One for Sinatra

blogalbumalbum6When I was very young, I made a mental list of adventures I wanted to experience in my life—a kind-of bucket list before the phrase was coined. One of those experiences was to hear Frank Sinatra sing in concert, preferably in Vegas or some Hollywood night club that existed only in my imagination. While friends dreamed of seeing the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, various Motown groups, or even the Monkees, I wanted to see the Voice. Unfortunately, I never got to hear Sinatra sing live.

This month, TCM celebrates Sinatra’s 100th birthday by devoting Wednesday evenings to his music and movies. In addition to 35 films, the line-up includes five television specials. While I never got to hear Sinatra in person, I have seen most of his movies and all of his TV specials, including one not shown as part of the TCM celebration—The Frank Sinatra Timex Special in which the Rat Pack welcomed Elvis Presley home from the army.



Not every singer makes a good actor, but I think every singer with an expressive or dramatic persona makes a good movie star (Crosby, Garland, Sinatra, Presley, Streisand). By the mid-1950s, Sinatra had cultivated the persona of the soulful outcast, the cool loner who preferred the shadows of the night life. His only companions were those like him—a “rat pack” of entertainers who knew too much about the world but revealed nothing. Album covers of the era depicted the singer leaning against a lamp post, nursing the drink in front of him, or holding a cigarette between his fingers. As much as any movie, these album covers evoked a mood, created a character.

It was a persona far removed from the one Hollywood originally saddled him with during the 1940s. A singing idol to screaming bobby-soxers, he appeared in a series of musical comedies that exploited his thin physique and boyish charm. Don’t get me wrong. I love these charming musicals in which he played naïve boy-men who don’t quite understand the ways of women. My favorite is On the Town in which cab-driver Betty Garrett chases him around her taxi beseeching him in song to “Come Up to My Place.” But, like Dick Powell before him, Sinatra could not play the juvenile archetype forever and worked hard to rebuild his star image. If you like Sinatra’s MGM musicals from this era, check them out on TCM on December 16.



In 1953, Sinatra famously revived his flagging career and buried his old star image with his comeback role as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, which airs this Wednesday, December 9, at 9:15pm, EST. However, twitchy Maggio does not reflect the star image that defined Sinatra during the 1950s. Instead, his character in Young at Heart embodies the cool, collected outsider who lives in a world of his own. In this melodramatic remake of Four Daughters, Sinatra costars as Barney Sloane, a struggling, disillusioned composer-arranger with a chip on his shoulder because he’s never caught a break. This film does not get the attention it deserves, and I am disappointed that TCM is not including it as part their Sinatra celebration. Perhaps the melodrama format prevents a serious look at the film, or maybe it’s the casting of Doris Day, whose eternally optimistic character leads Barney to his happy ending. However, Young at Heart is an important role in Sinatra’s film career, because it features him as a saloon singer, the image he cultivated on his album covers. It was also the image he would harken back to while touring during his twilight years. In Young at Heart, Sinatra sings the quintessential saloon ballad “One for My Baby,” a signature song in his career and a signifier of his 1950s image.



Other films from the 1950s perfected, tweaked, or expanded his star image, including Some Came Running, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Joker Is Wild (all airing December 30). Interestingly, in each of these films, his character surrounds himself with a kind-of rat pack, or group of friends and associates marginal to the uptight mainstream world of families, day jobs, and ranch houses. In Minnelli’s masterful melodrama Some Came Running, two of his friends are played by real-life pals Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine; in Golden Arm, his character’s crowd consists of the musicians, gamblers, and outsiders who frequented the bars and joints along Chicago’s old Division Street. In The Joker Is Wild, Sinatra plays real-life night-club comic Joe E. Lewis, another denizen of the night life inhabited by entertainers, gangsters, and party girls.

In some films from the era, Sinatra’s character falls for a wholesome girl who represents a chance for a normal family life. This type of storyline downplays the outsider connotations of his image to emphasize another aspect—the commitment-phobic skirt-chaser who never wants to settle down. Check out Pal Joey, Come Blow Your Horn, or The Tender Trap (the latter showing December 23, 3:15 EST) for examples of this very dated side to the Sinatra image. Interestingly, A Hole in the Head, directed by Frank Capra, criticizes the inherent irresponsibility and immaturity of this persona by giving the Sinatra character a young son. The child’s need for a stable home life conflicts with Sinatra’s predilection for girls and gambling. A Hole in the Head is generally dismissed by film critics, scholars, and Sinatra biographers: Obviously, the family values of Capra-corn and the night life of the Rat Pack are not a good fit.



Sinatra’s later acting career vexes biographers, historians, and critics. It is certainly uneven in terms of the success or impact of the films. Some dismiss his career after The Manchurian Candidate, because there are no timeless classics on his filmography after that point. But, I always find it interesting when movie stars from the Golden Age manage to keep their acting careers afloat during the 1960s and 1970s—when the studio system had given way to a new generation of directors who treated film as an art form. Some, like John Wayne, continued to play characters based on their established star images; others, like Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and even Marilyn Monroe, appeared in films that updated or modernized their personas. Some, like Lana Turner, Jane Wyman, Joan Collins, and Constance Towers, found work in television, lending a much-needed glamour to daytime and night time soap operas.



During the 1960s, Sinatra starred in films that played into his star image as well as others that did not. In 1967, he created a hard-boiled detective figure, Tony Rome, which reflected the calm, collected coolness of the Sinatra persona. But age and personal hardships had tarnished the image, giving it a world-weariness that suited the material. Tony Rome was successful enough to generate a sequel, The Lady in Cement.

Sinatra starred as a veteran police detective in two films showing on TCM this Wednesday, December 9, which were produced during the twilight of his career. They make an interesting pairing, but set your DVR’s because they play at the ungodly times of 1:45am and 4:00am, EST. In The Detective, Sinatra’s character is an honest homicide detective investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy gay man. The film was released during the two year period after Jack Valenti dismissed the Production Code but before the letter- ratings system was in place. The film takes advantage of the newfound freedom to depict forbidden content by offering graphic descriptions of the murders, a nymphomaniac wife, and a lurid depiction of gay life. At the time, the material was considered challenging, a supposed reflection of the reality of urban life. The script by Abby Mann exposes political and police corruption on a grand scale, suggesting that Sinatra’s honest detective can do little in the face of our modern era’s dishonesty and depravity. Though Sinatra plays a tolerant cop who is unbiased toward the gay characters, the film is guilty of depicting homosexuality as deviant and destructive, so the perspective is outdated. The Detective is a flawed film, but it offers a glimpse into America’s socio-political history of the late 1960s. Plus, Sinatra’s willingness to play outside his star image and his comfort zone makes for an interesting viewing experience.



In 1980, Sinatra starred in The First Deadly Sin as an aging police detective near retirement who tracks down a serial killer. Though it was not his last appearance on film, it was his final starring role and acting challenge. If he seemed to be the last honest cop on the force in The Detective, then by The First Deadly Sin, the impact of that burden is felt through the weary demeanor of the character and in the melancholy mood of the film. Instead of organized crime, embezzlers, and muggers, crime is now defined by psychopathic, sadistic serial killers. The world has out-paced good men like Sinatra’s dedicated detective, who will get no relief after retirement because his wife is succumbing to a serious illness. Though his character feels his age, it is not a deterrent to solving the case. Indeed, it is his character and an aging curator of antiques, played by George Coe, who figures out the murder weapon and, thus, the clue that solves the case. The First Deadly Sin, another forgotten or overlooked film, is a worthy epitaph to a notable acting career.

[It is too difficult to say everything about Frank Sinatra in one blog post; next week, I will talk about Sinatra and his film directors.]

16 Responses One for Sinatra
Posted By robbushblog : December 7, 2015 3:46 pm

Luckily, my first concert was a Sinatra concert. It was not in a small nightclub, but instead a coliseum in 1992. At 17, I may have been the youngest person in attendance. I sat in the next to last row, but it didn’t matter. I was in the same building as Sinatra. Some people talk about how Sinatra’s voice was going or gone by this time, but I couldn’t hear that. I heard Sinatra in all his glory, regardless of how old he was or how weak his voice may have been. He had to use a teleprompter to help him with the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. It was Sinatra, and he was magical.

Posted By robbushblog : December 7, 2015 3:49 pm

THE DETECTIVE is okay. The attitudes towards gays are kind of laughable now, much like those in MADIGAN. The main issue I had with it though, was the subplot with his wife took too much time away from the investigation, and wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the investigation. TONY ROME and LADI IN CEMENT are both kind of fun detective yarns. THE FIRST DEADLY SIN is kind of a snoozer, unfortunately. I saw it just a few years ago and can’t even remember much about it, except how disappointingly dull I found it.

Posted By swac44 : December 7, 2015 4:29 pm

Funnily enough, just watched one of Sinatra’s few Paramount titles, Assault on a Queen, a couple of days ago. It’s not really a great film, but Sinatra remains ever-watchable as this oddball heist movie (written by Rod Serling, of all people) goes through its paces, with the star as part of a gang attempting to rob the Queen Mary using a junked German submarine. It feels like this title was long out of circulation until Olive Films issued it on DVD and blu-ray, along with Come Blow Your Horn. Hopefully his other Paramount title, The Joker Is Wild, sees the light of day in a restored edition soon, at least we can see a version of it on TCM.

Posted By robbushblog : December 7, 2015 5:07 pm

I sure hope Olive puts out THE JOKER IS WILD also. It is one of my favorite Sinatra films, contains my favorite Sinatra song (“All the Way”), and co-stars one of my favorite Hollywood hotties from the 50s, Mitzi Gaynor. That was the first movie I saw her in, and I was smitten.

Posted By swac44 : December 7, 2015 5:48 pm

Plus, it’s one of the few times Sinatra played a real person (comic Joe E. Lewis), and he really goes the extra mile in a way he didn’t do often (The Man With the Golden Arm, Suddenly and From Here to Eternity come to mind). You get the feeling he wasn’t just doing his “one take and I’m outta here” thing on the set of that film.

Posted By Arthur : December 7, 2015 10:07 pm

Sinatra had a long, long career, two careers really, singing and acting that sometimes overlapped. He was a solid, enduring fixture for two generations. Quite an accomplishment.

While for much of that span he had the power and influence to play any role he wanted, he pretty much stayed away from glorious, heroic parts, choosing instead to play a variations on the theme of a badly conflicted Everyman. I liked that.

His most memorable film for me was SOME CAME RUNNING. Among its many other attributes, the musical score was terrific.

Posted By Doug : December 8, 2015 1:00 am

Have to mention one of his musicals which seems very dated now, but has its charms: “Can-Can” with Shirley MacLaine. A couple of good songs, and I’m pretty sure Frank and company had a good time making it.
Robin and the Seven Hoods has its charms, including a cameo by Sig Ruman with his distinctive voice.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 8, 2015 1:51 am

SWAC44: I have not seen ASSAULT ON A QUEEN in a long time, but I have fond memories of it. I like heist movies, and I remember liking Sinatra a lot in this one.

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2015 3:15 pm

Arthur – I would say he has endured for more than two generations. I was the third generation myself when I saw him in concert, and I didn’t even go with my parents.

Posted By Arthur : December 8, 2015 5:55 pm

Yes. He touched more than two generations. But a full two generations grew up and matured with him as a cultural fixture.

Posted By cicero grimes : December 8, 2015 6:51 pm

Re: The Detective….
Sinatra played Joe Leland,which was the character in Roderick Thorps novel of the same name.
The follow up Joe Leland book was Nothing Lasts Forever,which was filmed as Die Hard,Leland now John McClain,played by Bruce Willis.

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2015 8:30 pm

And Sinatra had first right of refusal for DIE HARD. In his 70s by then, he luckily refused.

Posted By cicero grimes : December 8, 2015 8:32 pm

even so….would have been interesting to see his take on “Yippee Ki Yea…..”

Posted By robbushblog : December 8, 2015 8:35 pm

“Yippee Ki Yea, baby! Wanna pick out some furniture?”

Posted By Dan Hand : December 9, 2015 4:59 pm

“Dirty Harry” (1971) had been intended as a starring vehicle for Frank Sinatra, at one point. That would have been different!

As someone who thinks that Frank Sinatra was an exponentially better, and more important, singer than he ever was an actor, I look to most of his movies for just what he intended: good entertainment, rather than high art. I am not ashamed of my enjoying, for instance, the Rat Pack outings, in “Ocean’s 11″ (1960) and “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1964), and I could not care less what some pseudo-intellectual critic thinks of them. I even can enjoy watching movies that disappointed me– like, say, “High Society” (1956), the musical remake of my second-favorite film ever, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), which makes me cringe when I watch immortal lines being regurgitated, even by the likable likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the beautiful Grace Kelly!– if they contain singing that is worthwhile, in and of itself.

One of my biggest regrets, in terms of Frank Sinatra’s film career, is that he walked away from playing ‘Billy Bigelow’ in the film version of “Carousel” (1956). Nothing against Gordon MacRae, who had a wonderful voice, and who did a fine job playing ‘Billy’ in Frank’s stead, but I would love to have had a Sinatra rendition of “Soliloquy” rendered to film– in CinemaScope 55 and 6-track stereo (for the premier, at least), no less! (It also would have been nice if they had let Frank Sinatra also dub the songs for his antagonistic co-star, Marlon Brando, in “Guys and Dolls” (1955), but that is a separate can of worms….)

Posted By Michael A. Danello : November 15, 2018 9:44 am

You mentioned George Coe as playing the antiques curator who helped Sinatra solve the weapon used in the murders. It was MARTIN GABEL, long married to Boston’s Arlene Francis of What’s My Line etc. Gabel also costarred in Tony Rome and Sinatra’s only made-for-television film Contract on Cherry Street

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