Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film. So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.
One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start. Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”
Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.
Where does the time go? February’s half over and I’m only just getting on to my Douglas Sirk season – sorry to be slow, but hopefully I’ll still manage to fit in a few reviews! The earliest film included in the 7-DVD UK/region 2 Douglas Sirk Collection is the charming, bitter-sweet Has Anybody Seen My Gal? This is a small-town tale in gorgeous Technicolor (though sadly a bit faded on the DVD), as typical of Sirk, but, since it is a comedy, the mood is rather lighter than in many of his films. Unusually, it’s also a sort-of musical, with occasional brief bursts of song and dance, although none of them really come to much. This is a period piece, set in the 1920s, and it’s full of loving observation and beautiful sets and costumes to create the mood.
Top billing goes to Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson, who went on to work with Sirk on several better-known films – but make no mistake, this is Charles Coburn’s film all the way. In his mid-70s when he made this movie, the comedy great dominates throughout, and playing the lead rather than a smaller character part gives him the chance to show more layers to his grumpy but kindly screen persona. Once again, he plays a grandfather type loaded with money, as in earlier comedies like Bachelor Mother – but his wealth certainly doesn’t seem to be making him happy. As the film opens, he is pining away in bed, nursing imaginary ailments and making the lives of his employees a misery as he barks out cruel but witty one-liners.
This is a fairly short piece – there are many in-depth reviews on the net about this ground-breaking drama, and I can’t compete here, but just wanted to add a few thoughts to the mix. Otto Preminger’s famous work is definitely a film to see more than once – I’ve watched it twice so far and will definitely return to it in the future. Frank Sinatra’s role as junkie Frankie Machine must be one of the best dramatic performances he ever gave. It’s easy to see why he received an Oscar nomination for his performance.The famous theme music by Elmer Bernstein is haunting and so is the camerawork by Sam Leavitt, as well as the great title sequence by Saul Bass.
Before getting into talking about the film itself, I’ll just briefly say something about the different versions available to buy. There are many public domain DVDs in the UK with poor-quality prints. (If anyone knows of a UK DVD with a decent print, please let me know and I’ll add in the information.) I instead bought the region 2 German Blu-ray, and was pleased with the quality of the print, which is clear and sharp if not spectacular – but I was disappointed to find that it’s a bare-bones presentation with no special features. In the US, the film is included in the region 1 DVD box set Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years, and there is a “making of” featurette included. However, this DVD does not include Sinatra’s recording of the title song, The Man with the Golden Arm, which was left out of the movie and disappeared altogether for nearly half a century. The recording is included in the out-of-print region 1 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set, and is also in a lavishly-produced and expensive CD box set, Sinatra in Hollywood 1940-1964, but doesn’t appear to be available outside these two sets. I’m puzzled as to why, as with Monique in Kings Go Forth, also scored by Elmer Bernstein, Sinatra recorded a song which was left out of the movie… and I’m also impatient to hear it!
Please note I do discuss the whole plot in this review. Second World War melodrama Kings Go Forth is one of the Frank Sinatra films from the 1950s which tends to get overlooked. Some aspects of the love triangle story have dated – I’ll come on to those later – but it is still a film worth seeing. After having now seen it a couple of times through showings on the UK TCM, I have found it growing on me and especially like Sinatra’s delicate, understated central performance. Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood both do their best with difficult roles, and the sweeping black-and-white views of the French Riviera are memorable, as is the melancholy Elmer Bernstein score.
The trailer feels more soapy than the film itself, but gives a glimpse of the three leads, and is also interesting in the way it focuses on the source books for Sinatra’s films.
Director Vincente Minnelli created one of the warmest portrayals of American family life on film in the great musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944). But he gives a very different, darker take on families in Some Came Running, a 1950s melodrama which tackles the type of subject matter that Douglas Sirk made his own. The colour is gorgeous (or at least I assume it was originally – the DVD I have in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years collection looks a little faded at times), and there are many Cinemascope set pieces, including a glossy dance scene. However, the town’s idyllic appearance is constantly undercut by suggestions of the backbiting and nastiness just beneath the surface of life in the fictional Parktown.
I was given the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years DVD box set for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to watching all the films in the collection. The UK/region 2 set contains four films, rather than five as in the US/region 1 set, with the missing title sadly being the most famous one - The Man with the Golden Arm. However, I have recently acquired this classic on a German Blu-ray and do intend to write about it too, although I’d like to read the book first.
It’s quite amazing to realise that Frank Sinatra made The Tender Trap in the same year as The Man with the Golden Arm. There’s not a hint of the noir film’s white-hot intensity in this glossy MGM battle-of-the-sexes comedy, with its gorgeous blend of Cinemascope and Eastman Color. The mood is set by the opening, where Sinatra is seen against a wide-open sky, stepping forward as he sings the great title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.
It must be a daunting prospect to step into a role which another actor has already made his own. But Frank Sinatra did it at least twice, in musical remakes of much-loved movies. In High Society he took on the role which had won James Stewart an Oscar in The Philadelphia Story, and a couple of years earlier he stepped into the shoes of another legend, John Garfield. In Young at Heart, starring opposite Doris Day, Sinatra plays the character who turned Garfield into a star – a bitter, mixed-up young musician who believes the fates are out to get him.
I’m a big fan of Garfield and of the original 1938 film, Four Daughters, also starring Priscilla Lane, which I hope to return to here in the New Year, as part of a series about films focused on groups of sisters or female friends. However, I also really like the remake, directed by Gordon Douglas, who worked with Sinatra on several other films. This version keeps a lot of the same witty dialogue by Julius Epstein and Lenore J Coffee – and Sinatra burns up the screen as Barney Sloan. (His name has been changed from Garfield’s Mickey Borden.) Day is also perfectly cast as Laurie Tuttle, the golden girl who tries to break through Barney’s defences, but sadly she doesn’t get any musical numbers to equal the three great torch songs which Sinatra performs in the course of the film. Sitting at the piano nursing a cigarette and wearing a battered Fedora, he looks as if he has materialised from the sleeve of one of his albums of sad songs, such as In the Wee Small Hours, released the following year.
I’ll be writing about a few Frank Sinatra films between now and the end of the year – I can’t promise to update very frequently, but hope to cover a few movies. After having seen little-known biopic The Joker Is Wild on TV recently, I just can’t understand why it isn’t available on DVD. For my money, this is a great movie of its kind, and Sinatra gives a compelling performance which is up there with his roles in The Man with the Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity. The difference here is that he has a chance to sing – and he expresses the character’s suffering through his voice. Sadly, I get the impression that biopics are somewhat out of fashion at the moment. This one is even more overlooked because it is the story of a largely forgotten comedian, Joe E. Lewis – who was actually a friend of Sinatra.
The film was directed by Charles Vidor, who also made a better-remembered biopic, Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney, a couple of years earlier. This one has the same bitter-sweet quality, and similarly showcases musical numbers within a dramatic context. However, unlike the Doris Day film, The Joker Is Wild is in black and white, and it has a rather more downbeat feel to it. The early scenes are set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and it feels very like a Warner film from that era, with the same kind of gritty atmosphere. (Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp was a camera operator on many such films in the pre-Code era.)
Just came across this amazing rarity on Youtube – a screen test for Laurette Luez for A Lion is in the Streets, playing opposite James Cagney as his character’s much younger mistress. In the film, the part went to Anne Francis, who is good – at 23, she was a couple of years younger than Luez and looked younger still, so maybe the studio wanted to emphasise the age gap between her and Cagney, who was 53, although he looks much younger here in black and white. (The film’s Technicolor is less forgiving.) But I think Luez is very good in this clip, anyway. Cagney really goes for it, too, although he is largely standing with his back to the camera. I’ve seen all of Cagney’s films except for a few TV productions, so it was a thrill suddenly to spot this piece of footage.