‘Meet Danny Wilson’: Frank Sinatra’s bizarre, exuberant musical drama that hardly ever screens

The movie screen does appear flat. A director’s interior space opens him up and draws the viewer into his alternate worlds. Many films lack such an added dimension of subjectivity and are perfectly enjoyable, within limits. Sometimes those boundaries are very wide, as when the flat screen is adorned with keys and flashes, garish trinkets and coruscating illusions, with an alluring and bewitching flair. These dizzying delights are often found in the great American virtual film library TCM. One of those quirky masterpieces of flat-screen cinema, “Meet Danny Wilson” — a 1952 film noir musical — premieres there this Friday at 12:15 p.m. A M (It will also be available to stream on the Watch TCM site and app, through August 31.)

It’s a surprisingly rare film (not available on US DVD or Blu-ray and not released elsewhere), given the prominence of its lead actors. In the title role, Frank Sinatra plays a character that bears a strong resemblance to Frank Sinatra: Danny is a talented but struggling nightclub singer who, in order to advance his career, is forced to play ball with a gangster. Its heralded co-leads are Shelley Winters and the obscure but capable Alex Nicol, but they’re joined by a supporting actor whose dramatic power matches that of the protagonists—Raymond Burr. Almost purely on star power, “Meet Danny Wilson” should be a familiar classic. It’s directed by the remarkable Joseph Pevney, a minor master of flamboyant performances and overly (even absurdly) expressive staging, and it’s written by Don McGuire, an actor who was later responsible for “Bad Day at Black Rock.” (he adapted the story) and for “Tootsie” (he wrote the story). But the film’s energy is above all that of Sinatra himself, and it’s a bit of a miracle that he unleashes it here in a role of searing (and self-scathing) ferocity.

“Meet Danny Wilson” begins as a ruthless comedy, with Danny, the lead singer, and Mike Ryan (Nicol), his pianist, manager, business partner and everlasting sidekick, playfully darting into the pool. In a pattern that repeats throughout the film, fiery Danny starts a fight he can’t end, and Mike steps in to protect him (a dangerous habit for a pianist). On the street, Danny’s head swivels to each passing young woman, and Mike keeps him focused on getting to work. At the concert that night, in a rowdy joint where drunks heckle Danny, he starts a fight again which Mike ends. Afraid of being arrested, the couple fly off into the night together and, by chance, meet a posh woman, Joy Carroll (Winters), outside a posh nightspot, who takes them to a bar, where they become drunk and disorderly, are arrested, and, for lack of money to pay a fine, end up in prison.

Joy turns out to be a singer and pianist at a high-pitched nightclub, owned by a mobster named Nick Driscoll (Burr), who, on a tip from her, auditions Danny, is duly impressed, and hires him with Mike. , for the mere cost of fifty percent of the couple’s earnings – forever, a deal he plans to enforce by force. The brash, mercurial Danny becomes an overnight hit; he also falls in love with Joy, who has long rejected Nick’s advances and is in love with the stable and reliable Mike. Danny becomes a superstar, a sensation among teenage girls, a real engine of hit records, then an idol of the Hollywood screen. He also becomes a world-class asshole, arrogant and demanding, conceited and condescending, and brazenly planning to end his deal with Nick.

The plot alone is taut and tense, built on the overlapping tripwires of various dangerous conflicts, but that’s not what gives the film its enduring vitality. First off, McGuire’s script (or what Pevney and the cast made of it on set) has a flavor of slang that gives off a crazy, streetwise tone. After a fight, Danny says, “I should have ripped his arms off,” and Mike retorts, “You couldn’t break the celery. At the night court, an arresting officer said, “I tried to discharge him. Joy sends Danny to sing with the encouragement “Kill people”. Danny tips a waiter, saying, “Here’s a heck, get yourself a B-29”, and the crusty waiter replies, “I got one.” What gives these counterfeit gems their sparkle is the energy of the actors – Winters’ unflappable knowledge, Nicol’s dry bonhomie, Sinatra’s built-in derisive sneer, with his impetuous, sardonic gestures to match. (In a big scene at a late-night grocery store, Joy scolds Danny for a question that’s too intrusive, and he slaps his hand; when he describes himself to her as “a little nervous,” he shrugs his shoulders. a sublime comic bravado.)

But above all, “Meet Danny Wilson” stands out for the presence of the apotheosis of the saloon singers, and its musical numbers provide the most grandiose and glitzy delights of the film. Danny gets his bona fides in a few laid-back numbers—a prison-sung blues, “She’s Funny That Way” does as Nick’s blazing audition—which is met with astonished praise, whether from fellow inmates or the crew. cleaning Nick. On Danny’s opening night, which propelled him to fame, he opened with a slow, winding rendition of “That Old Black Magic” that silenced the patrons and drew them rapturously to the stage. Pevney captures the moment of a star’s birth in an extended medium close-up of Danny, who basks in attention and becomes more and more exuberant, more and more showy, as his time under spotlights continues, as if expanding to fill the frame. Although Winters is not a professional singer, she plays one and does her signature number, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, in an insinuating Sprechstimme. (She and Sinatra also do a peppery duet of the song on a party stage, where they unfortunately end the number with a bit of a bang in an offensive Black dialect stereotype.)

Sinatra struts and stalks her way through the film with gleeful sassiness, and Winters fills her every moment with dynamism and intensity, but the performances have little dramatic unity, not thanks to the script, which offers no hardly any distinctive characterization and calls for a backstory to elevate the roles above clichés. (The very premise – two men, best friends and work partners, one a conceited smuggler and the other a disciplined regular guy, who are in love with the same woman – is one of Howard Hawks’ great archetypes, as in “Tiger Shark,” but Hawks enriches the setup with an array of idiosyncrasies and symbolism that lend it dizzying depths.) Instead, in “Meet Danny Wilson,” the actors contribute what they can, to namely the glare of megawatts, to compensate for the lack. of psychological substance.

The basis of the film was the crater of Sinatra’s career. It was only a temporary setback, but, of course, neither he nor the world could have known. His recording career had been in decline for several years (and, later in 1952, he was dropped by his label, Columbia). He had acted in many films but was hardly a movie star. (In his previous film, “Double Dynamite,” he had third billing, after Jane Russell and Groucho Marx.) His live performance bookings had dwindled and were largely unsuccessful. Moreover, his public image was tarnished by scandal: married to his first wife, Nancy, since 1939, he had an affair with Ava Gardner, and gossip columnists denounced him as immoral. (Sinatra and Nancy divorced in 1951; he and Gardner married the same year.) According to Winters – who talks at length about “Meet Danny Wilson” in his first autobiography, “Shelley: also known as Shirleyfrom 1980 – Sinatra made the movie because he needed the money. He put himself in the hands of a friend, McGuire, who crafted a story that stays surprisingly close to Sinatra’s own experiences (and was recognized as such at the time), with its references to the rise of Danny with the help of gangs, his adulation as a teenager. idol, and (spoiler alert) his abrupt fall from grace due to scandal – nothing a synthetic happy ending can’t remedy. It’s hard to imagine anything other than the desperate need for a quick career restart would have motivated Sinatra’s risky self-exposure. It’s a sign of his unpopularity that this tasty and fiery film, based on his own public persona, failed. (Of course, it was his performance in the 1953 drama “From Here to Eternity,” a non-musical role, that revived him.)