Showmanship is somewhat of an intangible thing in a contemporary frame of reference as the performer that is all encompassing in skills, that also happens to perform the socially ascribed understanding of masculinity is somewhat rare. While Justin Timberlake is probably the only current example of this, it was in my mind a space only reserved for the likes of Fred Astaire and a few of the other classic crooners, although there could be a slighted case made for Tom Waits falling into this equation. Although that would result in its own rambling digression. I say this because my encounter with Viva Las Vegas led me to an appreciation for Elvis Presley as a showman, sure he is far from the world's best actor, but he delivers his lines with just enough Robert Mitchum inspired swagger to afford himself respect, particularly when placed within the larger scope of singing and dancing. Elvis could certainly belt out some lyrics and he was assuredly poised in his jive dancing. Indeed, the title song for Viva Las Vegas is most well known musically, but I am somewhat certain that I will no longer find myself capable of detaching it from swaying and swinging occurring within its reprise in the film. However, this is only one element of the film as it too proves to be a perfect consideration of how the male gaze works in film, perhaps even sufficing as the pinnacle of such occurrences. Where Laura Mulvey to have not engaged with a critique of Classic Hollywood through the scope of River of No Return, then this romp through Vegas showgirl bars, paired with a noted fascination on the figure of Ann-Margaret. This problem acknowledged, much like River of No Return, Viva Las Vegas is an absolute cinematic feast, one whose vibrant variant of Technicolor allows for its showy locations to glimmer and sparkle in all their neon excess, never pulling back the gaudiness during any of its 86 minute run time. Admittedly the film does meander around a bit, particularly during the closing race scenes, but in early sixties desire for a natural order, the film does return to the highly heteronormative in the most puritanical of senses. Be warned though, it is damn near impossible to not begin tapping one's foot during this musical.
Viva Las Vegas centers on the exploits and engagements of Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) an aspiring sports car racer and full-time mechanic. With his eye on a particularly high grade engine, Lucky gambles his money at a game of craps with success. However, even this good fortune does not prove quite enough to attain the engine instantly, particularly since the owner has yet to receive any form of compensation from Lucky. While in the works to attain his car, Lucky encounters Italian racing phenom Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova) whose own desires to win cause him to actively bribe Lucky into being his car-based bodyguard during the race, agreeing to lose to him in the process. The wild Jackson refuses flat out, instead suggesting that he can only play to win. However, understanding the power and skill present within Mancini, he asks to look under his hood to see what he is working with in terms of machinery. During this engagement a woman named Rusty Martin (Ann-Margaret) comes with the hopes of getting her car fixed, wherein her looks lead to another form of competition between Lucky and Mancini over her attraction and admiration. While it is rather clear that Rusty takes a liking to Lucky over Mancini, the aristocratic Italian finds ways to uses his economic wealth to his advantage, all the while Lucky is forced to work in service jobs to attain the money necessary to run in the race, a task made all the more difficult when during an encounter with Rusty he is knocked into a pool. While swimming out of the pool he loses his cash, only to have a precocious child throw it into a water drain. Understanding that it will take almost guile alone to win Rusty from Mancini, Lucky navigates his way into being their server during a romantic date, at which point Lucky makes Mancini out to be a fool and promotes his status as ideal in the process. Eventually Lucky does accrue the required money and races against Mancini and others winning the race and subsequently the hand of Rusty in the process, the two, one can assume, will go onto live their youth together as a mechanic and lifeguard respectively.
This movie is about male spaces, more so even than most war films or sports movies. This, mind you, is coming from a musical. However, I assure that this observation is well-grounded and extends to almost every portion of the film. This is primarily evidenced in the cinematic male gaze at play in the film, which is first realized through the legs of Ann-Margaret's Rusty as she ventures into the shop in which both Mancini and Lucky work, here the two men previously fixated on the undercarriage of a car, extend the same curious gaze outward to the physical features of Rusty, playing on the object nature of her body, particularly that thing which facilitates mobility. However, where the mobility is frozen by the gaze and Rusty cannot move without the help of the two men, both because her car is literally broken, but her legs are figuratively rusted as her name would suggest, until they allow her movement. This shared desire for driving and objectifying Rusty allows for a certain layer of the homosocial bond to occur, wherein both Lucky and Mancini can also objectify Rusty's otherness, particularly in contrast to their own masculine game playing. The otherness of Rusty allows the two to fight and claw, whilst ultimately blaming it on Rusty. Indeed, one of the earliest entries into my blog was regarding the 1926 silent film The Flesh and the Devil wherein I argued that it might be the greatest example of the homosocial bond in cinema, however, Viva Las Vegas does give it quite a run for its money. If this were not emphasis enough the interactions between Lucky and Rusty all revolve around his still hoping to attain a spot in a race and, subsequently victory, wherein Rusty devotes a musical number to her admitting a need to compete with a car. If the metaphor of the male space were only a mere passing though, this song and Rusty's internalization of her equating to a vehicle, assure viewers that in the world of Lucky and Mancini both women and cars are things to be driven and used for sport and leisure, indeed, the closing moments of this film revolving around a wedding would be simple and outwardly normative, the addition of the race prior only makes it a thing to be won. Marriage is a race for Lucky and Mancini with Rusty playing the part of the veritable trophy.
Key Scene: While it was probably not the best musical number of the entire film, I was particularly keen on The Yellow Rose of Texas as it showed the true breadth of Presley's performing chops.
This film is problematic, but it is equally watchable and worth the time of cinephiles and films theorists alike. Furthermore, it is quite easy to come by for a cheap price.