we get. But perhaps this is only looking at the film from a modern perspective - I suspect that Elvis' film career was more concerned with selling the star and his music rather than any cinematic ambitions. This is why the film is possibly the best effort of his much-maligned time as a leading man - the film is short and simple, throwaway fun and not meant to be anything more. In that respect, it's a winner but it's difficult to see who would be entertained by the film beyond the King's vast fanbase.
Should I watch it?
Viva Las Vegas does nothing really wrong - it makes Elvis into a bigger star and deserved to make Ann-Margret a star as well. It's fun and easy to watch with great music, chemistry, energy and that joyful Sixties innocence that's sorely missing from films of this type these days. It's no classic but compared to many other Elvis pictures, this is probably the best of the bunch.
Great For: fans of Elvis, rock-and-roll enthusiasts, family film nights with your grandparents
Not So Great For: cynical modern viewers, anyone who doesn't like Elvis, holding your attention for too long
Count Elmo Mancini
Mr Martin, Rusty's father
Release Date (UK)
20th March, 1964
What else should I watch?
Elvis appeared in thirty-one films in his career (excluding documentary footage) from 1956's Love Me Tender to his final role in 1969's Change Of Habit. Of these, only Jailhouse Rock achieved any real cult status beyond his fanbase - indeed, it is the only one preserved at the US National Film Registry. But there are a number of other films that fans of the King will appreciate such as King Creole, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Fun In Acapulco. Interestingly, Presley did occasionally appear in films where he didn't sing such as the western Charro! although the lack of music appeared to hamper the film's popularity.
1964 saw the so-called British Invasion in America, led by four lads from Liverpool who would also go on to change pop culture forever. The Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night may have lost out to Elvis at the box office but it remains a popular and highly regarded film, influencing many other pop-star films such as Spice World and launching a film career of the Beatles themselves. It would be followed up the next year with Help! before the quartet started getting more experimental than Elvis ever would. The psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour proved a critical failure when it was released but the animated Yellow Submarine proved to be their finest hour, combining the music of the Beatles with fantastic visuals, colourful animation and arguably demonstrated that feature-length animation wasn't just the reserve of Disney and was still a viable artform for cinema.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox