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.
I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about some of Frank Sinatra’s films over the last few weeks – and would like to thank everyone who has contributed such great comments. People made a lot of interesting suggestions in response to my question about which were his greatest film songs - and now I’ve got another question to pose. Which is his best film performance as an actor? Here are a few thoughts, linking in to some of the reviews I’ve written here. I have quite a few well-known films still to see, so would especially appreciate thoughts and recommendations on those.
Rod, one commenter who knows a lot about Sinatra’s work, has already suggested that the answer to that question might be the film I’ve just written about, The Man with the Golden Arm. Sinatra is full of intensity, but never hammy, as junkie Frankie Machine – and heartbreaking as the character’s desperation for a fix builds. As I said in my review, I feel the film somewhat cops out towards the end, but Sinatra himself gives a fearless performance and fully deserved his Oscar nomination.
So what about the film he actually won a supporting actor Oscar for, and which reinvigorated his whole career after a famously bleak patch – From Here to Eternity? I’ll admit it is quite a while since I saw this (I meant to fit in a viewing over the last few weeks but time ran out) – but, apart from the iconic image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lying on the beach, the scenes which stick in my mind the most are those involving Sinatra’s character, Angelo Maggio. I can’t be sure how the performance compares with his others after all this time, but would be interested to hear what others think.
Another film which many would pick as his finest, and which he himself describes in an interview on the DVD as the best in his career, is The Manchurian Candidate. I saw this recently but didn’t write about it because I must admit I found the plot very hard to follow. I’ll need to see it again, but was impressed by the surreal opening sequence and by just how vulnerable Sinatra lets himself be in the scene on the train where he can’t light his cigarette because his hand is shaking. He looks grey and ill, with a patch of sweat breaking out on his upper lip – you want to look away, but can’t.
Yet another acclaimed performance is his role as the soldier coming home to a small town in Some Came Running. He also makes a compelling nervous gangster in Suddenly (1954), a role which has a lot in common with Bogart’s performance in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.
Then of course there are the films where he combines acting and singing, such as the biopic of comedian Joe Lewis, The Joker Is Wild and the musical Young at Heart, a personal favourite for me. As has often been said, Sinatra really acts when he is singing – he used to study the lyric like a poem and make every word count. Recently I saw a documentary about his career which included a black and white clip of him singing One For My Baby in a TV studio, at a mocked-up bar. I don’t know whether this went out live on air or not, but it was impressive how he acted the scene at the same time as singing the words with passion. Fellow-blogger Patti wrote an interesting comment on one of my postings, after she and her son had a discussion about the question ”Was Frank an actor who could sing? Or was he a singer who could act?” I’d have to say I see him as a singer first and foremost, but his acting is deeply connected to his singing – as in both cases he feels the words and gives them their weight.
Before I start to sound too gushing (if I haven’t done that already), I must say that I’m by no means a fan of every Sinatra film I’ve seen. Rat Pack self-indulgence like Robin and the Seven Hoods leaves me cold, and I was disappointed recently by Double Dynamite (1951), a very weak musical with hardly any songs, where Sinatra is miscast as a meek, boring bank teller and Groucho Marx gets all the good lines!
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!
Just to say that I’ve decided on my next two monthly blog themes! Hoping to squeeze in a couple more postings on Sinatra before the end of the month, and then in February I’ll carry on with my current 1950s obsession by moving on to Douglas Sirk movies. Then coming up after that, it’s Marlene in March, as I will be reviewing films starring Dietrich, my favourite actress.
I’ve been trying to decide over the past week which are Sinatra’s greatest movie songs – and thought I’d pose it as a question, since there are still many of his films I haven’t seen, so I can’t come up with any definitive answers! I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts and recommendations. I found a website which has a list of all the songs he performed in films. By the look of it, this isn’t complete, since I immediately noticed that Three Coins in the Fountain was missing – presumably because he just sang it uncredited over the opening titles.
Anyway, here’s a list of five that I love at the moment, in my current order of preference, which can change from day to day. I also love all his songs in Pal Joey and All the Way in The Joker Is Wild.
5. I Fall In Love Too Easily (Anchors Aweigh, 1945): – For me this ballad by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne is a real standout scene in Anchors Aweigh – up there with Gene Kelly’s famous dance with Jerry Mouse! Sinatra’s acting might be a little awkward at times in this film, but he really comes into his own here.
4. Guys and Dolls (Guys and Dolls, 1955): This is my favourite musical of all time – I love seeing it on stage and am also a fan of the film, despite all the controversy over Marlon Brando’s casting. Since he played Nathan Detroit rather than Sky Masterson, Sinatra didn’t get to sing some of the greatest songs in Frank Loesser’s score, including Luck Be a Lady – though he later recorded them anyway. However, he does perform the film’s title song, together with Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver, and also does a great job on Sue Me and Adelaide.
3. Well, Did You Evah? (High Society, 1956): As an admirer of both Sinatra and Bing Crosby, I like hearing them sing this patter song together, with its witty Cole Porter lyric and the great moment where Sinatra jokes “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum!” This is another film where Sinatra missed out on the best song, True Love – and sadly I don’t think he recorded it at all. I love Crosby’s version but would have liked to hear Sinatra’s take on this one too.
2. Three Coins in the Fountain (Three Coins in the Fountain, 1952): I must admit that I haven’t seen this film as yet, but I’m really hoping it lives up to Sinatra’s romantic crooning of the title song by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. It makes me want to pay a visit to Rome immediately. (I have been there once, more than 30 years ago now, but don’t remember seeing the fountain.)
1. Someone to Watch Over Me (Young at Heart, 1954): I also love the title song, but Sinatra’s performance of this Gershwin standard in a bar, with annoying customers talking and laughing over him, is even better. He has two more great torch songs in the same film, One For My Baby and Just One of Those Things.
Must also mention that I love Monique, the song by Sammy Cahn and Elmer Bernstein which never got included in Kings Go Forth (1958), as I mentioned in my previous review.
A slightly belated Happy New Year to all. I’ve been thinking I’ll try something a bit different on the blog this year and choose a theme for each month, either a star, director or a particular type of film. For January I’ll carry on writing about Frank Sinatra, since I was so busy in December that I didn’t manage to cover many of his films – and I was also lucky enough to get a box set of his movies for Christmas. Watch this space to see what comes next after that!
My movie viewing fell to slightly lower levels than recent years in 2013, but I still saw around 130 films over the year. The biggest highlight for me was seeing Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall in London with The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. The final sections with the triptych, creating a widescreen image on three screens, are amazing. Author Kevin Brownlow also signed his book on the film for me!
I was lucky enough to see several other classic films on the big screen over the year, including It’s a Wonderful Life just before Christmas, and one of my favourite pre-Codes, Grand Hotel (1932), with its all-star cast including Greta Garbo and both John and Lionel Barrymore. Others included the noirs Notorious (1946) and Out of the Past, aka Build My Gallows High (1947), Marcel Carné’s great French drama Le Jour Se Lève (1939) starring Jean Gabin, and more recent classics Babette’s Feast (1987), and The Last Picture Show (1971). Hoping to see more classics in the cinema during 2014, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.
I hope everyone visiting my blog has a good year in 2014 and thanks to all of you for your support and friendship during 2013. What were your film highlights over the past year?
It’s over-sweet and over-long – but should not be overlooked. Anchors Aweigh tends to be regarded as something of a dry run for another film featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors on shore leave, On the Town. When the earlier movie does get a mention, usually it’s just the celebrated dance routine with Kelly and Jerry Mouse which comes in for praise. However, Anchors Aweigh has a warmth and charm going beyond that sequence and Sinatra actually gets better solo songs here than he does in the more famous movie. The gorgeous Technicolor also helps to make it all hugely watchable.
Kelly and Sinatra play the two kindest and nicest sailors imaginable. It comes as a surprise now to realise that Kelly was actually third-billed, because his determined, slightly sarcastic screen personality dominates the film. His character, Joe Brady, blusters about his supposed relationship with a girl about town called Lola, and has several one-sided phone conversations with her – but she never actually puts in an appearance. Sinatra plays a delicate second fiddle as wide-eyed former choirboy, Clarence Doolittle, who hero-worships Joe and, at the start of the film, is seen literally following him around. The actors’ real-life friendship helps to create a convincing warmth and chemistry between them, even if it is hard to believe that any sailors serving in a war could be quite this well-behaved.
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.)