Monday, June 22, 2009

He Laughed Last (Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles our “feature,” a 1956 film called He Laughed Last that represented the last of Frankie Laine’s “B” starring vehicles for Columbia — and one of the weakest; I haven’t seen them all but the two we watched before this, On the Sunny Side of the Street and Bring Your Smile Along, were both stronger. The film opens with a bang — literally; a gangland assassination shot in as close to classic film noir style as director Blake Edwards (his second film in that capacity after a brief career as an actor and a longer but still pretty undistinguished one as a writer) and cinematographer Henry Freulich could get in late Technicolor — before the titles come up and the transition from the dark murder sequence to a light, uptempo piece of music that comes up as we see the name of the film spelled out in bullet holes is just the first of many jars we’re going to have to put up if we watch this film.

The basic problem with He Laughed Last is its creators, Edwards and Richard Quine (his directorial mentor and co-author of the screenplay), never quite decide whether they wanted it to be a gangster movie, a musical or a soap opera. It starts in 1935 with Laine playing “Gino Lupo” (the last name means “wolf” and it’s a surprise to see Frankie Laine, true name Frank Lo Vecchio, playing a character with the sort of openly Italian name he himself changed for his showbiz career), owner, manager and principal entertainer at a dying nightclub called the “Happy Club.” An old friend, a reporter, comes by the club to interview Gino and get the real story on the death of 1920’s gangster “Big Dan” Hennessy (Alan Reed), and the story flashes back to the 1920’s, when the “Happy Club” was a happening place and “Big Dan” was its owner until rival gangsters had him eliminated. “Big Dan” was trying to seduce the club’s star, Rosemary “Rosie” LeBeau (Lucy Marlow), with expensive gifts, but though she took his presents she saved her affections for a police officer who’s trying to bust the gangs.

The movie just sort of meanders through a lot of scenes that don’t seem to mean much, and it doesn’t help that though the film was shot in Technicolor towards the end of its glory days, the extant print has faded to a deep brown tone that makes it look more like a color film of today than one from the 1950’s. There are some good musical numbers but not enough of them — Laine sings the song “Save Your Sorrows ’Til Tomorrow” in the club (he sings it well but Peggy Lee did it better; her wry, ironic style suited this song more than Laine’s dogged earnestness); Lucy Marlow does “Strike Me Pink” with five ostrich feathers behind her that turn out to be being held by chorus girls (it’s a dorky number but also an entertainingly clever one); and the high point of the film is Laine’s performances of “Danny Boy.” He sings two, one a cappella at “Big Dan”’s funeral (backed by four of his gangster associates doing barber-shop harmony behind him) and one towards the end as he reminisces about those exciting days of the 1920’s and Rosie, her husband the cop and their four kids ask to hear it.

Laine, not a particularly good-looking or charismatic personality when he wasn’t singing (though he was way too big a movie star by 1956 to be caught dead in a flimsy production like this, the film really calls for Frank Sinatra, not Frankie Laine!), sings “Danny Boy” (especially in the unaccompanied version) with real power, conviction and soul that makes the song the best thing in the movie. It’s easy to understand why Laine became such a big star and why his career at the top was so (relatively) short; like Al Jolson before him and Elvis Presley after him, Laine channeled African-American singing styles to a white audience (when he’d just hit it big with the 1947 record “That’s My Desire” — a song he’d learned from the record Black boogie-woogie singer-pianist Hadda Brooks had made the year before — he named Bessie Smith as the biggest influence on his style, and certainly one can hear a lot more of Bessie in him than one can in Billie Holiday!), but though he was clearly an influence on the early white rockers (Elvis copied the sorts of dramatic register shifts Laine did in songs like “Jezebel” and Buddy Holly actually covered “That’s My Desire”), their success pretty much rendered Laine irrelevant — and though he lived quite a long time and worked almost until the end, he didn’t get the chance to re-invent himself as a jazz singer the way Rosemary Clooney did on her later records for Concord Jazz.

The irony is that there were plenty of Warner Bros. movies in the 1930’s — including one I thought of as a parallel while we were watching He Laughed Last, the first Torchy Blane film Smart Blonde — that did a better job combining the gangster, musical and soap-opera genres and got the mix right whereas here it went terribly awry (and Edwards would one day make a great musical with gangster and soap elements, Victor/Victoria, which for all its gender-bending elements and frank acceptance of homosexuality wasn’t all that different in mood from this — though the veteran Edwards of 1982 was able to blend the elements far more effectively than the journeyman Edwards of 1956).