Viva Las Vegas (1964) is generally regarded as the quintessential Elvis Presley film of the 1960s: Colorful, splashy, and filled with pretty girls, fast cars, and Elvis (of course) getting into a fistfight as he courts the lovely Ann-Margret. Elvis sings a dozen songs, both solo and in duet with Ann, and there are actually a few good ones, including "Come On Everybody" and the Ray Charles classic "What'd I Say."
Movie trivia: watch Viva Las Vegas closely and you will spot a young Teri Garr as a showgirl. Garr actually appeared as an extra in nine Elvis films.
Elvis sings the title song with his trademark panache and the story is at least somewhat believable. Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a race car driver and mechanic who courts the beautiful Rusty Martin, played by Ann-Margret. Rusty, sexy but unresponsive in the beginning, eventually ends up falling for Lucky (surprise surprise). The onscreen chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret was clear and undeniable.
And, in a rare instance for the lowly-regarded Elvis films, Viva Las Vegas was actually given a grade-A director. George Sidney, a Hollywood directing legend, had an impressive track record at the time, having been at the helm of such musical classics as Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Pal Joey (1957), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Show Boat (1951).
By 1963, at the time of filming, Elvis was already getting bored, tired, and wary of his alway money-making formula films. Elvis, without a doubt the biggest star in show business, still aspired to be a great actor like his idols James Dean and Marlon Brando. But his manager, the irrepressible Colonel Tom Parker, made sure his boy continued churning out the puerile musicals that were inevitably box office bonanzas. Viva Las Vegas was filmed on a a one million dollar budget and grossed almost ten million dollars globally -an astronomical figure for early '60s cinema.
Elvis met Ann-Margret on the set at rehearsals and greeted her with "I hear you're the female me." (Ann was being touted as "the Female Elvis Presley" at the time.) By all accounts, the incredible chemistry between the two superstars existed offscreen as well as on. It became apparent to all of Elvis' closest friends that he had fallen head over heels in love with his beautiful, sexy, young co-star.
Ann-Margret was so electric and dynamic in the film that Colonel Tom Parker actually got upset that she was "being given too many closeups." Parker believed the sexy redhead was going to steal the movie from Elvis. He went to the producers and director and demanded that Elvis be given equal screen time and closeups, and told them to stop favoring Ann. This definitely marks the first and only time anyone, Colonel or otherwise, ever accused or worried about anyone stealing a movie from Elvis Presley.
In the film, Elvis and Ann get married in a staged wedding scene. Several of the contemporary tabloids published photos of the movie wedding, as if it had actually happened in real life. This was quite upsetting to Elvis' 18-year-old live-in girlfriend, Priscilla Beaulieu.
Priscilla, naturally jealous after hearing the rumors about her fiancé and the gorgeous Ann-Margret, angrily confronted Elvis. Although a powerful offscreen romance really was in full bloom between the King and young Ann, Elvis used his usual strategy when confronted by a suspicious girlfriend. He simply denied everything. Elvis used the "deny everything" philosophy all through his adult life with Priscilla, who became his wife, and with every previous and future girlfriend he ever was to have.
Although, as we know, Elvis and Priscilla were to be married a few years later, Elvis intimates all agree that Ann-Margret was the greatest love of his life. Elvis would light up whenever he saw Ann. Witnesses testify that the happiest they ever saws Elvis was when he was with Ann-Margret and the two went off motorcycling or horseback riding together. Elvis and Ann would sit around talking and laughing for hours together.
Ann-Margret never had a show opening without Elvis sending her a huge "good luck" bouquet of flowers. Touchingly, to the end of his life, Ann would always be called "Rusty" or "Rusty Ammo" by Elvis. Ann-Margret, a truly classy lady, never elaborates about her romance with Elvis in public, to this day.
Sadly, Viva Las Vegas was pretty much Elvis' last shot at making a great movie. It remains a camp and cult classic and is watched fondly by Elvis' legion of fans all over the world. Steven Spielberg named the film as one of his all-time favorites.
The quality of Elvis Presley films fell precipitously after Viva Las Vegas' release in May of 1964. And Elvis Presley, who had truly conquered the world of music and entertainment, still left it with an unfulfilled (at least to himself) cinematic career.
The Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night was to premiere less than two months after Viva Las Vegas, and the unofficial death knell for the Elvis Presley era was ringing loud and clear. Although, interestingly, over the years Viva Las Vegas has actually financially outgrossed A Hard Day's Night, when TV screenings are included. Viva Las Vegas remains a beloved TV favorite and is always to be found on somewhere, still delighting Elvis fans and constantly being seen by new generations. Viva Las Vegas is also Elvis' biggest-selling hit on video and DVD.
As harmless and campy as it seems today, Viva Las Vegas was actually banned when it was first released. Viva Las Vegas was banned in Gozo, the sister island of Malta. Showings at Gozo's Aurora Theater were cancelled after Catholic authorities protested the film. The Gozo College of Parish Priests condemned the film as "indecent." During mass, one priest asked his congregation to protest the film and avoid seeing it. Gozo is the only place in the world that objected to the film.