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.
Seeing the name of musical director Charles Walters, who also helmed High Society, I at first expected this film to be a full-blown musical, Sadly, it isn’t – there’s just the one song, although it is reprised several times. This is actually a film version of a Broadway play by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith staged the previous year, with a screenplay adapted by Julius J Epstein of Casablanca fame. As you’d expect from a script with input from Epstein, there are some great one-liners along the way. However, the plot is pretty ropey overall, as a playboy (Sinatra) gets fed up with juggling his assorted girlfriends and falls in love with the one woman who isn’t starry-eyed over him. Also, although of course 1950s comedies are often sexist, this one does go to extremes in that regard. It’s quite depressing to see how the main ambitions of the women in this film are marriage… and wall-to-wall carpets!
Nevertheless, the film has its attractions, including its stylish look and atmosphere. Sinatra has what must be possibly the most glamorous apartment ever seen on film in his role as New York theatrical agent Charlie Reader. A succession of adoring women turn up on his doorstep in the early scenes, all wearing stunning designer outfits. Even one visitor who offers to do the cleaning (bizarrely, she claims that the beautiful apartment is in a mess) looks as if she is fresh from the catwalk. Another woman, popping in to take Charlie’s pet dog out for a walk, has also remembered to dress for the occasion, in a perfect colour-co-ordinated ensemble. But it isn’t just the women who are the fashion victims here. Sinatra has a wide pale pink hatband on his Fedora, and dons an amazing bright red shirt in one scene – and he also puts in a phone call to his tailor to complain about a tie.
An even bigger plus is the musical content. Debbie Reynolds performs The Tender Trap as a perky song-and-dance number with ballet dancer Marc Wilder, but Sinatra tells her she hasn’t done the lyric justice (“you need more warmth”), and goes to the piano to show her how it should be done, giving a wonderfully warm rendition himself. There’s also a glimpse of a good tap dancer, Jack Boyle. I’d love to find out more about some of the talented dancers and singers who put in brief appearances in film musicals and then vanish – presumably many of them had careers on stage.
But back to the plot. Charlie’s bachelor lifestyle awakens the wild envy of his best pal, Joe (David Wayne), who arrives for a visit due to marital troubles (an 11-year itch, it seems.) However, Charlie himself is starting to feel a little long in the tooth for his life of non-stop glamour and partying, and falls under the spell of 21-year-old aspiring singer and dancer Julie (Debbie Reynolds). Unfortunately for him, Julie has drawn up a rigid plan for her perfect life, which involves finding an ideal young man to marry, before moving to the country and having three children. A Casanova-style theatrical agent isn’t what she has in mind. “You’re too old for me,” she comments, adding: “though you are quite attractive, in a downbeat, beat-up sort of way.” The plot becomes increasingly complicated and turns into a sophisticated farce, as, after a row with Julie, Charlie impulsively gets engaged to an on-off old flame, Sylvia (Sinatra’s High Society co-star Celeste Holm), and throws a drunken party which spirals completely out of control.
All the leads do a fine job in this film, with both Sinatra and Wayne suggesting real emotions beneath the comic surface at times, while Reynolds makes her character strangely likeable despite her habit of ordering people around. I was also impressed by Holm, who is understated and likeable as 33-year-old classical violinist Sylvia. It’s just a shame that her character is so determined to throw aside her career for any man who will have her. I was pleased to see that the man who eventually does come along is a big music fan, so possibly this life plan might have a rethink! In any case, even though the film might supposedly push marriage and a country home as the domestic ideal that all should aspire to, the glamorous urban lifestyle of both Charlie and Sylvia is made to look pretty attractive.
The picture quality looks great on the DVD of The Tender Trap, although the sound is rather quiet. There’s also an interesting extra, a featurette called Frank in the Fifties about Sinatra’s films of the period.
For further reading, Java’s Journey featured a very interesting posting about this film as part of the Fashion in Film Blogathon during 2013.