Behind the Camera: Viva Las Vegas’ 55th anniversary
Film: Viva Las Vegas (Musical, 1964, PG, 85 minutes)
Airdate (PST): March 8 @ 9 p.m. on TCM (Turner Classic Movies)
Milestone: This Elvis movie classic celebrates its 55th anniversary in 2019.
Plot: Race car driver Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley), in town for the “Vegas Grand Prix,” woos fetching swimming instructor Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret); toils as a waiter and enters a talent contest to earn money for a new car engine; and fends off a rival racer, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), who also sets his romantic sights on Rusty.
Start of filming: Summer of 1963.
Studio advertising campaign:
- “A wild and woolly whirl through Funtown USA!”
- “A jumpin’ jackpot of melody!”
- “The swingin’est, singin’est, grooviest, lovin’est, entertainment sensation it has ever been your luck to enjoy!”
- “Elvis is at the wheel but Ann-Margret drives him wild!”
Soundtrack artists: Well, duh … Elvis! Oh, and Ann-Margret, too.
Soundtrack list: “If You Think I Don’t Need You,” “I Need Somebody to Lean On,” “C’mon Everybody,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “What’d I Say,” “Today, Tomorrow and Forever,” “Night Life,” “Santa Lucia,” “Do the Vega,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas”/“The Eyes of Texas,” “You’re the Boss” (with Ann-Margret) and “The Lady Loves Me” (with Ann-Margret) Memorable theme lyrics: “Bright light city gonna set my soul / Gonna set my soul on fire / Gotta whole lotta money that’s ready to burn / So get those stakes up higher / There’s a thousand pretty women waiting out there / And they’re all living devil may care / And I’m just the devil with love to spare / Viva Las Vegas! / Viva Las Vegas! …”
Later reinvention as an ad campaign: “Viva Viagra!”
Vegas sights on screen: Two-minute aerial opening shot swoops through Fremont Street’s neon lights, casino road signs, the Flamingo’s Champagne Tower, the then-unfinished Landmark Hotel, the Sands, the Stardust, the Tropicana (with a skeet-shooting range) and the marquee for Folies Bergere; also, a drag-racing strip in Henderson; McCarran Field; Lake Mead; the UNLV gymnasium (now the Marjorie Barrick Museum); Mount Charleston trails; Little Church of the West.
Classic scenes: Elvis goes tush-over-teakettle off a high diving board into the Flamingo pool, turning his signature pompadour into a drippy mess; the lovebirds water-skiing at Lake Mead; Ann-Margret gyrating in slinky leotards.
Tales from the production:
- Concerned about how Las Vegas is portrayed, famed Sands General Manager Jack Entratter asked his friend, director George Sidney (who had helmed Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat and Pal Joey), to put a lighthearted, breezy, crime-free Vegas onscreen. As explained to this writer in a 2014 interview, Corinne Entratter Sidney, who was married to both men at different times, said:
“No one ever made a movie in this town without giving the script to Jack first, because he would never do anything that was harmful to the reputation of Las Vegas. George said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to make a fun movie about Las Vegas.’ Jack trusted George so much, so he said, ‘Go ahead, make it.’”
- Sidney teamed with screenwriter Sally Benson, who was Oscar-nominated for 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam, and choreographer David Winter, who had portrayed one of the Jets street gang in 1961’s West Side Story (Ann-Margret was Winter’s dance student at the time).
- Viva Las Vegas was the 15th of Presley’s 31 movies.
- Youth role model Presley was not allowed to be shown gambling. In one scene, he is about to shoot craps — then the camera beats a retreat.
- Sidney’s direction of Elvis even extended to wardrobe. “George took off one of his couturier suits and put it on Elvis,” Entratter Sidney recalled. “That blue suit he wore, that was George’s.”
- Touted as “the female Elvis,” Ann-Margret came to Viva Las Vegas hot off the movie version success of Bye-Bye Birdie.
- Director Sidney was reportedly hounded by Elvis’ controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was peeved over what he considered excessive closeups on Ann-Margret (to young male moviegoers, there was no such thing) at the expense of Elvis closeups.
- Though the role of Shorty Farnsworth, as Elvis’ mechanic and sidekick, went to actor Nicky Blair, Entratter Sidney claims a Rat Packer was first considered. “That was supposed to be Sammy Davis Jr.’s part,” she said. “Sammy cried when he didn’t get the part.”
- Casting quirks: Vegas comedy veteran Jack Carter appeared as himself, and future star Teri Garr (Young Frankenstein, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) portrayed a showgirl.
- Presley performing the song “Viva Las Vegas” was filmed in one single, unedited shot, the only time that happened in any Presley movie.
- To this day, though it is widely assumed they had an affair, Ann-Margret remains coy over whether she had made a love connection with Presley, even after describing him as her “soul mate.” Famously, it all spilled into the gossip columns, worrying Presley’s girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife Priscilla Beaulieu.
- Return on investment: Viva Las Vegas raked in nearly $10 million on a $1 million production budget.
- Domestically, it was the year’s No. 4 earner, trailing only Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and Goldfinger, and topping The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.
- Viva Las Vegas was branded with the scarlet “I” — as in “indecent” — in Gozo, an island in Malta, where screenings at a theater were canceled after the movie was condemned by the Gozo College of Parish Priests.
- When the coo-some twosome of Presley and Ann-Margret lift off in a chopper to see Hoover Dam, we catch a glimpse in the background of … the TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK Airport. Just a mere 2,500-mile geographical oopsie.
- During the race, cars are meant to be seen speeding across Hoover Dam from Nevada into Arizona, but are going the wrong way around the dam. Hey, as long as they floor it, who cares if they’re directionally challenged?
Rusty: “Can you check my motor? It whistles.”
Lucky: “I don’t blame it.”
Lucky: “I thought maybe you and I could go dancing, or something.”
Rusty: “So you wanna go dancing?”
Lucky: “Or something.”
Count Elmo: “You work on my car. I’ll work on your girl.”
Reviews (original and retrospective):
- “As pleasant and unimportant as a banana split. And as fetching to look at.” (The New York Times)
- “Presley’s one really good musical, mainly because it features a female costar, Ann-Margret, who can match the coiffed one in the charisma stakes.” (TV Guide)
- “Justly celebrated as the rare Elvis movie in which Presley is not just complemented but also challenged by a song-and-dance co-star of comparable sexual energy and anatomical expressiveness.” (Memphis Commercial-Appeal)
- “May be Elvis’ raunchiest and most pleasing film, thanks mostly to co-star Ann-Margret.” (San Francisco Examiner)
- “It is ridiculous. It is a little teensy bit sexist. It is a relic of a bygone age. It is as predictable as the sunrise. It is also, of course, rip-roaring fun.” (Netflix)
— Compiled from online sources and reporting by Steve Bornfeld
To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.