The Tender Trap...makes a convenient time capsule for the fifties, and at its best it's an amusing romp.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, Frank Sinatra's popularity was rapidly waning. He found his teenage audience moving on to other things and his musical-comedy fans tiring of his same old happy-go-lucky, innocent, naive movie personality; he was getting too old for it. So Sinatra reinvented himself in "From Here to Eternity" (not included in the set) in 1953, becoming a more serious actor on screen and establishing himself with a more mature nightclub crowd on stage.

Warners' title for this box set of the man's work, "Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years," is actually a little misleading because it suggests the singer-actor was in the latter stages of his career, the twilight years, when, in fact, it covers the period 1955-1965, when he was just coming into his own as the performer of the century, the "Chairman of the Board," "Ol' Blue Eyes," "The Voice." Sinatra (1915-1998) was only forty in 1955 and would continue as the king of cool for another forty-odd years.

WB are making the five movies in "The Golden Years" available separately as well as in the box, but none of this is to imply that they are the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, most of them may seem rather mediocre today. Nevertheless, for Sinatra fans this will make no difference, and even non-fans will get some pleasure from the films. Let me tell you about four of them briefly and then go into a bit more detail on one in particular.

From 1955 comes probably Sinatra's most daring and hard-hitting role, that of a jazz drummer and drug addict in "The Man With the Golden Arm," with Otto Preminger directing and Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss, and John Conte co-starring. When it first appeared, the movie was quite controversial, a first for its time. I remember my parents wouldn't let me see it because of its drug content. Today, it obviously seems pretty tame, although Sinatra's performance remains riveting.

Also from 1955 is "Some Came Running," with Vincente Minnelli directing and Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, and Leora Dana co-starring. It was Sinatra's first teaming with Martin, and, of course, they would go on to do a number of films together, including the later Rat Pack flicks. Unfortunately, "Some Came Running" can now seem like dated soap opera.

Then, from 1965 we get "None But the Brave" and "Marriage on the Rocks." In the former, Sinatra was doing his war thing in a fairly ordinary way ("Von Ryan's Express" the same year was much more interesting), and for a change of pace the latter is a romantic romp. Neither film particularly distinguishes itself.

The movie I'd like to write about, though, is the romantic comedy "The Tender Trap" from 1955. No, it's not Sinatra in his best acting role, but it is a good example of one of his better, more entertaining frolics.

Based on a play by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith and directed by the veteran Charles Walters ("Easter Parade," "High Society," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"), "The Tender Trap" may not be a great picture, but it was another milestone in Sinatra's career. Just as "From Here to Eternity" had helped resurrect Sinatra as a dramatic actor, "The Tender Trap" established his new persona as a quintessential swingin' hipster, the public identity he would nurture for the rest of his life, especially in the 1960s with his Rat Pack buddies.

In the movie Sinatra plays Charlie Reader, a successful New York talent agent, ladies' man, and confirmed bachelor. The entrance to his apartment is like a revolving door for girls to come and go, and they do, at all hours of the day and night. When I first saw this film, I was in about the fifth grade, living in a small California town. "The Tender Trap" was among my first glimpses of the glamour of big-city life, where every lucky guy lived in a high-rise apartment with a magnificent view, wore a suit and tie and hat to work, and went out on the town every evening wearing a tux. Cocktails and cigarettes were the height of sophistication, and every bachelor pad had a full bar. Little did I know.

Three people enter Charlie's life who will forever change its ideal equilibrium. The first is a lifelong friend, Joe McCall (David Wayne), the opposite of Charlie, now a conservative, Midwestern, married man of eleven years whose wife has just asked him to leave. He's moved in with Charlie for a while and provides a kind of foil for Charlie's reckless ways. He envies Charlie's lifestyle, too, although Charlie feigns envy for Joe's having a wife and family, even if she did kick him out.

Next up is Sylvia Crewes (Celeste Holm), one of Charlie's many girlfriends. But Sylvia is different. For one thing, she plays in a symphony orchestra. For another, as she says, she's got "a high IQ and a low boiling point." So, unlike most of the passive, dim-witted girls Charlie dates, she is actually smart. However, as the film is rather sexist, it never explains what anyone as intelligent and beautiful as Sylvia sees in so shallow a fellow as Charlie, except that maybe he's charismatic.

Most important, there's Julie Gillis, played by Debbie Reynolds. Julie is Charlie's newest client, a young singer just graduated from college, who has definite ideas about getting married. She's already decided on the number of children she's going to have, where they're going to school, and the day and date of her marriage. She just hasn't found the man. Guess who she falls for.

Charlie is the stereotypical male chauvinist: His dates pick him up at his apartment or he meets them in a bar, and he arranges all of the evening's activities, which mainly include dinner, dancing, and drinking. Julie determines to straighten him out in order to marry him. And, thus, the plot.

The dialogue in "The Tender Trap" is snappy, the pace of the first third is zippy, the characters are clichéd, the middle of the story sags, and the main setting in Charlie's apartment (a carry-over from the stage play) becomes static. So, you take the good with the bad. The show begins and ends with Sinatra singing the title tune (by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen), which he and Reynolds do yet again in the story itself, and it went on to become one of Sinatra's standards.

If there's anything really odd about the film, though, it's Julie's attitude toward sex. Understand, the filmmakers were working under the constraints of a tight, self-imposed censorship board in those days, where a script might imply sex but never show it. One assumes that Charlie spends very few nights alone, yet we never see him do anything but kiss a girl. When Julie falls for Charlie, she invites him to her place, offers him a drink, agrees to necking on the couch, and then stops things right there. He seems frustrated, and she doesn't seem to understand why. So, how old is this girl? She's a college graduate?

Anyway, when Charlie begins to have serious feelings for Julie, he becomes conflicted because, you know, marriage might interfere with his swinging lifestyle. Eventually, the movie gets around to its point: Most men are boys, with childish, sexist dreams; they crave the freedom of many female relationships on the one hand and the security of one woman on the other. The movie never fully resolves the conflict, however, not for the viewer in any case, except to suggest that most folks get what they deserve.

Trivia: the play's co-writer, Max Shulman, also wrote the Dobie Gillis stories. Could Julie's last name indicate she's related to Dobie? The movie never mentions the connection.

More trivia: A few years after Sinatra made "The Tender Trap," Haley Mills made "The Parent Trap," also a romantic comedy with a catchy tune. For the record, I prefer "The Parent Trap."

As usual with Warner Bros. releases, these films look great, cleaned and refurbished and appearing almost spanking new. They're all in widescreen, but "The Tender Trap" is the widest of all and among the best-looking, presented here in all its CinemaScope glory, with a 2.55:1 original aspect ratio and a fine anamorphic transfer. Yes, 2.55:1 is quite wide, back when widescreen really meant something. There is noticeable grain in the opening title tune, but it clears up well enough as the film goes on. The image, though, is fairly soft, its only major weakness. Beyond that, expect strong, realistic colors, solid black levels for deep contrasting hues, and no age spots, lines, or scratches whatever.

The sound varies in the five movies. In three of them it's ordinary 1.0 monaural. On "None But the Brave" it's 2.0 stereo. Best of all, WB audio engineers remastered the soundtrack for "The Tender Trap" in Dolby Digital 5.1, and while it can't compete with more modern 5.1 tracks, it holds its own. Although there is not much information fed to the rear speakers, when it does find its way back there, it helps create a pleasant ambient bloom for the occasional musical numbers and the background score. Other than that, there is a bit of hardness to the midrange and an unexpectedly low volume output. Fortunately, the backgrounds are silent, and other than a slight brightness on vocals, the rest of the frequency spectrum comes across smoothly and agreeably.

Most of the films in the box contain new featurettes, remastered soundtracks, ample scene selections, and theatrical trailers, with English as the only spoken language and English, French, and Portuguese subtitles. In particular, "The Tender Trap" contains a widescreen trailer and a fifteen-minute, 2008 featurette called "Frank in the Fifties" that includes comments from film historians and music critics on the man's career and the communicativeness of his acting and singing.

Parting Thoughts:
Of all the films in the set, "The Man With the Golden Arm" is probably the highlight. However, "The Tender Trap" has charms of its own, not the least being its totally different tone from the former movie. The two films show the two opposite sides of the actor and musician, the one dark and serious, the other light and bubbly. Yet you shouldn't think of "The Tender Trap" as simply fluff; at the very least it makes a convenient time capsule for the fifties, and at its best it's an amusing romp.

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.


Film Value