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’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.
This is my contribution to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Do check out the other postings, which cover a wide range of artists.
Facing the music and dancing
If there is any one dance number which sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps it’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as it serves up glamour, romance and laughter in the face of despair. At the start of the number, Astaire plays an elegant gambler on board a ship. He loses all he has left at the tables and is about to shoot himself – but that’s when Rogers appears at the side of the deck, trying to throw herself off. Somehow she indicates with her eyes alone that the reason is a broken love affair. They save each other, as he pulls her back from the brink and she snatches his gun, which he then throws into the sea, followed by his empty wallet. Next Fred starts to sing Irving Berlin’s song, with those opening lines which are almost like an Astaire-Rogers movie in miniature: “There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”
And theydo dance, of course, fitting into each other’s movements with an apparently effortless perfection that takes your breath away, however many times you’ve seen it. Fred is in his famous tails (after wearing a sailor’s uniform for much of the movie in question, Follow the Fleet) and Ginger wears an evening dress with a fur stole draped around her shoulders. The cruise ship and casino are a world away from most people’s reality – and yet the whole number is informed by the experience of the Great Depression which the audience was still living through in 1936. Dance now, pay later.
It’s hard to imagine a sunnier musical than Easter Parade. Everything fits together perfectly, from the sublime song-and-dance pairing of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire to the score packed with great Irving Berlin standards. Yet this brightly-coloured holiday favourite was at first intended to be darker and sadder, and it almost came together in its final form by a series of accidents.
This backstage tale is set in the vaudeville days of 1912, centred around New York’s famous Easter Parade. It has a warm, nostalgic flavour to it, though the gorgeous costumes would have been fashionable in the 1940s as well as in the period being portrayed. There are plenty of lavishly produced musical numbers, including scenes from the Ziegfeld Follies, but there are also scenes of Garland singing in a dingy nightclub, and glimpses of quirky vaudeville attractions such as a number featuring performing dogs. There is very little dialogue between the songs by comparison with most musicals, but it doesn’t feel too sparse, because every line is made to count.
There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
Frank Loesser’s amazing score for Guys and Dolls has to be one of the greatest ever written, packed with unforgettable songs, from Fugue for Tinhorns to Luck, Be a Lady and SitDown, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Michael Kidd’s fast-moving choreography in the colourful street scenes, using Cinemascope to its full effect, adds to the atmosphere, while the dialogue is full of sharp one-liners. However, the film has had much adverse criticism over the years.
So what’s the reason for the widespread lack of enthusiasm? I think it might be mainly that the stage musical is so beloved and frequently revived, with the film coming off second-best by comparison . As with so many adaptations, a few of the songs from the stage show were jettisoned for the film, including such greats as I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Marlon Brando, controversially cast in a singing role, is said to have struggled with some of the notes. However, as compensation, Loesser wrote some new songs for the film, including A Woman in Love for Brando and Sinatra’s show-stopper Adelaide, which, going full circle, is now sometimes included in stage productions.