Take Me out to The Ball Game (1949)

Take_Me_Out_To_The_Ballgame_(MGM_film).jpgThere’s something perfectly in sync between Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor so I could never choose another duo over them but Kelly and Frank Sinatra are such wonderful entertainers that they help make this period baseball number a real musical classic even if it has to fall in line behind a row of other quality contenders.

It’s easy to half expect to see Stanley Donen’s name on the marquee as director in part because of his prestigious partnership with Kelly but instead, we get an equally renowned name in Busby Berkeley. In fact, at this time Berkeley was a veteran of musicals. However, it’s true that Donen did help with crafting the narrative on this one with Kelly and would pick up directing duties with On the Town (1949).

America’s original Pasttime (before being challenged by Basketball and Football) is ripe for a musical homage as MGM seemed to take aim at all the popular arenas of entertainment. Set during the golden years of baseball, this story, in particular, takes interest in the fictional Wolves who share some resemblance to the famed Cubs of the early 1900s with the double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. In this film, the archetypal slogan, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” is adapted into a giddy tune “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” with the trio of Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin taking the leads.

Esther Williams even gets her obligatory dip in the pool while still showing her prowess as a baseball player, a desirable heartthrob, and a club owner with a certain amount of business acumen. Because she really is at the core of the story’s plot.

You see the boys, O’Brien and Ryan, are having a grand old time coming off a stint in vaudeville during the offseason and now spring training is upon them and they are reunited with their clubmates along with the scintillating prospect of another league pennant. That is until they find out that they’re under new ownership, and they suspect it’s a stuffy nobody named K.C. Higgins.

Are they surprised with what meets their eyes? K.C. Higgins turns out to be a “she” instead of a “he” and a very attractive one at that. But that doesn’t detract from the bottom line. She’s a woman who expects that she knows the game better than they do. Thus, it’s a slight musical riff on the old battle of the sexes dilemma.

Their plan of action entails setting up their buddy Denny (Sinatra) with Ms. Catherine so they can keep her occupied and off their backs. Kelly is the fast-moving playboy ballplayer who also has a complicated relationship with Katherine Catherine (that’s what K.C. stands for). While the forward Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garret) is out to snag herself a man and sets her sights on poor helpless Dennis.

There’s a bit of a black sox scandal type thread that’s grafted in at the end with Edward Arnold playing his usual corrupt businessman who is looking to ruin O’Brien’s reputation and make a killing off betting against the Wolves. Thank goodness in this case Kenesaw Mountain Landis does not come in and expulse Gene Kelly who instead is allowed to dance another day this time with all his costars.

Aside from singing the game’s most revered song on screen, (which is a relief given its name), the film also has adequate room for some of the other important aspects of baseball namely antagonizing umpires, trash talk, clowning, and brawls. After all, what would America’s game be without those finer points?

Gene Kelly even gets around to putting another feather in his dancing cap with an Irish jig proving him to be yet again a master showman and virtuoso performer on taps. He’s also probably the first baseball player in history who carried two careers as a ballplayer by day and a hoofer by night. All in all, this was the kind of Technicolor spectacle that MGM was accustomed to offering up in the 40s and 50s and it’s satisfying stuff, if not quite their best.

3.5/5 Stars

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Jokerwild.jpgIt required quite the journey to make it to this film, starting out with a different joker entirely. My introduction to comedian Joe E. Lewis happened because of the late, great Jerry Lewis. Revisiting his life and work I made the discovery that the comedian changed his name to avoid confusion with two men. First, Joe Louis the stellar boxer of the 1930s and then Joe E. Lewis the comedian.

I had never heard of the latter and if you’re in the same boat, here is a biopic that gives a little more definition to his life and times. It seems desirable to actually turn back the clock and see footage of the man himself but if anyone has to play him why not have Frank Sinatra and he does a fine job with a performance that finds time to crack the jokes, throw back a few tunes, while still revealing the inner demons that befall even a funny man. Yet again Ol’ Blue Eyes proves he’s an acting talent to be taken seriously.

Lewis’s beginnings were nearly tragic as he found himself under attack by one of Al Capone’s enforcers who slit his vocal chords and left him for dead after he walked out of his current contract to sing at another club. Except he fought back and even with a shaky voice he found his way to burlesque shows and then stand-up comedy followed.

All the while he was supported by his piano accompanist and best friend (Eddie Albert) and even finds time for love or rather it comes to find him in the form of Jeanne Crain. However, with obligations in serving the troops and his own insistence that a marriage would never work, he balks at popping the question only to regret it for years to come.

Soon his alcohol problem is even more of an issue — even affecting his work — and the marriage he got into with one of his precocious chorus girls (Mitzi Gaynor) was doomed to fail from the beginning.  The self-destructive tendencies seem present in this life as they often are for those in entertainment. And far from rewriting the ending to his story, we leave Brown in a very real state. He’s no longer married and he’s still trying to break his habit for the sauce. It’s a very honest place to be and that’s to the film’s credit.

I will forever be a pushover for Jeanne Crain who always plays the most charming romantic roles and here it is little different. Though she’s older, her beauty is still as striking as ever. Furthermore, Mitzi Gaynor slightly subverts her reputation here delivering in a couple of scenes that aren’t simply song and dance showcases.

Meanwhile, Eddie Albert just might be the greatest second banana known to man because he instantly makes his star all the more lovable acting as their faithful foil in all circumstances. He was just so phenomenal in those types of roles building something out of almost nothing.

There’s little left to do but let the lyrics of All the Way carry us away into to the evening with a bit of melancholy:

When somebody needs you
It’s no good unless he needs you all the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you’ll let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way all the way 

3.5/5 Stars

The Man with The Golden Arm (1955)

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Everybody’s habitual something ~ Kim Novak as Molly

Otto Preminger was the creator of a number of important “issue pictures” because he dared deal with themes that others had shied away from, mostly in part because of the production codes that ruled Hollywood well into the 1960s. Thus, any type of drug addiction was seemingly out of the question.

Such an issue might seem almost unthinkable in this day and age but that very fact is one of the reasons that The Man with the Golden Arm still maintains some resonance. Perhaps it has aged some and looks tame by today’s standards, a film that hardly dares to mention the drug in question, and yet there is much to be enjoyed all the same.

Saul Bass’s opening titles for one made the credit sequences of a film into an important attraction and he did much the same for Alfred Hitchcock and other Preminger films as well. The film is also laced with what might be best termed as sleazy jazz music to underscore the world that Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to.

Before a word of dialogue is even spoken in the local dive we already have a pulse on what kind of place this is. It’s the type of world that sucks the life out of you. People lead you astray and if you’re not able to make something of yourself you’re bound to sink into the pits.

He is just off a stint in the State Penitentiary but unlike many, his story has a touch of hope. He’s gotten the monkey off his back as they say. He’s no longer addicted thanks to the help of a doctor who also tried to line up a job for him as a drummer. It looks like he has some talent that can take him places. He’s got a lifeline out of town.

His return is a heralded one. Everyone’s intent on welcoming him back including first-rate scrounger Sparrow (Arnold Stang) as well as the pudgy local card shark Schwiefka and the “dealer” Nifty Louie. He’s very much the devil on Frankie’s shoulder coaxing him to give him a call if he ever needs a fix of candy because he used to be a great customer.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) is constantly paranoid about his purported unfaithfulness and simultaneously quells any of his aspirations to make anything more of his life. She’s just a scared little person and her fear stifles Machine even as he tries to make her understand that things are different now.

The one person who does seem to understand him is his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) who is currently a hostess at the local club. He remains faithful to Zosh and yet it is the friendship with another woman that gives him the encouragement to pursue this new path.

Yet the film soon delves into the depths of addiction. As often rings true, after you think you’ve got addiction beat (any kind), it comes back with raging abandon and it goes for the choke hold. A bad break and the plethora of undesirable influences are leading Machine down the well-trod paths of old. He initially gives in and yet still battles and fights and shakes his way back to sobriety. But it’s not easy. The only place he has to turn is Molly and she gladly gives him her support.

All in all, this is a fairly unflinching portrait for the time and this picture points to the fact that Frank Sinatra was a serious actor, not simply a singer, a personality, or a star. Here he offers up an honest to goodness performance though his career was ripe with many others. Still, this one encapsulates the tortured cycles of those trapped in the throes of addiction.

Meanwhile, Kim Novak’s performance flows with a sincerity — a woman who is willing to do what is good and right even when it is difficult and seemingly offers very little recompense. It’s a stirring turn indeed.

The histrionics of Eleanor Parker are maybe a bit much and yet in this performance, you begin to see why she is hardly remembered along with other classical beauties. It’s because she actually wanted to be an actress first and a star second and thus, instead of projecting a certain image in all her pictures, it does seem like she’s constantly changing and stretching our expectations of her. Today her choices look quite audacious and yet it no doubt left her contemporary audiences a little befuddled. That in no way detracts from her efforts here if only to magnify our appreciation for Sinatra and Novak’s characters.

Rather than simply seeing this as an antiquated issue picture, a film made for a different era and for a different person than me, I would like to say that there is something of note in The Man with the Golden Arm. As Molly so lucidly acknowledges, many of us go through some type of cycle or we succumb to some habitual pattern whether it be an addiction or something less extreme. Still, either way, these very things can detract from our lives and trap us in rhythms of life that hinder our relationships and all that is truly paramount. That’s just a small caveat to take heed of.

3.5/5 Stars

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly_(1954_movie_poster)In some ways, the sleepy town of Suddenly feels like it could have easily been the prototype for Mayberry (Willis Bouchey’s appearance acting as the one actual tie-in to The Andy Griffith Show). The sheriff wanders around lazily. He knows everyone by name and they probably haven’t had anything exciting actually happen for 20 or 30 years at least. But then they go and have something bigger than Mayberry ever dreamed. No filling station robberies, or shipments of gold, or even a group of out of towners trying to case the bank. This is big. It involves the President of the United States and Frank Sinatra or rather Johnny Baron, the man who`s looking for a big payday from assassinating the commander in chief. But people generally liked Ike and so the Secret Service roll in to take the necessary precautions including cueing in the local sheriff on the particulars and shutting down the town.

But the one family that doesn’t happen to get the memo are the Bensons who just happen to have the property overlooking the town — the perfect point to knock off an unsuspecting president from but, of course, a thought like that would never cross their minds, not in a quaint town like Suddenly. Still, Baron has thought about it quite a lot and he and his cronies make a house call on the Bensons and subsequently take over their humble abode, except the family doesn’t realize yet that this is a home invasion.

It just so happens that one of the Veteran servicemen Agent Carney (Willis Bouchey) goes way back with Pop Benson (James Gleason) and so he and Sheriff Shaw pay a visit to the family but the welcoming committee is far from obliging. After the initial setup, the film evolves into a tense drama involving not only the imminent attack on the President but the very real hostage situation that we are now privy to. The majority of the ensuing drama is crammed inside the tight quarters of the home as all the hostages tensely wait for events to unfold. Sheriff Shaw looks to keep Baron talking as they bide their time.

But even his background in law enforcement cannot fully prepare him for who he is dealing with and that’s a great deal of the enjoyment that comes out of Suddenly. The characters are ripe with possibilities and Sinatra, in particular, gives an electrifying performance off of Hayden’s somewhat uncharacteristic stalwart turn.

Paul Frees as one of the thugs wasn’t quite bad-enough (sorry for the Rocky & Bullwinkle pun) and the other hired gun is constantly clutching his ulcer.

Richard Sale’s script is surprisingly vibrant and it does a lot in a limited amount of time building up connections and backstories of characters that help make each life valuable while simultaneously increasing the stakes, packing a punch on multiple occasions. And although there were more guns than I was expecting it’s far more than a simple shoot ’em up.

Sinatra’s character is tormented by demons, constantly referring to his own war record and the silver star he won, and in the same breath writing off the hit on the President as just another job for him. It’s true that the specters of World War II seem to affect everyone. Likewise, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) must grapple with her own hatred of violence and guns as a result of her husband’s death in the war that keeps her from allowing her spunky son Pidge from seeing war movies or playing with firearms. She’s also hesitant to indulge the calling of Tod because she’s not ready to move on. Each of these aspects underlines the film’s main conflict.

There’s also some striking connections that can be made to the Manchurian Candidate (also featuring Sinatra) as well as the realization that this was the pre-Kennedy era, meaning no one knew what was possible. In some ways, the film’s premise seems rather incredible but then again maybe it was more credible than even the makers of the film realized. Just a few years down the road our President would be killed, the man Frank Sinatra would sing a campaign slogan for.  So, Suddenly comes off as a B-picture but it rises above those meager expectations and turns into a fairly impressive thriller with some stalwart talent and moral issues anchored in its plot.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Some Came Running (1958)

Poster_of_the_movie_Some_Came_RunningSome Came Running is a film that can so easily get lost in the shuffle of 1950s Hollywood. It’s hardly the most well-known picture of director Vincente Minnelli, known generally for his musicals and excellent set direction. Furthermore, this is most certainly a melodrama, certainly affecting, but not quite as falsely superficial to the degree of Douglas Sirk’s work. In a way, it feels like a 50s variation on The Best Years of Our Lives.

In the post-war years drifting vet and one-time author Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) comes back to the town he skipped out on as a young kid. He’s a bit hung over getting off the Greyhound and realizes he has another traveler in his wake. The fellow passenger is the potentially disreputable and slightly dumb Ginny Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine), who came along for the ride from Chicago on his invitation.

Now that he’s back home, he just wants Ginny to head back the way she came, while he gets over with the obligatory meeting with his older brother. After handing his brother over to a boarding school, Frank Hirsh (Arthur Kennedy) did pretty well for himself. He married a wife (Leora Dana) from a good family and inherited a profitable jewelry business. By now he’s living the American Dream and his daughter Dawn (Betty Lou Keim) is growing up to be a beautiful young woman. In fact, you might call Frank a pillar of society, because everything’s working for him and people look up to him for what he has made for himself.

Thus, the arrival of Dave is not without its problems. The brothers have not talked for well nigh 16 years now. Frank looks to play things up like nothing’s changed and they’re both pals. He sets his brother up to an evening with a Professor French and his beautiful and highly intelligent daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer), who happens to be a literature teacher at the local high school. This is his way of trying to get his brother into good company. After all, he can’t bear that people should talk. He’s got a reputation to uphold.

But Dave’s not much for that type of company, although he takes a liking to Gwen, who avoids his advances while still taking a great interest in his work as an author. Furthermore, the cynical drifter begins to keep company with jovial gambler Bama Dillert, played by none other than a boozing, poker playing Dean Martin. Thus, there are some genuinely entertaining moments that feel like nothing more than a Rat Pack hangout.

But Some Came Running is quick to plunge back into dramatic turmoil. There are affairs, hypocrisy, unbridled passion, bar fights, parades, and carnivals all highlighted by the eye-catching staging of Minnelli. In fact, Minnelli always has an eye for his scenes, and there’s nothing different about this film. We are watching the players of course, but the space they fill, the clothes they wear, and so on are almost just as interesting. Colors pop making for vibrant viewing to match the spectacle. The climactic moments feel rather Hitchcockian with the pulse-pounding intensity set to the backdrop of a bustling carnival and the Elmer Bernstein score reverberates with his usual fervor.

Dean Martin is the comedy. Arthur Kennedy is necessary. Shirley MacLaine is the tragedy. Martha Hyer is rationality. But Frank Sinatra is the core of this film because he balances a surface level cynicism with genuine affection. He shows his interior on multiple occasions. His eyes watch over his niece with great care. His heart yearns for Gwen ardently, and he holds a deep sympathy for Ginny. Sinatra was in many quality films, but this is perhaps his greatest performance.

Is it blasphemy that in many ways I appreciate this James Jones adaptation just as much, if not more than, the long-heralded From Here to Eternity?  I suppose I am entitled to my opinion.

4/5 Stars

Guys and Dolls (1955)

8d99c-guys_and_dolls_movieposterHeadlining this film are Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit respectively. Both men are high stakes gamblers and things have heated up in town because the police are trying to crack down on a floating crap game. That’s not the only thing that turns hot though. Masterson is bet by Detroit that he cannot get a sidewalk missionary (Jean Simmons) to fly with him for an evening in Cuba. Detroit has his own problems brought on by his reluctance to marry the girl he has been going with for 14 years. All along the way money constantly switches hands and “markers” are doled out as IOUs.

Both Masterson and Detroit ultimately show their noble sides and as you would expect the guys get the dolls.

This musical certainly had its moments and it looked lavishly beautiful in color like many of the contemporary musicals. I will say that there were some great personalities here including Vivian Blaine. However, Brando seemed painfully out of his element here and I’m pretty sure Sinatra had better roles. I wonder what this film would have looked with a different cast? We can only speculate now.

Also, the dialogue almost completely lacking in contradictions was quite noticeable, but I’m not sure if that was a bad thing or not. Overall I think this one would be better for the stage than on film. But don’t get me wrong a lot of the numbers like Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat were catchy. I will say I was surprised that Brando ended up singing Luck Be a Lady and not Sinatra. I had previously only heard the Sinatra version.

3.5/5 Stars

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh, the plot revolves around a Korean war hero who is brainwashed to be a weapon for Communists. Several men in the company have recurring nightmares about brainwashing, communists, and murder. Sinatra’s character has trouble finding solace, however he does meet a beautiful woman (Leigh). Harvey’s character returns home constantly at odds with his domineering mother who is married to a dim-witted senator. He has no idea what deadly purpose he is being used for. His brainwashing causes him to commit several shocking murders. It is up to Sinatra to finally save him and stop his one final violent act. However, Harvey’s character does prevail by himself but not without tragedy. Sinatra and Harvey give wonderful performances and Lansbury is especially chilling. As you will find out, this film shows all the twists and thrills that come out of a simple game of solitaire. It was also a sign of the times during the Cold War.

5/5 Stars

From Here to Eternity (1953)

b0508-from_here_to_eternity_film_posterDirected by Fred Zinnemann, the film has an all star cast including Burt Lancaster, Monty Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Clift is a former boxer and bugler who has been transferred to a post in Hawaii. The commanding officer wants to have him fight for the company but Clift is adamant that he will not. From that point on life is made difficult for him on the base. However, he still finds time to go to a club with his friend Maggio (Sinatra) where he meets Lorean (Reed) and falls in love. At the same time the intelligent company sergeant Lancaster, finds himself falling for the commander’s wife (Kerr) who has an unhappy marriage. However, he feels he cannot become an officer effectively terminating their relationship. The dramatic events culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor which overshadows a smaller tragedy. This movie certainly had a cast full of famous people, but I have to say it was not my favorite film. All the same there definitely are some good moments.

4/5 Stars