Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Answered DVD Prayers: The Tender Trap and Some Came Running

With my purchase of the new-to-DVD Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years box set, I was able to finally watch two of Sinatra’s essential 1950’s films, which feature the star at his most iconic, in widescreen on my 40 inch TV. First up was MGM’s charmingly light 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap. As swinging bachelor Charlie Reader, a New York talent agent, Sinatra may be typecast but, wearing the part as comfortably as his fedora, he’s very easygoing and personable, and therefore he manages to keep his womanizing character from coming across as the despicable cad he certainly would be in real life, or in a lesser performer’s hands. It helps tremendously that Sinatra can still pull off the innocent, puppy-dog routine when his character gets in hot water with the ladies, even if by the fade-out he ends up being put in his place by nearly all of them (you go, girls). Debbie Reynolds is properly cute and innocent as Julie Gillis, a young actress signed by Charlie, whose unpractical approach to preparing for martial bliss helps land the agent in the title’s predicament. However, as Julie Reynolds is no one’s complaisant flower, and the zesty star is simpatico with her character’s stubborn determination to do just about anything her way, making her an amusing costar for the “broad-minded” Sinatra (the scene wherein Julie takes Charlie down a notch or twenty by informing him she finds him attractive in a “beat-up” way is priceless). In Reynolds hands, you sense this sweet young thing will have no trouble keeping the imposing Chairman of the Board in his place before, after, and during the wedding.

As Joe McCall, Charlie’s visiting married friend who thinks he yearns to have a bachelor's lifestyle, David Wayne gives a smooth performance that matches up nicely with Sinatra’s. However, the fourth major Trap player comes close to walking off with the movie: Celeste Holm is absolutely marvelous as musician Sylvia Crewes, Reynolds chief rival for Sinatra’s affections. Holm invests her role with so much sly wit, intelligence, and sophistication (I’d kill to come up with a line like Sylvia’s retort to an attractive gentleman who throws the “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” pickup cue her way. Her response? “It’s this face of mine. It’s what everyone’s wearing this year.”) it’s hard to believe this foxy lady is still available. Holm is remarkably alert and spontaneous in the part and, although she handles Sylvia’s many great lines with aplomb, Holm’s sly, penetrating looks also speak volumes, providing insight into the unsatisfied Sylvia’s thoughts on her largely one-sided feelings for Charlie. Breezy and light when necessary, she also gives plenty of gravity to the role when it’s called for, such as in her discussion with David Wayne regarding what men are available to an accomplished career woman of a certain age, and later in her kind, sage response to the married Wayne’s wedding proposal. This smart, funny woman clearly knows the score, and one can identify with Joe’s frustration over Charlie’s lack of commitment to Sylvia. Holm worked so well with Sinatra she was re-teamed with him the following year in High Society, wherein they put over “Who’s Wants to be a Millionaire?” with such professional gusto that the song remains one of my favorite musical moments from the 1950’s.

I’m a sucker for Carolyn Jones in just about any film she made during this period (she had a knack for making a distinct impression almost every time at bat, regardless of the size of her roles, which were usually small), and she has a nice reoccurring bit as Helen, Sinatra’s extremely blasé dog-walker, who zips in and out of the apartment any given time of the day or night to fetch the pet for a stroll. Lola Albright also has some good moments as the most sensual of Sinatra’s paramours, and her fishy kiss-off to her sometimes lover is perfectly played.

Warner’s once again comes through with a pristine print for the DVD (that red sweater-and-socks combo Sinatra wears in Trap is the reddest red imaginable, and his eyes are beyond the blue in that horizon). The wonderful Oscar-nominated Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen title song is wisely incorporated in the film at several intervals, including Sinatra’s memorable rendition that opens the film (when I think of prime 1950’s Sinatra, the image of him strolling towards the camera with hands in pocket, wearing his trademark suit and feroda, while he casually trills the title tune is the one that always comes to mind first) and during the closing sequence, wherein all four principals do a nice reprise of the song.

I can’t get enough Sinatra from this period, and I also recently ventured to the Museum of Radio and Television, wherein I was finally able to view the Producer’s Showcase 1955 musical production of Our Town, featuring the none-too-shabby lineup of Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as the young leads, and Sinatra as the narrator (Sinatra had quiet a year in ‘55: he was also fine in a supporting role in the shlocky-but-sometimes-fun hit Not as a Stranger, and he reached his peak as an actor in The Man With the Golden Arm). Both Saint and Newman were both around 30 at the time they played the teenage George and Emily, but their gentle, sincere performances make you buy everything they’re trying to put across (they’re also both heartbreakingly beautiful). Sinatra’s vocal prowess is amazing as, with supreme confidence, he masterfully sells “Our Town,” “The Impatient Years” and the production’s most enduring hit, “Love and Marriage.” Sinatra’s trademark laid-back acting is also a fine fit for the character, and therefore viewers are able to witness another prime example of Sinatra at his apex. I’ve been waiting for decades to see how effectively Sinatra introduced the classic “Marriage” to audiences, and I wasn’t disappointed, as the legendary crooner sounds as goods as he does on the famous hit recording of the song. I believe this was telecast live, and there’s nary a slip-up throughout the close to hour-and-a-half running time, marking this Town as one of the most endearing places to be found in the Golden Age of Television.

I followed up Trap with a complete genre reversal via my first wide-screen viewing of the 1958 Vincent Minnelli-directed film adaptation of James Jones’ expose of small-town America, Some Come Running. I have trouble forming objective options regarding these steamy 1950’s melodramas (Written on the Wind, Peyton Place, Imitation of Life, etc.)- I love them all unreservedly, with their mixture of colorful, often immoral characters, tempestuous emotions seething under (usually) proper exteriors (except for the scene-stealing tramps and bad girls- you know who they are), and florid, flamboyant performances by fine casts usually working at the top of their games. These lively entertainments may not be true-to-life, but they're something else, anyway.

In Running Sinatra stars as Dave Hirsh, a WWII vet who returns to his hometown of Parktown, Indiana with aspirations of re-starting his stalled career as a writer. If Sinatra doesn’t quiet mine the same gold he did via his previous enactment of a Jones character (From Here to Eternity, of course), his unflappable persona matches Dave’s confident, no-nonsense demeanor well. His two costars fare even better. Dean Martin gives possibly his finest performance as Bama Dillert, Dave’s true-blue friend who harbors an intense relationship with his hat. As usual, Martin come across as effortlessly charming in everything he does, but as Bama, he suggests a lot more complexity than in most of his hip characterizations, and he makes the role uniquely his own.

As Ginny Moorehead, the simple girl of easy virtue (Ginny is also loving, incredibly nice, and completely honest) whom Dave has picked up at the outset of the film, Shirley MacLaine is awesomely likable in the role that cemented her stardom. Tarted up to a capital “T” with heavy makeup, tight, gaudy low-cut dresses and hair I believe MacLaine one claimed she styled with an eggbeater for the role (well, somebody did), the young star amazingly manages to keep the overblown character firmly rooted in the realm of plausibility, whether she’s belting out “After You’ve Gone” in a drunken stupor, asking Dave to love her (its hard to imagine another performer making this moment work, but MacLaine makes Ginny’s desperation to be needed touching and real, instead of pathetic), or begging Bama to allow her to marry Dave without any interference. I prefer MacLaine in her early roles and, along with her more cynical Fran in The Apartment, Ginny represents the best example of the off-beat, sweet persona that made the young actress so appealing and original among her contemporaries. Her Ginny’s the heart of the film, and the vulnerability, simplicity, and flat-out kindness MacLaine makes an integral part of Ginny is very moving. Dave’s in love with the beautiful, composed schoolteacher Gwen (Martha Hyer), but MacLaine’s so convincingly dedicated to loving him, an audience can believe when Ginny states “I’m going to make you a good wife, Dave” that he couldn’t find a better companion, regardless of the intellectual incompatibility existing between the two.

The rest of the cast also has a lot to do with the film’s charm. As Dave’s successful businessman brother, Frank, Arthur Kennedy skillfully conveys the pleasant on the surface, sleazy on the underside aspects of the gentleman’s character (Kennedy would take this kind of role to an even lower life form the following year in yet another prime potboiler, A Summer Place). Hyer didn’t make out too well at Stinkylulu’s First Supporting Actress Smackdown a couple years ago, but I think her cool reserve and glacial beauty are perfectly suited to Gwen, the intelligent, if icy, teacher Dave becomes immensely attached to. Hyer plays opposite Sinatra very well, leading up to a killer payoff scene, wherein Dave finally is able to break through and seduce the formerly iron maiden. After the seduction, Hyer also does a great job illustrating the repressed Gwen’s conflicting emotions concerning Sinatra and their now-sexual relationship, and she's wonderful in her scene with MacLaine, wherein Ginny pleads her case to keep Dave. Gwen’s bewilderment as Ginny guilelessly asks Gwen to let her have Dave is excellently portrayed by Hyer via the use of a slight quaver in her voice and a frequently stunned expression (Hyer makes the viewer understand the reserved Gwen is clearly in awe of Ginny’s ability to lay all her cards on the table). In look and manner, Nancy Gates is also perfectly in tune with her part as Kennedy’s warm, sensual secretary, Edith- she may be a playing as much of a stereotype as MacLaine and Hyer are but, similar to her femme costars, Gates makes her work memorable. Leora Dana, equipped with a voice that stops just short of a cackle every time she utters a word, also turns in a nice performance as brother Frank’s cold, superficial, socially-aware wife (I love the way Dana pauses when Sinatra answers her pleasant-but-insincere greeting with, “You haven’t changed a bit, Agnes” with steely contempt, before she responds uneasily with, “Oh, what a liar.”).

There’s an excellent featurette on the making of Running and its legacy, wherein a good point is made how Minnelli deliberately allows the film to unfold at a slow pace, in order for the incredible carnival finale to have maximum impact. The climax of the film really is something to see in widescreen, and supports the notion that all the care and time Minnelli took to put this set piece together (which drove “One take, or else” Sinatra to distraction) was worth the trouble. Also essential to Running’s success is Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score, which cues every dramatic highlight, adding plenty of excitement to the film. I can’t really agree with Peter Travers that Running represents Sinatra’s peak as a dramatic performer (surely Sinatra was pulling Travers leg when he told the critic to take a look at Running (instead of Golden Arm) after Travers mentioned The Manchurian Candidate as the film containing Sinatra’s best dramatic work). Running is featured in another stunning Technicolor transfer from Warner Brother, and the film’s never been such a pleasure to watch. DVD also includes the film theatrical trailer.

I also checked out the frenetic, harmless 1964 comedy Marriage on the Rocks, which is worth a look, as it features a top cast and some amusing sights you won’t see elsewhere, such as Sinatra improbably playing a fuddy-duddy businessman (it’s hilarious to watch the ultra-cool Frankie, shocked at his wiseacre son’s mention of grandma “hitting the sauce,” exclaim “Now, you cut that out!” to the kid in a conservative tone that would make Fred MacMurray or Robert Young proud), Deborah Kerr shrugging away on a Go-Go dance floor with Dean Martin, the formidable Hermione Baddeley in kilts playing the bagpipes, Joi Lansing putting the va-va in voom as Martin’s bikini-clad secretary, and Nancy Sinatra playing Frank’s daughter with a considerable amount of charm. The other two titles in the set include the aforementioned, rescued from public domain Arm which, besides Sinatra, also features Eleanor Parker and the unbelievably gorgeous Kim Novak to very good advantage, and 1965’s None But the Brave, which might be worth a look-see).


At 8:19 AM, Blogger dino martin peters said...

hey pallie, great reviews, thanks for your kind words 'bout our Dino and his stellar performance in "Some Came Running." Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool..oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth...

At 9:38 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thanks for reading- Dino is King, especially in this movie. I kept thinking I should elaborate on his performance, and focus on a specific scene to illustrate how great he is in the part, but he's great in every scene, and therefore I couldn't come up with "one best" moment to emphasize, and thought it would get redundant if I mentioned every moment he's on the screen (I do like it when Bama makes that poker partner pay for touching his hat, though. . . ).


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