May 14, 2008

Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years

Want to see what Frank Sinatra's major star attraction was all about? The most prestigious of the four boxed sets getting a simultaneous release by Warner Brothers is Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years. The mix boasts two of Sinatra's better dramas and one of his best comedies, as well as one dated misfire and an odd war film that he directed himself. That gives us Ol' Blue Eyes both at the top of his form, and a decade later when he was an overbooked champion of recordings, movies, and live performances. All the films are new to DVD, if you count this fully authorized release of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The glossy romantic comedy The Tender Trap is a perfect fit for MGM of 1955, a quantum improvement on his (mostly) disposable musicals of a few years before. Adapted only slightly from Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith's very funny play, the majority of the action takes place in one New York bachelor apartment. Sinatra proves himself a natural for the role of a Manhattan playboy brought to heel by a girl with marriage on her mind. The emphasis on the female imperative differentiates this farce from Sinatra's later Rat Pack pix: Sinatra's swinger is really a sentimentalist ripe for the picking.

Julius J. Epstein's screenplay gives theatrical agent Charlie Reader (Sinatra) more beautiful dames than he knows what to do with. They volunteer to clean his house and walk his dog, pretty much catering to his every whim. Charlie has a somewhat steady girl in Sylvia Crewes (Celeste Holm) but she's beginning to think that no power on earth can win her a proposal. Visiting college buddy Joe McCall (David Wayne) marvels at his host's luck with women and considers straying from his wife and three children back home. But the real catalyst is Julie Gillis (Debbie Reynolds), a young dramatic hopeful with an ironclad agenda to acquire a husband and three kids, all on a pre-planned timetable. Reynolds played a main role in Max Shulman's original film version of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (note the name connection). The most forceful character in the later Dobie Gillis TV show was Zelda Gilroy, a boyfriend-hungry co-ed who is essentially Julie Gillis pushed to a further extreme.

The Tender Trap states the 1950s attitude on matrimony right up front. While Charlie and Sylvia listen in amazement, the determined Julie declares that a woman isn't a woman until she's married and has children. Julie refuses to sign a full-term theatrical contract because she plans to marry and retire in just four months ... even though there's no sign of a fiancée on her horizon. Charlie is strongly attracted, when he should be running for the exit. The female barracuda assumes she's engaged as soon as Charlie tries to get cozy (Julie: "That's not necking, that's nibbling!"). Sinatra revolts for one night but knows he's hooked, despite the fact that he's asked Sylvia to marry him in the interim. The script keeps four pleasant characters (well, three and one "sweet" barracuda) supplied with warm and witty dialogue. Once one accepts Julie's notion that marriage is the rightful goal of all noble human endeavor, The Tender Trap is very amusing. Debbie Reynolds has sharp teeth, David Wayne is pleasantly confused and Celeste Holm is both insightful and lovable, negating the handicap of the "thankless role."

As the playboy with four too many girlfriends, Sinatra is certainly up to snuff. It was a busy film year for him, considering that 1955 saw the release of this picture, Guys and Dolls and the next movie in this collection, The Man with the Golden Arm. The New York agent racket looks like good work, as Charlie spends most of his days getting up at noon and lounging on the sofa with a selection of hot numbers. Jarma Lewis, Lola Albright and a captivating Carolyn Jones are Charlie's to-die-for girlfriends. Sylvia meets Tom Helmore (Vertigo) in an elevator and a young James Drury has a bit as Charlie's assistant.

Turner's enhanced transfer of The Tender Trap has bright colors and the sharpness necessary to register facial expressions in the many wide master shots. The opening and closing renditions of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's hit title song appear to be filmed in front of the painted sky backdrop of MGM's water tank, used for ocean-going scenes and miniature shoots. Sinatra walks up and over the concrete weir that serves as an invisible ocean horizon when the tank is filled with water. The smooth featurette Frank in the Fifties covers Sinatra's transition from '40s musical sensation to self-assured superstar reasserting his own personality.

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