The Best of Sinatra on Screen

The considerable buzz and fanfare swirling around James Kaplan's new book, Frank: The Voice suggests that the powerful mystique of singer/actor Frank Sinatra has hardly dissipated more than a decade after his death.

Sinatra would have turned ninety-five this month. Of course, few expected Frank to make this milestone, which was a distinctive part of his charm. His ongoing routine of Chesterfield's, Jack Daniel's, and 3AM nightclub shenanigans was no recipe for longevity. More than length of years, clearly Frank cared about making magic and having fun, his way. We were just lucky enough to be there to listen, and to look.

Having become a top balladeer with millions of female "bobbysoxers" at his feet, Frank began appearing in pictures in the early forties, and did a series of light, likeable musicals throughout the decade, culminating in the lively, colorful On The Town (1949), directed by Stanley Donen and co-starring Gene Kelly (with whom Sinatra had collaborated twice before, in 1945's Anchors Aweigh and 1949's Take Me Out To The Ballgame).

Then, trouble. With his singing sidelined by a serious throat problem in the early 50s, it seemed Sinatra's show business days were numbered. A passionate, tumultuous affair with the sultry Ava Gardner and subsequent divorce from first wife Nancy (who'd borne him three kids) further eroded his image and popularity. When his voice-and equilibrium-were finally restored, he had to jump-start his career, and a supporting role in a high-profile movie finally did the trick. (Frank's desperate lobbying to get this particular part is now the stuff of Hollywood legend).

The movie of course was From Here To Eternity (1953), Fred Zinnemann's superb adaptation of the James Jones best-seller about the intersecting lives and romances of various soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor, leading up to the Japanese sneak attack that finally took our country into World War II. Frank scored in the role of Maggio, a diminutive Italian-American enlisted man with a hot temper. Sinatra's claim that it was a part he was destined to play was borne out when he netted an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Ol' Blue Eyes was definitely back.

Sinatra was quickly cast as John Baron, a cold-blooded killer in the gritty, intense Suddenly (1954). Baron arrives with his gang in a tiny midwestern hamlet called Suddenly and takes over the Benson family home, including a grandfather, mother and son. Soon, local sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) drops in, and becomes part of the group. The killer has selected the Benson place for a reason: it seems the president, on a whistle-stop tour, will be making an unscheduled appearance across the street from the house, an ideal vantage-point for an assassin. Suddenly has the look and feel of a "B" movie quickie, but Sinatra's intensity blazes off the screen. Still thin as a reed, the actor excels as a human time bomb set to explode. Hayden provides a decent, steady counterpoint playing Sheriff Shaw.

After a musical turn opposite the young Doris Day in Gordon Douglas's entertaining but unremarkable Young At Heart (1954), Sinatra the actor shifted into bleak, non-singing territory in Otto Preminger's then ground-breaking portrayal of drug addiction: The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, a rehabilitated junkie who wants to start a new life as a drummer. Yet the presence of his crippled, neurotic wife (Eleanor Parker) and his old pusher (Darren McGavin) undermines his dream at every turn. Only neighborhood girl Molly (Kim Novak) and misfit pal Sparrow (Arnold Stang) really want what's best for Frankie. Though its treatment of the drug theme is dated, Frank turns in an astounding performance, earning him his only Oscar nod for Best Actor.

Sinatra then returned to more familiar musical terrain with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's buoyant adaptation of Frank Loesser's immortal Guys and Dolls (1955). Frank shines as Nathan Detroit, purveyor of the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York". Brando in his prime is better than you'd expect as Sky Masterson, even with some reedy vocals, but you keep waiting for Nathan to show up again. His dealings with fiancée Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) are a particular highlight. Straight from Broadway, the portly Stubby Kaye steals every scene he's in playing Nicely Nicely Johnson.

The next six years would find Sinatra busy in recording studios, doing some of his most enduring music for Capital Records, and on movie sets, making some solid though hardly outstanding films (1957's Pal Joey, 1958's Kings Go Forth).

A notable exception is the atmospheric Some Came Running (1958), another adaptation of a James Jones novel directed by Vincente Minnelli. Frank plays a World War 2 vet and aspiring writer who has trouble re-establishing himself in his hometown after the war. He meets a good woman (Martha Hyer) and tries to clean up his act, but his acquaintance with adoring Chicago floozie Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) and card sharp Bama Dillert (Dean Martin) undermines the romance. While Frank definitely carries it, Dean matches him scene for scene, and young Shirley is aces.

With the sixties came the Rat Pack series, including Ocean's 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), all titles featuring some combination of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, whose enduring value consists of a sort of nostalgic kitsch. These fairly forgettable movies nevertheless offered surface gloss and plenty of attitude, promulgating the "nice 'n' easy", "ring-a-ding-ding" playboy lifestyle Sinatra cultivated in his middle years.

Over this period, Frank would make two more great films. In John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Sinatra is former Korean War POW Bennett Marco, who's haunted by nightmares in which fellow prisoner Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) gets ordered by the North Koreans to kill his own men. Seeking out other platoon members afflicted with similar visions, Marco pieces together the fact that Shaw is the linchpin in a deadly communist plot. Twisty and unnerving, all the players are first-rate, particularly Angela Lansbury as Shaw's evil mother. Frank's subtle, assured portrayal of Marco signaled a career high-point.

Mark Robson's underrated war drama Von Ryan's Express (1965), stars Sinatra as Colonel Joe Ryan, a World War 2 army flier shot down over Italy. Transported to a prison camp, he meets Major Fincham (Trevor Howard), a hard-line British infantry officer at loggerheads with strutting camp commandant Battaglia (Adolfo Celi). Ryan's ill-advised effort to reach out to Battaglia and improve conditions for the men results in the nickname "Von Ryan". Still, the colonel redeems himself as he leads his men out of the camp when the Italians surrender. When his unit is recaptured by the Nazis, Ryan and company hijack the train carrying them back to captivity, and make a run for the Swiss border, and safety. Gorgeously shot on location, the ensemble cast really clicks, and Robson keeps the action brisk, resulting in a breathless ride, with a stunner of an ending.

You don't need the excuse of a milestone birthday to enjoy these titles. But Frankie, wherever you are, Happy 95th anyhow.

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