The Films of Frankie-Boy, Part I

April 4, 2012 | By

'Pardon me: I'm lookin' for Vanessa the Undressa. Have you seen her?'

Whether or not Frank Sinatra knew it early into his acting career, he was a good dramatic actor, and while the studios recognized his name on the marquee sold tickets and soundtrack albums, Sinatra could carry a picture in almost any genre.

During the forties he was naturally cast in musicals, and that’s where he honed his affable persona, but in the early fifties he need to prove he could in fact tackle other roles besides being the A-side of a happy-go-lucky couple, or as a member of a bunch of good guys.

From Here to Eternity (1953) won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Suddenly (1954) showed off his tough side in a tight little film noir, and then came a string of musicals, which seemed to go in tandem with his luxurious jazz and conceptual albums. The musicals may also have been part of perfect timing: the teenage girls who adored him in the forties were now adults, and Sinatra was a constant vocal force who also got better. With a mature singing style, he was more hypnotic, taking on classic ballads and giving them bolder interpretations without changing a single lyric, and there was that natural screen presence – confident, suave, yet never arrogant; Sinatra was just a regular guy making a living with a great gift for song.

It’s a lucky screen persona because it meant even without trying, Sinatra was still fun to watch, but after a string of musicals, comedy musicals, urbane comedy musicals, urbane comedies, and the periodic hard drama to auger all that lightness, he started to settle into a pattern and maybe got a bit lazy. He took on too many projects and either made them pre-formatted to his persona of a good guy / lovable drunk / war hero in the making, or rewarded himself by tackling at least one film with a director that would force out a good performance, if not a good film.

Amid the light fodder of the fifties, Sinatra made The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), a potent and compelling tale of a talent going to waste because heroine. He was a victim, but one who beat the odds and gambled he could stay clean and start a new life, and the character of Frankie Machine was markedly different from the sly, wry, wise-cracking heel persona that followed in High Society (1956), and more so in Pal Joey (1957), where he played a philandering heel who moved to a new town because of a copper’s big boot.

Twilight Time’s latest selection from Sony’s HD transfers is a Blu-ray of Pal Joey [M], with an isolated score track, and a bonus featurette from Columbia’s 2010 Kim Novak Collection. This perfect blend of romance, song, and risqué humour is the perfect Sinatra vehicle, and it just looks and sounds so good. No wonder it was never remade on film (and shouldn’t), even though it drifts from the original stage musical and makes use of songs from three prior musicals rather than sticking exclusively with Pal Joey’s custom numbers.

The late fifties introduced Sinatra the Good Soldier in war films like Never So Few (1959), but if one looks at his career, each year is part of a revolving blend of genre wherein he was well-suited. War, westerns, comedies, musicals, and dramas were his chief genres, but the sixties were more like an excess of each that didn’t offer fans bad movies, but ones of variable quality even though the core ideas may have been catchy, or sound.

Come Blow Your Horn [M] (1963) was Neil Simon’s first play, and the film version is a weird, dated version where its chief problem is star Sinatra being way too old for the role of a swinging thirtysomething. Then came Assault on a Queen [M] (1966), which folded in a war background for the characters, worked in a caper plot, romance and jealousy, and an action payoff – none of which really worked. (Viewers can see for themselves, now that the two films are available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

If Sinatra’s post 1966 films reveal anything within his canon, it’s that he was getting a little lazy in selecting good projects, and not unlike John Wayne, finding it tough to repeat his handful of screen personas – soldier, heel, crooner, and western hero – in increasingly flawed films.

After 1966, Sinatra made a few more films – mostly crime films – before taking time off in 1968. Two years later he made Dirty Dingus Magee (1970); ten years later came The First Deadly Sin (1980), and besides a few rare TV appearances and a cameo of sorts in Cannonball Run II (1984), he was finished with acting. TV’s Entertainment Tonight make a fuss over his guest appearance on Magnum P.I. (1987), and that was the last acting gig for an icon who’d essentially done it all in films.

His sung, he danced, he produced, and he directed, so there was not much left to prove. The industry and audiences had changed, and Sinatra had maybe spent too much time having fun in the sixties instead of focusing exclusively on singing, even though critics seem to regard the mid-sixties as the proper demarcation point where his voice was past its prime.

Uploaded are the three aforementioned reviews, and there’ll be another set a little later.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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