Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Viva Las Vegas (1964, George Sidney)

Viva Las Vegas has a real virility lacking in the past several Elvis films.  It is rightfully one of his best remembered pictures, both in soundtrack and film.  This is due, in part, to the distance between it and the typical formula:  unique to Viva Las Vegas, Elvis's rival is also his love interest.  The chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret is rambunctious and believable.  And although the film resorts (as they all do) with the appeal of Elvis being too much for the female to resist, this time it goes both ways.

The real interesting elements of Viva Las Vegas involve the film fleshing out one of the most complete female characters in the Elvis oeuvre-- one that can hold her own scenes and musical numbers with Elvis no where in sight-- while at the same time increasing the deification of Elvis as a singular, unstoppable force.  If films like Kid Galahad lightened the need of narrative consequence and replaced it with pap, Viva Las Vegas draws the whirlwind surrounding the Elvis character so cartoonish that any other human beings are merely means to an end.  The film ends with an auto race across the Nevada desert in which cars are being run off the road and bursting into flames with no gravity as to what that actually means.  Elvis is larger than life, and the film is one of the few Elvis pictures with enough charisma to make it work.
Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a racecar driver who shows up in Las Vegas for a Grand Prix who would be a shoo-in, if only his car had an engine.  He is forced to take a part-time position as a casino waiter (a job that doesn't pay him for, yet doesn't seem to mind, his performance singing on the side) while on the hunt for his mystery girl (the beautiful Ann-Margret as Rusty Martin) that escaped him without leaving name or number.  Lucky pursues the mystery woman and they bout it out in a few musical numbers.

Despite the turmoil in the competitive nature of their relationship, there is a real female empowerment that most all Elvis films lack.  Rusty stands toe-to-toe in a musical competition and brings it to a draw.  Lucky understands that he can't best his love interest, and even when his crew is scrambling to get his car ready in time for the big race, Rusty is there, clad in coveralls, supporting the team in an egalitarian rather than subjective role.  It comes full circle when Lucky, after winning the big race, redeems his earlier prize of a two-week honeymoon: not as consolation to Rusty, but as a mutually beneficial partnership.

Viva Las Vegas stands head and shoulders above much of Elvis's output and it's not only a matter of production value, although it helps a great deal.  Following a string of quickies that scraped lower and lower the barrel in quality as well as budget (Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun In Acapulco, Kissin' Cousins), Viva Las Vegas committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of moneyman Colonel Tom Parker: it took longer than expected, went over budget and (gasp!) cut into Elvis and the Colonel's take.  Nevermind that it became Elvis's highest grossing movie ever, Parker refused to rely on intangibles and paint-by-number slapdash and guaranteed checks would be protocol from here on out.  Though released earler, Kissin' Cousins was actually shot primarily after Viva Las Vegas as to recoup any damage that might have incurred.  Producer Hal Wallis was serious when he said "an Elvis picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood," but Parker would rather cash the easy check and call it a day, thankyouverymuch.

Though more sugar than substance, Viva Las Vegas (the only Elvis picture veteran musical director George Sidney ever touched) does have it directorial moments.  Take the performance of the title track:  a two-and-a-half minute cabaret performance in one-shot that, while minimal in its formal and literal choreography, is commendable for not drawing attention to itself.  It is a nice touch unthinkable from the likes of Gene Nelson (who despite a highly successful dancing career, couldn't point a camera to save his life) or Richard Thorpe, and a subtle difference that ripples, widening the gap between the value of films in Presley's career which, even at their best, could be accurately describes as pap.

Unfortunately, this quality was not something valued by its filmmakers.  Viva Las Vegas made money, great.  So, how can we capture lightning in the bottle a second time, but cheaper?  Wallis and Parker have every instinct for the bottom line with no barometer for merit.  The lesson learned from Viva Las Vegas was not that the market for Elvis is highest when the caliber of songs is at its highest and a believable chemistry is aided by a fantastic lead female, rather Elvis looks cool in a car race (and while we're on the cheap (Speedway, Spinout), we can green screen it).  But for what it's worth, Viva Las Vegas in not only a quality film, but a fair and uninsulting one.  While that doesn't seem like it should be too much to ask, the returns diminish from here on out. -- ***/four stars

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