Directed By: George Sidney
Starring: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova
Tag line: "It's that "go-go" guy and that "bye-bye" gal in the fun capital of the world!"
Trivia: Some theatres chose to bill Ann-Margret above Elvis due to her popularity at the time
The first time I heard the name Elvis Presley was on the day he died.
It was August of 1977, and we had just moved into a new house. My father, returning home after running some errands, told my mother that he heard on the radio Elvis was dead. I had no idea who this person was, yet I could tell by the looks on their faces he was someone pretty important. My mom dug out her original 45 single of “Hard Headed Woman”, but it was an album she bought a few days later, featuring all of Elvis’s number one hits ("Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender", "Jailhouse Rock", and a slew of others) that finally introduced me to the King of Rock and Roll.
It was around this time that I also saw my first Elvis movie, Love Me Tender, though I only watched half of it. Over the years, I would catch bits and pieces of other Presley vehicles, including Jailhouse Rock and 1969’s Change of Habit (which co-starred Mary Tyler Moore), but it wasn’t until today that I finally sat through an entire Elvis Presley film, and I have to say that Viva Las Vegas was much better than I was expecting it to be.
Race car driver (and part-time singer) Lucky Johnson (Elvis) travels from Los Angeles to Nevada to enter his vehicle in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. There’s only one problem: his car doesn’t have an engine! In an effort to purchase one in time for the race, Lucky wins a small fortune at the Flamingo Casino, only to lose the cash a short while later. Unable to pay his hotel bill, Lucky and his chief mechanic Shorty (Nicky Blair) are forced to work as waiters at the Flamingo, giving Lucky plenty of chances to sweep the hotel’s pretty swimming instructor, Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), off her feet. Unfortunately, Italian Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), the European racing champion, also has his eye on Rusty. And what’s more, the Count tells Lucky that he has every intention of finishing first in the upcoming race. Will Lucky win the girl’s heart and the Grand Prix, or is he destined to be the runner-up in both?
Elvis Presley still ranks as one of the most influential rock and roll artists of all-time, but even his most ardent supporters would agree he was (at best) a mediocre actor. In the 1983 book Rating the Movie Stars, which was published by the folks at Consumer Guide magazine, writer Joel Hirschhorn called Presley’s films “a series of silly, tailor-made vehicles”, adding that his fans didn’t seem to mind “his total lack of talent as an actor”. While I’m certainly no expert on Presley’s movie career (in fact, I’m a novice), Hirschhorn’s statement strikes me as being a bit harsh.
In Viva Las Vegas, at least, Elvis proved himself a competent comedic performer (a late scene in which he intentionally ruins the Count’s dinner date with Rusty has some funny moments), and he and co-star Ann-Margret had great chemistry together (according to the tabloids, their romance continued even when the cameras weren’t rolling). And, of course, Elvis is given several opportunities to do what he did best, belting out such memorable tunes as the title number, “Come On, Everybody”, and a spirited cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”.
That said, I don’t consider Elvis Presley the true star of Viva Las Vegas; in almost every scene in which they appear together, he’s upstaged by Ann-Margret. Fresh off of her star-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Ann-Margret lights up the screen as Rusty. Her very first scene is as enticing as they come (she strolls into the garage where Lucky and The Count are hanging out, wearing tight white shorts and an equally sexy red top), and her dance routine at the school auditorium is an absolute show-stopper. In addition, the film’s best song (in my opinion, anyway), is “The Lady Loves Me”, which Elvis and Ann-Margret perform as a duet, and while Elvis does manage to hold his own in the acting department, it’s clear that, even at this early stage of her career, Ann-Margret was a much better actor than the King of Rock and Roll.
Viva Las Vegas was certainly not perfect; the film dragged (badly) in the middle, and the tumultuous nature of Lucky’s and Rusty’s relationship was maddening at times (she loved him one moment, couldn’t stand him the next). But as a lighthearted vehicle for both Elvis and Ann-Margret, Viva Las Vegas is a breezy bit of cinematic fun.