Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Frank Sinatra: Singing in Many Keys

These days, action fans are thrilling to the new seventh installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Me? I’m thinking about Frank Sinatra.

It’s fair to say that Old Blue Eyes always found himself where the action was. Starting out as a big-band singer with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, he quickly became a teen idol, then matured into an incomparable lounge singer, balladeer, and “poet of loneliness.” His personal life was colorful, to say the least, full of romantic escapades and marriages to such disparate dames as Ava Gardner  and the very young Mia Farrow. There were the friendships with leading politicians, the rumors of mob involvement, and the Las Vegas hijinks involving his buddies in the so-called Rat Pack.

All of this gives plenty of material to Alex Gibney, the celebrated documentary filmmaker best known for such politically charged work as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. Just last week, Gibney attracted a record-breaking 1.7 million viewers to HBO when the network premiered his Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.  The Scientology story has its Hollywood side, and Gibney has long revealed his musical interests in documentaries about Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. So it’s perhaps not surprising that (in honor of the one-hundreth anniversary of the singer’s birth) he’s produced a two-part HBO special, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All. So far I’ve only seen Part One, but look forward to more. Personally, I love Sinatra’s voice and his way with a lyric, but for now I want to concentrate on something more suprising: his highly successful movie career.

Yes, Sinatra made more than fifty movies. The first batch consisted of  lightweight musical fare, though such films as Anchors Aweigh and Take Me Out to the Ballgame  were far more sophisticated then any of the Elvis Presley showcases a decade later. After all, Frank was up there on the big screen tap-dancing with the great Gene Kelly and engaging in comic repartee with spunky Betty Garrett. One of my all-time favorites is 1949’s On the Town, in which three sailors (Sinatra, Kelly, and the goofy Jules Munshin) on shoreleave in New York City sing Leonard Bernstein songs, trade Comden-and-Green quips, and woo the delightful Garrett, adorable Vera Ellen, and sexy Ann Miller atop the Empire State Building. Four years later, Sinatra won a key dramatic role in the film made from James Jones’ bestselling From Here to Eternity. The part of the feisty and ultimately tragic Maggio, which at first was intended for Eli Wallach, won Sinatra a well-deserved supporting actor Oscar. Soon thereafter, he earned a best actor nomination for his intense portrayal of a drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm.  

Having earned his stripes as a dramatic actor, Sinatra continued to take the occasional light comedy role, like that of the swinging bachelor in The Tender Trap. I also remember him as the original Danny Ocean, and as the star of a low-key little love story called A Hole in the Head, opposite Eleanor Parker. But he never stopped being ambitious: how could anyone forget The Manchurian Candidate?
Shirley Jones, an actress known for being forthright, has recounted how in 1956  Sinatra was supposed to be her leading man in the film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. At the last possible moment, he dropped out, and she’s convinced he was daunted by the role’s complex musical and dramatic challenges. Maybe so, but I doubt he was ever scared again. 


  1. I am a Sinatra fan - read a great book by his personal valet that was very insightful. I enjoy his acting too - and would add to your list Suddenly - a political assassination film - as is The Manchurian Candidate - both of which Sinatra tried to shelve permanently after the Kennedy assassination. Suddenly is believed to be in the public domain and has been available as a cheapie VHS and DVD for years (it was also remade a couple of years ago). It's not bad for a low budget potboiler. The Manchurian Candidate is by far the more polished film - which I finally got to see when Sinatra pulled his objections in the 80's and the film garnered a VHS release. I'm glad it's back on view - it's a terrific thriller.

  2. The Manchurian Candidate is terrific (the Jonathan Demme remake not so much). I wish I could remember the story of its being unavailable for so many years, I believe it's more complicated than what you've described. I'm going to read a new Sinatra biography soon and will report back.