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The Las Vegas Story (1952) invariably lands as a "minor" effort in the filmographies of most of the participants involved: producer Howard Hughes, director Robert Stevenson, and stars Jane Russell, Victor Mature, and Vincent Price. The film, however, does hold a significance in the history of Hollywood vs. the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and by association, in a behind-the-scenes fight over screen credits in which Howard Hughes challenged the power of the Screen Writers Guild.
In the early 1950s RKO chief Hughes had begun to have a financial interest in the gambling resort city Las Vegas, Nevada, so he had producer Robert Sparks make a film that would glamorize the city in its title and backdrop. Jay Dratler wrote the story, which was also meant to feature Hughes' favorite leading lady of the period, Jane Russell. This was then fashioned into a screenplay by three writers: Earl Felton, Harry Essex, and Paul Jarrico. In the film, Russell plays Linda, a former cafe singer. She has just married Lloyd Rollins (Vincent Price), an investment broker from New York. Linda is reluctant to travel with him to Las Vegas; she has not told him of her past in that city. When she was a singer at the Last Chance Club, she had fallen in love with Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), who left the country without her. Rollins is hoping to make a windfall in Vegas, but he only manages to fall deeper into debt. When he is accused of stealing his wife's expensive necklace to use to keep gambling, Andrews, now a police lieutenant, investigates. Andrews uncovers the real thief, Tom Hubler (Brad Dexter).
In April of 1951, screenwriter Paul Jarrico was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify. His current film in production was, in fact, The Las Vegas Story at RKO, where he was a contract employee. Hughes, a fervent anti-Communist, fired Jarrico and planned to take his name off the credits of the film. This action would be in direct violation of the rules of the Screen Writers' Guild, which stated that no writer should be denied credit on a picture if they had contributed 30 percent or more to a given script. The members of the Guild threatened a strike if Hughes went ahead with his plans. According to Charles Higham in Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, "Hughes issued a statement saying, 'They might as well get on with it.' He railed at his staff that anyone who joined or supported the strike would be fired at once." The president of the Guild, Mary C. McCall Jr., said "Mr. Hughes has thrown a mantle of Americanism over his own ragged production record." When the Guild attempted to arbitrate the matter, Hughes refused to budge, and won a judgment in California Supreme Court that recognized his right to remove the credit because Jarrico had violated the "morals" clause in his RKO contract. The Court also ruled that the Screen Writers Guild did not have the power to compel Hughes into arbitration. This threw the primary function of the Guild's present agreement with the Association of Motion Picture Producers into jeopardy.
In Naming Names, Victor S. Navasky points out that the Screen Writers Guild, although it had a strong "progressive" faction, was primarily engaged at the time in distancing the body as a whole from charges of Communism. "...By the end of 1947," Navasky writes, "although it was a vocal critic of HUAC's practices, it had accepted Section 9H of the new Taft-Hartley labor law, which required officers of all trade unions to sign a non-Communist oath, purged its committees of Communists, and abandoned the Hollywood Ten." The SWG was apparently more insistent on protecting its core function - to arbitrate credits - so when Hughes attempted to circumvent the process with The Las Vegas Story, the Guild fought back. After the Hughes judgment, the Guild met with the Association of Motion Picture Producers. An agreement came out of that meeting in 1952 which would have quite an effect on the films of the era and the fates of the writers who had been put out of work by the blacklist. As Navasky explained the agreement, "...to preserve the right to arbitrate credits in general, SWG ceded the producers the right to take away credits for political 'crimes.'" As a result, producers were more inclined to use blacklisted writers, working through "fronts," on their films. "No longer need the producer fear that a black-market writer would blow his cover and insist on his credit, to the embarrassment - and possible financial detriment - of the studio. Activity on the black market picked up..." Navasky went on to point out, however, that "in a land where credit is all," the new practice did not result in revived careers or a vast improvement in the lives of those blacklisted. The amendment which referenced Communist affiliations stayed in the SWG contract when it came up for renewal in 1955, and wasn't actually removed until 1977. By then, many of the blacklisted screenwriters who had worked for years "under the table" had their names properly recognized on the films to which they had contributed.
What then, was said in 1952 of the job that Jarrico and the other writers actually did on The Las Vegas Story? "Brog" in Variety summed it up nicely, saying that the "principal point against [the] film is the obscure motivations of plot principals. A little more light on the subject would have helped but scripters and direction apparently prefer to keep both audience and players in the dark." The film does spring to life during the musical sequences and during a climactic chase scene which is exciting and expertly staged. Featuring perhaps the first example of a car/helicopter chase sequence on film, the stunt work, cutting, and pacing are worthy precursors to many later examples, such as those appearing in James Bond films of the 1960s.
The musical numbers in The Las Vegas Story enliven the proceedings as well. Hoagy Carmichael appears as "Happy," and he provides three songs for the film: "I Get Along Without You Very Well," sung by Russell; the sprightly novelty number "The Monkey Song"; and "My Resistance Is Low," performed by both Jane and Hoagy. The drama of the film fares poorly by comparison, however. Writing in The RKO Gals, James Robert Parish said that "director Robert Stevenson brought out all the minus-values in Jane [Russell], permitting her to render a most unrelaxed performance. Her scenes with Mature seemed more appropriate to something out of Zombies on Parade."
Producer: Robert Sparks, Howard Hughes
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Paul Jarrico, Earl Felton, Harry Essex, Story by Jay Dratler
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson, George C. Shrader
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Field Gray
Music: Leigh Harline
Costume Design: Howard Greer
Special Effects: Harold Wellman
Cast: Jane Russell (Linda Rollins), Victor Mature (Lt. Dave Andrews), Vincent Price (Lloyd Rollins), Hoagy Carmichael (Happy), Brad Dexter (Tom Hubler), Gordon Oliver (Mr. Drucker), Jay C. Flippen (Captain H. A. Harris), Will Wright (Mike Fogarty)
by John M. Miller