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As part of my 'stop disliking Frank Capra films' self-help program, I've been looking for all the good I can find in his features, including the recent quality releases Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Pocketful of Miracles. I detect plenty of good will but seemingly an equal amount of anger in Capra, ever since he decided to do 'important' pictures in the middle 1930s. One of his last feature films is 1959's A Hole in the Head. A new, fresh start with co-producer Frank Sinatra promised big things, and the show delivers on most of its promises.
Late '50s audiences looking for wholesome entertainment were charmed by A Hole in the Head, which was sold as the perfect family entertainment. Both Franks liked film performances to be as fresh and unrehearsed as could be delivered, and star Sinatra hated performing multiple takes. Capra also preferred to shoot musical numbers live instead of to canned audio playback, a choice that gave the director his last classic sequence. Sinatra sings up a storm with young Eddie Hodges, the perfect All-American Eisenhower-era kid. They're filmed before a rear-projected Miami, but the scene is 100% fresh. You may remember Hodges even if you haven't seen this picture - he was further immortalized playing on a TV quiz show with Ed Harris in The Right Stuff). 1
Capra was proud of A Hole in the Head but did not remember the filming as a happy experience. He and star Sinatra did have a lot in common. Both were Italian-American and each had experienced a bad career patch. But since both preferred to have the last word in decisions, it's unlikely that their partnership was smooth sailing.
Screenwriter Arnold Schulman also wrote the original play, which seems perfect material for Sinatra and Capra. Widower Tony Manetta (Frank Sinatra) came to Miami years ago to get rich, but now manages a run-down Miami Beach hotel. He lives there with his ten year-old son Ally (Eddie Hodges), and spends his time with his girlfriend Shirl (Carolyn Jones), who lives upstairs. A bongo-playing free spirit, Shirl would be happy if Tony abandoned everything -- even the kid -- and just took off with her to parts unknown. Tony's old pal Jerry Marks (Keenan Wynn) is now a big-time wheeler-dealer, while another partner settled for driving a cab, but Tony still has dreams of success, even though the hotel is going into receivership. Tony begs his hardworking brother Mario (Edward G. Robinson) for a cash bailout. Mario instead flies down with his wife Sophie (Thelma Ritter) to force the 'frivolous' Tony into a confining job running a five & dime store up North. Having decided that the beach hotel life is too squalid for Ally, Mario has even arranged for Tony to meet Eloise Rogers (Eleanor Parker), a prospective bride and proper mother. Tony's just after the money. He feigns an interest in Eloise while keeping Shirl under wraps. When Mario sees through that ruse, Tony jumps at an unexpected party invitation from Jerry Marks, who is passing through town with his girlfriend Dorine (Joi Lansing). Tony thinks he can sell Jerry on his lifelong dream, a plan for a Disneyland-like theme park on the Miami shore.
First things first -- Tony Manetta can't keep his prime beach hotel booked? Times must surely have changed, because I was in the 'pink flamingo district' of in Miami in 2010 and you'd think it was the French Riviera. Tony's Hoel might be next door to Robin Williams's pastel paradise in Mike Nichols' The Birdcage. Although the interiors are studio work, Capra manages a fairly convincing location feel for A Hole in the Head. He stage scenes in wide masters and long takes, where possible. It's not a show to spot dynamic camera moves. Capra's loose, not-too-rehearsed style can be seen in several extended dialogue shots where actors stumble slightly over their lines or pile up a bit in their cues. When the written dialogue sounds natural, the plan works well.
The show is basically an Eisenhower update of Capra's old themes, with both men treating 1959 more or less like 1948. Schulman's play aligns with Capra's standard "hero" story, in which, as Andrew Sarris once said, his leading men are each forced to go through "the most public humiliation possible." Capra's Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and John Doe are all victimized by corrupt forces seeking money or political power, while poor George Bailey considers himself a failure and contemplates suicide rather than face the scandal of allegedly stealing a lousy $8,000 dollars. In Capra's 30s pictures the hero is a natural-born superman; society has the problems, not he. The post-war George Bailey has clung to his youthful dreams of being a great man, building bridges, traveling the world, etc., but must settle for a commonplace small town existence. New York lights and Broadway babes are for the egotistical 'users' like Sam Wainwright, who doesn't seem to care about anybody (but turns out to be a stand-up guy just the same). The blessing is that George finds a different kind of success he didn't expect -- the love of his family and friends that believe in him.
Thirteen years later in A Hole in the Head, the Capra hero has been knocked down a few more pegs. Tony Manetta lost his wife but still has the love of a son, who he never rejects or considers abandoning through suicide, as did the nearly psychotic George Bailey. But Tony's youthful goals are neither lofty nor noble, or even very practical. Instead of building bridges, Tony dreams of a get-rich development scheme that requires someone else's money to imitate Walt Disney on Florida acreage. His life target is more money, women and good times. The film's conservative realism judges Tony's ambitions as false and irresponsible. Events impose a humiliation that finally convinces Tony to abandon his playboy dreams.
Carolyn Jones' Shirl represents the threat of 'chaotic freedom'. Shirl is a carefree go-getter, a hip chick stuck with a guy who has to worry about (what a drag) money. She'd like to cut loose but Tony is fifteen years too old. He's also a lot less of a wild man than he thinks he is. All of his energy is taken up with dodging bill collectors and swiping free services from the hotels around him. He's more like one of the disillusioned veterans in Stanley Donen's It's Always Fair Weather. The final blow comes from old buddy Jerry, who does not ride to the rescue as did faithful Sam Wainright for George Bailey. Instead of a happy 'Hee Haw!', Jerry gives Tony the bum's rush: "What's wrong with you? Never hustle a hustler."
Tony's humiliation comes at the hand of his high roller pal, when he must return to his own celebration party bearing yet another sad story of failure. The bottom line rates Tony as a bum who needs to grow up. Of course, his hard-nosed brother will soften and maybe relent enough to give the hotel another shot. Tony may get a future with a potentially good life partner, but he won't be able to sing, "I did it my way." The song is "High Hopes" but the end feels like a defeat.
Sinatra put a lot of effort into this character, and it shows. He may have figured that taking a cue from Bing Crosby would be good for his all-round showbiz profile -- a family-oriented movie will balance his action pictures and ring-a-ding comedies. Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter do well enough with their stock characters, and Eleanor Parker is always charming. Her Eloise is a bit of a puzzle in that she obviously wants this Tony guy, although we're not sure exactly why. Keenan Wynn and a lavish party/racetrack scene are a nice break from the confining hotel set, while the presence of gnarlly Dub Taylor reminds us of Capra's heyday in the 1930s -- Capra claimed to have found the Alabama actor back in 1937 for You Can't Take it With You. Carolyn Jones has the standout role, although the play clearly disapproves of her sense of values. Shirl even sneers at the kid, and her ethics don't go beyond immediate gratification. Still, it's Carolyn Jones, the genuine article for sex appeal. We still think she's the most exciting thing in the movie... somebody has to have some fun.
The main titles are formed by skywriting messages towed across the Miami scenery. The next era of film excitement would begin with a somewhat similar opening visual for Goldfinger. The critics loved A Hole in the Head in 1959 and wrote it up as a big career comeback for Capra, a full eight years after his previous picture. Although he made only one more movie he was actively developing projects for at least ten more years.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of A Hole in the Head is an attractive presentation of this glossy widescreen attraction, Frank Capra's last hurrah. Colors look accurate and the film materials are in fine condition. There are no extras. For years I had only seen this Pan-scanned on television, and it's a different show in its full Panavision width. Curious fans that saw Pocketful of Miracles to decide if Capra is being honest in his autobiography, will find the more of the same here. The director grudgingly deferred to Frank Sinatra's legitimate clout, only to blow a fuse two years later when Pocketful star Glenn Ford started throwing his weight around.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Hole in the Head Blu-ray rates:
1. Carrot-topped Eddie Hodges plays fresh within the context of child-star professionalism. Several years later, little Ronnie Howard knocked everybody's socks off -- like tiny Hayley Mills in her first pre-Disney pictures, Howard was not only professional, he pulled off the illusion of genuine little tyke-dom, minus the showbiz veneer.
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