Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova, William Demarest, Nicky Blair, Jack Carter, Red West, George Klein and Joe Esposito
Director George Sidney
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (85 mins)
Lucky Jackson (Presley) is a freewheeling race car driver. The Las Vegas Grand Prix is coming up and so he heads to the Flamingo to win the money he needs to purchase a motor for his car. He is successful and wires his partner, Shorty (Blair), that he has the money. While he waits for Shorty to get into Vegas with his car, Lucky makes friends with Elmo Mancini, the Italian racing count (Danova). While the two trade barbs and look over the Count’s rail, up walks Rusty (Ann-Margret) complaining of car trouble. “It whistles”, Rusty explains. Lucky doesn’t blame it. Lucky wants to leave Rusty’s car broken so that she will rely on him to drive her around but as Lucky goes to get changed, the Count fixes her up and sends her on her way. Lucky – smitten – searches the casinos for Rusty.
He finds her at the Flamingo pool, where she works and as Lucky makes his play, he falls in the pool and loses the money he has won for the motor. Broke, Lucky and Shorty have no choice but to work at the hotel. Lucky convinces Rusty to go out with him and the two hit it off. Rusty is frustrated though by Lucky’s irresponsible lifestyle and by his commitment to the dangerous sport of racing.
Still with no money for a motor and with the Grand Prix about to start, Lucky is resigned to working on the Count’s car until – at the eleventh hour – a motor somehow shows up. Lucky and Shorty go to work, enlisting the “help” of Rusty and her father (Demarest). Lucky gets the car ready with not a minute to spare and he is able to enter the race. Rusty and the makeshift pit crew cheer as he speeds off.
Viva Las Vegas was Elvis’ 15th film and, really, it teeters on the edge of the abyss. While other good films were still to come from Presley, he was about to enter a period of less-than-stellar output. But this film established a connection between Elvis and Sin City that remains to this day and features a pairing that was not only successful at the time but it is one that would become iconic. Presley had never before and would never again be paired with such a popular and dynamic star as Ann-Margret and their personal relationship informs their performances to the benefit of us all. It continues to be one of his most popular films although it is actually his shortest, clocking in at just 1 hour and 25 minutes.
George Sidney is one of only two men to have directed both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Sidney was a director of musical films who was starting to slow down by the time he helmed Viva Las Vegas. He had directed many glamourous spectacles for M-G-M in the past like Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Pal Joey (Columbia, 1957). He then looked after Annie in her coming-out party in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie. He would work with Annie once more afterwards in The Swinger (1966) and then Sidney packed it in. Suffice it to say that here is a case of Elvis Presley being placed in the care of a director who had an immense pedigree in the area of musicals.
And here’s a fascinating fact I love to trot out for the live tweet #TCMParty gang every time TCM plays Meet Me in St. Louis. That Judy Garland film was based on a novel by one Sally Benson, who also happens to provide the screenplay for Viva Las Vegas. How this came to be I don’t know. The St. Louis novel came out in 1942 and here’s Sally writing for a King Movie more than 20 years later. One of those wonderful Hollywood mysteries but here’s what you do; remarkably, there is a book on Miss Benson out there. Buy it, read it and let me know what gives.
Sweden’s Ann-Margret Olsson had just turned 22 when she started filming Viva Las Vegas – Elvis was 28. Annie had gotten her big break in Las Vegas when she was discovered by George Burns and he added her to his show. She quickly gained a rep as a sexy, explosive performer which lead to her often being referred to as “the female Elvis”. Like Presley, she also made records for RCA with Chet Atkins and the Jordanaires. Her dynamic performance in Bye Bye Birdie had made her a star. All of these things combine to make it startling that Col. Tom Parker would consent to her starring alongside Elvis. Never again would a co-star in a King Movie be allowed to detract movie-goers’ eyes from Parker’s boy.
Elvis Presley’s relationship with Ann-Margret was a real thing although you can be forgiven for thinking it is just the stuff of fairytale. The two deserve their own post but I will say that “Rusty” – or “Rusty-Ammo” as the King and his boys would forever call her – was a unique personage in Elvis World. They never had a chance at a genuine, lasting relationship due to many and varied mitigating factors in both of their lives. Thankfully for us we have these 85 minutes.
Born in Rome, Cesare Danova was handsome but enjoyed only limited popularity. He can be seen in other notable films like Cleopatra and Gidget Goes to Rome – two very different films from 1963 – as well as Mean Streets (1973) and Animal House (1978), his last movie. He died of a heart attack in 1992, aged 66, while attending a meeting at the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ headquarters in Los Angeles. William Demarest was a prolific character actor who was also highly visible on TV in My Three Sons. Demarest shows up in many films notable in Hollywood history; The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Jolson Story (1946), for which he received his lone Oscar nom, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). After Viva Las Vegas, he made only four films and died in 1983, aged 91.
Nicky Blair was more a Hollywood/Vegas character than an actor. Not only does he play King’s goofy sidekick in this film but he also has a pivotal if small role in another legendary Las Vegas film, Ocean’s 11. It is Nicky who informs the boys that “the deceased is being cremated”. While he downplayed his career as an actor, Blair also appeared in many other notable films; The Wild One (1953), Crashing Las Vegas (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Bells Are Ringing (with Dean Martin, 1960), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), as a doorman in yet another Vegas movie, 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, a latter-day Dino – Mr. Ricco (1975) – and a latter-day Frankie – Contract on Cherry Street (1977) – and as a casino host in The Godfather Part III. But restaurants were Nicky’s thing and with friends like Sinatra and Dino, his two places in Hollywood were successful. Late in his life, he attempted to open a place in Vegas but by then he was stricken with cancer. Blair died in LA in 1998, aged 72.
Jack Carter plays himself as a master of ceremonies. Jack was a comedian with a long career in television and Las Vegas. He lasted into his 90s and passed in 2015. A venerable comedian of the old school, Carter simply never reached the status of, say, Don Rickles but Jack did play the role of Arthur Spooner in the pilot episode of The King of Queens before giving way to Jerry Stiller for the series proper. Keep your eyes peeled for King’s buds Red West and George Klein at the beginning of this film and Joe Esposito at the end. Also, Toni Basil appears as “the girl with the red dress on” during the “What’d I Say” number, Teri Garr dances as she does in the background of many other King Movies, Lance LeGault appears as a musician, Kent McCord apparently can be seen in a casino scene though I’ve never spotted him. Kent used to play football with King. And Ivan Triesault has a small role. You can see him in Notorious (1946) and an obscure film I featured on an episode of UnEarthed you can read here.
The Look: It pains me to say it but Elvis Presley looks only typically dazzling in Viva Las Vegas. It seems to me that 1964 and ’65 find him in a transition period of sorts where his physical appearance in the movies is concerned. In 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair, he looks magnificent; a mature version of the feral beast he was in 1956/57. By 1967’s Clambake, he looked spent, his sojourn in the wilderness apparently taking a toll on his good looks. But in between it looks to me like the artifice was being propped up, so to speak. What to do with the famous head of hair, for example? The glory of his ’50s pompadour wouldn’t work in the Beatle era but King’s not going to sport a mop top. The compromise seems to have been a helmet of sorts. His hair in this film is very black – as he liked it – and doesn’t move. Donfeld – born Don Feld – handled the wardrobe for Viva Las Vegas, as he did for many other films, earning four Oscar nominations along the way. His work can be seen in Wild in the Country, with Presley, Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963). His sparkling clothes were worn by the boys in Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) and he designed the bonkers costumes in 1987’s Spaceballs. But perhaps he didn’t know what to do with King. As he rarely did in movies or real life, Elvis wears a regular suit and tie in this film. A grey one is sharp but unremarkable. A couple jackets, including a striking yellow one for the “What’d I Say” number, look good on him and feature the influence of the Beatles in that they lack lapels. And if I could only chat with Don and ask him about the shirt he made for King to wear during the performance of the title track. It looks…odd. Broken, even. My son says it looks like Don wasn’t done with it!
King Moment: One of the three sexiest moments in King Movies occurs in Viva Las Vegas; not surprising considering his co-star. When Lucky is forced to work at the Flamingo, his first order of business is to ask his co-worker, Rusty, for a date. “I thought we might go dancing. Or something”, Lucky says. “Oh, you wanna go dancing?”, Rusty replies. “Or something”, Lucky responds with a grin and all the guys in the theatre stand up and cheer. Later, King employs his fine comedic talents as a waiter trying to break up the Count’s date with Rusty. Calling Rusty “baby” and generally being a nuisance makes for a funny scene. “If you’re gonna get this girl primed, I better open this (champagne)”.
The Music: “Viva Las Vegas”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas/The Eyes of Texas”, “The Lady Loves Me”, “What’d I Say”, “I Need Somebody to Lean On”, “C’mon, Everybody”, “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”, “Santa Lucia”, “If You Think I Don’t Need You”
Viva Las Vegas features good songs as the soundtracks had not yet descended to the depths they soon would. There are two songs, though, that are more “plot devices” than “songs”. The Texas medley and “Santa Lucia” only serve as elements of the on-screen narrative and never should have been formally recorded by the King of Rock & Roll. On the other end of the spectrum, the title track has become truly iconic. It is not only the unofficial theme song for the city of Las Vegas but it is one of the dozen-or-so Presley songs that non-fans can identify as his. The song was composed by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, writers of some of the most notable songs of the rock & roll era including many for Elvis Presley. King’s single of “Viva Las Vegas” peaked at #29 on Billboard’s singles chart while its B side, his take on the Ray Charles standard “What’d I Say”, bettered it by topping out at #21. Presley employed the latter in concert in Las Vegas in the late 1960’s.
“I Need Somebody to Lean On” – also by Pomus/Shuman – is a fine ballad and the first Elvis Presley song I ever heard Koop Kooper play on his mellow Evenings at the Penthouse show. “C’mon Everybody” is interesting in that the version you hear in the film is stellar but the take used on released versions of the soundtrack is lifeless and neutered. The song was written by Joy Myers who also penned great Elvis songs “It Hurts Me” and “Let Yourself Go”, one of the best King Movie songs ever. “Today, Tomorrow and Forever” is a nice, tender love song that was almost my wedding song and “If You Think I Don’t Need You” is a good rocker co-written by Red West though barely a snippet of it was used in the film. The songs “Night Life” and “Do the Vega” were recorded for the movie but not used. The soundtrack was released on the then-dying EP format and stalled at #92, making it the lowest-charting release of Presley’s career to that point. Since 1993, many versions of all the songs used in and recorded for Viva Las Vegas have been released.
Elvis and Annie recorded three duets for the film, only one of which was used. “The Lady Loves Me” is a charming number sung around the Flamingo pool that has Lucky singing of how much Rusty is into him – “she wants me…” – countered by Rusty cutting him off at the knees – “…like poison ivy”. It is delightful. You should seek out, though, these two singing “You’re the Boss”. The Leiber/Stoller tune may include a lame line like “Baby, you’re a genius when it comes to cooking up some chili sauce” but King and Annie go back and forth and make this song sound like you’d like to think their relationship was. Fiery, let’s just say. Heated. Smokin’. Sidebar: I’ve written before about my main man, Brian Setzer. I’ve said that Brian “knows” and owns the same records I do. Setzer actually covered “You’re the Boss” – think of it, an unreleased-at-the-time Elvis Presley/Ann-Margret duet – with Gwen Stefani on the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s The Dirty Boogie album from 1998. My man. The plan was for Elvis and Ann to also duet on “Today, Tomorrow and Forever” but Colonel got mad at all the exposure Annie was getting and so King sang it solo.
Meanwhile in Elvis World: When Elvis began filming Viva Las Vegas in the summer of ’63, he had just come off an extended stay at home in Memphis. After finishing work on Fun in Acapulco, he returned to Graceland where Priscilla was waiting impatiently. She had been ensconced in Elvis’ home for sometime now but life was frustrating for her. She was much under Vernon Presley’s control and it was Elvis’ father who dictated where she could go and with whom (nowhere and no one) and it was to him that Cilla had to go for even the smallest amount of spending money. She was serving a sentence at the local Catholic school, biding her time until she could finally graduate and shed herself of the seemingly pointless pursuit of obtaining her diploma.
Cilla had been worried about what she and many others assumed was a dalliance Elvis had been having with Acapulco co-star Ursula Andress although Elvis assured Priscilla that he could never become involved with a woman who’s shoulders were broader than his. When Elvis got home, he and Priscilla holed up in Graceland. At first, they would sometimes venture out on King’s motorcycle for milkshakes but then they hunkered down up in Elvis’ room and stayed there in their pajamas for days. Presley spent time assuring his girl that the pills he was taking – and encouraging her to take – were harmless and not habit-forming. If she did not take them, he warned, she could not hope to keep up with him and would be left behind. Another dark cloud, as far as Priscilla was concerned, was Elvis’ reluctance to consummate their relationship. Cilla wondered aloud what made him so hesitant when he certainly had not been so with other women. But on the whole the atmosphere in Elvis World was a good one and it was during these months that EP and Cilla bonded closely. Additionally, Elvis was fit and generally happy and there was as yet no solid indication that his film career nor his image and reputation was in any sort of jeopardy. Priscilla was dreading the coming day that Elvis would head back to Hollywood to work on the next film. Elvis was intrigued at the idea of meeting his next co-star, 22-year-old beauty Ann-Margret. The idea was not so intriguing to 18-year-old Cilla, who’s tenuous hold on her man would never be quite the same after Elvis and Annie met.
During a recent viewing of Viva Las Vegas, I discovered a few things I hadn’t previously considered. This film was one of a handful of King Movies that I taped off TV when I was roughly 13 years old so this one and I go way back. In those 35+ years, I speculate that I have seen Viva Las Vegas maybe 20 times. I always hate to exaggerate such numbers but I think this one is accurate. After all of these viewings, I realized that this film is the one that overachieves perhaps more than any other of the films King made. If looked at coldly, Viva Las Vegas shouldn’t “work”. It is terribly brief, for one thing, which always suggests to me that the story has little substance. Consider that, during the first 17 minutes of the film, nothing really happens – aside from the meeting of Lucky and Rusty. So, 85 minutes, minus those 17. Also, there are 10 full musical numbers in the movie, including a rarity for a King Movie, fully three by other performers.
The Forte Four deliver “The Climb”, a song written by Leiber and Stoller for the Coasters. The Forte Four released theirs as a single produced by Gary Usher in 1966. No sense contracting Ann-Margret to be in your film in 1964 if you’re not going to give the girl a number or two. Annie employs some of her go-go dancing in the film and aside from the aforementioned duets delivers two songs of her own. “Appreciation” is the big dance number Rusty presents for a talent contest. It’s a charming number that predates the type of act Annie would present in Vegas. She sings it with a kittenish appeal, posing as a girl who is seemingly ignorant of the effect of the “help” she gives to men who show their appreciation by giving her stuff. No dummy, she. “My Rival” has more clever lyrics and Rusty sings it while deftly moving – in heels – around the interesting and frankly indescribable home she shares with her father. Ann-Margret displays her talent for such numbers – and her delightful appearance – here. There is no doubt she was one of the most expressive and effective female performers in the musical idiom throughout the 1960’s.
So, you can also subtract the time it takes for these numbers to play out; although I’ll concede that “subtracting” music from a King Movie is daft as that is what they are about. But my point is that there are many things going on in this movie besides story, if you can even call it a story. Director George Sidney has said that the script was written in eleven days. The film employs the “travelogue” technique of many of Presley’s films by showing many scenes of Las Vegas itself. Many of the hotel’s shows are displayed when Lucky looks for Rusty and Rusty provides commentary when she and Lucky tool around the area in a helicopter. All this must have pleased the Vegas Chamber of Commerce. This shouldn’t be a great movie but it is. And that all comes back to the chemistry between King and Rusty. She also had a codename that King and his court would refer to her by so that outsiders within earshot (Priscilla?) wouldn’t know who they were talking about – “Thumper”. Sigh.
The movie suffers from a lot of dubbing. You can imagine that a lot of outside filming would have necessitated this due to wind and the noise of the city itself, the pool area, etc. The whole of the Las Vegas Grand Prix scene was filmed without sound and it was all looped later. And speaking of the race, it provides Viva Las Vegas with an unexpectedly high body count. At least two drivers must surely have succumbed considering the severity of their accidents and take a look again at the wreck Elmo Mancini gets in. His car rolls one-and-a-half times and then the roof of the passenger compartment is totally obliterated when another driver runs into it. I’m sorry but no one survives that. Later we see Elmo apparently unharmed! There is much rarity to this film. Remarkably, Elvis doesn’t fight anybody! Red West walks behind Elvis at a casino and King doesn’t turn around and clock him! Also, when Lucky performs “Viva Las Vegas”, it is presented in one, long, unedited shot, the only time this happened in any of Presley’s films. Lastly, here is one of only a very few times on film that we see Elvis playing a character who is married.
Chemistry. It all comes back to the wonderful and unique chemistry between Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret. That – and a few other things – is what makes Viva Las Vegas one of the most enjoyable of all King Movies.