A quick note to say I haven’t had much time for posting here lately, so have decided to carry on writing about Douglas Sirk films through the rest of March, as time allows – though I will take a break from him to write about a Hitchcock film for the Sleuthathon on March 16! I’ll then go on to write about Laurence Olivier in April (I’ve signed up to take part in a couple of blogathons then too, writing about his films). And I’ll get on to Marlene Dietrich in May… rather than March as originally planned.
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.
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.