I have just returned from one of the first screenings in the Sinatra season, the little-screened 1951 film Meet Danny Wilson (USA, Universal, directed by Joseph Penvey).
In an atmospheric monochrome New York made up of bars, nightclubs, dressing rooms and back alleys, Sinatra’s hustle and swagger gives life to the city around him. He plays cocky, young nightclub singer Danny Wilson. He thinks he’s tough and likes to pick fights, except he always gets beaten. He’s backed by his kindly pianist partner and best friend Mike (Alex Nichol). Having been down-and-out since the end of the war, they are soon offered a job by a local mob boss (Raymond Burr) as long as they give him fifty percent of everything they earn.
Of course since he’s played by Sinatra, Danny has a killer voice. And fortunately he gets many chances to prove it. Singing classic songs such as, ‘That Old Black Magic’, ‘When You’re Smiling’ and ‘All Of Me’ (a particular favourite), Sinatra’s voice is at it’s absolute peak. Whenever Sinatra sings, the story, the characters and the film itself no longer seem to be important. Instead these elements are suspended as we become involved in the pure act of watching Sinatra’s face and listening to his voice: the whole experience becomes solely about him.
The images in this film of Sinatra performing on stage are archetypal of how we have come to know him in this period. Sinatra stands in the spotlight, a grill microphone in front of him, his body taking on postures that have become familiar: a slight arching of his back and cocking of his neck as the delivery of his voice requires. At this stage Sinatra was still very skinny, with his skeletal facial features clearly on show.
One sublime moment finds a depressed and drunk Sinatra in an empty bar room, head down on the bar. A girl, not knowing he’s there, puts a coin in the jukebox, only for it to begin to play Danny’s own recording: ‘When You’re Smiling’.
The plot follows the lead of Sinatra’s own career: a pop sensation followed by a Hollywood career, and is partly interesting for that clear parallel. (Indeed this was the format taken on by many a rock movie. Elvis would take an identical path in Jailhouse Rock.) One scene finds the popular Danny on-stage, the victim of a crowd of screaming and hysterical girls. Recalling the reception of Elvis later that decade, this scene debunks the persistent myth that the teenager (especially the screaming female fanatic kind) was ‘invented’ the day Elvis walked out on stage.
The twist in this movie is that the girl Sinatra is in love with (played by Shelly Winters) does not actually love him back, as would be the case in any other film. She is actually in love with his modest best friend, the supporting player.
It is set in the urban world that was exploited by noir movies, but here the city spaces are not filled with an excess of shadow. But like in noir city movies Burr’s calmly chilling mob character lends the film a lingering threat of violence. The film itself sparkled in a black-and-white print that was full of clarity and depth.
The film is also peppered with references to Hollywood contemporaries: Jeff Chandler, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and a brief one-shot, one-line cameo from Tony Curtis (who only the week before I had seen live at that very screen).
One of the first things you learn from watching and studying many films of the past is that the history of film is not set in stone. In many ways people believe that all the greatest films have been discovered and that the book is closed, but I am constantly surprised by those films considered as inbetweeners. There is so much of interest in this film that it could just as well be as revered along with other ‘classic’ films of its day.
The compositions, the performances, the tone and the sharp, punchy story really do rival any other similar films of the period. What this means is: forget everything you know and make up your own mind. There is so much to interest, entertain and enlighten you in hundreds of movies they just never tell you about.