A Tribute to Frank Sinatra
(The original Frank Sinatra article, written on the occasion of his death in 1998, was one of the first tribute articles I wrote. It was later expanded to celebrate what would have been Old Blue Eyes’ 86th birthday. This introduction is longer than those for most of my other tribute articles because I feel there is a lack of material on the Web about Sinatra the actor.)
Like other singers who also had movie careers — Elvis, Patti Page, Sting, Mick Jagger — Frank Sinatra is known more for his singing than his movies. And why not, when you’re talking about one of the great voices of all time? But looking at his movie career all by itself — more than 60 films, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, another nomination for Best Actor, a Hersholt Award, 3 Golden Globes (including the DeMille Award), and a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, in a career spanning six decades — he certainly deserves to be viewed as a movie star!
There are several excellent Web sites devoted to Sinatra the man, particularly as a singer and personality, but not one that looks only at his film career. I thought it might be a good idea to at least take a crack at that job.
Sinatra was a popular singing sensation before he appeared in his first film — Ship Ahoy (1942) — so it took a while before the critics were able to focus on his acting abilities to the exclusion of all the other hype. His first role that wasn’t strictly a singing part in which he played himself or somebody like him was Anchors Aweigh (1945), with Gene Kelly. Gene was nominated for the Oscar, but Frank held his own.
In 1949 Sinatra again appeared with Gene Kelly as a dancing sailor in On The Town, a wonderfully entertaining musical directed by Stanley Donnen (and Kelly) and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That same year Frank and Gene starred in Busby Berkeley’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game, with Esther Williams.
His “breakthrough” film was From Here to Eternity (1953) — a great WWII story, a great cast, and Frankie doesn’t sing! He doesn’t play the hero, either. Almost everybody wins Oscars, including Sinatra as Best Supporting Actor.
Just to prove that all that acting stuff wasn’t a fluke, Sinatra followed Eternity immediately with Young at Heart (1954), in which he played a depressed, alcoholic composer. Okay, he sings, but he really acts, too, stealing the show from the likes of Gig Young and Alan Hale, Jr. (The Skipper!) Not a great movie, but entertaining (notable for the fact that Ethel Barrymore and Doris Day appear together for the first and only time). Then in the same year he played a psycho killer in Suddenly. Now he’d proven he could do anything.
The following year Frank demonstrated his versatility with four totally different roles. First he did a comedy, The Tender Trap, and sang the title song. He did a drama, Not as a Stranger, with Robert Mitchum and Olivia DeHavilland. Then he starred in a full-blown, Golden Globe-winning Broadway-type musical, Guys and Dolls, outshining Marlon Brando, who most agree was miscast, but still… Nathan Detroit was a thoroughly likable goofball, nothing at all like Frankie Machine, the character Sinatra portrayed in The Man With the Golden Arm. To some it was overacting, to others it was an astonishing performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. (He lost to Yul Brynner.) It’s interesting to note that Sinatra beat out Brando for that role.
In 1956 he again made four films, including the title role in Johnny Concho, a western, and an entertaining star turn with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story.
Frank only made three films(!) in 1957, but all were winners. Pal Joey earned him a Golden Globe. He was perfectly cast as the lovable cad opposite Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak, and the great songs just kept coming, like The Lady is a Tramp, My Funny Valentine, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. The Joker is Wild is one of my personal favorites, as Frank portrays Joe E. Lewis, gets his throat cut, and still manages to sing again! On top of that, he held his own with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in The Pride and the Passion.
In 1958 Frank appeared for the first time with Dean Martin, in Some Came Running, for which everybody but Frank and Dean got Oscar nominations. In Kings Go Forth, he fought with Tony Curtis for the love of a racially-mixed Natalie Wood — not the first or the last time Frank was involved in a project that had anti-racist overtones.
1959’s A Hole in the Head is another of my personal favorites, if only because of that dopey song and the fact that it was directed by Frank Capra (the only time the two Franks collaborated). In that same year Frank hooked up with Peter Lawford for the second time in another war drama, Never So Few. The following year the whole Rat Pack got together for Ocean’s Eleven, an uneven but highly entertaining caper flick in which Sinatra is perfectly cast as the tough but lovable schemer, along with Lawford, Deano, Sammy, Joey, and Angie.
In my opinion Sinatra did his best work in the 50s, with one exception. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) may be his best film, but because it was held back for 25 years due to the coincidence of its release and Kennedy’s death, plus Sinatra’s dispute with the studio, many people were unable to appreciate it until recently.
Other notable post-1960 Sinatra performances included Von Ryan’s Express (1965), an entertaining and watchable WWII film; The Detective(1968), one of several similar roles Sinatra played later in his movie career; and The First Deadly Sin, his last lead role, and one of his most moving performances.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters