Friday, November 6, 2015

FRANK SINATRA: Three Dramatic Motion Picture Roles

"THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM", "JOHNNY CONCHO" AND "THE JOKER IS WILD" each brings me great childhood memories.

When my mother was a teenager like many other young girls of the "Big Band Era" she was known as a "bobby soxer". The name came from the type of socks the teenage girls wore at the time. Like many other girls she went crazy over a "crooner" with the nickname "The Voice". He sang with the Tommy Dorsey Band and is name was Francis Albert Sinatra.

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Frank Sinatra is third from left in the photo below of members of the Tommy Dorsey Band in 1941.

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It took me a long time to get over my wife throwing away a box during a cross country move from Los Angeles to Lubbuck, Texas in 1970. Of course it was an accident on her part, but it was the contents within that box that upset me so much. The box had been clearly marked " Mom's 78 rpm records" and contained original releases by Billie Holliday. Sarah Vaughn and others. In that box was the first pressing with the cardboard picture jacket intact of Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra playing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", but of more importance to me were two other records. The first was a recording session on a large 78 rpm formatted record of the Benny Goodman classic "Sing, Sing, Sing". What made it special is Benny Goodman was accompanied by Harry James and Glenn Miller, Along with both  of the Dorsey brothers Tommy and Jimmy with Gene Krupa on the drums.A once and a lifetime recording.

However, it was that other record that concerns this article. It was simply a 78 rpm record that according to the label was of "Tommy Dorsey and his band with male vocalist". That "male vocalist" was a then basically unknown Francis Albert Sinatra.

This personal memory as the title indicates is not about Frank Sinatra the singer, or Frank Sinatra the leader of "The Rat Pack". It is about Frank Sinatra the dramatic actor. In 1953 Francis Albert Sinatra shocked the motion picture industry and his fans when he won the coveted role of Private Angelo Maggio in the Buddy Adler produced and Fred Zinnemann directed "From Here to Eternity". The picture was based upon the hard hitting James Jones novel about a group of soldiers stationed in Hawaii during the final days prior to December 7, 1941.

Not only was Private Maggio a non-singing role, but a very solid dramatic character. Many critics at the time of the announcement met the idea of Sinatra playing Maggio a major mistake on the part of Adler and Zinnemann. False rumors started about how he might have obtained this part over qualified actors, but the naysayers would be proven wrong. When Frank Sinatra was awarded the Supporting Actor Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an outstanding and memorable portrayal.

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The three motion pictures of this article's title came out between 1955 and 1957 in the order mentioned among a group of 12 motion pictures Frank Sinatra appeared in. I was 9 when the first came out and a few weeks before my 11th birthday when the third was released. My parents had no problems with me seeing these films and each made a lasting impression on a young boy.

Yes I love the Frank Sinatra musicals with Gene Kelly like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On the Town". Along with his classics such as "Guys and Dolls" and my favorite "Pal Joey". I freely admit to even liking "The Kissing Bandit", but it is these three dramatic roles that have stayed with me for decades over all of  Sinatra's 59 film roles of varying size. Although I would also have loved to have seen him as Billy Bigelow in the motion version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" that he walked off of for artistic reasons.

Each of the following motion pictures are either unknown to most of today's movie going audience and especially to the "Millennials" as my daughter's generation is now called. Even a so called classic motion picture Cable Channel like Turner Classic Movies (TCM) hardly shows "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "The Joker is Wild" anymore and I don't think has ever played "Johnny Concho".

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I had never seen "From  Here to Eternity", "Suddenly", or "Meet Danny Wilson" so I really was not familiar with the serious actor side of Frank Sinatra. At 9 the only motion picture with Sinatra I had seen was from the previous month. This was the musical "Guy and Dolls" co-starring Marlon Brando of all people, I did remember Frank Sinatra singing the theme song for the film  "Three Coins in the Fountain" over the opening credits, but that didn't count. I really had no idea what I was getting into with the first of my three pictures.

Released December 15, 1955 and  certainly not a Christmas themed motion picture was Otto Preminger's "The Man With the Golden Arm". A film most 1950's parents would never let their 9 year old son go see.

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The motion picture would lead Frank Sinatra to a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar at the 28th annual Academy Awards. He lost to Ernest Borgnine for "Marty", but had also been up against such high caliber actors as Spencer Tracey, James Cagney and James Dean. Sinatra was also nominated for Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and by The New York Film Critics.

At the time of its release the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) refused to rate the movie, because it showed "Drug Addiction", More specifically "heroin addiction". The MPAA in 1955 ignored the problem and like most 1950's American's thought if you didn't mention the subject it would just go away. Producer, director Otto Preminger, Frank Sinatra and the author of the original novel Nelsen Algren thought otherwise. I would discover his novel is slightly different and speaking to the difference to a subject that didn't exist in the United States. Algren had "Frankie Machine" the character of the title be a returning World War 2 veteran who was hooked on morphine as a result of treatment for a war injury. A true problem that war created.

Strangely the "Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency" was lenient toward this movie. Possibly because of the seriousness of the subject and how it was handled.

Yes, "The Man with the Golden Arm" is dated in some respects, but you can not watch Frank Sinatra's performance without being effected. I discovered when putting this memory together that he spent time in different drug rehabilitation clinics observing how addicts looked and reacted going "cold turkey". The sign of a dedicated actor.

The story as I mentioned tells of Frankie "Dealer" Machine, his drug addiction and the two women in his life.         

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The bad is his wife Zosh played by Eleanor Parker. She is attempting to control Frankie's life after his release from prison, now clean and sober, through his sympathy for her wheelchair bound condition. Unknown to Frankie is that Zosh has recovered and is staying in her wheelchair as a ploy.

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The good is Frankie's ex-girlfriend Molly played by Kim Novak. Two years later Novak would co-star once more as Frank Sinatra's love interest in "Pal Joey". Where she sings "My Funny Valentine".

Frankie as the picture unfolds becomes hooked on heroin once more and it is Molly who helps him go cold turkey.

I won't go deeper into the plot as I recommend this excellent motion picture to my readers and apparently it is available on YouTube as of this writing.

I have no specific stories to relate about "The Man with the Golden Arm" as I do with the next two motion pictures, but each time I see those excellent performances that Frank Sinatra was up against for Best Actor I enjoy them immensely, but feel the Academy got it wrong.

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1956 was a great year for Westerns, Musicals and Biblical Epics with plenty of sex, This was because the Major Studios were afraid of  the House Un-American Activities Committee". To show their loyalty to the United States the Studio Heads created the "Blacklist" of Communists, or Communist Sympathizers within the Motion Picture community .

If my reader is interested in knowing more about the "Black Listing" within the motion picture industry I would direct you to my article on the subject at this link:

Those Westerns, Musicals and Biblical Epics were called "Safe movies", However an occasional film with hidden meanings such as 1952's "High Noon", or the 1956 science fiction classic by Don Siegel, "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" slips past.

Going back to the Western movie of this period. Take a look at the titles on this short list of  "Safe" Westerns from 1956:

John Ford directed John Wayne in "The Searchers". There was a modern Western/Love Story from George Stevens starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean based upon Edna Ferber's novel "Giant". Guy Madison television's "Wild Bill Hickok was in a Western fighting a living Dinosaur called "The Beast of Hollow Mountain". Then you had Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and Anthony Perkins in "Friendly Persuasion". While Elvis Presley's first motion picture "Love Me Tender" was set during the days following the Civil War.

In that years deluge of Western motion pictures was one that in my mind would take on mythic proportions. It was produced by its star Frank Sinatra and was called "Johnny Concho".

As the quote on the book jacket says:
Johnny Concho is a different Western

I have to agree as the lead character wasn't the normal Western hero, or anti-hero of the period. He was a coward and a bully relaying on a town's fears of his unseen brother idolized by Johnny as the mean of getting what he wanted from the frightened citizens.

I also agree with the second part of Frank Sinatra's quote:
one I think you'll enjoy
I remember enjoying the motion picture when it first came out, I was only nine at the time, but although the film had faded in my memory over the years. There is one clear remembrance that has kept me wanting to find this movie for several decades now.

It is the semi-climatic moment when Sinatra as Johnny Concho is told his brother "Red" was killed by the man facing him and his reaction to that news. I haven't been able to get that scene out of my head.

The problem for me is the movie has been listed as "lost" by some and even one site claimed the prints had all been destroyed in a fire at United Artists long before MGM purchased the corporation. The Turner Classic Movies (TCM) website still has no record of a DVD, or even VHS tape having been made for "Johnny Concho" as of this writing.

The following link is to the "Sinatra Family Forum" on this film. It shows that in January 2009 the movie was being discussed as still lost and not available. Note this response from Nancy Sinatra about the theme song and that the movie:
wasn't as "bad" as they say

However in 2008, before those 2009 entries, a DVD copy of the film turned up in Italy for sale and was reissued in 2011, but only for that region. I am not sure if it was an Italian dub, or subtitled film as that information is unavailable.

Just recently I was surprised to find the motion picture on the web for free viewing. It appeared to be recorded off of the old Turner channel Turner Network Television (TNT). I finally was able to get a DVD copy, all regions, from South Korea. Where they get all their rare films I'm not sure.

So what is Frank Sinatra's first Western about?

As I wrote the basic plot has Sinatra as a coward living off the gunfighter reputation of his older brother "Red" Concho. Unknown to Johnny is that Red" has an agreement with the citizens of Cripple Creek to do whatever Johnny wants, or he will come back and take revenge.

In the movie there is a scene with Johnny playing poker with prominent townsmen. He wins the pot by not even showing his cards and each time saying he has "Three Queens". The problem for him comes when he lets a drifter named Talman into the game. Thinking just mentioning his name and relationship to "Red" will make Talman fall in line.

Phyllis Kirk plays Martha Dark a young girl who is in love with Johnny Concho and believes if he lets go of "Red" they can be happy together. Kirk was a very underrated actress of the time. She had played the heroine in the classic 1953 Vincent Price 3-D motion picture "House of Wax".

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Things dramatically change in the scene I remember which is the poker game. When William Conrad as Tallman reveals that he met "Red" Concho in another town and killed him. Johnny is now faced with his worst fears and must overcome his cowardliness. This isn't done overnight as he is laughed out of Gripple Greek by Talman. The girl he loves follows him and they are about to be married. When she leaves Johnny Concho for once again proving he is a coward. After he is confronted by two gunmen in the church who "Red" had previously confronted. A lesson is learned from  a gunman turned Preacher and Johnny returns to face Talman without a gun, but with words that force the town's citizens to look deep inside of themselves.

The motion picture because of its apparent unavailability has earned Legendary status. So after finally seeing it once more am I satisfied with it? The answer is a definite yes.

Although I must admit most of the action takes place upon obvious sound stage sets. Even the town's street in the final showdown between Talman and Johnny Concho is too obviously a covering on a stage floor. Also when I first saw it again I felt I was watching a live television show from the 1950's, because of the way the story plays and the movie was filmed. However,  faults and all, this is still an interesting motion picture that reminds me of "High Noon" in many ways, and, and may be a reflection of Sinatra's politics at the time. 

Nancy Sinatra mentioned the song "Johnny Concho's Theme (Wait for Me)". The theme as with many others at the time was released as sheet music and  as both a 78 rpm sound track and a specific 45 rpm record.

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Here are the lyrics for the song which in some ways are counter to the character of Johnny Concho as they seem to reflect a true romantic.

Wait for me, my love. my restless heart must roam, Wait for me, my love and I'll be coming home. But now I can't change, something strange lures me on, My love, can't you see I'm not free till it's gone. Wait for me, my love, for I am in dreams, And my heart must chase those ripples on the stream. So keep faith in your heart, keep your love ever true, For if you felt like me, I'd wait for you.

The last of the three motion pictures I want to mention is Frank Sinatra's reverting performance in "The Joker is Wild". As this memory goes there is a small indirect family connection brought on by the film.

The movie was about the life of Joe E. Lewis a singer forced to become a stand-up comedian during prohibition and a friend of Frank Sinatra. Like 'Johnny Concho" this was a personal film Sinatra wanted to make after reading Art Cohn's "The Joker is Wild: The Life of Joe E. Lewis". Cohn became one of four business partners with Sinatra and Lewis as was the director Charles Vidor.

Frank Sinatra in the movie

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Joe E. Lewis

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The two men together

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This is a brief sketch about Joe. E. Lewis. He was a singer during the 1920's and ran afoul of gangster Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn was a Lieutenant for Al Capone in Chicago, Lewis refused to renew his contract with McGurn's club and instead accepted one at another club run by a rival gang for a higher salary.

In November 1927 McGurn entered Lewis's 10th floor room at the Commonwealth Hotel and cut his throat and tongue with a knife. Capone heard about this and although he agreed with what action McGurn had taken toward the singer. He apparently liked Joe E. Lewis whose jokes made him laugh. As strange as this might seem to some Al Capone gave Lewis $10,000. Enough money to cover his hospital bills and give him a start at another career after his recovery.

Lewis had a biting sense of humor and turned to stand up comedy. He would do clubs, appear in some 1930's movie and tour with the USO during the second World War, At some point he met Frank Sinatra and the two hit it off creating a life long friendship. In 1961 Sinatra signed Lewis to his record label "Reprise" resulting in one of the few recordings of the comedian's act. In 1968 Joe E. Lewis played himself in the Aaron Rosenberg produced "Lady in Cement" staring Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welsh.

Joe E. Lewis would die from a heart attack in 1971.

As an aside:

On February 15, 1936 the day after the seventh anniversary of the infamous "St. Valentines Day Massacre" Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn was gunned down by three men in a bowling alley. It was never proven, but these men may have been avenging the Massacre as the Capone Lieutenant may have been in on the planning.

The motion picture "The Joker is Wild" was released on September 26, 1957 less than a month before my 11th birthday. Besides Sinatra the film co-starred Mitzi Gaynor as Lewis' wife Martha Stewart. They had been married from 1946 through 1948.

Mitzi Gaynor

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 Martha Stewart

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Jeanne Crane played 1940's Socialite Letty Page, Eddie Albert played Lewis' pianist Austin Mack and Beverly Garland played Mack's wife Cassie.

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Frank Sinatra required that all his songs be recorded live in the nightclub scenes. He liked the occasional accidental noise caused by a live audience which added a touch of realism to the scenes, The movie contains the now classic "All the Way" by Walter Scharf whom Sinatra had insisted write the music,

Here is the YouTube link to the song:

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Critics consider "The Joker is Wild" to contain the best performance by Frank Sinatra since his Oscar winner in "From  Here to Eternity". One of the reasons has to be his relationship with Joe E. Lewis. This is a quote from a TCM article on the motion picture attributed to Walter Scharf:

As for Sinatra's performance as Lewis, Scharf noted that the singer "was consciously studying Joe E. Lewis. He finished sentences with a question mark. He would take an adverb and use it as something he would say afterwards." He certainly captures the comedian's cynical side on stage with such cutting lines as "A friend in need is a pest" or makes light of his own alcoholism with such famous remarks as "You're not drunk enough if you can still lie on the floor without hanging on.

The motion picture has had a gritty look to it especially toward the knifing by McGurn.

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I could not locate a shot of Sinatra in the hospital after the above knifing sequence, but here is a photo of the real Joe E. Lewis which was faithfully recreated in detail in the film

Joe E. Lewis after his hospitalization.

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Frank Sinatra in "The Joker is Wild". Note the scar on his cheek.

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I really enjoyed this motion picture and started talking about Lewis to my family. Which brings me to that "indirect family connection".  I had a Great Aunt named Alice who was a sister of my mother's mother. A family joke was that she collected husbands, but she always parted amicably. One of  her husbands, whose name I cannot remember, was the Pit Boss at "The Flamingo" Hotel in Las Vegas at the time of the release of "The Joker is Wild", For years he would "comp" the family to rooms and dinning. I remember trips there and on one of these playing at the hotel was Joe E. Lewis.

This was a time when almost every show on the strip would not permit children, but arrangements were made for me to attend. I have a vague memory of sitting at those long tables right at the stage, but really that is all. However, according to my family Lewis had been told of my reaction to the movie and played to me by name. Oh, how I wish those memories were clearer.

One other aside about Aunt Alice was she was prominent in the California Democratic Party. She would tell me stories about President Kennedy who was assassinated while I was in a High School. She never called him either "the President" or "JFK" when telling me her stories, but "Jack". She also attended fund raisers and other private events including some hosted by Frank Sinatra at his Palm Springs Estate and knew a young women named Judith Exner. However, that is another story for another day.

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