Thursday, July 10, 2008

“Las Vegas Nights”: Sinatra’s Feature Debut

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Las Vegas Nights, which TCM showed last Wednesday as part of their month-long tribute to big bands on film and which I’d seen once before, on a late-night showing in the 1970’s. I remember back then the thing that most impressed me about it was the second-unit footage at the opening showing what Las Vegas looked like before the post-war development of the Flamingo Hotel and the other famous resorts on the “Strip,” back when what Vegas was selling was a rustic cowboy atmosphere coupled with Nevada’s other two unique tourist attractions, legal gambling and easy divorces.

Las Vegas Nights is best known (if at all) for being Frank Sinatra’s first feature-length film (six years earlier, in 1935, he’d done a short with his original group, the Hoboken Four, as part of Major Edward Bowes’ Amateur Hour — the American Idol of the 1930’s — in which he sings lead on the vocal group’s rendition of “Shine”; the soundtrack has been preserved and represents the earliest known recording of Sinatra’s voice, four years before he made his first commercial records, “From the Bottom of My Heart” and “Melancholy Mood” with Harry James), though he’s barely in it at all: as one of Tommy Dorsey’s band singers (apparently Dorsey, too, was making his feature-film debut here!) standing in the middle of the Pied Pipers (three men and a woman, Jo Stafford, all of whom tower over him), he croons the opening chorus of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” his first hit, mostly in long shot, though he gets a medium-close shot for about four bars before the camera cuts away from him to a dialogue scene between two of the story characters.

The plotlet — the script is by Harry Clork and Ernest Pagano with additional dialogue by Eddie Welch — deals with a vaudeville act, the Jennings Sisters (Constance Moore, Lillian Cornell and Virginia Dale) and Stu Grant (Bert Wheeler, three years after the death of his on-screen partner Robert Woolsey, playing the husband of Virginia Dale’s character), who come to Las Vegas to claim an inheritance and find the inheritance is an old, broken-down frontier trading post whose only value is that a multimillionaire developer from L.A., William Stevens (Henry Kolker), wants it because it’s in the middle of a site where he wants to build a multi-story hotel — which would be Vegas’s first one, it seems; all the places we actually get to see are rather seedy single-story restaurants with casinos attached, and only one, the Nevada Club, has a nightclub floor and a bandstand big enough to accommodate Tommy Dorsey’s performances. Level-headed Norma Jennings (Constance Moore) wins $1,500 at the tables their first night in Vegas and she wants to keep the money as a nest egg, but her idiot brother-in-law gambles it away at a “double-or-nothing” parlor and, of course, emerges with nothing.

So, when they decide to turn their trading post into a nightclub, the Jenningses end up in hock to Hank Bevis (Hank Ladd), all-around fixer (a sort of parody on the role Richard Dix played in Reno) and corrupt attorney who’s trying to bankrupt them so they’ll have to sell the property to him, whereupon he in turn will sell it to Stevens and make a tidy profit. Only Stevens’ son Bill (Phil Regan) falls in love with Norma and eventually the two of them extract $46,000 from Stevens père and cut Bevis out of the deal altogether, while the Jenningses become a hit as part of Tommy Dorsey’s floor show.

Las Vegas Nights is an indifferent movie as far as quality is concerned, but it has its charms. Bert Wheeler isn’t one of them; as much as I’ve come to love his films with Woolsey, by the time this one was made Woolsey had been dead for three years and watching Wheeler without Woolsey is about as funny as watching Abbott without Costello. Wheeler has some good moments, including a genuinely funny scene in which he runs into Tommy Dorsey at the nightclub during a rehearsal and boasts that he and Dorsey are “just like that,” holding two fingers together and spinning ever-taller tales about how close he and Dorsey — “We used to call him ‘Stinky,’” he says — were in the old days. A skeptical Dorsey offers to bet him $10 that “you wouldn’t know Dorsey if you met him face-to-face,” and after feigning reluctance Wheeler puts his $10 down next to Dorsey’s, then turns to him, tells him, “You’re Dorsey,” and pockets the bet. Late in the film he and two of the other characters revive the famous slapping scene he and Woolsey did in Rio Rita, first on stage and then in the film.

Wheeler also gets to sing the song “Dolores” (by Lou Alter and Frank Loesser), though some sources (notably Clive Hirschhorn in The Hollywood Musical) insist that Sinatra sings it in the film (the confusion is understandable because Dorsey and Sinatra recorded “Dolores” together and, not surprisingly, Sinatra’s version aces Wheeler’s); he performs it not only with the Dorsey band but also with a ghastly ensemble of three unkempt Mexican buskers. It’s not that great a song (none of the songs in Las Vegas Nights are that great, but none are outright terrible, either), and it’s inexplicable that, in an era in which the Academy Award nominations for Best Song were handled by the studios rather than the Academy — each company submitted one song that had been in a film of theirs that year and had never been performed professionally before, and from that list the Academy voters picked the winner — Paramount would have chosen this over Victor Schertzinger’s, Jimmy Van Heusen’s and Johnny Mercer’s great songs from the Bing Crosby vehicles The Birth of the Blues and The Road to Zanzibar.

Virginia Vale gets to do a number with pigeons, Lillian Cornell gets to sing a quasi-operatic number called “On Miami Shore” (written by the film’s producer, William LeBaron, with Victor Jacobi) which is wildly inappropriate for a movie with a major swing band. Constance Moore is confined to harmony parts on songs with titles like “Southern Hospitality” and “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” and a personable romance with Regan, and of course it all ends happily — the Jenningses get $46,000 for their property, Norma gets Bill Stevens, Jr. and the good guys get their chance at stardom while no-goodnik Hank Bevis gets his chance at jail.

It’s not much of a movie, rather flatly directed by Ralph Murphy (who as Ralph Francis Murphy did some of the better Mr. and Mrs. North TV episodes but here seems flat and dull, except for a couple of setups he and the great cinematographer William C. Mellor achieve that look convincingly but inappropriately noir for a story like this) and without a truly great song (Dorsey’s previous hits, “Song of India” — played in a subtly different fashion from his 1937 record, with a much more florid and less incisive trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman than Bunny Berigan’s original and with less subtle but more barbaric drumming by Buddy Rich than Dave Tough’s on the record — and “I’ll Never Smile Again,” tower above the film’s new songs), but with an infectious charm that gets us over some less-than-stellar acting and an overly predictable script. — 7/7/08