Recently, I was riding the bus home when a friend of mine happened to hop on at the downtown stop. We chatted about what most friends talk about: work, roommates, future plans, and current romantic timelines. I learned that her and her boyfriend had traveled down to the west coast and ended up staying in Las Vegas, Nevada for a night. However the details of Las Vegas were depressing - terrible casino culture, hot weather, and a sugar daddy sighting that looked more like a grandfather walking arm in arm with his granddaughter.
As she got off at her stop, I thought about a movie I'd seen recently: Viva Las Vegas (1964) directed by George Sidney. Starring in the film was none other than the king himself, Elvis Presley, as well as another hot celebrity of the era, Ann-Margret. The film was electrifying and painted Las Vegas as the time capsuled city we all imagine: dazzling gold lights, hot neon cowboy signs, with every street corner draped in homage to Americana's sultry allure. Yet what's even more exhilarating is Elvis and Ann-Margret's obvious on set chemistry.
This musical/romance/comedy is absolutely salacious in the best way possible. Lucky Jackson (Elvis) is a traveling dare devil, looking to win the Grand Prix Race with the help of a new engine for his car. He soon runs out of money and attempts to find a way to pay for his hotel bill, as well as that special engine. While staying at his hotel he meets Rusty (Ann-Margret), the swimming pool instructor. The two begin to play tug-of-war with each other's affections, Lucky determined to win Rusty's love.
One of the first characteristics of this film that I fell in love with was the color palette. It's the epitome of '60s pop art design. Clementine corals, baby blues, red hot turtlenecks - this film does it so well. A nice color palette is something that we don't see too often in modern day cinema, in my opinion. I think some directors forget how important it is to have an organized color scheme, for it is vital to establish a visual tone. After all, we are all voyeurs in cinema in some way or another- we crave beautiful and interesting things to look at.
Then there is the pop culture history of the two stars. Whether you like them or not, Elvis and Ann-Margret were forces to be reckoned with. Elvis at the time was tired of doing B-movies to keep his career afloat during the rising Beatlemania era, where Ann-Margret was the new hot actress in the Hollywood scene. Priscilla, Elvis' homegrown wife to be, was in hysterics when she read that the two were having a fling on set. It was known that Ann-Margret was the female version of Elvis' better self: fiery, full of passion and talent. The way the two looked at each other during the film was clearly more than just acting. Although the soundtrack flubbed in sales, the movie itself stayed afloat due to their undeniable infatuation for each other.
It was also rumored that the director of Viva Las Vegas was just as infatuated with Ann-Margret as Elvis was, and maybe even more. Tension grew between managers as Sidney gave Ann-Margret more dance numbers with countless takes and increasing air time. Many noted that Ann-Margret nearly stole the show, which was unheard of when you put a major player like Elvis in a feature film. Even I can't argue with her allure. Sometimes I find myself fantasizing over her beautiful shade of strawberry blonde hair......... I digress.
Much to my own dismay, I won't lie to you when I say the film gets a little stiff 3/4ths of the way through. Some iffy sexism (among other issues) leaks through the mirage of the glamorous Las Vegas scenery. I find that happens with most older films that I watch. Yet I still find that I can view this film with the same amount of awe that captured me originally. I can still feel the romance between the two, even though the bigger picture is a bit more sour. Elvis' career (which skyrocketed from his appropriation of many lesser know black artists) went downhill a few years later, despite a spike in his comeback performance ('68 Comeback Special). By the early '70s, his marriage to Priscilla crumbled and his prescription drug abuse ended his life on August 16th, 1977. Ann-Margret is still alive to this day, married to Roger Smith.
Viva Las Vegas will always be one of those movies I'll look back onto fondly. The chemistry, the colors, the unapologetic lush consumerism of the '60s makes me giddy in the most unexpected ways. Watching the film will transport you into a hazy hue of a warm and tender idyllic love stupor, if you let do so.
P.S. Here are some loved songs from the film, or that reminded me of the film.
P.P.S. Rose McGowan and Jonathan Rhys Meyers depicted the iconic duo in Elvis: The Miniseries (2005) and Rose looked absolutely STUNNING.