Judge Victor Valdivia calls himself "The Chairman of the Broad." Sadly, that's not a typo.
Our reviews of Frank Sinatra: Around The World (published June 1st, 2011), Frank Sinatra: Concert For The Americas (published November 27th, 2010), and Frank Sinatra: The Man And The Myth (published March 24th, 2005) are also available.
"Welcome to the first show of our series. It's nice of you to show up. In fact, they told me that it was nice of me to show up."—Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra conquered nearly every medium available to him. His recordings were blockbusters, selling in the thousands and topping the charts at a time when singers rarely sold records in those amounts. He sold out arenas and theaters and packed nightclubs with adoring fans to see him perform. He earned an Academy Award in 1953 for From Here To Eternity and was a bankable movie star for more than twenty years.
There was, however, one medium he never really prospered in: television. The Frank Sinatra Shows demonstrates why. Sinatra, as the shows captured on this DVD make clear, was all wrong for the brand of TV shows made during his heyday. In music, film, and concert, the sheer force of Sinatra's personality and talent allowed him to fill any venue or screen. Unfortunately for Sinatra, TV, especially variety TV in the 1950s, was not designed to bowl over viewers, but to provide light and frothy entertainment for them. Many adjectives have been used to describe Sinatra over the years; light and frothy have never been among them. In today's multichannel TV environment, it would be easy for a singer of Sinatra's magnitude to find a channel that would let him sing his songs as he wished with a minimum of compromise. In the '50s, however, Sinatra had to adapt to the medium as it was.
The results are sometimes excruciating. Sinatra does get to sing a few songs, including "I Get a Kick out of You," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Nevertheless," and "All the Way." For every great moment of Sinatra singing, however, viewers will be subjected to lengthy interludes of Sinatra being forced to conform to TV conventions: corny patter, interminable comedy sketches, and forgettable guest performers. Frank Sinatra: The Frank Sinatra Shows compiles two TV specials, one from 1950 and another from 1957, and both serve as examples of just how out of place Sinatra was on TV then. The first show barely clocks in at 28 minutes, and Sinatra only gets to sing a couple of songs, one at the beginning and one at the end. The rest of the show is taken up with some long-forgotten singer, some long-forgotten tap dancers, and an endless comedy sketch that Sinatra isn't in; the sketch wouldn't even pass muster on the worst episode of Mad TV. The 1957 episode is twice as long, and Sinatra does get far more screen time and a few more songs, including a number with Peggy Lee. Unfortunately, a longer show also means more filler, including some awkward banter with guest Bob Hope, some awkward flirting with guest Kim Novak, and even more sketches that go on and on with no point or wit. One particularly grating sketch ruins Sinatra's evocative version of "Autumn Leaves" to indulge in a joke so old that it would have seemed tame in vaudeville days. The comic timing that served Sinatra so well in films like Ocean's Eleven comes off as heavy handed on live TV. It also becomes apparent how constricted Sinatra feels. Sinatra constantly seems on edge, itching to cut loose and sing and joke as he would onstage. Sadly, he gets far too few opportunities to do so, lest he disturb the sensibilities of the TV audience of the times.
There are some decent moments here and there. Sinatra and Lee's singing is always welcome. For the second show, Sinatra was also able to bring in arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle, who helped Sinatra with most of his classic '50s recordings, and the fullness of the arrangements gives this a richer sound than many other TV shows of the era. The '50s, after all, represent Sinatra arguably at the peak of his formidable abilities and it is fascinating to see him in full voice, even if those moments are not as numerous as fans would hope. There is also some historical value to seeing these shows, particularly since they're preserved in their entirety. The '57 show even has all of Sinatra's commercials for Chesterfield cigarettes and Bulova watches, preserving the illusion that you're actually watching an original '50s broadcast. Or at least it would, if the DVD mastering company hadn't inserted an infuriating digital "bug" with its logo on the lower right-hand corner of the screen. In every other respect, the full-screen picture and PCM mono mix are as clear as probably could be for shows that are over fifty years old. There are no extras.
So is The Frank Sinatra Shows worth it? Sinatra completists, of course, will have to have it, although they'll have to wade through an awful lot of filler to get to the good bits. Otherwise, unless you have an extremely high tolerance for badly dated humor and showbiz routines, you probably don't need this. While MVD Video has done a decent job (apart from that eyesore of a bug) in putting these shows on DVD, the shows themselves are guilty of not using their remarkable star to full advantage. Sinatra and his fans deserve much better than this.
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