Behind the Camera: ‘The Las Vegas Story’ pitted producer Howard Hughes against controversial screenwriter
On-screen? Intermittently entertaining and ultimately forgettable.
Off-screen? Politically polarizing and ultimately historic.
Such is the legacy of The Las Vegas Story, a noir-ish 1952 crime drama that is forever linked to the infamy of the Hollywood blacklist during the dark-hearted chapter of American history known as McCarthyism.
Depending on how you view the social, cultural and political fallout from those convulsive times, the otherwise unremarkable film made a hero of either its controversial, blacklisted screenwriter, or its mogul producer: Howard Hughes.
Though this Jane Russell/Victor Mature flick about a Vegas robbery that leads to deceit and murder fell far short of classic status, it did gift us a few classic tunes by celebrated songsmith/co-star Hoagy Carmichael (portraying a piano player at the fictional “Last Chance” casino). But did ya’ know …
Nov. 28 @ 11:30 p.m. PST
While The Las Vegas Story was in production in April 1951, Jarrico was called before hearings of the feared House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), spurred by allegations of communist infiltration into American life by demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Refusing to testify, Jarrico pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Passionately anti-communist, Hughes fired Jarrico, while the subsequent scrubbing of his film credit violated the rules of the Screen Writers’ Guild. That enraged Guild members, who threatened to strike against Hughes’ RKO Pictures Corp.
Hughes’ response? Counter-threatening to fire anyone who supported or joined the strikers. Though Jarrico went to court to have Hughes’ decision reversed, he lost the legal battle because it was ruled that he had violated his “morals clause” — thus inaugurating the practice of producers still hiring blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era, but denying them credit.
Triggered by that imbroglio, the Guild negotiated with the Association of Motion Picture Producers and came up with an agreement in which producers could remove credits for political “crimes.” As described by author Victor S. Navasky in Naming Names, the Guild had a “progressive” faction but was more interested in distancing itself from charges of communist affiliations.
“No longer need the producer fear that a black-market writer would blow his cover,” Navasky wrote, “and insist on his credit, (leading to) the embarrassment and possible financial detriment of the studio.”
That pact wasn’t officially nullified until 1977, though many of the blacklisted writers had their names restored to their work before then.
Who was right? Who was wrong?
History holds — rightly so — that the hearings were an affront to decency, fairness and American values, leaving the wreckage of lives, careers and reputations in their wake. Still, Jarrico only inflamed his situation by declaring that if America and the Soviet Union went to war, he would find it impossible to support his country.
(Ironically, Jarrico was co-writer of 1944’s Song of Russia, which was reportedly created under pressure from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to elicit sympathy from the American public for the Soviets in the war against Germany.)
Despite losing the court battle with Hughes, Jarrico eventually emerged as a heroic figure, especially in Hollywood, for defying the “hysteria” of the anti-communist groundswell and publicly calling out congressional investigators on their political persecutions. And he continued writing scripts in Europe throughout the 1960s, but under the pseudonym Peter Achilles.
Hughes, however, had his defenders, including author John Meroney, who wrote this in the conservative National Review in 2005, upon the release of the film The Aviator, which told Hughes’ life story:
“By not resorting to Red-baiting and instead standing up to communism with honesty, Hughes became a voice in the wilderness and galvanized the public. It pulled him into a cauldron of political controversy and intrigue, and was his last hurrah. In time, it will stand as one of the most consequential parts of his legacy.”
Oh, and the movie itself? There was better drama in the headlines than on the screen. Critic James Robert Parish savaged Jane Russell’s performance, describing her scenes with Victor Mature as seeming “more appropriate to something out of Zombies on Parade.” Less pointed but still unimpressed was Variety, which noted that the “principal point against the film is the obscure motivations of its plot principals” … that “keep both audience and players in the dark.”
Softening the critical blows was praise for the breezy Hoagy Carmichael tunes (yes, in a crime drama), including “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “The Monkey Song” and “My Resistance is Low,” as well as a climactic car/helicopter chase scene. Given its then-innovative stunt work, editing and pacing, it is still thought of as a precursor to the sort of action set pieces that were popularized in the 1960s James Bond movies.
One of those 007 flicks featured a title that would have infuriated Hughes: From Russia with Love.