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Ol’ Blue Eyes did it all–the good, bad and indifferent

They were the best of films; they were the worst of films. In all, Frank Sinatra made 59 movies, beginning with a warble-on as the Tommy Dorsey band vocalist to sing “I’ll Never Smile Again” in Paramount’s 1941 “Las Vegas Nights, ” and appearing last 10 years ago in a cameo in “Cannonball Run II.”

Between were the Golden Years of the MGM musicals, the Academy Award-winning supporting role as the feisty, tragic trooper in “From Here to Eternity,” the Best Performance nomination for “The Man with the Golden Arm” in 1955, then a succession of silly, self-indulgent Rat Packages, surprisingly separated by taut, riveting portrayals, as in the classic thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Either on camera, or singing unseen behind the titles, he introduced nine songs that were nominated for Oscars, winning four.

From the time that studio excutives and directors became aware that the skinny crooner was an actor of astonishing range, the critics constantly lamented that the actor never exercised the taste and discrimination inhis roles that the singer did in his music.

But by his third screen appearance, a guest appearance singing “Night and Day” in Columbia’s 1943 “Reveille with Beverly,” he had become a pop phenomenon to be exploited.

Ladies man

“At each moan and trick-turn of the Sinatra voice, in fact each time he so much as turns his dead-pan head or flickers an eyelid, the adolescent set goes absolutely nuts!” John T. McManus reported in PM.

“They squeal with delight; they rock and moan, and make little animal cries. When he is finished, they are emotionally spent.”

RKO Radio Pictures knew exactly how to showcase and package him. They dusted off a couple of lightweight stage comedies, “Higher and Higher” and “Room Service”–retitling the later “Step Lively”–and added a half-dozen songs. “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” from the first was a Best Song nominee. After “Step Lively,” Archer Winston wrote in the New York Post, “Apparently, The Voice is here to stay.”

Apparently Louis B. Mayer at MGM felt the same way. He bought Sinatra’s RKO contract. In the 1945 “Anchors Away,” and ’49’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and exuberant “On the Town,” Sinatra played the guileless innocent sidekick to Gene Kelly’s roue.

Choreographed by Kelly, the films were primarily his vehicles, but the revelation was that the boyishly likable crooner was a charming, effective actor and comedian and a hoofer who held his own.

Sinatra’s performance of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” in “Anchors Away” captured an Oscar for songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. The movie was one of the top grossers of that year. As a solo act Sinatra was cast courting Katherine Grayson in two MGM romantic musicals. “It Happened in Brooklyn,” (1947 )–in which he co-starred for the first time with Peter Lawford–and “The Kissing Bandit,” a 1948 quasi-operetta about a singing, smooching Zorro, are ’40 s fluffs that are their own best parodies.

But Sinatra the actor was already stretching. In a ’48 loan-back to RKO he played a priest in the tear-jerking “Miracle of the Bells,” singing only one song, and that unaccompanied.

MGM drops pact

Then came the turbulent, troubled period of Sinatra’s life, during which MGM dropped his contract. Between 1949 and ’53, Sinatra made only two movies–“Double Dynamite,” a forgettable RKO farce with Jane Russell and Groucho Marx, and Universal’s “Meet Danny Wilson.”

As Wilson, Sinatra for the first time was no longer the romantic boyish innocent. He was a nasty-tempered, ambitious night-club singer who sells 50 percent of himself to a mobster. It was the first role that reflected the darkness in his own life, and the point was not missed. Time magazine commented that Don McGuire’s original screenplay “cribs so freely from the career and personality of Frank Sinatra that fans may expect Ava Gardner to pop up in the last reel.” Critics complimented his acting, then left-handedly dismissed Sinatra, for “just being himself.” But it was also a portend of his future work.

Two years later, as the tough, scrappy Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity,” the actor shattered all the typecastings even his toughest critics had molded for him.

“Sinatra does Maggio like nothing he has done before,” commented Time . “His face wears the calm of a man who is completely sure of what he is doing as he plays it straight from Little Italy.”

Before the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was in hand, he bounced from Columbia to United Artists to play a Presidential assassin in “Suddenly.”

When the film was released in 1954, Newsweek described his portrayal as “one ofthe most repellent killers in American screen history. Sneeringly arrogant in the beginning, brokenly whimpering at the finish.”

Any cavils that Maggio had been a one-shot performance conjured by director Fred Zinnemann or lingering images of the bow-tied crooner or song-and-dance-man in a sailor suit were erased. Sinatra, the consummate actor who could do it all, had arrived.

And off-screen, “Three Coins in the Fountain” won the Oscar for Best Song. It had been Sinatra’s rendition.

The next year, 1955, was a very good year. In fact, it was probably his finest year. He did it all in five movies. It began with Sinatra co-starring with Doris Day in Warner’s “Young at Heart,” a musical remake of “Four Daughters ,” with Sinatra in the original John Gar-field role as a saloon pianist and arranger.

As a surgeon in Stanley Kramer’s directorial debut, “Not as a Stranger,” Sinatra all but steals the UA movie from star Robert Mitchum.

“The Tender Trap,” baited with Debbie Reynolds, was the film version of the stage comedy, “with the nervous, restless Frankie at the top of his comic form,” according to the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther.

Oscar winner

The title song by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, again sung by Sinatra, won an Oscar. It was his triumphant return to he musical remake of the Broadway and movie hit “The Philadelphia Story.”

The film score was by Cole Porter, and his co-stars were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. It was the first time Sinatra had worked in a movie with his boyhood idol, Crosby, and their rollicking duet “Well, Did You Evah?” had an infectious charm.

His love songs to Grace Kelly, “You’re Sensational” and “Mind If I Make Love to You,” are a delight, but even in 1956 the story of the troubles of the very rich seemed silly and dated.

That year, Sinatra was named one of the top 10 money-making stars in a poll of exhibitors. The he musical remake of the Broadway and movie hit “The Philadelphia Story.”

The film score was by Cole Porter, and his co-stars were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. It was the first time Sinatra had worked in a movie with his boyhood idol, Crosby, and their rollicking duet “Well, Did You Evah?” had an infectious charm.

His love songs to Grace Kelly, “You’re Sensational” and “Mind If I Make Love to You,” are a delight, but even in 1956 the story of the troubles of the very rich seemed silly and dated.

That year, Sinatra was named one of the top 10 money-making stars in a poll of exhibitors. The pattern for his subsequent career was set–the virtuoso switches back and forth between musicals, comedies, and intense, increasingly violent dramas, often acting a producer.

A decade later, “The Naked Runner,” a Sinatra EnterpriseProduction for Warner Bros., provoked the N.Y. Times’ Bosley Crowther to comment, “It is curious how Frank Sinatra repeatedly gets himself involved in films about fellows who do violent things with guns–gangsters, soldiers or assassins. He seems intensely attracted to stories in which he as the leading character is called upon to kill.”

It is a curious comment when one compares the roles of his contemporaries like Alan Ladd or John Wayne or the emerging Clint Eastwood. But Sinatra apparently got under the skin of his killers in a way that bothered the critics.

And since he had now proven he could do anything as well or better than anyone else, why didn’t he? He had the talent and even the producing power. Why couldn’t his movies achieve the taste and perfection of his music?

Probably because movie making is the oldest established permanent floating crap game in the world. Scripts, studio machinations, co-stars and directors don’t always make their point. The house odds are against the filmmaker. From the time when he emerged as one of the top 10 money-making stars, Sinatra’s movies were no worse, and often better, than the other major stars, frequently his co

stars.

The highlights of his continuing filmography are:

  • “The Pride and the Passion” (1957), A UA release, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. An epic historical adventure of the Napoleonic wars featuring Cary Grant’s cleft chin and Sophia Loren’s cleavage. Sinatra, who despite black bangs and an uncomfortable Spanish accent, is convincing as the earthy, cruel guerrilla leader.

  • “The Joker Is Wild” (1957), Paramount. Directed by King Vidor, the film was largely packaged by Sinatra, who bought Art Cohn’s biography of comic Joe E. Lewis in galleys. It is a major performance, but the honest and unrelenting downbeat of Lewis’ alcoholism put off audiences. Sinatra sang four terrific songs, including the Academy Award-winning “All the Way,” by Heusen and Cahn.

  • “Pal Joey” (1957), Columbia’s declawed and defanged version of John O’Hara’s stage musical. Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth co-star, but the real attraction is Sinatra singing the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart score.

  • “Kings Go Forth” (1958), UA. World War II on the Riviera with Tony Curtis.

  • “Some Came Running” (1958), MGM. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. James Jones’ first novel, “From Here to Eternity,” had provided Sinatra’s breakthrough role, and he locked into the lead of the screen adaptation of the writer’s second saga.

    Despite his serious, capable performance, the turgid melodrama of a G.I. with literary pretensions returning to his home town in Indiana never had the magic. But Shirley MacLaine is the most memorable and lovable floozy in screen history.

    Dean Martin, in one of his first straight roles without Jerry Lewis, proves to be a charmer. Once again, the song, sung off-screen by Sinatra, “To Love and Be Loved,” by Van Heusen and Cahn, was nominated for an Oscar.

  • “A Hole in the Head” (1959), UA. Arnold Schulman’s play about the day-dreaming operator of a seedy hotel in Miami still works when the Jews of the stage play are translated to Italians in this Sincap Production, i.e., Sinatra and director Frank Capra. Sinatra sings two songs by Van Heusen and Cahn, and “High Hopes” wins the Oscar.

  • “Never So Few” (1959), MGM. Sinatra fights the Japanese in Burma with Peter Lawford and Steve Queen, then woos Gina Lollobrigida in Calcutta. A historical subplot in which our Chinese allies are selling American weapons, using warlords as middle men, to the Japanese, and the subsequent coverup, give the story a biting contemporary interest.

  • “Can Can,” (1960), 20th Century-Fox. Forget the stage play by Abe Burrows. The movie has Sinatra singing Cole Porter songs, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Prowse , Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jordan. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, then on a tour of the U.S., condemned the movie, thus insuring headlines and boxoffice.

  • “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960), WB. The Clan–Martin, Lawford, Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine, et al–lead by Sinatra robs Las Vegas casinos in an elaborate caper. Reportedly the only Clan-Bake that made money.

  • “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” (1961), Columbia. Sinatra is one of a chain gang of convicts on a volcanic island. Spencer Tracy is the priest with an orphanage to evacuate.

  • “Sergeants 3,” (1962), UA. This Sinatra-produced Rat Package reset “Gunga Din” in the old west with Frank, Dino and Peter taking over the original Cary Grant, Victor McLauglin and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. roles. Joey Bishop was sergeant number 4. Sammy Davis Jr. played the better man than all of them. Earth tremors that year were attributed to Kipling turning over in his grave.

  • “Manchurian Candidate” (1962), UA. Directed by John Frankenheimer, this is Sinatra’s best performance since “The Man with the Golden Arm.” The taut, classic thriller about a G.I. captured and brain-washed by the Communists into a presidential assassin was released the year before the Kennedy assassination. The film has haunted the American consciousness ever since.

  • “Come Blow Your Horn” (1963), Paramount. Norman Lear adapted Neil Simon’s very first hit stage play for the screen, and there are those who think he strengthened it by making it a vehicle for Sinatra’s rake’s progress. Tony Bill debuts as his younger brother, who takes over his apartment and girl friends. One of Sinatra’s smoothest comedy performances.

  • “4 for Texas” (1964), WB. Robert Aldrich produced and directed this giggle about gunmen and gamblers in old Galveston.

  • “Robin and the Seven Hoods” (1964), WB. Another Sinatra-produced Clan gathering in which they all dress up as ’20s Chicago gangsters for laughs.

  • “None but the Brave” (1965), WB. Sinatra produced and bowed as a director in this first co-production between Japanese and American companies in the U.S., i.e. Hawaii. In WW II a U.S. plane crashes on a Japanese-occupied island, bypassed by the war.

  • “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965), 20th. Directed by Mark Robson and based on David Westheimer’s novel, this gripping WW II POW escape caper brought out Sinatra’s best acting in several years, particularly in scenes with the stalwart Britt Trevor Howard.

  • “Marriage on the Rocks” (1965), WB. Frank, Dino and Deborah Kerr in a comedy about an ad exec bored with his marriage. Daughter Nancy Sinatra had a small role.

  • “Assault on a Queen” (1966), Paramount. Sinatra, Virna Lisi and Tony Franciosa find and rebuild a sunken German submarine to hijack the Queen Mary.

  • “Tony Rome” (1967), 20th. The Man is a Miami private eye involved with Jill St. John, Gena Rowlands and Richard Conte. Nancy Sinatra sings the title song.

  • “The Detective” (1968), 20th. Sinatra in the adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel gives one of his rarer serious performances as the homicide detective investigating the brutal murder of a homosexual. Lee Remick is the cop’s promiscuous wife and Jacqueline Bisset the wife of the dead man, as Abby Mann’s script stretches Hollywood’s new liberties.

  • “Lady in Cement” (1968), 20th. “Tony Rome II” with Raquel Welsh.

  • “Dirty Dingus Magee” (1970), MGM. An embarrassing burlesque of Old West robbers, Indians and cavalry, whores and madams with George Kennedy, Anne Jackson and Lois Nettleton.

  • “That’s Entertainment” (1979), the clips from the Golden Years of the MGM musicals were opened and closed by Sinatra, whose contract had been dropped by the studio a quarter of a century before. Becoming a legend is the best revenge.

  • “The First Deadly Sin”(1980), Filmways. Sinatra was exec producer, and the adaptation of Lawrence Sanders’ bestseller was the actor’s first film role in 10 years and credible performance in a dozen years.

  • “Cannonball Run II” (1983), WB. A guest cameo and brief Rat Pack reunion with Dino, Shirley and Sammy was Sinatra’s last feature film appearance. The sequel to the coast-to-coast car stuntarama starred Burt Reynolds. The critics were cruel, and producer Al Ruddy and director Hal Needham cried all the way to the bank.

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