Appellate Judge James A. Stewart felt cool as he watched these Frank Sinatra movies. He always does when the air conditioner's going full blast.
"Hipster. Hero. Hollywood Icon."
Ten years ago—on May 14, 1998—Francis Albert Sinatra flew away from this mortal coil. Frank Sinatra was, of course, the leader of the Rat Pack, epitomizing cool. If you're thinking of him as a singer or the very image of cool, you might dismiss his acting. That would be wrong.
As the tenth anniversary of Sinatra's death creates new interest in the actor, you'll see and hear a lot about the Hoboken hero. You'll also see his movies on TV and get the chance to own them in box sets from Warner. Among the new sets on the market is Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years.
Facts of the Case
Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years features five movies from the 1950s and 1960s:
The Man with the Golden Arm
Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) has a golden arm as a card dealer, and hopes to make it equally golden as a big band drummer. First, though, he has to return to the old neighborhood after a hospital stay to end his heroin habit. That means facing his manipulative wife (Eleanor Parker, The Woman in White), a pusher (Darren McGavin, Kolchak: The Night Stalker) who wants him dependent again, and gamblers who want him back dealing cards. Fortunately he's got a girlfriend (Kim Novak, Vertigo) who believes in him.
Golden Arm is based on the novel by Nelson Algren.
None but the Brave
That's how Japanese Lt. Kuroki (Tatsuya Mihashi, The Burmese Harp) describes the Americans who've landed on his tiny island during World War II. One day Kuroki and his stranded men see a dogfight in the skies overhead—and an American plane crashing onto the shore. The "greenhorns" aboard want to attack the Japanese, but Capt. Dennis Bourke (Clint Walker, Cheyenne) urges them to "fight with your brains instead of your feelings." That means wait—and plan.
Skirmishes take their toll on both sides before Kuroki proposes a truce. He sees that the Americans have a medic (Frank Sinatra) and wants to save the life of a soldier with a gangrenous leg. Despite a language barrier, the warriors on both sides become fast friends. Will their friendship hold if there's a chance for rescue?
Some Came Running
That's not all. Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) manages to make his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy, Fantastic Voyage) nervous by depositing more than $5,000 in the "other" bank (the one his brother isn't involved with), respark his sister-in-law Agnes' anger over the novel he wrote long ago, and win at cards and make fast friends with a card sharp (Dean Martin, Who Was That Lady?). He also finds himself in love with Gwen (Martha Hyer, The Sons of Katie Elder), a beautiful, supportive art teacher, while being pursued by said floozy (Shirley MacLaine, Can-Can).
Based on a James Jones (From Here to Eternity) novel, Some Came Running packs a lot of plot points into its story of life in Parkman, Indiana.
The Tender Trap
Charlie Reeder (Frank Sinatra) is enjoying the bachelor life in New York, until his friend Joe McCall (David Wayne, The Andromeda Strain) turns up on his doorstep. Joe's in from Indianapolis after his wife said what she wants for their anniversary is "a vacation from each other." The bachelor life gets a little more uncomfortable when Charlie meets Julie Gillis (Debbie Reynolds, Singin' In The Rain), who plans to be married by March 12 and sees a place for Charlie in her plans when she sees the way he looks in the living room suite she's admiring at a home show. When Julie gives Charlie an ultimatum, he screws up and ends up engaged to both Julie and Sylvia (Celeste Holm, High Society), his longtime special gal.
Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) seems a little odd, even back in 1955, as a woman who seems interested in Charlie but has a different reason for wanting to walk his dog.
The Tender Trap is based on the Broadway play by Max Shulman (who wrote the short stories that introduced Dobie Gillis to the world) and Robert Paul Smith.
Marriage on the Rocks
Nineteen years ago, Dan Edwards (Frank Sinatra) married Val (Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity), the sweetheart of his friend Eddie Brewer (Dean Martin). Today, Eddie's still single, Dan's grown boring, and Val wants a divorce. Urged to take a second honeymoon, Dan and Val head to Mexico, where a hotelkeeper (Cesar Romero, Ocean's Eleven) suggests a divorce. Dan and Val plan to get married all over again, but Dan's called to Detroit on business. Eddie, who flies down to Mexico to break the news to Val, ends up married to her. Sinatra and Martin don't sing, but there's a musical interlude with Trini Lopez; Nancy Sinatra appears as Edwards' daughter.
None but the brave would have ventured beforehand that Frank Sinatra could deliver the performance he gave in The Man with the Golden Arm. As it opens, his character doesn't seem to stray much from his usual cool persona, but as the story progresses—and the pressure threatens to crush Frankie Machine—that persona cracks, revealing the cracks in Frankie's determination. As Frankie, Sinatra devolves into a shaky, potentially violent creature of need. Frankie even fails to make the band, thanks to his shaking hands.
Darren McGavin is excellent as the cruel Louie, who puts the pressure on Frankie with every word while feigning friendly concern. Eleanor Parker as Zosch, the wife who feigns spinal injury to keep Frankie on a leash and wants him to return to the cards, overdoes it too much for realism, but I suspect that was on purpose, to illustrate the pressures on Sinatra's recovering junkie. Kim Novak shines as Frankie's angel, Molly, who tries to help him kick the habit and start a new career. Arnold Stang (Top Cat) as Sparrow, Frankie's buddy, plays the slow nerd but manages to put a few nuances in by the end.
The backlot streets pulsing with neon and the Elmer Bernstein jazz score that emphasizes every scene make The Man with the Golden Arm a little bit surreal, but the way they pound away gives the audience a taste of the pressure on Frankie. Director Otto Preminger (Laura) creates a tragedy that hits hard, but ends with just a little bit of hope. Preminger, an opponent of production code censorship, even uses the artifice of code-era movies to good effect.
The trailer calls None but the Brave an "important" movie. Even if you don't look at the trailer first, you'll know it's something remarkable in the first few minutes, since the dialogue's in Japanese (although the bilingual Lt. Kuroki reads his diary in English as narration)—and there are no subtitles, save for one joke explained late in the movie. The choice of narrator and the unexplained passages in Japanese signal a different perspective immediately. You won't know exactly what's going on at first, but you'll want to keep watching.
Sinatra, a first-time director here, does a job many experienced directors would envy. As the situation changes, he's continually finding new matching tones, balancing the typical war movie action with characterization, moral dilemmas, and growing friendships. More than forty years after None but the Brave was made, the once-startling plot twists will be at least partly expected, but Sinatra's efforts make it a fascinating film.
Sinatra takes a little more of a role than most of the players, but the spotlight shines most often on Tatsuya Mihashi as the Japanese commander, who has to weigh respect and a growing friendship with his duty to his country—even if the results could be deadly for both sides.
Back in the 1950s, Some Came Running was steamy—steamy enough to make even the reserved Gwen melt into an embrace with Sinatra, although she returns to her frozen form quickly. Characterization isn't a strong suit of the script: Shirley MacLaine's talky and ditzy, Dean Martin's a superstitious drinker with a mean streak, Arthur Kennedy's a pompous adulterer, and so on. However, the actors put real emotion and life into the shallow characters. As the film historians in the featurette note, Martin and MacLaine established their dramatic careers with their work here, and that's easy to see in their work. A final confrontation at the town's centennial hits hard, telegraphed by director Vincente Minelli (Meet Me in St. Louis) with frames bathed in neon. Make no mistake, though; it's pure soap opera.
One of two swingin' movies about the bachelor life in this set, The Tender Trap is pure 1950s fluff, but still has charms for a modern audience. The pre-Odd Couple buddy bickering between Sinatra and David Wayne leaves you laughing and makes the womanizing Charlie likable enough to ground the farcical antics. The two sweethearts—Celeste Holm as the brilliant, worldly Sylvia, who can always drop a Dorothy Parker bon mot yet has an undeniable tender side, and Debbie Reynolds as the absurdly marriage-minded Julie—both manage to charm. Reynolds' character grates at first, but a winning duet with Sinatra on the title tune helps her win audiences over. Her seeming naïveté—"This is a new game for me. I don't know the rules"—turns out to be deceptive; she certainly knows how to lay down the law.
The weak link of the set is Marriage on the Rocks. I'd guess it wants to be a testament to the value of marriage, but Frank Sinatra seems like he's enjoying the bachelor life too much—especially when his daughter's 23-year-old friend moves in on him. Dean Martin as the guy who doesn't want to settle down—especially with his best friend's wife—is funny, but he doesn't make much of a case for marriage, either. While Sinatra and Martin work well here, and the script has some funny lines, Marriage on The Rocks is as tired as a husband who zones out in front of the TV watching the fights on his anniversary.
Picture quality is good for the most part; I noticed occasional flecks or lines in Man with the Golden Arm and brief instances of flaring in Some Came Running. Even with music over the dialogue in Some Came Running and Man with the Golden Arm, everything came through loud and clear.
There are no commentaries, but three of the movies have featurettes attached. "Shoot Up, Shoot Out: The Story Behind The Man with the Golden Arm" explains how the movie became the first to tackle drug addiction and got released without a code seal; it also discusses the working styles of Preminger, Sinatra, and Kim Novak. The film historians in "Small Town, Big Picture: The Story of Some Came Running" seem a little too enthusiastic; watch it afterward so you won't get your expectations up to Golden Arm and Brave levels. With The Tender Trap, you'll find "Frank in the Fifties," a look at Sinatra's career comeback after parting ways with MGM. What's missing here is a background feature on None but the Brave, important both as Sinatra's directorial debut and a classic movie.
Each movie has a theatrical trailer. Titillation and shock seem to be the themes in most of these: the Golden Arm trailer can't even mention the subject matter of the movie and even the trailer announcer seems offended by Some Came Running. With None but the Brave, however, director Sinatra addresses the camera to tell audiences about his movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you only want Frank Sinatra's absolute best performances, you're likely to find The Man with the Golden Arm and None but the Brave separately for less than the price of the set. You'll also find most of these movies featured on TCM this month as part of a Sinatra festival.
Only one of these movies (The Tender Trap) got a remastered soundtrack. The Man with the Golden Arm wasn't bad as it was, but just think how sweet Elmer Bernstein's score would have been in Dolby 5.1 Surround.
For around $30 on Amazon.com, you get five movies: two greats (The Man With The Golden Arm, None But The Brave); two good, solid films (Some Came Running, The Tender Trap); and a tired, forgettable farce (Marriage On The Rocks) that you'd probably never bother with if it weren't included in a set. True, there's one clinker, but it's a good batting average overall, if you're a Sinatra fan.
Even if you're not a Sinatra fan, you should catch Man with the Golden Arm and None But The Brave one of these days. Leave a little space between them, though, since they're both intense cinematic experiences.
Not guilty. If you've got the box-set habit, you'll probably fall into this
one's tender trap.
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Scales of Justice, The Man With The Golden Arm
Perp Profile, The Man With The Golden Arm
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Man With The Golden Arm
• "Shoot Up, Shoot Out: The Story Behind The Man With The Golden Arm"
Scales of Justice, The Tender Trap
Perp Profile, The Tender Trap
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Tender Trap
• "Frank in the Fifties"
Scales of Justice, Some Came Running
Perp Profile, Some Came Running
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Some Came Running
• "Small Town, Big Picture: The Story of Some Came Running"
Scales of Justice, Marriage On The Rocks
Perp Profile, Marriage On The Rocks
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Marriage On The Rocks
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, None But The Brave
Perp Profile, None But The Brave
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, None But The Brave
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.