In Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for the movie Pulp Fiction, there is a scene in which Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega that there are essentially only two kinds of people in the world, Beatles people and Elvis people. The two don’t mix, according to Mia, and they never change allegiance.
The scene did not ultimately make it into the finished film, but having read the screenplay back in 1993 before the film had actually been shot, I remember this moment of witty dialogue, fondly.
I am, however, an exception to Quentin’s rule.
While I am most assuredly a Beatles guy today, my first real musical obsession was in fact, The King, whom I “discovered” as a five-year-old, after seeing one of his movies on television.
I can remember being transfixed by his musical performances in the film and by the way he moved on screen. Because of this, I spent the majority of my early childhood an “Elvis person.” The movie that did it for me? Viva Las Vegas, the subject of this month’s chapter of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Viva Las Vegas, produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was the fifteenth feature film that Elvis starred in. It was helmed by veteran director George Sidney of Anchors Away, Ziegfeld Follies and Bye Bye Birdie fame. The film was based on a script by Meet me in St. Louis screenwriter, Sally Benson. Joining Elvis on screen was female lead Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova and William Demarest.
Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, an up and coming race car driver who arrives in Las Vegas to compete in the town’s first Grand Prix to be run through the desert and the streets of the Vegas Strip. His racecar, however, is in need of a replacement engine.
Raising the funds he needs for the motor at a craps table, he then loses the money when he is pushed into a hotel swimming pool by the leggy and coquettish swim instructor, Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), whom Lucky has become smitten by.
Forced to become a waiter at the hotel to pay off his room charges, Lucky embarks on an effort to win Rusty’s affections. At the same time, Lucky seeks to beat her in a talent contest that could afford him a cash prize to pay off his debt and purchase the new engine for his car.
Lucky’s competition for both the Grand Prix and Rusty’s heart is a fellow racer, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesere Danova). Rusty eventually chooses Lucky as the man for her, but problems arise when she attempts to steer him away from racing, a sport she worries will lead to his injury or death.
With Lucky and Rusty’s relationship on the skids, and Lucky seemingly nowhere close to having the money to buy the new engine, it seems as though everything is lost. That is, until Rusty’s soft-natured father surreptitiously purchases the engine and manipulates his daughter into joining him and Lucky in helping to install it in Lucky’s car in time for the Grand Prix.
If after reading this you are saying to yourself, “Wow. That is no Romeo and Juliet,” you’d be right. Viva Las Vegas is an entirely silly, cotton-candy affair, with a simplistic plot, and hopelessly over-the-top performances that are typical of romantic comedies of the period, but it is not a film without its charms.
For one thing, the chemistry between the two leads is palpable, and both are nearly too pretty to be real. What’s more, the musical performances in the film are simply top notch, and the film as a whole comes off today as a nostalgic, kitschy look back at Rat-Pack era Vegas in its prime.
The film is also technically fairly good, with abounding, beautiful night shots of the Strip and Downtown Las Vegas radiating in blazing, early-sixties Technicolor, and some fairly seamless editing is present as well. The sound work is also superior for a movie from this time, but what really shines in the movie are Elvis’ four-wheeled co-stars.
Lucky’s whip is a lithe racing car called an Elva Mark VI that was produced in England in the mid to late 1950s. It consisted of a tubular space frame with four-wheel independent suspension with transverse wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shocks, and a Maserati engine mounted underneath a lightweight fiberglass body. The 15″ wheels were cast magnesium. A tiny racer at only 12 feet in length, the Elva nonetheless makes a big impression in the film.
Count Mancini’s car is, for me, the most fabulous in the film, though. It’s a 1958 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Tour de France long wheelbase coupe, a car that is worth millions today. Only 77 Tour de France cars were built, and were crafted for Ferrari by Scaglieti, based on a design by Pininfarina. It sported a 3.0 liter Colombo V12, good for more than 250 bhp. The car in the movie looks resplendent in traditional Rosso Corsa Italian racing red, and I must admit that I paused the movie several times to get a good look at it when watching it for this review. It is quite simply stunning.
There are a host of other amazing cars in the film, ranging from a 1962 Shelby Cobra 260 to C2 Corvettes, Jaguar XK120s, Mercedes 300SL Roadsters, and a bevy of Triumphs and Austin Healeys.
Some phony-looking rear projection shots aside, the race is extremely well photographed, even though it is a bit short for being the film’s payoff. Some fairly crazy stunts are performed in it, and it is simply amazing to see Lucky’s Elva, and the Count’s Ferrari duel in the desert.
Viva Las Vegas is a dinosaur from the past – a corny romantic comedy that nonetheless succeeds in entertaining. I’ll admit that without the racing angle and the collection of awesome cars in it, I’d be bored to tears by the love story that dominates the picture, but thankfully they are there.
While not quite the awe-inspiring movie that I initially thought it to be at the age of five, Viva Las Vegas is worth the watch, and I give it six and a half out of ten pistons.