I had a very interesting chat a few weeks ago in my alter ego as a musician. I was playing the gorgeous Bossa Nova standard by Antonio Carlos Jobim, "Dindi," when a very attractive young lady, who had been listening intently all set, stated, "Oh, that's Junior's favorite from his Dad's album with Jobim." I thought I had misheard her and asked her to say it again, which she did, and it immediately dawned on me "Junior" was none other than Frank Sinatra, Jr., and the woman was talking about the elder Sinatra's landmark album with the famous Brasilian composer/guitarist/arranger. I of course asked if I could sit and chat with her during my break, and it turned out she works for the Sinatra children helping them license the many iconic images of their father. She had a bagful of catalogues of photos of Sinatra from his bobby-soxer days to his heyday as the "ring-a-ding-ding" leader of the Rat Pack (more accurately called The Clan if you talk to real Sinatra cognoscenti), which are now available for use in everything from tee shirts to hotel lobbies. It made me realize what a "product" Sinatra had become over the years, especially to those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. This five film DVD set of some of Sinatra's earlier film appearances for both RKO and MGM may help to at least slightly overcome that imbalance between icon and substance, all having been made before Sinatra became something you would almost expect to have a UPC code stamped on him somewhere. While none of these films is anything remotely approaching a classic and will probably be of most interest to die-hard Sinatra fans, they offer a nice little window into Sinatra's unforced and affable early acting style, melded with his always spectacular crooning (almost always to songs by the great team of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn), often pairing him with a gaggle of co-stars as unlikely as Groucho Marx, Jack Haley, Kathryn Grayson and Adolphe Menjou. The set includes:
Higher and Higher, from 1943, was Sinatra's first "real" film role after a couple of cameo appearances as Tommy Dorsey's band singer, though he plays himself in this film and, third-billed after Jack Haley and Michele Morgan, is clearly a supporting player. The film is surprisingly brisk and witty, with a Pygmalion-eque plot device of making over a maid (Morgan) to pretend to be the debutante daughter of a broke piano heir (a very funny Leon Errol) and finding her a wealthy beau to keep Errol from being kicked out of house and home. The basic premise is then blended with some out and out screwball elements, making for an at times hilarious mélange. Errol's staff is headed by the conniving Haley as his valet, and perhaps more interestingly to those interested in the history of the American pop singer, Mel Tormé as a very young servant. The film is the most classically structured musical of the bunch, with all but one of the well-integrated songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson (and that one exception is by no slouch of a team, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart). In fact the film was originally optioned from a Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical of the same name, though those inscrutable Hollywood honchos, as they often seem to do, decided to jettison the original score. (There is a delicious anecdote told by the original musical's co-writer and director Joshua Logan. The original show featured a performing seal. The show was not going well opening night, though the seal seemed to be winning some people over. After one musical number ended, there was a deadly silence which was suddenly broken by a loud French accented woman proclaiming, "Darling, zat was zee most vonderful phoque in the world!" Phoque, you Francophiles probably know, is the French word for seal. Needless to say, she was widely misunderstood and the show never recovered its footing after this interchange).
Though there are the standard "book" songs, including a neat little production number opening the film which introduces all of Errol's servants, Sinatra's numbers are for the most part set apart as simply Frank singing, not that there's anything wrong with that. There are also two other nice production numbers featuring the entire cast, "You're On Your Own" and "Minuet in Boogie," featuring beautiful close harmony, Modernaire-style backups (suitable, considering Tormé's accomplishments in this genre) courtesy of master vocal arranger Ken Darby. Performance-wise, Sinatra has clearly not quite found his footing in his initial "acting" appearance here; he's pretty stilted and uncomfortable at times, though when he sings those qualms disappear. Morgan is pretty and handles her comedic elements with quite a bit of flair, especially as she repeatedly forgets the role she is playing and lapses into her "real" persona as a maid. Haley is deft if broad in his portrayal of a gentleman's gentleman who is also on the make, both financially and romantically. Also on hand are a lovely Barbara Hale as Morgan's debutante rival, the always enjoyable Mary Wickes as Errol's wisecracking personal secretary, and an unusually understated Victor Borge as the supposedly rich "mark" Haley is setting up to marry Morgan so that Errol's riches can be reclaimed.
Though Groucho co-stars in one of the later films in this set, there's also a Marx Brothers connection to 1944's Step Lively, which is a semi-musical remake of the one "classic" Marx Brothers film not originally written for them, "Room Service." George Murphy takes over the Groucho role in this version, playing the conniving producer of a Broadway show who is housing his entire cast, on credit, in the penthouse suite of a tony hotel. Sinatra plays an aspiring playwright who thinks Murphy has optioned his material. The original play's farcical elements get a curve ball thrown at them this time 'round when Murphy discovers Sinatra can sing like, well, Sinatra. Anne Jeffreys and Gloria DeHaven provide the distaff attraction, with DeHaven as the ingénue actress you know is going to fall for Sinatra, and Jeffreys as the ambitious backer who wants some tit for tat (so to speak) for her money; the problem is both roles are so woefully underwritten, and Jeffreys is so more or less likable in her role, that the two women almost melt into one amorphous character at times, aided and abetted by their physical resemblance to each other. There are some great comedy bits by a host of stalwart character actors, including an hilarious Walter Slezak as the hotel manager, Adolphe Menjou as the hotel owner and Eugene Pallette as the middleman between an anonymous backer and Murphy. The Chico and Harpo roles are given over to the now forgotten RKO comedy team of Brown and Carney, whose patter is less than Shakespearian. Some of the funniest moments come from the confusion spread by Murphy attempting to mislead Sinatra into believing the cast is actually rehearsing his straight play, rather than the musical Murphy is really planning on producing (which Murphy has plans for Sinatra to unwittingly star in). It's all patently silly, but with some good, if over broad, comedy, and uniformly spry performances by all the leads.
The film is helped by a tuneful, if not spectacular, Styne/Cahn score, including the beautiful "As Long as There's Music," which contains some unusually sophisticated harmonies, even for a master songwriter like Styne, probably one of the reasons the song has become a beloved jazz standard for such disparate artists as Charlie Haden and George Shearing. There's also the patently politically incorrect "Ask the Madame," which, had it been produced in our day and age, may have inadvertently started a religious jihad. The finale, based on "As Long as There's Music," has some neat production effects, including DeHaven seemingly traipsing down a beam of light and the chorus dancers clad in gowns of white fronts and black backs which allow them to magically disappear every time they turn around.
It Happened in Brooklyn, probably the best all-around feature in this set, is a lovely and heartwarming 1947 MGM feature giving Sinatra his best Styne/Cahn score of this era, including the immortal classic "Time After Time." Utilizing some rare-for-the-era location shots, It Happened in Brooklyn follows the exploits of returning G.I. Sinatra, who, upon returning to his hometown haunts across the river from Manhattan, discovers that both his borough and he himself have changed immeasurably during the war years. Sinatra soon hooks up with school music teacher Kathryn Grayson and the school's janitor, played by the inimitable Jimmy Durante. Durante and Sinatra also duet on another standout number, "The Song's Gotta Come From the Heart." Though one might initially think that the operatic Grayson and crooning Sinatra are an odd match, they do surprisingly well together vocally (even performing a duet from "Don Giovanni," which Sinatra pulls off with aplomb if not operatic brilliance), and perform exceedingly well together in their non-singing scenes. Grayson has a sweetness and naturalness that perfectly match Sinatra's unaffected work in this picture. Durante is as charming and idiosyncratic as ever, bringing some nice comedy punch to his role as he attempts to act as a matchmaker (with unexpected results) for Sinatra and Grayson. Peter Lawford also appears in a supporting role as a composer who needs some "swing lessons" from Sinatra, and lends his usual continental air to the proceedings. Gloria Grahame starts the proceedings out as a wisecracking nurse, but there's a neat little twist at the end of the film that makes her character more important than one might initially think. The real standout, however, is juvenile Bobby Long, who is simply phenomenal in a tap number. The fact that Long never did another role simply mystifies me considering his stellar work here, and I have been unable to dig up any biographical information on him. Also of note (no pun intended) is the contribution of Andre Previn, playing the many piano solos featured throughout the film. There's also a very clever vocal reworking of Bach's first two-part invention, here handled as a duet between Grayson and her music students.
Most musical lovers usually cite 1948's The Pirate as the most famous example of MGM genius gone slightly askew, if not totally awry. A film that was probably, or perhaps improbably, in production at the same time, though released a few months later, The Kissing Bandit, reteaming Sinatra with Kathryn Grayson, usually comes in second in that poll of aficiandos. Even Sinatra himself hated the film, the foppish role he had to play and the frankly second-rate score by the usually excellent Nacio Herb Brown. The film actually has some striking parallels to the Garland-Kelly-Minnelli misfire, including a Spanish setting (in this case, Spanish California), an innocent naïf (Grayson) being shepherded by an aunt (Mildred Natwick), and a pretender (Sinatra) attempting to woo a girl by enacting a role he isn't really cut out for. Like The Pirate, The Kissing Bandit is nothing if not colorful, with gaudy pinks, greens and yellows on virtual nonstop Technicolor display. And it's actually funny more often than not, especially in the scenes with a heavily made up J. Carroll Naish as Sinatra's bandit mentor. Sinatra comes to California thinking his father ran an inn, when in reality he had been the notorious Kissing Bandit. "You never knew your father had a little sideline?" asks Naish. "The little sideline was being a bandit?" responds a wide-eyed Sinatra. "No, running an inn was the little sideline. The bandit part was the main thing." This kind of surprisingly contemporary humor carries the film further than its patently improbable plot elements would otherwise imply.
The film is unfortunately hampered by the all too obvious dichotomy of some lovely location work mixed none to well with studio bound pieces, as well as some truly unfortunate costume choices for Sinatra. The repeated, supposedly funny, use of silly sound effects to "indicate" Sinatra's moments of inspiration also grows grating very quickly. There's also a frankly Freudian dance number (called The Fiesta) featuring a dashing Ricardo Montalban and feuding females Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse that is not, as Sinatra gushes to the dancers after they've finished, "the finest dance I've ever seen," despite its having been directed by future legend Stanley Donen. It, like the entire film, is all just a little too peculiar for its own good. Despite some nice comedic touches throughout, and with an appealingly coquettish turn by Grayson, The Kissing Bandit nonetheless suffers from the discomfort Sinatra exhibits in this role he obviously didn't like.
Double Dynamite, a 1951 farce co-starring Groucho and Jane Russell, finds two of the three stars playing against type. Russell is a meek little working girl housewife-wannabe, long engaged to Sinatra, somewhat of a milquetoast, who happens to also be her fellow bank teller. Marx, well, is Marx, though ostensibly the owner of the corner restaurant where the two lovebirds eat lunch every day. Through a series of mishaps (why can't there ever be a series of haps?), Sinatra gets involved with a gambling ring, winning tens of thousands of dollars at exactly the same time tens of thousands of dollars goes missing from the bank, which Russell is ultimately accused of stealing. Hilarity supposedly ensues, though it's all fairly silly and doesn't, no pun intended considering the ultimate culprit of the "embezzlement," add up to much. It's fun, though, to see Sinatra and Russell playing prim young lovers who are so patently antithetical to everything they became known for later in their real lives. Marx manages to get off some great wisecracks, and does some very funny work going undercover as a "swell" to try to ferret out who's to blame for the missing cash. Sinatra is surprisingly spry playing a schnook in way over his head with Damon Runyan types and the law breathing down his neck simultaneously. Unfortunately the high hopes usually raised by the phrase "Songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn" are ultimately dashed by the fact that the musical interludes are few and far between, and while Styne and Cahn never disappoint, their work here is certainly not at the apex of either man's career.
None of these films seem to have undergone any significant restoration. All of the full frame transfers (with Bandit being the only color feature included) have an unfortunate amount of scratches and other abrasions, as well as a significant amount of grain. Bandit and Dynamite have the sharpest transfers. Black levels are generally good, though Step Lively's contrast is not as good as the other black and white features in the set. All of this said, there's nothing unwatchable in any of these transfers, though it's obvious Warner is treating this more or less as a budget release.
All of the mono soundtracks sound fine, with little noticeable hiss. There's surprisingly full bodied fidelity in all of these transfers, with Sinatra's glorious voice coming through loud and clear. There are a couple of very brief moments of silence in Bandit that I am assuming result from a bad edit. All of the features sport English soundtracks with English and French subtitles available.
Zip. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis. And by bupkis, I mean not even Scene Selections on the Main Menu! Have the usually superb Warner DVD experts been replaced by Pod People?
These new to DVD features will delight all Sinatra fans, though truth be told the bulk of these are not among his best film appearances. Even casual fans will probably want to at least rent this set to check out It Happened in Brooklyn and Higher and Higher, and, perhaps for its camp value, The Kissing Bandit. For its historical value, I'm recommending this set.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet