Director Vincente Minnelli created one of the warmest portrayals of American family life on film in the great musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944). But he gives a very different, darker take on families in Some Came Running, a 1950s melodrama which tackles the type of subject matter that Douglas Sirk made his own. The colour is gorgeous (or at least I assume it was originally – the DVD I have in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years collection looks a little faded at times), and there are many Cinemascope set pieces, including a glossy dance scene. However, the town’s idyllic appearance is constantly undercut by suggestions of the backbiting and nastiness just beneath the surface of life in the fictional Parktown.
When bitter veteran Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) returns home from the army, he finds plenty of conflict here too. At first it seems as if there is a world of difference between black sheep Dave, the gambler and drunk, and the older brother he left behind, Frank (Arthur Kennedy). But before too long it is clear that Frank is also a gambler, though he does his betting in a respectable way as a banker – and his sex life is just as seedy as Dave’s, as he cheats on his wife with his secretary (Nancy Gates).
The main difference between Frank and Dave, it seems, is that at least Dave is open about his chaotic life. A failed writer who is constantly trying to throw away a battered novel typescript, he falls heavily for local teacher Gwen (Martha Hyer) – but soon discovers she is reluctant to enter into any real relationship. Every time he hits the bottle after a rebuff, kind-hearted “good time girl” Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine) is there to console him. MacLaine got an Oscar nomination, but I’d have to say her character seems very stereotyped as the floozie with a heart of gold, and none of her scenes really ring true to me. In general, none of the women really seem to be complete characters compared to the men. Betty Lou Keim does a good job with the screen time she gets as Dave’s niece, Dawn, while Leora Dana is icily two-faced as her mother, Agnes. but neither of them is fully developed.
This film is based on a long novel by James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, and at times there is a feeling of too many storylines being crammed in. One troubling loose end is the revelation near the start that Frank put his younger brother in a children’s home when they were orphaned – the reason for Dave’s burning resentment. (Kennedy was only a year older than Sinatra, so it’s a bit hard to believe in such a large age gap between the brothers!) After this moment, I was fully expecting a major confrontation between Frank and Dave later in the film where there would be more discussion of this painful past, but in fact it is never mentioned again. This scene does suggest how self-centred Frank is, though, as he suggests he was the one to be pitied (“just think how I felt – putting my own brother in a home!”) and later on he also turns Dave’s current problems into an attack on him. “How could you do this to me?”
I did enjoy Some Came Running, but I think it is uneven at times and not quite the masterpiece suggested in an over-enthusiastic featurette on the DVD. The film sometimes feels rather episodic and soapy, and it is hard to suspend disbelief enough for some of the plot twists. All the same, it has a lot of enjoyably sharp dialogue, and some fine performances, particularly by Sinatra, who is good as this kind of hard-boiled/self-pitying character, and Arthur Kennedy. I also liked the interplay between Sinatra and his real-life friend Dean Martin, cast here as Bama Dillert, a fellow-gambler who has an even worse drink problem than Dave’s. Bama seems charming and funny but is chillingly misogynist, so that, although his character might start out as comic relief, he increasingly shows a darker side. The pair’s work together here is now seen in retrospect as signalling the start of the Rat Pack.
Before watching, I knew that the film included an Oscar-nominated original song, To Love and Be Loved by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and naturally assumed that Sinatra would be the one to sing it on the soundtrack – maybe with Martin joining in. I was very surprised to find out that in fact Shirley MacLaine sings it completely out of tune in a drunken scene in a bar, and that’s it! Surely Sinatra could have sung it over the opening or closing credits? He did record the song, but, as with Monique from Kings Go Forth the same year, I’m puzzled as to why it wasn’t included in the film soundtrack.
The film’s greatest sequence, though, is undoubtedly the dark climax set against the backdrop of a carnival, brilliantly filmed by cinematographer William H Daniels. The mood here, as a colourful celebration turns into a surreal nightmare, is reminiscent of the Halloween sequence in Meet Me in St Louis – reminding us that there is underlying darkness at times even in the sunniest Minnelli film.
For further reading, Paul Mavis gives an interesting take on the film at DVD Talk – he argues that Sinatra is miscast, feels it doesn’t live up to the book and doesn’t like the way the ending has been rewritten, but still thinks it is worth watching. Laura also recently reviewed it at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and included some background on Martha Hyer’s feelings about the character she plays here.