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Viva Las Vegas

a/k/a Only Girl in Town

a/k/a Love in Las Vegas

     "Man, I like the look of these sporting models."

-- Lucky Jackson, and no: He's not talking about the car     




Gonzoid Cinema



Oh, Momma!

I think he just got a look at the next script for Kissin' Cousins...


Watch it!



Hear It:

Sights &
Las Vegas
 Jack Cummings
 Productions /


In desperate need of some quick cash, race car driver Lucky Jackson (The Big E) hits the Vegas strip and, taking what little he has to the craps table, hoping his name holds true, our boy lets it all ride ... Lady luck please let the dice stay hot. Let him shoot a seven with every shot, etcetera, etcetera ... Cut to a machine shop in Los Angeles, where Lucky's mechanic, Shorty (Nicky Blair), takes a phone call, and judging by his euphoria over the news from the other end Lucky won big and now they have the bankroll needed to repair their car and compete in the pending Las Vegas Grand Prix ... Meanwhile, back in Sin City, Lucky runs into his old racing rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Donova). Apparently, Mancini wants Lucky to drive in the Grand Prix for his team, meaning run interference so Mancini can win the race. Saying he only races to win, baby, Lucky refuses, and then their good-natured grandstanding over the size of their *ahem* stick-shifts is interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful damsel in mechanical distress. Both men are immediately smitten -- dumbstruck smitten, totally gob-smacked even, by the vivacious redhead (Ann-Margret), but still manage to get her car going without stepping on their tongues. 

Alas, while these two were too busy gaping, tongue-dodging, and trucking some poorly disguised euphemism, neither gets her name before she putters off. With that, the men part ways; Mancini to work on his car, while Lucky heads back to L.A. for his new motor. At least that's what they said they were gonna do, which later leads to an awkward moment when the men bump into each other on the strip, both looking for the vexing redhead. After putting their heads together, with that knock-out body she had, the Count figures their prey must be a showgirl, and so, after deciding to team up, mostly to keep tabs on each other in the race to find the girl first, the men begin scouring the showrooms and revues with absolutely no luck or sign of their elusive target. However, this search does include a favorite scene, where Lucky helps roust out the rowdy Sons of the Lone Star State with a rousing chorus of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "The Eyes of Texas."

But, after a fruitless night of searching, the men return to their hotel, where, after the defeated duo part company, Lucky overhears a familiar, kittenish voice coming from the pool area. And as our boy spies, and then zeroes in on his objective, someone should probably warn him this particular kitten has some very sharp claws and isn't afraid to bite...

Well, my biological clock's a-telling me it's that time of year again. E'yup. Time to break out the Dippity-Do and slick up the old pompadour; time get the curl back in my upper-lip; and time to buy a round of fried peanut-butter and 'nanner sandwiches for the house 'cuz it's Elvis Presley's birthday and our annual plunge into one of his fine, fractured forays into feature film.

History shows that after Presley got out of the army his once promising film career quickly floundered as it fell into a static and, lets face it, completely moronic formula: He was always a down-on-his-luck kinda guy just trying to make good, who would find a girl; then lose the girl; then use his karate skills; and then win the girl back; and, of course, he would spontaneously combust into song -- no matter where he was or what he was doing, and usually sang about wherever he was or whatever he was doing -- about, oh, once every seven and half minutes for the duration of the film. From 1961 to ‘69, Presley averaged about three films a year, and while some where pretty good [Blue Hawaii], and others wonderfully mediocre [Tickle Me], most were just downright awful [Follow That Dream]. But there’s one film that stands out amongst all the dreck like a cantaloupe-sized opal in the midst of a feedlot holding pen: Viva Las Vegas. And once you hear the history behind the making of it, you’ll realize why it stands out -- and why another film of that caliber always escaped our hero afterwards.

MGM had Presley obligated to film two pictures, back to back, for them in 1964. The first was Viva Las Vegas, and while Colonel Tom Parker [Boo! Hiss!] went about setting up the second film, the studio was very excited about all the buzz generated by Vegas' two stars. Apparently, Presley and Ann-Margret hit it off like two pieces of flint, and the resulting sparks on screen and off were highly volatile. And even though the Big E didn't get to use his karate here, the musical duels with his sizzling co-star were close enough. Wow. At the time of the production, the Swedish hellcat was considered the female version of Elvis: a barely contained volcano of musical talent, body gyrations and sex appeal. And the tale of the tape shows the feisty redhead proved Presley's match -- toe to toe and song for song, right down to the swinging and swiveling hips ... Oh, those hips in those black stockings.

And begging your pardon for a brief interlude, but I think she's an absolute hottie, too, and admit to having a few hang-ups about her. Sure her voice is a little shrilly, but hubba-hubba, Bubba, she sure is pretty. How much do I love Ann-Margret? I sat through all of The Swinger. THAT'S how much I love Ann-Margret ... Oh-man, that scene where she's covered in pudding or paint or whatever the hell that is...uuuAAAAhhhhh -- let's move on.

The film also had a lot of clout behind the camera as well. Producer Jack Cummings, director George Sydney and screenwriter Sally Benson were all veterans of several big-budgeted, barn-burning musicals with the likes of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Annie Get Your Gun and Meet Me in St. Louis, respectively, on their resumes, and that experience shows in this production. Aside from Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas was Elvis's only other bona fide musical, meaning the songs moved the plot along -- not bring it to a screeching halt. In fact, Sydney was just coming off the Elvis inspired hit, Bye Bye Birdie, and brought its star, Ann-Margret, with him.

Presley was happy to share the spotlight, and a few other things (-- more on this in a sec), with his co-star, but his manager, Colonel Parker [Boo! Hiss!], wasn’t. Feeling Sydney was favoring his female lead too much, this was an Elvis movie after all, Parker feared Ann-Margret was stealing the show from his cash-cow. And to protect his investment, he started meddling with the production, and raised such a stink that one duet was dropped and another was switched over to Elvis alone -- I'm assuming this was the soul-searching ballad after the talent contest to come, where the film starts to get a little muddled as we race toward the end -- but, we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. So, let's back up and return to the hotel pool, where our boy Lucky finds the girl, Rusty Martin, serving as a swimming instructor, who then pushes his luck further by trying to ingratiate himself through a song. But knowing a wolf when she sees one, Rusty gives the zealous lothario the cold shoulder as they trade lyrical barbs until the song ends, with Lucky taking an unexpected dip into the pool off the high dive.

Cannonball! Wow. Think of the oil-slick that pompadour left.

Unknown to Lucky, however, this little excursion did more than just hurt his pride: it also cost him his bankroll. Lost on impact, the soggy wad of bills is picked up by a little water rat, who then feeds them into the pool's filter, never to be seen again. Only when Shorty shows up later just as Lucky's checking out does our boy realize the money is gone, which explains why this particular hotel suddenly has two new employees until Lucky's outstanding tab is paid off. 

On the brighter side, Lucky's unlucky turn of events has substantially softened up Rusty, who finally agrees to go out with him. Their first date finds them at the local college, where Lucky watches as Rusty dances up a storm in a very fetching, form-fitting outfit. (Okay, maybe that other scene is my second favorite. My GAWD she's beautiful.) And as their whirlwind romance continues through several musical numbers and tours of several famous Las Vegas locales, including a helicopter ride to Hoover Dam, and water-skiing on Lake Mead, things move along swimmingly; even Rusty's dad, Mr. Martin (William DeMarest), likes her new beau. E'yup ... things couldn't be any better. That is, until Rusty runs into Mancini, who goes into all the gory details of what he and Lucky do for a living. Alas, all this talk of crashing and burning causes Rusty much concern, and when she asks Lucky to give it up for her are we really all that surprised when our boy refuses? Which, of course, leads to the inevitable spat and eventual break up over their mutual stubbornness.

Seizing the opportunity, Mancini invites Rusty to have dinner with him, alone, in his hotel suite -- but a jealous Lucky sabotages the evening by getting his Jerry Lewis on while serving as their waiter. Then later, while trying to patch things up, he serenades Rusty some more, but it soon becomes apparent that Lucky will have to work harder than that to win the girl back. Things eventually come to a head at the hotel employee talent show. Rusty and Lucky both enter, and when their numbers end and the smoke clears, the fractured couple wind up in a tie for first place. At the judge's discretion, Lucky gets the trophy while Rusty is awarded the prize money. Needing the money more to get the motor he needs, Lucky offers to trade spoils. But, no dice. Rusty won't help Lucky get himself killed ... So, after losing his engine and his girl in one fell swoop, Lucky aimlessly wanders the strip but gets a little introspective as he watches other couples snuggle. Then, while singing a sad song, he realizes Rusty is more important to him than racing -- but it's too late, right?

And here, the film really falls victim to The Colonel's meddling. If "I Need Somebody to Lean On" had remained as originally intended, with both lovelorn halves lamenting for each other, it would have gone a long way in clearing up a few things and paved the way for the couple's mutual reconciliation. As it wound up, the reconciliation winds up a trifle one-sided and makes Rusty's sudden, 180-degree turn completely baffling. But, once again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Well, maybe things aren't as hopeless as Lucky supposes because at that very moment, Shorty and Rusty's dad are hatching a plan to get these two miserable individuals back together and happy again, PDQ. It begins when Shorty shows up with a new engine provided by a mysterious benefactor -- namely Mr. Martin. However, they don't have much time to celebrate as the race starts in a few hours. With that, everyone pitches in to help install the motor -- some more help than others, while a select few, namely Rusty, just get in the way. But despite a few Rusty-induced monkey-wrenches, the car is ready on time. And does anyone else think Lucky's car has more than a passing resemblance to the Mach 5? Hell, I'd even bet there's an annoying kid and monkey secreted in the trunk. Anyways ... Soon enough, the flag is dropped, the race begins, and to make a long story short: Lucky wins the race and the girl, while Mancini gets bit in the ass by bitter irony -- winding up a bloody smear on the asphalt. (Which, between you and me, was kind of harsh. Mancini just wasn't that bad a guy.) And then the film screeches to a halt as we crash-cut to our happy couple fleeing a church before roaring away for the honeymoon -- but not before we get a reprise of our title number.


The Ever Lovin' End

Viva Las Vegas proved to be Presley's biggest box-office hit, which, you would think, make his studio and agent very happy. Well, you'd be wrong. At the time, Presley was paid $500000 a picture plus 50% of the profits -- but only after all production costs were recouped. Colonel Parker [Boo! Hiss!], meanwhile, was constantly in negotiations with MGM to restructure their contract to get an even bigger piece of that pie upfront. Until then, Parker [Boo! Hiss!] went out of his way to keep production costs down to reap all he could off the back end of the deal. And while he pissed and moaned over the money Cummings and Sydney were wasting on Viva Las Vegas, he struck a deal with Sam Katzman, a notorious industry legend for his cheapness, for the second MGM picture, Kissin' Cousins. Along with Katzman's other Elvis film, Harum Scarum, Cousins provides a nice pair of turd-burger bookends for Viva Las Vegas, where one doesn’t have to look all that hard to tell the difference in quality.

During the production, Sydney did manage an end run on the obtrusive Parker and shot the unscripted and unapproved “What I Say” number and got it into the film. That’s why the number seems kind of slapped together, but, who cares, and it’s a fantastic, big old middle finger salute to The Colonel. [I said, BOO!]

The end of the production also spelled the end of Presley's and Ann-Margret's affair. While Priscilla Beaulieu was hidden away at Graceland, Elvis and Ann-Margret had their fling in Hollywood. The press had a field day, and though reports vary, all agree that it was a pretty serious relationship. Then, everything kind of hit the fan when Margret attended the premiere of Bye Bye Birdie in England, where the story broke that claimed she and Presley were engaged. Even though Ann-Margret denied saying it, Presley was furious with her. Regardless of the source, they couldn't hide the truth anymore from an already suspicious Priscilla, who was growing restless back home due to all the wild rumors, hokey denials, and rampant speculation. Rumor lately has it that it was the Colonel who leaked the marriage angle to the press, hoping for this very conclusion. His meddling now complete, the couple gradually broke it off and Ann-Margaret moved on, while Elvis and Priscilla would finally marry three years later.

All you gotta do is do the math kids. Viva Las Vegas was an eleven week shoot. Kissin' Cousins, on the other hand, was in the can in just 17 days. And the less money spent on the production meant that much more money in the Colonel's pocket. And no matter how little they spent on the production, or how shoddy the results, the films still made money. Which is why Presley was never surrounded with such talent, production values, or co-star of that caliber ever again. So, for all intents and purposes, Presley's film career was officially scuttled at this point and he never had a chance after the fact. And that's a damn crying shame.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) Jack Cummings Productions :: Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer (MGM) / P: Jack Cummings, George Sidney/ D: George Sidney / W: Sally Benson / C: Joseph Biroc / E: John McSweeney / M: George Stoll / S: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, William Demarest, Nicky Blair, Cesare Danova

Bonus Elvis Trivia:

Through filming and beyond Elvis always referred to Ann-Margret by her screen name from the movie but tweaked it a little, calling her Rusty Ammo. The two remained close friends over the years, and she was one of the few co-stars to attend his funeral.
Originally Posted: 01/05/05 :: Rehashed: 04/24/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.

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