BluRay/DVD Reviews

FOUR FRANK SINATRA DVD COLLECTIONS FROM WARNER BROS HOME VIDEO

By • Jun 10th, 2008 •

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With contribution by Glenn Andreiev

In addition to US Postal stamps, CDs, etc., there are four DVD collections coming out in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s death. That’s seventeen titles in all, and separately there’s a two-disc release of the 1993 CBS mini-series, SINATRA, exec-produced by daughter Tina.

The quality and collectibility of these films varies. But there are gems to be had. Also, for aficionados of the musical genre, it makes sense to have representative works from Sinatra’s early and middle periods, both of which are available here, including his first screen appearance , in HIGHER AND HIGHER. Also, some of the DVDs have supplementals.

Here is a sampling of the good and the bad (no ugly, really, just a few misfires) from two of the collections.

SOME CAME RUNNING

The best for first. Though one of the collections is reserved entirely for films populated by ‘rat pack’ ensemble casts (ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, 4 FOR TEXAS, AND SERGEANTS 3), work typical of the jocular, egotistical attitudes of the gang in that period, and as period pieces quite interesting, as anything of lasting value…well, that’s open to speculation. This film, though not included in the ‘Rat Pack Ultimate Collector’s Edition’, actually contains a smattering of rodents as well. I would say three or more rats constitutes a pack,. Perhaps the Warner Bros crew didn’t realize that Shirley MacLaine was a card-carrying member.

This is actually the best of the ‘rat pack’ films in both direction and performance. Vincente Minnelli treated his subject matter seriously, and was taken seriously by the cast. The result is a meandering yet compelling light drama with haunting, wistful overtones provided mainly by MacLaine. The shape and weight of the film is typical of a period in Minnelli’s career that also produced HOME FROM THE HILL: long and languorous running times, cinematic shells that feel lived in, scripts that don’t rush the lives of their characters, and narratives which take unexpected detours. Howard Hawks was doing that as well (RIO BRAVO, HATARI, etc.), but he never strayed into Douglas Sirk territory. SOME CAME RUNNING contains more than a whiff and a flourish from the domain of the master of tears.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

HIGHER AND HIGHER

This has been compared to Elvis’ first appearance in LOVE ME TENDER, where the rock star had a supporting role and was not crucial to the fulfillment of the narrative, only to the fulfillment of his fans’ dreams. Sinatra doesn’t show until 27 minutes into the film, and remains peripheral despite some singing. What is clear from the moment he appears – playing Frank Sinatra – is how much the camera loves him. He’s natural and riveting, and his career in film is instantly assured…except that it apparently wasn’t, due to mishandling. Managed by Colonel Parker, Elvis’ film career was never in jeopardy; it was just never anything to be proud of.

The quality of the print is excellent. It’s amazing how really good B&W photography can almost carry an audience over lame plotting and lackluster direction, both of which threaten to sink this film from moment to moment. Victor Borge appears in a disappointing supporting role, tickling the keys a bit, but with none of the brilliant wit he later displayed on TV and in one-man stage presentations. Jack Haley co-stars and, for all his hard work, he gets the girl.
NOT RECOMMENDED

DOUBLE DYNAMITE

Howard Hughes kept this out of release for three years until Groucho Marx wrote him a letter explaining that he would love for his family to see the film.

Irving Cummings mis-directs Groucho, though not as badly as William Seiter did in ROOM SERVICE. Groucho looks a bit overweight, and his blocking in his first big scene, leering over Sinatra and Russell’s shoulders in a restaurant, offering unwanted advice, is uncomfortably sleazy. Later in the film he finally comes into his own and has some nice bits, but the first half is dead in the water, even when Groucho and Sinatra sing a duet as they rollick along in front of a rear-screen.

Jane Russell looks frumpish and dejected. And Sinatra is quite good, but as has been said elsewhere, this was his last ‘schnook’ role, a few of which are included in the four-collection release, and it just isn’t the Sinatra we’ve come to know and suspect.

The print looks fine, and I wish there’d been some out-takes to share. Can you imagine what the bloopers might have been like with those three together – Groucho giving it his best ham, Sinatra keeping up with him smoothly, and Russell just giving up in the wake of the other two, as she appears to have done.
BARELY RECOMMENDED

IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN

What DOUBLE DYNAMITE got wrong, this gets right. It’s not a marvel of the musical genre, but it does have a number of things to recommend it. Pairing Sinatra with a name comedy actor works here with Jimmy Durante where it didn’t with Groucho. Their duet is fun. And Durante is not a strong enough personality to overpower his co-star, though I believe he tries.

Even more fascinating is his duet with Kathryn Grayson, her operatic delivery counter-pointed smoothly against his strong popular delivery. Sinatra’s solo rendering of ‘Time After Time’ is memorable, and tops her singing of it a half hour later. And then there’s 17-year-old Andre Previn’s fingers flying across the piano – in cutaway – doubling for an actor’s hands in close-up.
Director Richard Whorf isn’t a name to conjure with in the Hollywood lexicon of power helmsmen. He directed CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR, a number of TV episodics such as ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, and acted in a number of films and TV series as well. He acquits himself decently here, particularly in the first act as a reticent Sinatra is upbraided by a finely tuned Gloria Grahame.
It’s also another borderline ‘rat pack’ entrée as it pairs Sinatra and pal Peter Lawford for the first time. Sinatra’s character acts as a mentor to Lawford’s Brit-out-of-water, a role he seems to have assumed and abused over the years (if one can believe the biopics).

Some have explained the choice to film in B&W rather than Technicolor, which was becoming the norm, as being a statement of the film’s underlying melancholy tone. If that were the case, I would love to have seen the film end on a downbeat note. ‘Time After Time’, which does have a wistful pull, is sung twice – something of an indicator. And in the third act, when it becomes apparent that Sinatra’s not going to get the girl, and he is finally made aware of it, the song becomes an underlying, non-vocal element in the score, and that supports the theory, too: the song’s meaning changes into a refrain of loss when he can no longer apply its lyrics to himself. But the very ending is a cop-out: he good-naturedly accepts his romantic defeat, leaps to the support of his rival, and remembers Ms. Grahame as someone he should have been pursuing all along. Maybe the studio imposed the upbeat ending? Maybe the theoretical tone justified the de-Technicolorization of the musical genre in this instance? Your call…

The print quality is good, but flawed. Particularly irksome are occasional white emulsion scratches running down the middle of the screen – the kind which are impossible at present to remove via digital cleanup programs.
RECOMMENDED

THE KISSING BANDIT

I knew director Laslo Benedek. And as I recall, he was no prouder of this film than Sinatra was. And yet, the Technicolor palate is well worth raving about. In the second half, a party for bogus visiting dignitaries is drenched in such vivid, pavonine dresses and wall shadings, it’s tempting to add the DVD to your collection for the art direction and cinematography alone. However, to the film’s benefit, Benedek did try to keep the performances grounded, and an unrecognizable J. Carol Naish is outstanding in a surprise comedy turn.

In addition, there are two terrific dance sequences. One, featuring a lady with a whip, the other with Ann Miller , Cyd Charisse, and Ricardo Montalban. I’ve been a fan of Maltalban’s from “The Fantastics” to STAR TREK, but I never knew he was a dancer as well. My film history knowledge has just been stretched.
BARELY RECOMMENDED

THE TENDER TRAP

This is by far the weirdest film in the bunch. Director Charles Walters’ resume gives no indication that he’s a master of mise en scene (only 1953’s LILI is as oddly unique as this, in its own way), yet his use of the wide frame to distance people from one another, emotionally as well as physically, is quite effective, vastly different, say, than Lewis Milestone’s use of the anamorphic aspect ratio in OCEAN’S ELEVEN, where it only serves to fit all the characters into the shot, and when just one or two of them are on screen he tends to make them stand boringly in the direct center.
Debbie Reynolds, worrisomely convincing here, seems just about flat out insane as an ingénue possessed of wonderful vocal characteristics who is offered a lead in a musical, yet barely acknowledges her good fortune, remaining instead obdurately obsessed with getting married within a year, having the right home, and birthing the correct amount of children. Her demented chatter both amuses and horrifies Sinatra and his friends at first, and I’m sure viewers will be trying to decide if her attitude isn’t some pitiful pre-feminist refuge of a bygone era.

But it isn’t that simple. Nothing really changes about Reynolds’ outlook by film’s end – there’s no character-arc relief – and as the narrative moves forward, she comes to represent everything frightening to men about the feminine ticking-clock point-of-view, while Sinatra, representing the antithetical bachelor’s viewpoint, comes to be as disdained by his closest friend (David Wayne) as she is off-putting to the men earlier on.

And so the film evolves as a bizarre, spatially upsetting, metaphoric statement about each of the sexes at their very worst and most dangerous. It’s captivating…in a nightmarish way, all the more for its rather salient observations and intelligent dialogue. Reynolds is such an extreme and unsympathetic version of the middle-class American dream-union of the 1950s that only a licensed cult deprogrammer could possibly have brought her back to reality. And Sinatra’s character doesn’t possess those credentials. So as they drift closer and closer together, the narrative takes on the stature of an American “No Exit.” Adapted from a stage-play, it never quite escapes its static boundaries, with scenes going on quite long. And yet, there’s something appropriately claustrophobic about the form that is in synch with the theme being explored.

A brief supplement on the disc, about Sinatra’s career in the 1950s, explains and illustrates how his pop persona in the 40s gave way to a series of soulful characterizations in the following decade, and that this evolution was clearly noticeable in his singing style as well, which got deeply into the lyrics of the songs he chose, expressing the pain of lost romances and life’s defeats. The featurette also claims that in the 60s he abandoned this serious approach and gave in to the shenanigans of the ‘rat pack’ mentality. If so…and with exceptions such as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE it certainly seems so…then even an ostensibly romantic comedy like THE TENDER TRAP, falling within the ‘50s period, can also be perceived as a Petri dish for psychic warfare and irrevocably damaged souls. I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time.

Within and surrounding this tale, Sinatra sings a lovely title number – up front in a long take as he walks toward the camera; later, when he in essence explains his style to Ms. Reynolds; and again at the end, this time with his other players.
RECOMMENDED

NONE BUT THE BRAVE
(This mini-review by Glenn Andreiev)

…proves a double milestone. Not only is it the first and only film directed by Frank Sinatra, but it’s the first Japanese/American co-production. Frank and the boys at Warner Bros teamed with Japan’s Toho Studios to make this World War II drama about a Japanese battalion and an American battalion both separately stranded on the same deserted isle. The results are predictable: they fight, become friends, then fight again. Sinatra cast his Japanese battalion from that nation’s star-pool: Tatsuya Mihashi (who excelled in Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW and THE BAD SLEEP WELL) is subtle as the Japanese Captain. Godzilla series regular Kenji Sahara does a good turn as a rifleman. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects man behind GODZILLA, did the miniature battle and storm effects. Like his famous Tokyo stomping images, the effects are hit and/or miss.

Clint Walker puts in one of his best performances as an American Officer, but when then-teen-idol Tommy Sands, as the Troop leader, opens his mouth and screams dialog in a strange hillbilly accent, it’s a silly train-wreck every time! Before cameras rolled on NONE BUT THE BRAVE, Sands divorced Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy. Rumor has it that Sinatra purposely gave Sands impossible accents and atomic emotions he couldn’t possibly handle. Would Ol’ Blue Eyes purposely pepper his first film as director with one of the worst performances in Hollywood history just to vex his former son-in-law?
MODERATELY RECOMMENDED

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One Response »

  1. Would love to find DVD (( VIDEO )) of Sinatra at the sands.

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