I’ve hit another milestone—Viva Las Vegas! Now we’re getting into Elvis’ second wind, as both of the following films include well-known leading ladies—Ann-Margret in Vegas and Barbara Stanwyck in Roustabout. I’ve gotta say, having at least one other good actor in these Elvis movies improves them tenfold. Elvis isn’t bad on his own, but when he’s surrounded by blandness—in the script and otherwise—he tends to turn off. These films aren’t going to win a MENSA award anytime soon, but you’d think the producers would have made more of an effort to keep them enjoyable. Both Ann-Margret and Barbara Stanwyck really help elevate both films into the ‘watchable’ category:
Viva Las Vegas (1964) | 85 min.
Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) comes to Nevada in hopes of entering his hand-built race car into the Las Vegas Grand Prix. There’s just one snag—he needs to save up the money to buy a motor for it. While at the mechanic’s, he happens to meet Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova) an affable italian racer with whom Lucky immediately starts up a friendly rivalry with. But the real competition doesn’t start until Rusty (Ann-Margret) saunters in with car trouble and speeds off without giving anybody her name or number.
Lucky and Mancini spend the rest of the night trawling every nightclub in Vegas in search of Rusty (y’know, the good ol’ days before Facebook, when men just had to do some old-fashioned, honest-to-god stalking). They eventually find her working as a swimming instructor at a hotel, and both immediately start hitting on her. Lucky scores the first date, which involves watching Rusty dance like a maniac on a college stage and ends with a montage of hypothetical activities, from motor biking to cowboy showdowns—anything he can do she can do better.
Eventually, Rusty decides she’s in love with Lucky, but then immediately has a change of heart—with his lack of a real job and his dangerous racing habit, Lucky is too impractical of a choice for husband material. So she storms off, and he storms off, but then she comes back around once he buys her a tree (don’t ask). Rusty runs to apologize to Lucky, but he’s too busy being annoyed that Mancini went and paid off some debt for him. He was planning on entering a talent show for the hotel he worked in to win that money. Rusty, angry that Lucky is ignoring him now that she was ready to take him back, tells him to get bent because she’s in the talent show too and she’s gonna win.
Lucky ends up winning, but it’s too late to buy his motor. Until, gasp, his pal Shorty (Nicky Blair) rolls up with a brand new motor! Nobody will tell Lucky how they bought it, but they have 24 hours to install it before the race starts. Meanwhile, Rusty loves Lucky so much she now hates him, and so she shows up at the track to cook him dinner but also to get in the way—a painful scene in which Rusty keeps getting under the hood and bungling the installation as she unplugs drills to plug in blenders. (Boys be workin’ on cars and women be makin’ lunch.) It takes Lucky threatening to shoot Rusty if she doesn’t get the hell outta the way for her to get her the hell outta the way. (Women!)
They install the motor just in time, and enter the race. It’s a race all around Nevada, starting and ending in Las Vegas. To Rusty’s credit, it is pretty dangerous, and I’m sure several people died while making this film.
This movie is short as hell and it feels entirely rushed. Huge emotional revelations happen in a matter of minutes—I’m pretty sure from the time Rusty says she’ll never get married, to her falling in love with Lucky, to her saying she wants a white picket fence if she gets married, to her realizing Rusty can’t give her the life she wants, to her breaking up with Rusty, to her then running to apologize to Rusty happens in literally 10 minutes of this movie. Between the pacing and the flashing neon lights, this movie will give you whiplash. For a movie that was somehow over budget, I’m not sure why they did such a hack job on the editing. In certain parts of the movie, people aren’t even in the same place on screen when the camera jumps to a different angle.
I’m also not sure why these movies keep trying to jam in so many different themes. It’s called Viva Las Vegas, but there’s barely any gambling in it—in fact, they spend more time talking about the Hoover Dam. And the other half of the movie is about racing, which honestly I could have done without. I wanted to see more of the chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret. There is, at least, a ridiculous montage of every showgirl show in Vegas—it adds nothing to the plot, but I’ll admit their costumes and routines are so bizarre it has its charm.
The good, however, is that Ann-Margret is fun, and Elvis finally has some decent material to work with. Viva Las Vegas, at its best, is a romantic comedy starring two attractive but immature kids. The scene in which Lucky crashes Rusty’s revenge date with Mancini is genuinely funny due to Elvis’ comedic timing and over-the-top clumsiness. Elvis also does some great pouting in this movie; the perfect balance of immature and believable. Ann-Margret is the queen of crazy expressions, and truly at her best when she’s being silly; but I won’t lie, she’s pretty easy on the eyes as well. Unfortunately, as the movie goes on it relies more and more on obvious sexism jokes—such as Rusty suddenly snapping into a housewife role—which really bring down the quality.
All in all, this is one of the more enjoyable ones, despite its flaws. I’ll give it an extra half star just for Ann-Margret, who really made me realize just how bad the acting by his romantic interests has been thus far. It’s a shame she and Elvis didn’t have another movie together—maybe one a bit more thoughtful, like Wild in the Country. I think they could have pulled it off well.
Best Song: Has to be “Viva Las Vegas,” of course. Here’s one where if you do nothing else, you need to watch this video. This video on its own is like a goddamn fever dream. If David Lynch directed Elvis, it would look like this video—huge black shadows shrouding the stage, flashing purple and yellow lights, feverish drums by men without faces, twitching showgirls on pedestals, and Elvis dripping in sweat and unable to stop moving. I can almost see Elvis’ eyes rolling to the back of his head as blood drips down one nostril and from his ears, the song reaching its fever pitch and the lyrics starting to come out backwards—okay, it’s not that nuts, but it’s just about. No kidding, you gotta watch this.
3 out of 5 stars,
3 out of 5 Elvises
Roustabout (1964) | 101 min.
Charlie Rogers (Presley) is an angsty musician with a leather jacket, a Japanese motorcycle, and a real knack for getting the shit beaten out of him. After getting into a fight with a group of Ivy League douches and getting bailed out of jail by his female coworker, Charlie decides to unceremoniously up and leave town in search of something better. While on the road, he notices an attractive girl, Cathy (Joan Freeman) in the back seat of a Jeep. He tries his best to flirt while driving, but Cathy’s volatile father Joe (Leif Erickson) responds by literally driving Charlie off the road and into a fence. His wife and Cathy then force him to pull over and check on the poor guy.
The wife introduces herself as Maggie (Barbara Stanwyck), a straight-talking and intelligent woman who runs a carnival in town. (Why she’s married to a belligerent drunkard, the world may never know.) She volunteers to pay for the damages—both the bent motorbike and the bleeding head wound—and with nowhere else to go, Charlie decides to hitch a ride with them back to the carnival. With his bike at the repair shop until the end of the week, and a wandering eye for the ladies, he ends up taking a job working at the carnival. They eventually find out he’s a terrific singer and book him to play concerts every day.
As the money rolls in, so does the competition—Harry Carver (Pat Buttram) runs a a rival carnival and offers Charlie a sweet deal if he’ll jump ship to come work for him. Charlie keeps this in his hat until an incident where a douchebag carnival goer loses his wallet, causing Joe to be unfairly arrested. Charlie just so happens to find the wallet on the ground and is about to go turn it in to the police in order to spring Joe when he decides flirting with Cathy is more important. Bad move Charlie, because once Maggie and Cathy realize he had the wallet this whole time and unfairly left Joe to rot in jail overnight, they are furious—Maggie tells Charlie he doesn’t know anything about love or family and he’s a selfish terrible person.
So, Charlie basically says ‘screw you all’ and totally forsakes Maggie and Cathy for the rival carnival. (Sounds like Maggie nailed it with the ‘selfish’ description, but then again, they did also hit him with a car, so, touché.) Once Charlie leaves, Maggie’s carnival is suddenly going under, and the bank is now nipping at their heels. Will Cathy forgive him for what he did to her dad and also those other women he was making out with that I forgot to mention? Will Maggie be able to keep her carnival running? Will Charlie learn that if you wanna bang a chick, you gotta not drive her family business into the ground?
At its best, Roustabout is simple and fun. I’d definitely be happy to see more angsty Elvis motorbiking movies—honestly, him getting driven off the road by and angry old man felt like a G-rated prototype of Easy Rider. Had the film been just Elvis going from place to place on motorbike trying to make a buck and dealing with the shitty attitudes of the older generation, I woulda been pretty happy. Alas, it stops at the carnival and stays there—but at least there’s tough ol’ Barbara Stanwyck to keep it interesting. While the dialogue is mostly throwaway and the situations are pretty low stakes, the mix of the two characters—edgy, Brooklyn-accented Barbara teaching loaner Elvis to get over himself and work in a family unit—is fun to watch.
Elvis looks like he’s enjoying himself in this one, and it’s probably because they gave him a relatable character. As the James Dean-esque orphan with a guitar, a motorcycle, and some karate skills, he really shines. Elvis apparently insisted on doing his own stunts; the scar he gets on his forehead at the beginning of the film was written in to accommodate it and keep filming on schedule. He also gets the shit beaten out of him multiple times in this film, from the motorcycle accident to getting his ass whooped by drunk ol’ Joe several times—bonus Elvis point for that.
One thing I didn’t expect from this movie is how solid the soundtrack is. There isn’t really one truly bad song in the bunch—they’re all pretty enjoyable, if not amusing. From the song about shitting on Ivy League schools to the staged number about marrying a prostitute, the music in Roustabout is just plain fun. They’re also presented in a real context, and well staged for the most part. When the music is good in these films, it immediately adds a level of excitement to the goings-on, flimsy plot be damned.
All in all, I enjoyed Roustabout, despite the fact that they use the term ‘roustabout’ about fifteen hundred times in the film.
Best Song: As I said, there’s a ton of good music in this—even down to the little jingle Elvis sings before his carnival shows. “One Track Mind“ is the best actual song, but “Little Egypt” is definitely the weirdest, in both presentation and lyrics. Seriously… it’s bizarre.
3 out of 3 stars,
3 1/2 out of 5 Elvises