Frank Sinatra's "The House I Live In"
The Sinatra: An American Icon exhibition has many wonderful media stations for visitors—songs, excerpts from television specials, films trailers and featurettes, and a juke box. But the one that is garnering the most attention is “The House I Live In,” the RKO short film that won Sinatra his first Oscar.
In 1945, Frank Sinatra used his popularity as a radio and recordings star to promote tolerance, especially in speaking to youth groups. He sang and recorded the song, “The House I Live In” by Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson, performing it on the Armed Forces Service’s V-J Day Broadcast. In the exhibition, it can also be heard on the juke box and the videotaped live “Concert of the Americas.” Visible in the exhibition is the sheet music issued concurrently with the film. The inside front cover of the song reprints the full lyrics of “The House I Live In” including an additional three verses and alternate double bridge. Unlike the remainder of the song, the bridges have very specific references to American history and then-current World War II references, connecting the battle of Concord and Gettysburg to Midway and Bataan.
The producers Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy made the short subject for RKO Radio Pictures, combining footage of Sinatra recording the ballad “If This is But a Dream” with a narrative section of him coming across a group of boys harassing a foreign-looking boy and teaching them about tolerance with the title song. In the phrase recommended for publicizing the featurette: “The theme of Tolerance, impassioned and thrilling in its fervent plea in Frank Sinatra’s sincere, human way.. an epochal inspiration of the public conscience.”
We know this information because the Billy Rose Theatre Division has a full exploitation sheet (flyer) for the short subject. An exploitation sheet was developed by the studio publicity department to be shipped to theater managers in advance of the booking. It includes 3 pages of squibs, articles to be planted in local newspapers, and suggested publicity campaigns. The back page has samples of one-sheets, lobby cards, stills, and slugs for the film so that all images, text, logos, and fonts used locally followed the rules set by the studio. Headlines for the articles focused on “Frank Sinatra Inspires Youth” and “As Sinatra Sees It.” The exploitation (a word then used without evil connotations) recommended cross-promotion with scouting, veterans and school groups, as well as Sinatra fan clubs. It also included “Commended by F.D.R:” claiming that Sinatra had visited the President who approved “his intention to combat religious and racial intolerance amongst the youngsters of the nation.” There were claims that proceeds from the film would be (on the cover page) “donated to organizations working on the problems of juvenile delinquency” and (on p. 2) “devoted to agencies engaged in combating intolerance.”
Most one-reel films and short subjects did not merit full exploitation sheets. Sinatra’s popularity and, I suspect, the personal commitment of the producers to the theme, made them publicize the short as if it was a feature film.
Ten years ago, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts presented an exhibition on American Performance in the Era of Blacklisting. Then-Executive Director Robert Marx suggested the title “The House I Live In.” It was a sequel to one on antifascist performance called It Can’t Happen Here . We were being ironic, but the song title did manage to encompass both the intense patriotism and social criticism of the era. Both were also present in the song and short subject by songwriters Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson (as well as the film’s writer Albert Maltz), who were all duly blacklisted. All are well represented in the Library for Performing Arts’ collections, especially in their work from the 1930s–1950s. As well as published songs and recordings, you can find their work in the archival collections of other writing partners, among them Jay Gorney, Yip Harburg, and Elie Siegmeister and in the papers and publications of the New Theatre League. They are worth investigating. Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” is one of the best known and best songs of the 20th century, but his other works also deserve recognition.