Every month, we spotlight a quintessential Las Vegas movie
As the opening credits of 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas” roll, the camera swoops over Fremont Street, taking in the neon lights of hotel-casinos including the Mint and the Golden Nugget, while the Elvis Presley title song plays on the soundtrack. To present-day viewers, it may look like the opening to any Vegas-set movie, even coming off as a bit clichéd. But so many of those familiar Vegas elements originated in director George Sidney’s movie, only to become embedded in the pop-culture consciousness via countless other films and TV series.
Presley has become synonymous with Las Vegas, and “Viva Las Vegas” is a major reason why. He seems perfectly at home in town, playing aspiring race car driver Lucky Jackson, who’s hoping to enter the first-ever Las Vegas Grand Prix. Lucky is also hoping to win over Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), the pool manager at the Flamingo, where he’s staying. He attempts to scrape together enough money to buy anew motor for his car, so he can defeat the smarmy, rich Italian driver Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova).
There’s not much to the plot, which, as inmost of Presley’s movies, is mainly an excuse to string together some musical numbers. The song “Viva Las Vegas” has justifiably become iconic (and is performed three times), although the rest of the songs are less memorable. Sidney, who directed classic Hollywood musicals like “The Harvey Girls,” “Show Boat,” and “Kiss Me Kate,” knows how to put on as how, staging vibrant set pieces for the songs, and showcasing Las Vegas in gorgeous, vivid colors.
From the pastels of the Flamingo pool area to the camel statues outside the Sahara to the neon lights of Fremont, Sidney makes Vegas look like exactly the kind of immersive wonderland that Presley sings about.
It’s not just the hotel-casinos that get the starring role here, either. The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead have ample screen time, and Rusty educates Lucky on their history as the pair take a helicopter trip outside of town, just like modern Vegas visitors. Rusty even reveals that she was born in Las Vegas after her father moved to town to work on the construction of the Hoover Dam.
You might not expect a Vegas history lesson in the middle of a silly Elvis movie, but “Viva Las Vegas” makes the most of its setting. There’s a dance number on a giant roulette wheel, and another in what’s meant to be the UNLV gym. It’s a candy-coated, pop-music version of Las Vegas, but it acknowledges that people have roots here and care about the town. When Lucky and Rusty get married in the movie’s somewhat abrupt finale, they have the ceremony at the Little Church of the West downtown, setting the stage for future Elvis-themed weddings for decades to come.
In her co-lead role, Ann-Margret matches Presley every bit of the way, from her singing to her charisma to her dazzling looks, and this movie makes a case that she should have become a Vegas icon, too. Sidney became so connected to Vegas that he lived out his later years in town, often giving guest lectures to UNLV film students. That’s the power of this silly Elvis movie.
“Viva Las Vegas” is streaming on HBO Max.
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