I mentioned the other day that wartime sailor musicals are one of my newly discovered favorite subgenres of musicals, and in that spirit, I’ve identified another worthy subgenre from my explorations: Las-Vegas-based musicals from the 1950s and 1960s. Not only do you get the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley at their peaks, but as a whole, the city of Las Vegas was really a unique cultural institution in this era as well–and as a city of constant reinvention, it’s unlikely to replicate this particular blend of style, danger, and opulence again.
Meet Me in Las Vegas is a cutesy example of this subgenre, a fluffy little thing that’s part romance, part sci-fi, and all bathed in neon light. Cyd Charisse is wonderfully showcased as Maria Corvier, a very serious ballerina who’s been imported to the Vegas from Paris. I’m not sure if ballet was ever big on the Strip at any time, but it’s a funny concept to consider in today’s incarnation of it at least. In any case, Maria doesn’t quite understand the nature of the “Strip” show, has a bit of a meltdown when she finds out that people are going to be chowing down on steaks and martinis during her performance, and storms out onto the casino floor. There, she runs into Chuck Rodwell (Dan Dailey), who’s been grabbing cocktail waitresses left and right to hold their hand for luck as he spins the roulette wheel. Normally, I’d assume this was a sort of hamhanded attempt at an icebreaker, but Chuck really seems to believe in the powers of the hand-hold, and he never really pursues anything further with the hands in question after the wheel’s stopped spinning.
Except, that is, with Maria. Because when he holds Maria’s hand, he suddenly can’t lose. Roulette, slot machines–the whole casino is theirs… but only if they’re holding hands. Of course, this proves difficult at first, because Maria’s the classic haughty, slightly snobbish dancer, and Chuck’s a good-ole-boy rancher from outside of town. I won’t spoil anything, like that maybe they start out hating each other and then begin to fall in love or anything… but there’s only so much variety you get in musical comedies of this type.
Charisse really gets to shine here, and this is a great spotlight for her to do some magnificent modern ballet numbers. She really was one of the film’s finest ballerinas, and I love seeing her as the star. She also has a pretty funny drunken number where she gets up on stage with some real Vegas showgirls, and failingly tries to emulate their moves.
I was really surprised by the commitment given to the supernatural element, in regards to the luck generated by the hand-holding, but it was a fun, unique spin to what could have been the same old nice story. They do all sorts of experiments with it, changing their variables, etc., to prove that it’s not just chance, which I thought was funny–it’s rare to see your characters on film be as potentially skeptical as the audience watching it. In the end, it’s not even really explained, except perhaps in the context of Someone wanting these two crazy kids to get together, but it’s one of those great, cutesy plots that you really only see in this era.
And the cameos! Yes, the cameos. There’s a kind of bizarre parade of unexpected cameos… Chuck and Maria test their powers on a man’s slot machine–as it starts exploding coins, he looks up and we realize it’s Frank Sinatra himself. Lena Horne appears for a number, as does Sammy Davis, Jr.–though for him, it’s his voice only. Debbie Reynolds, Pier Angeli, and Tony Martin all make brief appearances as well. Perhaps the most surprising sight for me was Peter Lorre–I don’t think I ever quite expect to see him in as sunny and bright a place as Las Vegas.
Overall, it’s a pretty simple story, elevated by a few surprises and Charisse’s always impeccable work. Though long only available on VHS (and TCM), it was recently released by Warner Archive, which always makes seeing these classics a bit easier.