Finally collided with VIVA LAS VEGAS(1964) on TCM the other day. As a non-Elvis fan, I’ve never gotten around to catching it. But over the years dribs and drabs of info have trickled my way, indicating that this one’s a cut above the others. And I do like the title tune. Even though I’d prefer fewer low-rent guitar licks in the arrangement and someone other than Elvis singing it. Yes, I know that’s heresy. But generally Presley’s singing voice doesn’t appeal to me that much. The tone often seems false and affected – artificially lowered and over-drawled. Like the orater who drops his normal speaking voice when he’s speechifying and launches into something quite different . Usually a pretty good tip-off that actual sincerity’s just left the room. Of course, we’re not talking about the kind of preposterous disconnect represented by, say, Jim Nabors’ singing (ridiculously pompous) and his speaking ( aw-shucks, ma’am, it’s me Gomer). But I still find there’s an element of strained artifice in much of Elvis’ musical output. And so many of the songs themselves – particularly the film songs – are hopelessly trivial to begin with. But I suspect I’m out on a limb here. Just a voice kvetching in the wilderness. And to be fair , in VIVA LAS VEGAS, Elvis sounds flat-out wonderful on the (previously unknown to me) song I NEED SOMEBODY TO LEAN ON. Getting back to the title tune, it’s maintained a pretty tenacious hold on popularity over the years. And certainly should have been at least a Best Song Oscar nominee in ’64. But, of course, in those days the Academy was so Old School, they wouldn’t nominate anything with even a suspicion of rock’n’roll attached to it. Maybe Buble will get around to recording it one day.
Anyway, I have to admit the film is a cut above. Not because of the screenplay, of course. That’s as vapid and witless as all the King’s other 60’s scripts. In this case, though, VEGAS represents one of the few times Elvis worked with a director who knew something about musicals – MGM veteran George Sidney (THE HARVEY GIRLS, SHOW BOAT). Sidney knew how to take an onscreen ensemble and make it look dynamic. He manages to introduce some life and movement into several of the musical set-pieces, nicely synchronizing various elements.
But it’s Elvis’ teaming with Ann-Margret that really works like a charm. Their individual screen images, both built largely on tackiness in the 60’s, somehow coalesce, achieving a kind of transcendence, the whole definitely greater than its parts. Quite a synthesis really. Almost inexplicable but undeniably successful. AM’s put-on pussycat sexiness (her stock in trade in the 60’s) and Presley’s fangless growl feed on each other to create something that actually produces genuine honest-to-God sparks. Sidney saw this and wisely injected AM into several of Elvis’ numbers. She even gets a couple of solos. Unusual this. Generally the mandate of the girl in an Elvis film is just play hard to get for a reel or two, keep your hair-do unmussed and spend most of the time at a ring-side table smiling and nodding as Elvis does his King thing. But AM’s right in there up to her thighs – and considerably higher, come to think of it. Shaking her booty and everything else and exercising that distinctive pout-shout of hers with a vengeance. When the duo join forces, lame songs (COME ON EVERYBODY) and blah arrangements of good ones (WHAT’D I SAY) come alive in spite of themselves. AM even gets Elvis matching dance steps with her. It’s really a shame they didn’t make more movies together. They could’ve been the hood ornament MacDonald/Eddy or Astaire/Rogers of the 60’s. But, of course, Elvis’ management had no interest in sharing the spotlight or stretching the boundaries of Presley’s tired movie formula. So it didn’t happen. There seems to have been a quasi-attempt to create the same kind of dynamic a couple of years later in SPEEDWAY with the casting of Nancy Sinatra, who, at the time, was successfully pitching a tough sex-kitten image on record. In films, however, she photographed weirdly, couldn’t act and wasn’t in Ann-Margret’s league as a dancer. Leaving SPEEDWAY pretty much just sitting there - a tired souffle that rose no higher than Elvis’ other duds.
How Presley’s screen image would have developed had he lived – and filmed – is, of course, a matter of conjecture. In subsequent years, Ann-Margret definitely grew as an actress (she’s special in TOMMY and outright fabulous in JOSEPH ANDREWS). And – to this day – she continues to project an inner and outer beauty. If you want to see the best of Elvis, the movie star, check out one of his 50’s films . LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK and KING CREOLE are all pretty okay. But VIVA LAS VEGAS is worth investigating as the one film where the King had a totally compatible Queen beside him. Ann-Margret embodies the fun of fuzzy dice dangling and bobbing from a rear-view mirror during a drag race. Waking and shaking up her male Sleeping Beauty with some high-energy fizz, the lady’s mucho simpatica. She and Elvis have an easy rapport; both genuinely appear to enjoy the chemistry they’re creating. And it’s hard not to enjoy it right along with them. Why fight it?