***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova, William Demarest
screenplay by Sally Benson
directed by George Sidney
by Bill Chambers First, a word about Richard Attenborough's awesome, heartbreaking Magic. In that 1978 film, Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, a rising star on the ventriloquism circuit--hey, it was the '70s--who beats a hasty retreat to the Catskills to avoid a psychiatric evaluation that would doom his chances of working at NBC. There, he looks up his high-school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Corky used to recite this sadly desperate/desperately sad rhyme about her: "Peggy Ann Snow, Peggy Ann Snow/Please let me follow, wherever you go"), who really could've been played by any actress of the moment approaching middle age, from Ellen Burstyn to Jill Clayburgh to Marsha Mason to Faye Dunaway. But Attenborough, ingeniously, cast former sex kitten Ann-Margret, so that Corky's nostalgic affection for Peggy isn't an abstract concept. Thereafter, the actress made a cottage industry out of her fading torchdom that reached its inevitable apotheosis when she tackled Blanche Dubois, but in Magic, it provides a crucial point of identification with a main character who can be inscrutable and unlovable that we have a pretty good idea of what Peggy Ann Snow used to be like. We'd pine for her, too.
Discovered by George Burns, Ann-Margret, like Elvis Presley, was a singer and de facto dancer first, recording a couple of albums on Presley's label (RCA) before transitioning into feature films. Although she was dubbed "the female Elvis" for this similar career trajectory (and the establishment considered both of them menaces to society for their sexual charisma, although Elvis's waggling hips effectively inoculated the culture to Ann-Margret's wild eroticism), the truth is they were flipsides of a sort, she the actress who sang and he the singer who acted. Nevertheless, in Viva Las Vegas, Ann-Margret completed Elvis as few of his leading ladies ever had, ever would, or ever could; for once sharing the Sisyphusian burden of carrying these dopey little travelogues, rarely did Elvis seem so peaceable on screen. Ann-Margret holds her own in solos, duets, and in a sequence where her Rusty spends an afternoon being courted, Elvis-style, with silly costumes, helicopter rides, and rear-projection water-skiing. She's so much Presley's equal (and here, at least, maybe his superior), in fact, that it's aggravating to see her subjected to a scene of retrograde sexism in a mechanic's garage, where she does girly things like mistake a screwdriver for a wrench.
Introduced as a great pair of pins on which the camera lingers before deciding to luxuriate in her strawberry-blonde mane instead, Rusty crosses paths with racecar driver Lucky Johnson (The King) when she pulls over for a tune-up. "I'd like to check my motor. It whistles," she says. "I don't blame it," Lucky replies. This brief encounter sidetracks Lucky, who's days away from entering the entirely fictitious Vegas Grand Prix if he can just get the money for a motor. Rusty's the pool manager at a hotel where Lucky gets a job as a waiter and eventually competes against Rusty in a staff talent show, but before it comes to this there's a magical first date that ends in Rusty and Lucky symbolically consummating their relationship by verbally thrusting "hey"s and "ho"s at each other during the chorus of "What'd I Say," here covered peerlessly by Presley. (From the accelerating intercutting of close-ups of the two stars to the orgasmic expressions on their faces, it's an astoundingly lewd moment still, and--something that's surprisingly uncommon in Elvis's girl-soaked films--sexy as hell.) Rusty sours on Lucky because he insists on going through with the big race, even after she delivers an inane speech that surely stuck in David Lynch's ear about how when she gets married, she "wants a little white house with a tree in the front yard. A real kind of tree, with green leaves." Her point is that Formula One drivers sometimes meet grisly ends and Lucky has something to live for, i.e., her, and the implicit promise of domestic bliss. For Lucky, all that stuff is secondary to the goal of becoming champ.
While this particular relationship impasse is revisited, along with the archetype established by Cesare Danova's European charmer Count Elmo Mancini, in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, suffice it to say Viva Las Vegas is not a serious film about auto racing, and, realistically, I don't imagine its scope of influence extends much past the "Speed Racer" cartoon. (Like Speed, Lucky has his best gal and crew loyally tracking his movements in a helicopter.) Rusty's "rivalry" with a "baby-blue racing car" is nothing more profound than era-typical battle-of-the-sexes stuff, in other words, but the picture isn't always so boilerplate. Being an MGM musical (the last, in the classical sense), Viva Las Vegas certainly breaks form for Elvis movies as a genre unto themselves; that Col. Tom Parker was for once not credited as "technical advisor" says everything there is to say, really. Perhaps stinging over the lame Elvis caricature in director George Sidney's previous film, Bye Bye Birdie (which gave Ann-Margret her breakout role), the mercenary Parker chastised Sidney and studio impresario Jack Cummings (who produced Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Sidney's Kiss Me Kate) for devoting too much time and money to the musical numbers, which are lavish by Presley's standards--even the ones that continue in the minimalist vein set by Ann-Margret's famous performance of Bye Bye Birdie's title tune against a stark blue backdrop. Viva Las Vegas had a tradition of showstoppers to uphold, and uphold it it does. By the same token, Elvis's rock-and-roll energy revitalized the moribund MGM musical--a hollow gesture ultimately, but it's got to count for something.
It's difficult to be offended by an early tour of the showgirl circuit that functions like the "It's a Small World" ride, not only because it's a historically valuable précis of the racial stereotypes of the day, but also because this montage has the cumulative impact of a Busby Berkeley or an Esther Williams routine. And if Viva Las Vegas loses some of its effervescence once the romance between Lucky and Rusty hits the skids, a Hawksian sequence in which Lucky sabotages Rusty's date with the Count and the aforementioned talent show keep the picture from going altogether flat. It's not magic, this movie, but it is alchemy of a kind, something Sidney and Ann-Margret proved when they reteamed for the disastrous The Swinger and Elvis proved with the rest of his film career, thanks to the Colonel's penny-pinching and surrogate vanity.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
We'll always have Vegas. Recently reissued in a three-disc set with Jailhouse Rock and Elvis on Tour, Viva Las Vegas was one of the earliest titles Warner released on the Blu-ray format. Yet the 2.42:1, 1080p transfer withstands contemporary scrutiny, exhibiting vibrant pastel colours in endless permutations, crisp detail beneath fine grain, and remarkable dynamic range. Restored to mint condition, the image compares very favourably indeed to a freshly-struck print that played at the Cinematheque Ontario in the late-'90s. One review I read complained of lost sharpness in wide shots, but aye, there's the rub of the anamorphic lens circa 1964. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio, meanwhile, is markedly superior to the mono alternative (offered in DD 2.0), as the latter's lossy compression makes the music sound plugged-up. An OK compromise, the lossy DD 5.1 track still lacks the clean bass and sparkling clarity of the otherwise-unassuming TrueHD option--which additionally responds the best of the three to amplification.
Also attending the film is an engaging feature-length commentary from Elvis in Hollywood author Steve Pond, who maps out a cultural context for the production (shedding light on bit players like Nicky Blair in the process) before either running out of steam or becoming too engrossed in Ann-Margret's gesticulations. In "Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas" (21 mins., SD/4:3 letterbox), Pond, ROLLING STONE's Joe Levy, entertainer Danny Gans, and many others recount Elvis's inauspicious Vegas debut and triumphant return to the city in 1969. It's an upbeat piece that stops well short of "and then he did a shitload of drugs and died on the toilet," but it does acknowledge the rumours of Elvis's affair with Ann-Margret--and then some: Singer Carol Connors says he was two-timing her with Ann-Margret, but if my calculations are correct he was actually three-timing Priscilla Beaulieu. The theatrical trailer for Viva Las Vegas, in HD, rounds out the platter. Originally published: July 12, 2011.