Thursday, May 4, 2017

#2,348. Viva Las Vegas (1964) - Elvis Presley Film Festival

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 a few 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 also around this time that I 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!

To purchase one in time for the race, Lucky wins a small fortune at the Flamingo Casino, only to lose it all a short while later.

Now unable to even 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 brags non-stop that he will be the one finishing first in the upcoming race.

Will Lucky win the girl and the Grand Prix, or will he 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 kinda harsh.

It was in regards to Viva Las Vegas, at least, where Elvis occasionally 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). In addition, I thought 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: belt out memorable tunes like the title number; “Come On, Everybody”; and a spirited cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”.

Ironically, though, I don’t consider Elvis Presley the true star of Viva Las Vegas.  In almost every scene in which they appear together, he is upstaged by Ann-Margret. Fresh off of her career-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Ann-Margret lights up the screen as Rusty. Her first scene is as sexy and 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 is certainly not perfect. The film drags (badly) in the middle, and the tumultuous nature of Lucky’s and Rusty’s relationship is maddening at times (she loves him one moment, can’t stand him the next). But as a lighthearted vehicle for both Elvis and Ann-Margret, Viva Las Vegas is as breezy as they come.

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