Thursday, January 09, 2003
Tales of Vegas Past: The story behind The Las Vegas Story
By Gregory Crosby
It was once said of New York that there were a "million stories in the naked city," but the stories that unfold every day in Las Vegas surely outnumber even the Big Apple. If there's a difference, it's perhaps that the Las Vegas stories endlessly trod the same ground, a narrow genre of dashed hopes, fleeting pleasures, second chances and lives eked out in the shadow of the megaresorts. The Las Vegas story revolves around the same axis of luck bought and sold, regained or denied. It's ironic then that the iconic ring of the phrase, the Las Vegas story, should have graced a film almost completely forgotten, if not for its intersection with one of the city's more famous players: Howard Hughes.
The Las Vegas Story premiered Feb. 12, 1952, and starred Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Howard Hughes' discovery and protégé, Jane Russell, whose cleavage once rocked a nation in her steamy postwar debut The Outlaw. Russell's cleavage was still leading the way when it came to this film, a lackluster production in which she plays a former nightclub singer who arrives in Vegas with her new gambler husband Price, only to be wooed by her old flame Mature. Today, the film's only recommendation is its location shots, giving a rare cinematic glimpse of downtown Vegas and the burgeoning Strip, along with some smoothly delivered, deliriously cheesy dialogue. "What a beautiful picture: moonlight, sagebrush, my wife with a stranger," says Price as he catches Russell with Mature. Even better is Mature's film noirish comment "This is a windy town. People blow in, people blow out."
Little did the indifferent audiences (the film tanked) know that the man who had put these words into the actors' mouths was himself a character in one of the many sad Hollywood stories of injustice that multiplied during the early '50s. Paul Jarrico, a moderately successful screenwriter, was in his mid-30s when he signed a contract to write the screenplay for The Las Vegas Story in 1951. He had been hired by the film's studio, RKO, and that studio's world-famous, billionaire owner, Howard Hughes, who had been producing films since the late '20s. Movies were just one of Hughes' obsessions, and it seemed fitting to set one in the city he was becoming increasingly fond of (in the early '50s, Hughes even considered moving his aircraft research division to the city, but his subordinates balked; the idea of Hughes' impact on Vegas at that time offers a tantalizing "what if").
Jarrico was finishing up his treatment for the film when word came in April 1951 that he was to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the infamous communist "witch-hunt" organ spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy that had already ruined the careers of numerous Hollywood screenwriters who had refused to testify before it. Jarrico was no less adamant: "If I have to choose between crawling in the mud...or going to jail like my courageous friends of the Hollywood Ten, I shall certainly choose the latter."
Unfortunately for Jarrico, Hughes' rabid anti-communism meant that it didn't have to come to that. As soon as Hughes heard of the committee's interest in Jarrico, he promptly fired him, and had him barred from the studio. Hughes ordered new writers brought in to remove all of Jarrico's contributions to the film, and removed his name from the credits.
Of course, since Jarrico's contract with RKO stipulated that he could be terminated at any time, Hughes was in his legal right to fire him. But removing his credit was another matter. The Writers Guild of America, acting under its collective bargaining agreement with RKO, determined that Jarrico deserved a screen credit, and threatened Hughes with a strike. Hughes remained defiant, leaving Jarrico's name off the film in clear violation of his contract with the Guild. In fact, Hughes went on the offensive, preempting the Guild's legal action with a lawsuit of his own, claiming the novel argument that Jarrico had violated the morals clause of his contract by not revealing to the studio his involvement with the Communist Party.
Hughes tenaciously defended his decision, going to court against Jarrico (who filed his own separate lawsuit) and the Guild and ultimately defeating both. Before the Guild could launch a strike, Hughes laid off 100 RKO employees, claiming he was curtailing production until "the communist problem was solved." In the climate of the Red Scare, the Guild and Jarrico were on the losing side, and Hughes' brazen dismissal of Guild arbitration had a chilling effect on Hollywood.
Time redresses all. While Jane Russell's romantic triangle slipped into obscurity, known to most only as a cool vintage poster hanging at Mr. Lucky's 24/7 Café in the Hard Rock Hotel, its author at last got his due. In 1997, the Writers Guild honored Jarrico in a ceremony praising screenwriters victimized by the blacklist, and in 1998 voted to reinstate his name on the credits for The Las Vegas Story. About 15 years after its premiere, Hughes went on to star in his own tragic Las Vegas story, ensconced in a prison of his own making on the top floor of the Desert Inn.