Was there ever a bigger star than Sinatra in so many different areas of show business? As a pop singer, a recording artist, a comedic and dramatic actor, a nightclub entertainer, you name it, Sinatra topped it. It's no wonder, then, that Warner Bros. are commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death with a series of his movie reissues, box sets of MGM, RKO, and Warner releases, also available separately.
This first set covers Sinatra's early years, from 1943 to 1951. It also shows his ups and downs during this period because while Sinatra was never less than charming and classy in any role, not all of his films were first class. Let's review the movies in this box, the first few briefly and then in more depth the one I think is the highlight of the set.
Things begin with "Higher and Higher" (1943), Sinatra's third film but his first screen credit. Here he plays himself, co-starring with Michele Morgan and Jack Haley. There are a few good tunes involved, and the tone is upbeat and snappy, but the plot and characters are fairly thin. Still, you can find a good time. Next comes "It Happened in Brooklyn" (1947), by which point Sinatra was getting top billing. Sinatra appears with co-stars Jimmy Durante, Peter Lawford, and Kathryn Grayson. Again, the songs are fine, Durante is wonderful, and Grayson provides the romance; unfortunately, the material is again fairly thin. After that is "The Kissing Bandit" (1948), also with Kathryn Grayson, a period Western set in Old California, the story of a young fellow who has to live up to his father's reputation, romantic and otherwise. Sinatra said it was the most embarrassing film of his career, and I wouldn't disagree. Then, there is "Double Dynamite" (1951), starring Sinatra with Jane Russell and Groucho Marx. You'd think that trio could save any picture, but they don't. It would be another couple of years before Sinatra decided to try dramatic acting to save his career, the turning point coming in 1953 with "From Here to Eternity" (a Columbia Picture not included in the sets).
On a more positive note, however, is the best movie in the box, "Step Lively" from 1944, Sinatra's fourth film and the first one in which he finally got principal billing. George Murphy, Adolphe Menjou, Gloria DeHaven, Walter Slezak, and Eugene Pallette co-star, with Tim Whelan ("The Thief of Bagdad," "Badman's Territory") directing this fast-paced, screwball musical-comedy remake of the Marx Brothers' "Room Service" from half a dozen years earlier.
"Step Lively" has a madcap plot, with people yelling, screaming, and running around in all directions, the film cramming as much snappy dialogue as possible between musical numbers. It's a style of comedy we don't see anymore, and, truth to tell, it doesn't quite work as well here as it did for the Marx Bros. in 1938. Nonetheless, the actors are having fun, and their joy is infectious.
Sinatra may have had the bigger fan base, but "Step Lively" is really George Murphy's picture, playing a fast-talking Broadway producer, Gordon Miller, who's got the whole cast of his next musical holed up and rehearsing at a hotel managed by his brother-in-law, Joe Gribble (Walter Slezak). But Miller's got no money to pay the bill, and the hotel's owner, Mr. Wagner (Adolphe Menjou), is coming to check the books. Sinatra plays a schnook playwright, Glenn Russell, who gave Miller a play (which Miller didn't bother to read) and some money (which Miller quickly spent), and now Russell wants to see where his money and his script have gone.
Gloria DeHaven is the romantic interest, Christine Marlowe, the singing star of Miller's new production. Miller tries to con Russell out of even more money, but Russell is as poor as he is. When Miller finds out Russell can sing, he figures to put him to work in the show. Meanwhile, Wagner is trying to root out his uninvited guests, and Miller is trying to get a big check from a rich, anonymous donor through an intermediary, Simon Jenkins (played by the rotund Eugene Pallatte).
"Step Lively" is empty-headed, to be sure, but it's also breezy, lightweight, antic fun that keeps moving forward at a breakneck speed. The action only slows down long enough to admit a musical number or some snappy dialogue. When Miller's got to figure out how to feed his starving cast, the reply is "They're not human beings; they're actors." When all looks lost, somebody says "Let's think of something." To which comes the response "This is no time to think." Or, my favorite exchange, when Sinatra's character is faking an illness: "What's the matter with him?" "He wrote a play." "Well, a play wouldn't make him sick." "You didn't read the play."
By halfway through the show, things get pretty frantic, with characters dashing about in all directions, typical of a screwball comedy. Yet it's the songs and patter that keep it afloat, a zippy little affair.
Most of the movies in the box are in a black-and-white, standard-screen format, with the exception of "The Kissing Bandit," which is in Technicolor. With the exceptions of the two earliest films, "Higher and Higher" and the movie I highlighted here, "Step Lively," the prints are clean and free of age markings. The two early ones, though, have some noticeable grain in the opening credits and to one degree or another intermittently thereafter. The overall impression in these two films is slightly gritty. B&W contrasts are good in all cases, however, with deep black levels and glistening whites, and in color "The Kissing Bandit" looks terrific, probably as good as it ever looked.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound varies slightly from movie to movie, with, unfortunately, "Step Lively" among the worst. It is rather less than WB's best audio for an old film, not only limited in frequency range and dynamics but rather low in output, too. Cranking up the volume only increases the background noise, so you can't win. Moreover, there is a pinched, scratchy quality most prominent in vocals, dialogue and songs.
Extras? What extras? None of these films comes with any extras. You get English as the only spoken language, with French subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired. That's it. There aren't even any chapter lists, although there are eight or ten chapter stops you can access with the "Skip ahead" button on your remote. For extras, I'm afraid you'll have to go to the next box set in the series, "The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection."
These early Sinatra pictures are mostly fluff, designed to show off the man's singing talents while not exactly taxing his acting ability. Little did Hollywood know at the time that Sinatra would prove as good a dramatic actor as he was a comedic or even a musical performer. Anyway, if I had to rank order the discs in this collection, I'd put "Step Lively" at the head of the list, with "Higher and Higher" and "It Happened in Brooklyn" in the middle, and "Double Dynamite" and "The Kissing Bandit" at the bottom. All the same, you'll find there is something of value in each of the movies, and Sinatra fans will want them all, in any case.
On a related note: Concurrent with this and other Sinatra movies, Warner Home Video are releasing (separately) their 1992, Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning TV miniseries "Sinatra." It's in a two-disc set, 238 minutes, divided into two parts, with 41 and 26 chapters respectively. The film stars Philip Casnoff as Sinatra, with Olympia Dukakis, Joe Santos, Gina Gershon, Nina Siemaszko, and Marcia Gay Harden in supporting roles, and it covers Sinatra's life from his youth through his return from retirement in 1974. The best part: hearing Sinatra's voice again in original recordings. The two discs present the picture in its 1.33:1 television aspect ratio and in quite good color, with English 2.0 stereo sound and English captions for the hearing impaired.