This is my second contribution to the Sinatra Centennial Blogathon, which I’m hosting together with Emily from The Vintage Cameo. Emily is hosting the last two days of this event, so please head over to her site to see the latest postings. My first contribution was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
It’s not one of Frank Sinatra’s better-known films, and was released as his career was heading for the rocks in the early 1950s. Yet Meet Danny Wilson, an uneven melodrama laced with music and comedy, contains some of his finest singing, and also gives hints of the acting triumphs which were to come. Made in black-and-white, this film was produced on a low budget and is admittedly no masterpiece, but all the same I really enjoyed it and found it a great way to celebrate his centennial.
In particular, he gives an absolutely spellbinding performance of She’s Funny That Way. The film is also interesting to watch because there are quite a few echoes of Sinatra’s real life, something which was commented on at the time. The film is available on DVD in the UK/region 2, from Eureka, but looks as if it is harder to get hold of for those of you in the US. The UK DVD, which I own, has pretty good picture quality, but no extras except for the original trailer.
With his popularity fading fast in 1951, the Voice had already been dropped by MGM and given third billing in a film from RKO, Double Dynamite (below Jane Russell and his character’s unlikely sidekick, Groucho Marx!), before moving on to Universal International for Meet Danny Wilson. Following the US release in early 1952, The New York Times reviewed a showing of the film together with a live Sinatra stage show. The reviewer, A.W., commented that there were fewer screaming fans than in the past, adding: “Perhaps it is the beginning of the end of an era.” And so it was – but a new era was beckoning. Less than two years later Sinatra was to reinvent himself as an Oscar-winning actor in From Here to Eternity.
Frank’s part in this film falls somewhere in between the wide-eyed innocents he had played in earlier movies like the musical Anchors Aweigh and the more demanding dramatic roles he was to move on to. Here, he plays a struggling singer, Danny, who has spent years trying to eke out a living in bars, together with his devoted best pal, manager and pianist Mike Francis (Alex Nicol, best known for his roles in Westerns such as The Man from Laramie.) There is a scene at the beginning of Sinatra vainly trying to sing over people arguing and shouting in a bar, which shows the way forward for the similar sequence in Young at Heart. Here, though, the audience’s lack of taste is played for laughs.
Danny and Mike are soon falling out with the management and have a brawl, landing up in the street. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the film are the buddy sequences between Sinatra and Nicol, who are something of a Starsky and Hutch combination visually – one short and dark, the other tall and fair, with a lot of sarcastic banter failing to hide their fiercely protective feelings for one another. There is one wonderful sequence where the pair land up spending a night in a police cell together and play cards. The guy in the next cell just happens to have a guitar on him (what were the chances?) and Sinatra performs a fantastic blues number, Lonesome Man Blues.
After striking up a friendship with comedy singer Joy (Shelley Winters), Danny and Mike find themselves taken up by her sometime boyfriend. He’s gangster Nick Driscoll – a character played with wild scene-stealing intensity by a young and handsome Raymond Burr in pre-Perry Mason days. Nick is impressed by Danny’s voice and offers to employ him in the club – as long as he can have a cool 50% of his future earnings. No need for a contract, a handshake will do! Danny rashly agrees, but, when his career quickly develops along the lines of Frank’s in real life, with smash hit records and film roles, he soon regrets handing over hundreds of thousands to the mob. He also discovers that he likes being a star, and has hidden talents for spending money and ordering people about.
Complicating matters further, Danny falls madly in love with Joy – but, although she enters into a half-hearted romance with him, she is really carrying a very badly concealed torch for Mike. I really don’t think this whole love triangle works very well in plot terms – the whole thing is an embarrassing mess and drags the film down. However, it does give Sinatra a chance to show his acting chops at times, with some scenes where Danny’s vulnerability is all too apparent, including a drunken on-stage sequence which has hints of Sinatra’s character in The Joker Is Wild.
Shelley Winters to me seems slightly miscast as a femme fatale, since there is something so down-to-earth about her, but her comic singing is very good, and she and Sinatra together do a great version of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Other songs featured in the film include That Old Black Magic, How Deep Is the Ocean, When You’re Smiling and All of Me – although unfortunately Sinatra’s performance of that number is constantly interrupted by shrieking bobbysoxers! Sinatra looks painfully thin and often tired in this film, and it’s slightly hard to believe in the teenagers’ adoration – but, of course, his voice explains it all.
So, all in all, not a great drama – but well worth seeing for Sinatra’s wonderful singing of a whole string of standards. Also, if you do see this, watch out for a brief glimpse of Tony Curtis in a bar near the end – he makes an amazingly strong impression in just a moment on screen.