2014 Summer Guide

Viva Viva Las Vegas!

50 years later, a romp back through the making of the Elvis musical and its lasting impact on Vegas

Viva Las Vegas: actress Ann-Margret, director George Sidney and star Elvis Presley

It is a bubble bath of a movie.

It is considered the crème de la crème of mid-’60s Elvis Presley films, an accomplishment equal to being the finest violin virtuoso in all of Hooterville.

It left a legacy that goes like this:

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 …

You know what comes next, right? No, not the commercial with the middle-age gentleman grinning to “Viva Viagra,” though that’s arisen as part of its legacy, too. But half a century past its release on May 20, 1964, Viva Las Vegas, starring swivel-hipster Elvis and a hot-to-the-touch Ann-Margret—with special guest star, Las Vegas, portraying itself as the sexiest city in all of creation—is a red-letter signpost on the journey through this town’s pop-culture timeline.

Surely you remember. It was “a wild and woolly whirl through Funtown, USA!” It was “a jumpin’ jackpot of melody!” It was “the swingin’est, singin’est, grooviest, lovin’est, entertainment sensation it has ever been your luck to enjoy!” (Credit MGM with the hilarious hyperbole and goofy grammar.)

Actually, if you’re like the rest of the globe, you recall the title tune—the city’s unofficial anthem ever since—more than the flick, which The New York Times called “as pleasant and unimportant as a banana split.” But hey, that’s the schnoz-in-the-air New York Times, and who doesn’t love a banana split?

Moviegoers slurped it up, and Viva Las Vegas hit the box office sweet spot by ’64 standards, ringing the cash register for nearly $10 million on a $1 million production budget. Worldwide, it didn’t reach the top 10 for the year. Domestically, though, as ranked by Internet Movie Database, it was the No. 4 earner, trailing only Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and Goldfinger, and outgunning A Fistful of Dollars and—almost unfathomably—the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night amid the nation’s mop-top madness. (In fact, Presley was a Beatles slayer on screen, with his other ’64 entries, Roustabout and Kissin’ Cousins, also topping the Fab Four film in the U.S.)

Did you also know Viva Las Vegas was “indecent”? It was in Gozo, an island in Malta, where screenings at an island theater were scrapped after the Gozo College of Parish Priests condemned the film with the I Word. We can’t confirm it, but we presume Gozo took the kibosh off it at some point over the ensuing 50 years.

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What was this epic adventure about? The excuse for the 10 song-and-dance numbers and for salivating over the virile/nubile co-stars—a.k.a. the plot—went like this:

The King is a rogue named Lucky Jackson (with a name like that, he’s required to be), a race-car driver whose bucket of bolts needs a new engine when he arrives for the “Vegas Grand Prix.” After scrounging up the moolah, he loses it when Rusty Martin, the fetching swimming instructor played by Ann-Margret, shoves him (and his suit and his guitar) into the pool (played by the Flamingo pool), and his bankroll literally rolls down the drain. Quicker than you can say Lucky & Rusty (with a straight face), our lovers-to-be are making goo-goo at each other, while Lucky toils as a waiter to recoup the cash and enters a talent contest. (What are the odds, right?) Movies like this demand a harmless rival for our hero, to race him on the track and into the sack (chastely) with Rusty. This one’s got Cesare Danova as Elmo Mancini, a “count,” so a guy with a snooty continental accent can lose to the guy with the all-American drawl.

In between, Presley does his Elvis thang to the title tune—as well as “What’d I Say,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” ‘C’mon Everybody,” “Santa Lucia” and “Today, Tomorrow and Forever,” among others—while the movie bounces from one Vegas landmark to another.

Movie tagline: “Elvis is at the wheel, but Ann-Margret drives him wild!”

Not quite Gone With the Wind with craps and shrimp cocktail. But that wasn’t the point.

*****

Movies and Vegas had a few modest tête-à-têtes before the 1960s. Las Vegas Nights, a no-star 1941 musical, is notable only as string-bean Frank Sinatra’s first (and uncredited) film appearance, crooning a song fragment with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In 1952, Howard Hughes tried to give Vegas a Hollywood gloss by producing The Las Vegas Story, a critical and box-office mediocrity that starred Jane Russell, Victor Mature and Vincent Price. Peppered with location shots at the Flamingo and Downtown, it did little to turn Las Vegas into Las Vegas.

Flash forward eight years, and Vegas gets its very own It Flick—the 1960 Rat Pack opus, Ocean’s 11, which burned its way into Vegas lore owing to its stars’ exhaustive hat trick of filming, performing and carousing. Lighthearted as it was, Ocean’s 11 was a crime caper—“crime” being the operative, unsettling word.

Only a year after Ocean’s 11’s release, the Chamber of Commerce threatened NBC with a lawsuit over the pilot for a proposed series called Las Vegas Beat, starring Peter Graves (later of Mission: Impossible) as a casino detective and Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H) as his sidekick. Sponsors retreated, and the series was aborted (the concept was resurrected 17 years later in ABC’s Vega$ with Robert Urich). Skittishness snowballed with the 1963 publication of The Green Felt Jungle, a stark exposé of Vegas’ mob links that got city leaders’ backs up.

Enter Sands general manager and Vegas mover-and-shaker Jack Entratter. He asked friend George Sidney, director of gold-star movies such as Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat and Pal Joey, to put a light, bright, wrongdoing-free Vegas on screen.

“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,” says Corinne Entratter Sidney, who was one of the Sands’ famous Copa Girls and also, at different times, both Mrs. Entratter and Mrs. Sidney. “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.’”

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Ask and you shall receive an Elvis movie. Not a no-neck wiseguy in sight. While Ocean’s 11 was the sophisticate’s Las Vegas, this would be the partier’s Las Vegas. (But a moral one in an odd, contradictory way: In one casino scene, youth role model Presley is about to shoot craps—then the camera bails out. Apparently, intending to gamble was fine. Doing it wasn’t.)

With Sidney aboard as director and co-producer, the creative team coalesced, including screenwriter Sally Benson, who was Oscar-nominated for 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam; and choreographer David Winter, who’d played one of the Jets in 1961’s West Side Story.

Embarking on the 15th of his eventual 31-film career, Presley was a box-office staple with a rep for making great music and not-great movies. This one would moderately change that, but as Sidney’s widow recalls, it wasn’t a love match.

“George didn’t particularly like Elvis; he didn’t have much respect for him. George was a cultured man. Elvis was a hick. He didn’t even know how to dress. George took off one of his couturier suits and put it on Elvis. That blue suit he wore, that was George’s.”

Co-star? Easy. Determined to make Ann-Margret a star, and just coming off directing the shooting-starlet the year before in Bye Bye Birdie—ironically, about an Elvis-esque rock star drafted into the Army—Sidney tapped her for the role of Rusty. Being touted in the press as “the female Elvis” gave her casting an extra kick. And gave Sidney an extra pain.

Once on set, the director was hounded by Presley’s control-freak manager, Colonel Tom Parker, over what Parker considered excessive close-ups of Ann-Margret. As young male moviegoers knew, there was no such thing as excessive close-ups of Ann-Margret. Parker might have been piqued, but Presley melted fast.

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Famously, the two headliners were rumored to have knocked go-go boots after meeting on the movie, infuriating Presley’s then-girlfriend/future spouse, Priscilla Beaulieu. To this day, Ann-Margret is coy over their connection, describing it as “friendship” while calling Presley her “soul mate.” Whether she could be just pals with a soul mate is a question she’s never answered.

Another casting decision, however, exposed an unsettling issue. Though the role of Shorty Farnsworth, Lucky’s mechanic and sidekick, was played by character actor Nicky Blair, he wasn’t the first choice, as Corinne Sidney tells it, citing conversations she had with her director-husband years later.

“That was supposed to be Sammy Davis Jr.’s part,” she says. “George said Elvis demanded that Sammy not play it. He didn’t want to [act] with a black man. Sammy cried in his dressing room when he lost the part.”

Whether Presley was racist has been debated for years, and has long been considered fact by some in the black community. Contemporary performers Mary J. Blige and rapper Chuck D. have publicly said they believe it. Many outraged Presley fans, both white and black, have condemned that claim, insisting that despite being a product of the pre-Civil Rights South—born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, he moved with his family to Memphis as a teenager—his embrace of black musical styles convincingly argues against it.

We’re only left to wonder what an Elvis/Sammy pairing would have looked like, either due to a dashed opportunity, or just pure imagining.

*****

Summer of ’63. Cameras roll. Result? One big, bright, happy, funny, tuneful, 85-minute romp.

Las Vegas is the star of Viva Las Vegas. That hunk and hunkette are just along for the ride. At least the city could interpret it that way, with plenty of reason.

Bang!—right from the two-minute-plus aerial opening shot, the camera swoops through Fremont Street’s neon lights, past the road signs for casinos (including the Stardust), then glides by the Flamingo’s Champagne Tower, before Presley pulls into that resort’s front driveway. All while the soundtrack blasts the star singing that song.

There’s the unfinished Landmark Hotel as the ’60s hot pants arrive. Ann-Margret is in them. Cue the cute lines: “We’ll be happy to check your motor.” Now there’s the Sands. The Stardust. The Sahara. The Tropicana—with a skeet-shooting range and the Folies Bergere. Is that a drag-racing strip in Henderson? Sure ’nuff. McCarran Field? Well, of course that’s ours.

Whooooa—there goes Elvis, ass over teakettle into the Flamingo pool off a pretty high diving board—drippy pompadour a mess (but not in close-up!), moony serenade (“The Lady Loves Me”) rudely interrupted by the object of his musical seduction. But hey, they made up—look at ’em water-skiing at Lake Mead. And—ooh-la-la—there’s Ann-Margret in those slinky leotards, gyrating at the UNLV gymnasium (that’s since morphed into the Marjorie Barrick Museum). Mount Charleston trails? That’s ours. That Little Church of the West where our lovers happily tie up our little Vegas travelogue? Yup—ours, too.

Goofs? Every flick’s got one or two or 30. Relatively few here. One’s a nitpicker: During the race, the cars are supposed to be speeding across Hoover Dam from Nevada into Arizona. Oops—they’re going the wrong way around the dam.

Bigger oops: When our coo-some twosome lift off in a chopper to see the dam … what’s that in the background? … the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York? … Sorry guys, that’s 2,500 miles to the right.

More memorable than any scene, though, is the title ditty, which has grown into an iconic emblem of the city. Ironically, it initially didn’t seem destined for immortality, released as the B side of Presley’s “What’d I Say” and topping out at only No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop-singles chart. Since then, even though Presley never performed it live, it’s been covered by countless artists and surfaces in nearly every movie or TV series that even whispers the words “Las Vegas.”

In 2002, the City of Las Vegas attempted to make the marriage with the song legit, requesting that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) allow it to be our official song. Talks collapsed, allegedly over EPE’s price for the song rights—even though EPE technically hadn’t controlled those rights since 1993, when they reverted to the estates of the late songwriters, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Confusion over that was apparently never resolved.

Briefly, a Hollywood rumor circulated that a Viva Las Vegas remake was under consideration, with Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin. Ultimately a no-go. (Would they have retitled it Livin’ La Viva Vegas?)

*****

Viva Las Vegas fed all manner of legacies. The Legacy of Elvis. The Legacy of Old Vegas. The Legacy of the ’60s Just Before They Became “The ’60s.” The Legacy of Inspiring The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.

Of course, a sexy flick with a pair of sexy stars frolicking in the world’s sexiest city had to, in hindsight, leave another inevitable legacy: Can you sing “Viva Viagra”?

Hey, a legacy’s a legacy.

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