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HTF DVD REVIEW: Frank Sinatra - The Early Years Collection



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#1 of 3 Ken_McAlinden

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Posted May 20 2008 - 08:28 AM

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Frank Sinatra - The Early Years Collection
Higher and Higher (1943), Step Lively (1944), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), The Kissing Bandit (1948), Double Dynamite (1951)
The Films

Higher and Higher (1943 - RKO - 90 minutes)

Directed By: Tim Whelan

Starring: Michele Morgan, Jack Haley, Frank Sinatra, Leon Errol

Jack Haley plays Mike O'Brien, the senior domestic in the household of Cyrus Drake (Errol), a millionaire heir who is approaching bankruptcy. The servants band together with Cyrus and form a "corporation" to implement a scheme devised by Mike to save their home. This involves passing off scullery maid Millie (Morgan) as Drake's estranged debutante daughter and marrying her off to another wealthy family. An amiable singer who lives across the street named Frank Sinatra (guess who) drops in occasionally and takes a fancy to Millie.

For Sinatra's first "acting" appearance in a feature film, RKO decided to break him in easy by casting him in a non-demanding supporting role as a young crooner named Frank Sinatra. The film itself is a lightweight affair that feels a little bit like warmed up leftovers from better comedies made through the decade preceding it. That being said, it is still pretty entertaining and the cast, top-lined by Haley and Morgan with capable comedic support from the likes of Errol and Mary Wickes, is quite likeable, making the barely-there plot pass by pleasantly. Sinatra apparently went over like a house on fire when the film was released with Bobby Soxers screaming and swooning in the aisles. Double crooner alert: keep an eye and ear out for a very young Mel Tormé.

Step Lively (1944 - RKO - 88 minutes)

Directed By: Tim Whelan

Starring: Frank Sinatra, George Murphy, Adolphe Menjou, Gloria DeHaven, Walter Slezak, Eugene Pallette

Step Lively is an adaptation of the stage play Room Service which had six years previously been adapted as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers. George Murphy plays flim-flam man stage producer Gordon Miller who has been sponging off of his hotel manager brother-in-law, Joe Gribble (Slezak), and using the penthouse suite of a ritzy hotel to plan and rehearse a musical comedy review. With lots of chutzpah and very little money, Miller works furiously to manipulate anybody and everybody he needs to help put his production together and stay ahead of his creditors. These include both pretentious young playwright Glenn Russell (Sinatra) who has a million dollar singing voice but only wants his serious and dull dramatic play produced, and Slezak's superior, Wagner (Menjou) who wants Miller to pay his hotel bill. Russell is kept at bay by Miller's charming leading lady, Christine Marlowe (DeHaven), while Menjou is eventually kept at arm's length by the prospect of big bucks from financier Simon Jenkins (Pallette). As per the rules of farce, nothing goes as planned and things spiral out of control in ever-escalating outlandish ways.

This high-energy farce is my favorite film in the collection. As an actor, Sinatra is still a bit stiff, but in this case, it suits the pretentious playwright character he is playing, and he actually does a fair job at some broad comedy during a sequence where he is pretending to be sick. Murphy does a great job being both the center of the chaos and the source of most of its entropy. Slezak gives a stand-out supporting performance as the put-upon hotel manager with one funny aside after another delivered completely in character and with expert timing. The songs are from the team of composer Jule Styne and Sinatra favorite lyricist Sammy Cahn.

It Happened in Brooklyn (1947 - MGM – 104 minutes)

Directed By: Richard Whorf

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Peter Lawford, Jimmy Durante

In It Happened in Brooklyn, Sinatra plays Danny Miller, a recently discharged GI whose four year stint in the Army has resulted in a romantically idealized longing to return to his hometown of Brooklyn, NY. Returning to his old high school to officially end his military service and re-register for the draft, he befriends and takes up lodging with Nick (Durante), the school's janitor, while kicking off a relationship with Anne, (Grayson), the school's attractive and talented music teacher. Nick and Anne both frustrate and encourage each other in their attempts to follow their dreams of making it in the music business as a songwriter and singer. They find that postwar Brooklyn is not the magical land of infinite possibilities Danny imagined. Their relationship is further complicated by the arrival of Jamie Shellgrove, the heir to a titled British Duke whom Danny met while serving in England. Jamie's mother was from Brooklyn, and his father wants Danny to familiarize him with the ways of the borough.

After the success with audiences Sinatra experienced in his first two RKO films as an actor, he was snapped up and put under contract by MGM. For reasons that boggle the mind considering his popularity with the teenage girl set, MGM saddled him with a wimpy naive persona where he was frequently the butt of jokes relating to his small frame.

In general, his best postwar MGM films were the ones where he played second banana to Gene Kelly (compiled separately in the concurrently released Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection DVD set). Of the remaining titles from this period, It Happened in Brooklyn is one of the better ones. It is far from a great film, but it does feature a number of entertaining sequences. Sinatra and Durante actually complement each other nicely as an unlikely on-screen duo. Future rat packer Lawford cruises through this role without much effort. By that I do not mean that he makes it look easy so much as he does not appear to be trying very hard. This somewhat sabotages the love triangle aspect of the plot, but the film is saved by the aforementioned comic interplay between Sinatra and Durante, the entertaining and memorable musical numbers, once again courtesy of Styne and Cahn with some classical showcases for Grayson, and a chance to see child prodigies playing Grayson's students dancing singing and playing impressively.

The Kissing Bandit (1948 – MGM - 100 minutes)

Directed By: László Benedek

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, J. Carrol Naish, Mildred Natwick, Mikhail Rasumny, Billy Gilbert

Frank Sinatra plays Ricardo, the son of the infamous titular old California outlaw. Returning from years of study at a Boston university where they apparently teach Mexicans to speak like people from New Jersey, Ricardo is surprised to learn that not only was his father the infamous Kissing Bandit, but that family friend, Chico (Naish), wants him to try his hand at leading the gang under his father's former alias. Mild-mannered Ricardo's romantic notions of Robin Hood-like adventure cause him to go along with Chico's plan even though he can barely handle a horse and is far too modest to kiss his lady victims. This becomes an issue with his first robbery when he is smitten by Teresa (Grayson), the Governor's daughter. Too embarrassed to kiss her, she becomes alternately insulted and intrigued by why she did not get treated like all of the Bandit's previous "victims". The mutual attraction between Ricardo and Teresa results in Ricardo returning repeatedly to the Governor's home for increasingly dangerous activities ranging from moonlight serenades to impersonating a Spanish Count.

Sinatra is so ill-suited to his role in this film, that it could be used as exhibit A in a legal case trying to prove that Louis B. Mayer was intentionally sabotaging his career. Beyond just casting Sinatra as the least convincing Mexican in the history of cinema (with lots of stiff competition, mind you), insult is added to injury by giving Kathryn Grayson most of the best songs. To his credit, Sinatra is still in fine voice on the songs he does get to perform. This was the third cinematic teaming of Sinatra and Grayson, a somewhat strange situation since his smooth popular baritone and her classical soprano voices are not exactly a perfect blend.

With the leading man so mis-cast and the film so ill-conceived, entertainment comes from either surrendering to the ridiculousness of things like J. Carrol Naish's enormous fake nose and frequent "Aieee!" exclamations, or singling out a few great moments such as Grayson's take on "Love is Where You Find It" and an outstanding specialty dance number directed by Stanley Donen featuring Ricardo Montalban, Cyd Charisse, and Ann Miller.


Double Dynamite (1951 – RKO - 80 minutes)

Directed By: Irving Cummings

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Jane Russell, Groucho Marx

Sinatra plays Johnny Dalton, a good natured bank teller who is trying to save enough money to marry his sweetheart/co-worker, Mibs (Russell). Johnny's luck seems to be turning around when in a moment of Good Samaritanism, he saves a man from being assaulted in the street. This results in his receiving a windfall of tens of thousands of dollars from a grateful crooked gambler. Unfortunately for Johnny, his good fortune coincides with a large shortfall at the bank in what appears to be an inside job. With bank employees and detectives on the look out for any evidence of extravagant deposits or spending, Johnny enlists the help of his amusingly amoral friend Emile J. Keck (Marx) to help him cover up his new wealth while he tries to find a way to not become a prime suspect.

After appearing with Gene Kelly in 1949's "On the Town", Sinatra's contract with MGM came up and was not renewed. He stayed off of cinema screens during 1950, focusing on radio and television in addition to recording, and in 1951, he finally returned to the cinema in a leading role, but with third billing in this low-budget turkey.

The filmmakers could not have mis-used the talent they had on hand more if they had been consciously trying. Imagine the effort that someone must have gone through to make Groucho Marx not funny. Somehow, a lot of 50s movie producers found a way to do it. He would regularly ad-lib better lines than this as the host of "You Bet Your Life". In the costume department, whoever designed Jane Russell's clothes did so as if they were trying to conceal a pregnancy. Sinatra is given two songs to sing: one, a duet with Marx which is staged against some god-awful rear projection of a city street, and the other, a duet with Russell, staged even worse with Sinatra and Russell sitting in bed and singing to each other through a wall.

If that is not enough disappointment for one film, the plot feels like an episode of a bad TV series and features a conclusion that is singularly unsatisfactory. If you are one of those IT savvy people who roll their eyes about the way computers are used in Hollywood films, brace yourself for this one because an important plot development hinges on an unrealistic use of an adding machine.

After Double Dynamite, Sinatra signed a three picture deal with Universal that was canceled after the first film, 1951's Meet Danny Wilson, was unpopular with critics and audiences alike. To be fair, that film is recognized as something of an underrated gem today. After a two year hiatus during which both his music and film careers laid fallow, Sinatra jump started both when he began recording for Capitol records and snared an Oscar for 1953's From Here to Eternity.

The Video

All of the films are presented at an aspect ratio of 4:3 representative of their original theatrical presentations. All titles are in black and white except for The Kissing Bandit which was produced in Technicolor. The Kissing Bandit also sports the best video presentation of the bunch, with light natural film grain, near-perfect registration, and extremely light and infrequent instances of film damage. Higher and Higher and Step Lively, the two oldest titles in the collection, also sport the heaviest grain, although detail and contrast are a bit better on the former than the latter. It Happened in Brooklyn looks very good, although grain is a bit on the heavy side, and it was clearly derived from elements a few generations down from the original negative. Double Dynamite appears to have been transferred from a very good film element with light grain and good detail, although the contrast appears tweaked to the point of some of the brighter areas of the screen verging on blooming in certain scenes.


The Audio

All five films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtracks, and generally sound quite good for films of their era. This is good news since the musical numbers are clearly the highlights of these films, and in a few cases, the only reason I could imagine someone would want to watch them more than once. When possible, special care seems to have been taken to make the musical sequences sound as good as they can. In some cases, it sounds like a song's audio came from a better source than the rest of the film's soundtrack, although this could be simply a production artifact. In other cases, it sounds like the digital noise reduction was backed off slightly during musical numbers resulting in slightly increased hiss, but fewer audible artifacts and better overall fidelity.

The Extras

Zip, zero, nada, zilch. Move it along, there is nothing to see here.

Packaging

The DVDs are presented in standard Amaray-style cases with no inserts. Cover images for each case feature photographs of Sinatra and the other stars of the films rather than the more common WB approach of vintage poster art. The five individual hard cases are in turn packaged in a box of thin cardboard with glossy graphics featuring a head shot of a very young "Ol' Blue Eyes". The discs are authored extremely sparely, eschewing chapter menus and using only a minimal number of chapter stops for each film, which will be an annoyance for those seeking to cherry pick the highlight musical numbers from the films.

Summary

While not a collection of uniformly great films, this box set is a good sampling of the fits and starts with which Frank Sinatra's acting career moved from the 1940s to the early 1950s. Sinatra completists will want it for the early career milestones of the first two RKO films as well as for his performances in the musical numbers of all of the films. Despite their deep flaws, there is a certain campy novelty factor associated with The Kissing Bandit and Double Dynamite that may be of interest to hardcore Sinatraphiles and cinematic masochists alike. The films are presented on disc with good audio/video transfers of occasionally problematic elements. The presentation is otherwise minimalist, with no extras or chapter menus on the discs.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 3 CineKarine

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Posted May 21 2008 - 03:02 AM

Thanks for one more great review, Ken!

I am especially a great fan of It Happened in Brooklyn (47) - a wonderful "feel-good" film and of Higher and Higher (43) and its lovely songs. I have not had time to watch any of the films yet, but can hardly wait!!!
Sing your worries away, smile, be kind and accentuate the positive!
DVD wish list: The Accused (48), Margie (46), I'll Get By (50), The Constant Nymph (43), The Voice of the Turtle (47), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (34), Her Twelve Men (54), The Lost Moment (47), I Walk Alone (48), The Glass...

#3 of 3 Mark B

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Posted January 24 2009 - 10:26 AM

WalMart is selling this set for $13.00 at the moment. Go grab it!





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