As it’s since become not only one of the most popular records in his entire career but also the unofficial theme song to Sin City, in retrospect, it’s mind-boggling to discover that Elvis Presley’s then under-marketed movie title song “Viva Las Vegas” would reach only #29 on the Billboard Music Charts in its original release.
Foolishly relegated to the B-side of his Ray Charles cover “What’d I Say?” (which the record company had dropped as the lead single just three weeks earlier), executives hoping to double down on interest wound up pitting one track by the King against another.
But although “Say” won more fans in the states in its original battle of airplay and listener requests, the film in which both songs were first performed onscreen had far greater appeal with everyday filmgoers and Elvis fans alike as ticket-buyers turned the 1964 release into the eleventh highest grossing picture of the year as Presley’s biggest box office hit.
Timing its new Digibook debut to Elvis Week – while cinematically speaking Viva’s dueling dual release of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is has the most bang for its buck given that it’s bowing on Blu-ray for the first time and boasts two versions in one – Viva’s collectible photo filled book makes it a must for fans of Presley’s slick crowd-pleasing endeavor.
Likewise, it’s a welcome treat for those eager to own Vegas on its own as opposed to packaged together in WB’s previous 3 film set release four years ago when it made its high definition debut alongside Jailhouse Rock and Elvis on Tour.
The first of a handful of feature films to be choreographed by West Side Story actor David Winters (whose innovative work still dazzles in the film’s whopping ten song and dance numbers), Viva Las Vegas showcases Elvis at the peak of his charismatic powers as a screen performer.
Admittedly of course, the chemistry between Presley and Ann-Margret is palpable from their earliest scenes together onscreen. Nonetheless, it’s still fascinating to go back and look at the studio’s potent hype machine in action, given the PR memos and publicity loglines included in the collectible book which reveal the strategic plans MGM had to capitalize on the sex appeal of its newest starlet.
But holding her own opposite the King in what was – throughout Presley’s pictures a traditionally thankless part for young women certain to be upstaged in ever-interchangeable turns as “the girl” or love interest – Viva’s Ann-Margret proved she was more of a match for Elvis than MGM’s bosses had ever anticipated.
From instructions for advertisers to “make [a] large blow up of this rear, sensuous view” of her rear complete with the teaser pitch of “Who is she? We can’t tell you yet but we can say that she is the most lovely, talented dish to hit the screens in many a year,” the PR department instructed fans to “watch for her.”
And as Viva Las Vegas proved back in 1964 (and today once again thanks to this gorgeous release), those in Ann-Margret’s orbit both offscreen in the form of film fans and onscreen in the form of her visibly mesmerized costar – The King of Rock ‘n Roll – were only too happy to oblige.
Original Blu-ray Review
(From the release of Elvis: Blu-ray Collection - Published 8/17/10)
Whereas Jailhouse Rock excelled at showcasing Presley's promise as an actor, Viva Las Vegas served as one of the King's most quintessentially '60s splashy MGM Elvis musical confections.
Reuniting with his Bye Bye Birdie star Ann-Margret, acclaimed director George Sidney (Pal Joey, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate) managed to get an unlimited amount of mileage out of the sizzling sexual chemistry shared between the two leads, making their onscreen professions of motor revving race car driver (Elvis) and smoking hot swimming instructor and pool manager (Ann-Margret) seem especially fitting.
And sure enough it's all the two could do to keep their hands off of one another offscreen which infuriated his wife Priscilla when word and far too many photos spread back to Graceland.
With this in mind, it's extremely easy to predict that soon after Grand Prix driver Lucy Jackson (Presley) meets Swedish siren Ann-Margret's sweet-natured Rusty Martin, her resolve that she's “one gal [he'll] never get,” will disappear as soon as the two share a dance.
And dance they do in the production number filled Viva which finds Elvis singing even more than usual onscreen in some true toe-tappers, offering us his own rendition of Ray Charles' “What'd I Say” along with the sensational show-stopping title track which was filmed in a single take with only one camera, illustrating his high degree of perfectionism as a performer.
Sadly however it's bogged down by its one-dimensional screenplay from otherwise talented Shadow of a Doubt scribe Sally Benson perhaps best known for her stories which inspired MGM's Meet Me in St. Louis.
And while the admittedly corny and forgettable Las Vegas doesn't offer anything new in the realm of Elvis pictures, it nonetheless entertains the hell out of us from the confines of his traditional fast-paced rhythm and racing paradigm.
Once dubbed “the female Elvis,” sultry Ann-Margret is on sex kitten overload. She dives headfirst from her initially wholesome Esther Williams style introduction into an approach that goes beyond Marilyn Monroe's innocent pin-up into more aggressively carnal terrain, growling like a tiger at the camera while never failing to shake her moneymaker even when she's walking in a straight line.
To this end, it hinges on camp at times, abandoning the cinematically refreshing approach of Elvis musical realism in the “Viva” number with some laughable montages as the characters undergo endless costume and scenery changes in a single date straight out of various sound stages off the MGM backlot.
All the same, while it's just as impossible to take seriously as other Presley productions of that particular decade and George Sidney's ambitious nature to cram a dozen pictures into one gives it a bit of a variety show feel, Viva Las Vegas still remains a sunshine bright work of escapism.
And in this high definition presentation, Vegas is augmented even more with WB's diamond flawless Blu-ray transfer that races into your living room with vivid colors, scintillating chemistry, and pitch-perfect musical numbers.
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