Viva Las Vegas [50 Films Older Than Me #21]

A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #21. So, that’s 21 movies out of 50 in well over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

Viva Las Vegas

Directed by George Sidney.

Release Year:  1964 (6 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Lucky Jackson is a race car driver who falls for swimming instructor Rusty Martin. They become close but tension develops when Rusty is worried about Lucky’s safety in an upcoming Las Vegas Grand Prix. At the same time, Lucky struggles to raise the money he needs to buy a new engine for his car for the race. In the end, Lucky is able to get the engine thanks to the help of Rusty’s father, and he wins the race. Lucky and Rusty get married.

Starring Elvis Presley as Lucky Jackson and Ann-Margaret as Rusty Martin. Cesar Danova is another driver who is both Lucky’s friend and rival for Rusty’s affections. William Demarest plays Rusty’s father. Nicky Blair plays Shorty, a friend of Lucky’s.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Before this, I’d never seen an Elvis Presley movie, so I expected a lot of the King singing away and romancing Ann-Margaret.

Reality: And that’s pretty much what I did get. Although one also gets a fair amount of Ann-Margaret singing and dancing, which is not something I was aware that she did. I realize now I don’t know the actress at all, because apparently over her career she was as much a singer as she was an actress, and even was seen as potentially a female Elvis Presley, although of course she never became quite so iconic. That didn’t stop Elvis’ manager from becoming quite concerned with how much attention she was getting during the production of the movie, however. She only has one duet with Elvis but apparently there three recorded–and none were released commercially until after Presley’s death out of concern that she would overshadow him.

Both stars have a lot of screen presence and capable singers, which is good because beyond that there is almost nothing to enjoy here. Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t seen any other Elvis movies so I don’t really have a frame of reference for this, but in general the movie is supposed to be a light-hearted romantic comedy which fails to be either romantic or funny.

There are lots of jokes which are more cringe-worthy than anything, especially an almost unbearable sequence where Lucky sabotages a dinner that Rusty is on with the suave and aristocratic Count Mancini. A similar bit where Rusty almost destroys Lucky’s efforts to fix his car is not quite as bad, simply because it’s a lot shorter.

And the story’s romance is short-changed by the abrupt storytelling. One minute Rusty is put-off by Lucky, the next she’s in love with him, and the next she’s angry that he won’t quit racing for her, without any real motivation for any the emotional shifts. She literally goes from being fully opposed to his racing to being his biggest cheerleader off-screen. Once the climactic race is over there is no time given to resolving any of these questions–the movie just jump cuts to their wedding. It’s not that you’d say that the movie does a poor job with resolving their relationship–there is literally no effort at all.

And not surprisingly considering the time it comes from, it’s all pretty sexist as well. Ann-Margaret is introduced via her legs (literally, Lucky and Count Mancini are under a car when they see her legs walking toward them). When the two men lose track of her they wonder if she is a Las Vegas showgirl and then spend the next chunk of the movie watching a whole bunch of acts at various hotels to see if they can spot her. When they finally do find her she turns out conveniently to be a swimming instructor so she can wear a swimsuit for much of the time (although it is pretty modest by modern standards) and then Elvis aggressively pursues her until she falls for him. And then after that, the movie gives the audience a number of rear-end focused shots of her, especially in the dancing scenes.

I’ve looked past these sort of dated depictions plenty of times, but it’s harder to here simply because the story itself, as well as the characters, are so unengaging.

But on a positive note, the stars have certainly got “star quality”, the music is passably fun (although I’m not a particular fan of Elvis) and there is at least one sequence with some cool swing-like dancing from some ensemble players. That is all alongside some much more quirkly (but probably very hip in 1964) dancing from the stars.

Also, considering this is a movie about a race car driver, there is a complete absence of any racing for the first 3/4 of the movie. When it does come, it’s pretty cool, and although the shots of Elvis actually being in the car are pretty dated, there are a few impressive crashes along the way.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? There are things to appreciate here, as I’ve mentioned, but it’s not actually good and I think would only hold appeal for fans of Elvis himself (and Ann-Margaret as well). It’s the only Elvis film I’ve ever seen and based on it I’m not in a hurry to go looking for any others.

See here for the Master List.

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