The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)

Tender Trap1I 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.

David Wayne, Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds

David Wayne, Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds

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!

Sinatra's screen apartment includes its own bar

Sinatra’s screen apartment includes its own bar

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.

Sinatra and Holm

Sinatra and Holm

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.

Tender Trap6

Tender Trap5

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16 thoughts on “The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)

  1. Let me start off by stating that I love Debbie Reynolds. I find her charming and endlessly entertaining and I’d watch five of her films to one of Sinatra’s since he often comes off as smug and disinterested. That being said I can’t stand Debbie in this. Her character is annoying almost beyond belief and someone who anyone with an ounce of sense would run away from quickly. I wouldn’t say that it’s her fault since the character she has to work with is written as an unpleasant harpy, but it doesn’t make her any more palatable.

    Otherwise I thought the picture was entertaining. When watching older films I try looking at them through the prism of the era and can usually make allowances for the things that in modern films would spoil my enjoyment of them in this case the sexism of the men and the narrow world view of the women. Sinatra is fine but really outperformed by Celeste Holm and David Wayne who are both wonderful.

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    • Joel, your comment makes me realise I haven’t seen many of Debbie Reynolds’ films, though I really like her in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in particular – I will hope to see some more. I agree her character in this ought to be infuriating, but for me the charm that she gives to the part means she manages to carry it off, plus Julie is so young and soon has her ideas changed by experience. As you’ll have gathered, I’m increasingly a fan of Sinatra – I’d have to admit I have seen one or two films which answer that ‘smug’ description (mainly Rat Pack ones), but so far I’ve mainly been impressed by him as an actor. I do agree that Celeste Holm in particular is great in this and David Wayne is fine too. Thanks for your thoughts on this film.

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  2. I have a real soft spot for this movie. It is pure MGM schmaltz and I can’t get enough of it. The clothes are gorgeous and the sets are bright and interesting.

    Like your previous commenter, I’m not sure I like Debbie Reynolds’ character, but because she IS Debbie R., you tend to cut her some slack.

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    • I agree the MGM glossiness in this is hard to resist! Must agree with you that I find Julie less annoying than she could be because she is played by Debbie Reynolds. Thank you!

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  3. Seeing that bar in Sinatra’s film apartment makes me think of ‘Playboy’ magazine, which started publication in the 1950s and which advocated a noncommittal, upper-class bachelor lifestyle (including all the women you want and all the cocktails you can drink). I haven’t seen ‘The Tender Trap,’ but, from your plot description, I wonder if Hollywood was trying to play it both ways, with both swingin’ bachelorhood and the desire (no, not so much a desire but a cultural, post-war demand) to settle down in the suburbs and raise children.

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    • G.O.M., that’s very interesting about Playboy magazine – thanks for your thoughtful comments. I definitely think this film is trying to have it both ways, as you suggest – it spends more than two hours showing us a wildly attractive city singles lifestyle, with parties, endless booze, glamorous clothes and dream apartments, so its apparent insistence on country living as an ideal rings a bit hollow!

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  4. Thanks for recommending my blog and commenting on it.

    About Sylvia:
    In the play, she steps out of Charlie’s life without setting herself up with another man. We never know what happens to her. So we can imagine she gets more self-esteem and stops throwing herself at men like Charlie who disrespect her.

    Cheers,
    Java

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    • Java, thanks for sharing that difference between the play and the film – very interesting that she doesn’t go off with another man in the original, and has a more open ending. It’s a pity the film didn’t use this idea. I really enjoyed your piece about the movie.

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  5. The music is this movie was all added for the film version. The stage play was a straight comedy (believe it or not, I read the play back in my high school days). I am sure the music was added to give Frank a new hit single and some musical stuff for Reynolds. Like you say, the film is light weight, enjoyable fluff and very 50’s sexist. I really thought Celeste Holm shined.

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    • John, I’m impressed that you read the stage play at school and still remember it – I have a job remembering books I read just a few years ago. The song (Love Is) The Tender Trap received an Oscar nomination – Sinatra does a great version of it, but I feel it’s a bit of a pity they used the same song four or five times in this film instead of adding one or two more. But yeah, enjoyable fluff is right, and totally agree on Celeste Holm.

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  6. “The Tender Trap” was a triumphant return to M.G.M. for Sinatra, five years after his contract had been terminated by Studio Head, Louis B. Mayer. Dore Schary had since replaced Mayer and Sinatra was welcomed back to the Studio, no doubt due to his renewed popularity with the public .

    The opening scene that you have mentioned was very effective on the relatively new, (at that time), CinemaScope screen, but I wonder whether the final bow by the principal players, was really necessary.

    “The Tender Trap” was a popular as well as financial success and Sinatra revisited the “swinging bachelor” scene, again, in 1963 with Neil Simon’s Broadway success, “Come Blow Your Horn”.

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    • Rod, I haven’t seen ‘Come Blow Your Horn’ as yet, but hope to do so in the future. Thanks for the information about Sinatra’s career at this time – it must have been a sweet moment for him to be welcomed back to MGM. I enjoyed the extra glimpse of the main actors singing at the end, but agree that the film doesn’t really need it.

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  7. Fabulous, comprehensive review Judy, on a film I am sorry to say I have never seen. But I know of it, and would certainly see it for the star turns and musical highlight alone. it is strange though that THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is missing from that four-film UK set. Like others here I appreciate Reynolds, and of course Celeste Holm won an Oscar for her role in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. You are affording the film community a great service Judy, but resurrecting some worthwhile films that may have escaped the radar for too long, and presenting them though superlative, engaging prose.

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    • Sam, I assume it must be a rights issue on ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ – luckily I was able to get it on a German Blu-ray though, and avoid the myriad of dire PD copies available in the UK! Warner very often seem to chop a DVD or two out of their sets when they release them here. Thanks for the reminder of Celeste Holm’s Oscar-winning role in ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ – I seem to remember that she has a difficult job there in trying to make her character sympathetic. Thanks so much for the far-too kind comments, which are as always much appreciated!

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