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May 20, 2014, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of a movie. Not just any movie, but one that has become iconic. The movie was Viva Las Vegas.
The director was George Sidney, a veteran of such great musicals as Anchor’s Aweigh, Kiss Me Kate, and Bye Bye Birdie. He had filmed some of his movies in Las Vegas. Later, he married Corinne Entratter, the widow of the boss of the Sands, Jack Entratter.
The stars of the movie were well connected to Las Vegas, too. In 1960, Ann-Margret had been appearing in the lounge at the Dunes. She came to the attention of George Burns, who included her in his show at the Sahara, and her career skyrocketed from there. She would headline in Las Vegas from the 1960s into the 1990s.
Then there was the lead actor in Viva Las Vegas who also sang its legendary title song. Yes, Elvis Presley. Remember that Elvis had performed only once in Las Vegas, in 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel. He hadn’t gone over well. He was only twenty-one. He was much younger than his audience, and his singing style was less popular with that age group. But Viva Las Vegas proved to be one of his biggest films and helped connect him with the area long before his incredible run at The International, later the Hilton.
Las Vegas itself also was a star of the movie. It opens with a helicopter shot of downtown. Then the camera moves down the Strip to the Flamingo, where the first action takes place. Filming also was done at what was then the gym at the southern regional division of the University of Nevada. Today that building is the Marjorie Barrick Museum at UNLV. The Little Church of the West also appears in the film. The gun club at the Thunderbird Hotel shows up, and the film also spends some time at Lake Mead.
The plot has Elvis as a race car driver headed to Las Vegas for the city’s first annual grand prix. His character ends up with two goals. One is to make enough money to pay for a new engine for his car. The other is to win the love of the swimming instructor played by Ann-Margret. The auto race ends up providing moviegoers with a tour of southern Nevada, from downtown Las Vegas to Hoover Dam.
Viva Las Vegas did well at the box office. Not with the critics, who generally dismissed it as fluff. But many of them also agreed that Elvis and Ann-Margret had great chemistry, and that her performance made it an improvement over his other films—as Sidney said, it helped him to have a strong leading lady. That didn’t please Presley’s manager, Tom Parker, who kept trying to get her role and screen time reduced.
But Elvis got several hit songs out of the film, and one song in particular stood out then and stands out now. He sang Viva Las Vegas three times during the film and it remains a kind of unofficial anthem for a bright light city that still can set your soul on fire.