' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Viva Las Vegas (1964)

I generally argue against the “It Was Exactly What I Expected” Theory of movie-watching – that is, the movie was exactly what I expected it was going to be, therefore I enjoyed it. Of course, Elvis Presely movies are right near the pinnacle of “It Was Exactly What I Expected” filmmaking. You need Elvis, obviously, and songs and scenery and a lovely leading lady and hijinks and lunacy and a vibe suggesting the crew had a late night. If you have seen other Elvis movies, however, and then sit down to watch “Viva Las Vegas”, the finest film in the Elvis canon, it’s not quite exactly what you expect. And this usurping of your expectations is on account of a few things.

Yes, Elvis acted with Barbara Stanwyck (“Roustabout”, the second best film in the Elvis canon) and Walter Matthau (“King Creole”), but Ann-Margret, far and away, was his finest co-star. It was as well-known then as it is now that Elvis & Ann carried on a fairly heavy-duty affair during filming of "Viva Las Vegas" and it shows on the screen where sparks fly. It reminds me a little of “To Have and Have Not” when Humphrey Bogart was falling in love with Lauren Bacall on AND off screen. Let’s be honest here, people, and say that you never quite look at someone the same in any other point of a relationship as you do right at the first flush of love and/or infatuation. And what you see on Bogey’s and Elvis’s faces in their respective films is this playful bemusement, this “Damn, brother, I DIG this chick” vibe, this feeling that they both want to declare “Let’s just scratch those reshoots today and skedaddle to the boudoir.”

Other couples at the movies have possessed better chemistry than Elvis & Ann but no couples except actual couples have created that particular type of chemistry. It’s unmistakable and unfakeable. So often Elvis just seemed to be going through the motions, particularly in his later films as they got lazier and lazier and he got heavier and heavier, but Ann-Margret perks him up and draws him out. Notice his double-takes in the stone-cold classic “The Lady Loves Me” when she keeps exiting the frame unbeknownst to him. It’s a little thing but a lot of those little things add up to a great deal over the course of a whole film and makes all the difference between interested and disinterested.

The camera, it goes without saying, indulges in several opportunities to ogle Ann-Margret’s winsomeness, such as when she is introduced and struts right into the camera at which point the shot reverses to see her walking away from the camera which allows the audience to pleasantly digest her sashaying derriere. Quite honestly, it’s not unlike Michael Bay’s camera leering at Megan Fox, and yet….. The character Ann-Margret plays – Rusty Martin (great name) – and her performance go a good ways to transcending the stereotypical sex kitten role of the Elvis movie. This isn’t to suggest she’s two-dimensional, because she’s not, nor to suggest that she doesn't exist just to wind up in Elvis’s arms, because she does, but that she at least is allowed to conform to her character's prerogative. Ann-Margret is able to convey the welcome sensation that she's having fun with this dude, playing a hella good game of hard to get.

Perhaps this could be attributed to the film's writer, a surprising Sally Benson. I say surprising because Ms. Benson was very much skilled in the authoring arts, perhaps best known for her short stories in The New Yorker and subsequent book compiling them and a few new ones that eventually became the masterful musical "Meet Me In St. Louis." Again, the screenplay for "Viva Las Vegas" is not necessarily groundbreaking but, hey, at least it understands cause and effect, how this leads to that which leads to something else and so forth. Sounds simple, sure, but not so much in an Elvis movie where often story and motivation appear out of thin air.

So yeah. I suppose we should discuss the story. It goes like this: Elvis is the gloriously named Lucky Jackson, a race car driver in Sin City for its Grand Prix. He has a special car and needs a special engine in order to beat his friendly adversary Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), sort of an Italian Jean Girard. He gets inevitably distracted by Rusty and scours casino after casino in an attempt to find her until he finds out - gasp! - that she works at the hotel where he's staying! Which leads to his courtship which leads to her shoving him into the hotel pool which leads to all his money going bye-bye which means Lucky can't afford his special engine which leads to Lucky taking a job at the hotel where he's staying and continuing to pursue Rusty as he does.

Well, needless to say, Lucky gets the engine and wins the race and even marries Rusty, which happens in a hilariously brief sequence right at the end that suggests both the characters and the actors were itching for the after party, all amidst the requisite show tunes.

The songs here, too, are generally solid, including the noted title tune, but most importantly they all work - aside, perhaps, from the unnecessary "Yellow Rose Of Texas" - as parts of the plot, advancing it and explaining what makes our characters tic. For example, a big part of the movie, as it must, hinges on a talent contest (this is how Lucky can win his needed money) which leads to direct competition between the song & dance stylings of the Lady and the Dude.

But, of course, nothing compares to the aforementioned casual amusement of "The Lady Loves Me" wherein Elvis strums his guitar as he and Ann-Margret take a brief tour of the hotel pool, trading lyrical barbs. It is one of my all-time favorite single sequences in cinematic history, and, readers, I mean that. Sometimes you just want to have fun at the movies and what's more fun than Elvis and Ann-Margret having fun right there in front of us? This is what pure joy looks like...


1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Really enjoyed this when I saw it a couple months ago. Never knew Ann-Margret was so crazysexycool, since I'd only "met" her as a 60something. A personal favorite moment in the film is "My Rival," Ann's song that's completed in one take despite some tricky choreography. A winner. (I have a feeling we may have already discussed some of these things, perhaps on my blog.)

Sorry I've been neglectful of Cinema Romantico lately ... as you may have noticed, I've been neglectful of my own blog as well, and that kind of thing tends to trickle down. Hoping to do better soon.