Ol' Blue Eyes: Ready for His Close-up
Frank Sinatra is known first and foremost as a singer and recording artist; after all, before he acquired the nicknames “Chairman of the Board” or “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” he was known as “The Voice.” But his career as a movie actor earned him nearly as much fame and acclaim as did his musical career. In “Ol’ Blue Eyes on Screen: The Films of Frank Sinatra,” a film series presented at the Library for the Performing Arts in conjunction with the exhibition Sinatra: An American Icon and running March 5 through August 17, the spotlight is on the actor.
Sinatra appeared on screen as early as 1935 in the short Major Bowes Amateur Theater of the Air, which showcased young talent including the 19-year-old singer. Several years later, when Sinatra was singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, he had uncredited appearances in the features Las Vegas Nights (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942). In 1943, he again played himself in Reveille with Beverly, and then made his official acting debut in the RKO musical Higher and Higher. Costarring with Gene Kelly in the 1945 hit MGM musical Anchors Aweigh established Sinatra’s screen appeal, but he was still the skinny kid who loses the girl to Kelly. (Due to a damaged eardrum, Sinatra was classified 4-F during the war; it’s notable over the course of his career how many military and ex-military men he played.)
Gangly and slightly awkward, Sinatra was a lightweight movie presence through the 1940s in a series of MGM musicals, including the 1947 It Happened in Brooklyn (which opens the “Ol’ Blue Eyes” series, along with the short The House I Live In) and On the Town (1949). The latter, again teaming Sinatra with Gene Kelly, was very popular, but the focus was once more on Kelly (who co-directed with Stanley Donen) in this tale of three sailors on shore leave in New York. Sinatra was Chip, a sidekick whose romantic interest was a comically aggressive cabbie played by Betty Garrett. He turned 34 around the time of On the Town’s release, and he hadn’t quite become a leading man.
Sinatra’s career took a downturn in the early 50s. He left Columbia Records for Capitol, and after leaving MGM he had trouble getting decent movie roles. Some credit second wife Ava Gardner with convincing Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn to cast Sinatra in Fred Zinnemann’s film version of From Here to Eternity; perhaps the mogul didn't take much convincing, because the actor so wanted the role of Maggio that he agreed to do it for a mere $8,000. As the scrappy army private who meets a tragic end, Sinatra was very engaging—still boyish at 37, but with more than a hint of defiant swagger. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and never looked back.
His status was solidified with his lead performance as heroin addict Frankie Machine in Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The film, which was considered very strong stuff and initially denied a Motion Picture Association of America seal, completely rests on Sinatra’s performance (and the Elmer Bernstein score). His Frankie has a haunted look, and he enacts the key drug withdrawal sequences with a harrowing persuasiveness. Sinatra earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and for the next few years he remained a top dramatic star in movies like The Joker Is Wild (1957) and Some Came Running (1958).
But he also continued to make musicals, such as Charles Walters’s High Society (a 1956 musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with Sinatra in the Jimmy Stewart role) and George Sidney’s Pal Joey (1957). The difference from his 1940s musicals is that Sinatra is now fully in charge, a filled-out, mature leading man to beauties like Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. In Pal Joey, he even takes Gene Kelly’s signature stage role, with the title character changed from a hoofer to a singer to accommodate him. The boyishness is gone; in fact, at 41, Sinatra seems too old for Joey, who is supposed to be a callow young heel. His singing career was, of course, in high gear at this point, and even when a movie he appeared in wasn’t a musical, the actor sometimes contributed a song. One of the most popular was the Oscar-winning “High Hopes,” written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen for Frank Capra’s 1959 sentimental comedy A Hole in the Head.
In the 1960s, Sinatra embarked on several laid-back comedies with his cronies in what came to be known the Rat Pack—primarily, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. First and most familiar (partly due to the 2001 remake and its sequels) was Ocean’s 11 (1960), directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Sinatra as Danny Ocean, who recruits some of his old army buddies to knock over a slew of Las Vegas casinos in one night. The movie was a big hit, and during the decade the actor also made his mark in action films (such as Von Ryan’s Express, in 1965), western comedies (the 1962 Sergeants 3, another Rat Pack caper), and romantic comedies (1963’s Come Blow Your Horn, from the Neil Simon play). He also directed a film, the 1965 World War II drama None But the Brave.
But in the midst of all this highly commercial fare, Sinatra starred in what is probably his finest film, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate. This political thriller took detours of form and tone that foreshadowed movie experiments later in the decade, with Angela Lansbury etching a bold Oedipal cartoon as ostensible hero Laurence Harvey’s mother. Sinatra, playing an army intelligence officer investigating Harvey’s character, is a mooring force of gravity throughout, ending the movie on a memorable note of anguish. He never again seemed quite so committed to a film.
In the late 60s, around the time he was married to Mia Farrow, Sinatra had some success in the PI/detective genre with Tony Rome (1967) and its sequel Lady in Cement (1968). These were both directed by erstwhile journeyman Gordon Douglas, as was The Detective (1968), which is interesting for its forays, however dated, into subjects like homosexuality, nymphomania, and police corruption and brutality. Thick-bodied and toupeed, Sinatra continued to exude the relaxed authority (with a hint of menace) that had become his trademark as performer and public figure. His last movie acting credit came in the 1980 cop drama The First Deadly Sin, although for a time in the 1980s, there were rumors of him appearing in a film version of the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles.
For those who wish to do further research on Frank Sinatra’s movie career, the Billy Rose Theatre Division offers volumes of material—four boxes of newspaper clippings on Sinatra along with clippings, photographs, and reviews of all his films, the scripts for From Here to Eternity and The First Deadly Sin (in the David Dukes Papers), a few posters, and biographies. Consult the NYPL online catalog and the Theatre Division card catalog on the 3rd floor of the Library for the Performing Arts under both “Sinatra, Frank” and film title for more details. A number of Sinatra films are also available to borrow on DVD from New York Public Library. Something for everyone, and to match every Sinatra nickname.