by Pam Grady
He was the teen idol that made the bobbysoxers swoon, the Rat Pack’s Chairman of the Board, and the saloon singer with the velvet voice and impeccable phrasing. But Francis Albert Sinatra, born 100 years ago this coming December, was also a movie star, a pure delight in musicals and an actor gifted with serious dramatic chops. The evidence of that will be on display Thursday, Aug. 21–Sunday, Aug. 23, when San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre hosts Ring-a-Ding Ding! The Movies of Frank Sinatra in celebration of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centennial.
That gorgeous voice may have been stilled forever when Sinatra passed away in 1998 at 82, but it lives on on CDs and iTunes, as does his commanding presence on screen. The 11 films that comprise the “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” weekend are proof of that. The series gets underway with the one-two punch of Ocean’s Eleven (1960) and From Here to Eternity (1953). The former stars Sinatra at his most playful opposite Rat Pack pallies that include Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Sinatra originates the role that George Clooney would play in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise, Danny Ocean, mastermind of a New Year’s Eve heist of multiple Las Vegas Strip casinos. It’s a breezy caper comedy with an exuberant, loose atmosphere reflecting a project made among friends who were partying 24/7—playing the Sands Casino every night and filming every day.
Sinatra won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of hot-headed Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of James Jones’s bestseller portrays the military base at Pearl Harbor as hotbed of disfunction in the months leading up to the Japanese attack that pushed the US into World War II. Hazing, adultery, even murder are par for the course. Sinatra shares the screen with a cast of heavy hitters, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Ernest Borgnine among them. In the years since WWII ended, the singer’s career had been floundering. This was the comeback that brought him back to the top to stay.
The Saturday, Aug. 22, program is one of pure delight, five musicals in all, starting with Pal Joey (1957), filmed on location in San Francisco and filled with tunes by Rodgers and Hart. Sinatra is Joey Evans, an ambitious nightclub singer determined to open a boîte of his own. Joey calls women “mice,” which is OK, since he is a rat, albeit one with immense charm. Rita Hayworth is the former stripper turned widowed socialite that Joey needs to work to make his dream come true, while a sultry Kim Novak is the chorus girl who owns his heart.
Sinatra’s a gambler in Guys and Dolls (1955) and the little-seen The Joker Is Wild (1957). He’s an ebullient Nathan Detroit to Marlon Brando’s Skye Masterson in the amiable Guys and Dolls, a film as notable for the pairing of a brilliant singer with a genius actor, both at the top of their game, as it is for its Frank Loesser soundtrack. The Joker is Wild is a far darker drama, a biopic of singer/comedian Joe E. Lewis. It was a tricky assignment for Sinatra, playing someone who was both a friend of his and still living. It also must have seemed a little like investigating the road not taken. Like Lewis, Sinatra had his brushes with the mob, but he didn’t fall on the wrong side of it. And like Lewis, he had complicated relationships with women and a taste for alcohol, but not to the extent where it impacted his career.
In Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949), Sinatra holds his own as a hoofer with the magnificent Gene Kelly. The two are sailors on leave in both films, in Hollywood in the first and New York in the second. Both musicals are wildly entertaining, but the Adolph Comden/Betty Green-scripted On the Town — where directors Kelly and Stanley Donen let Kelly, Sinatra, and costar Jules Munshin loose on location in Manhattan and Brooklyn—is spectacular. Sinatra is at his most appealing as Chip, the swabbie who wants to play tourist and ends up romancing a brash cabbie played by Betty Garrett.
The final day of the program begins on a light note with the Norman Lear-scripted and Bud Yorkin-directed Neil Simon adaptation Come Blow Your Horn (1963). If the 47-year-old Sinatra seems a little long in tooth for the role of bachelor womanizer—he was only four years younger than Lee J. Cobb, who plays his father, and costars Tony Bill, playing his younger brother, and Jill St. John, cast as one of the women he has on a string, were the same age as his daughter Nancy—his affable performance overcomes all objections.
The Vogue series ends with three pictures that can be described as Sinatra noir, pitch-black dramas every one, intriguing films that represent among his finest work. He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel. Sinatra is a jazz drummer, an ex-con, and a junkie trying to stay clean despite the pressure from unsavory associates and the guilt trip laid on him by his shrewish, wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker). It’s a wrenching performance in a harrowing film.
Adapted from a Richard Condon novel, John Frankenheimer’s tense, paranoid thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) stars Sinatra as a Korean War veteran plagued by a recurring nightmare that he gradually comes to realize is actually a buried memory. His investigation into the roots of that memory lead him to uncover a vast communist conspiracy involving his former commanding officer (Laurence Harvey), the scion of a right-wing family whose matriarch (Angela Lansbury) may not be what she seems. Frankenheimer released three great films in 1962 — Birdman of Alcatraz, All Fall Down, and this — and Sinatra had the good fortune to star in the best of them.
Sinatra completely buries his considerable charisma to play an assassin in the tight, economical noir Suddenly (1953). The US president is scheduled to make a whistle stop in a small California town and John Baron (Sinatra) intends to kill him, finding the perfect perch in a hillside home overlooking the train station. He and his goons hold the homeowner and her family, as well as the sheriff (Sterling Hayden) at gunpoint. But the hostages are no pushovers and the wait becomes a subtle game of cat-and-mouse as they attempt to thwart Baron. Sinatra inhabits the dead soul of an out-and-out psychopath. He wears ruthlessness well.Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.Read more: Eat My Shorts features Frank Sinatra’s The House I Live In, Michael Cecconi shares a Sinatra-inspired Jack Daniels cocktail, Eat Like the Stars presents three of Frank Sinatra’s recipes, and a fan’s remembrance of meeting Old Blue Eyes.Here is a special deal for Sinatra fans: Buy a $10.50 ticket to opening night film – the rockin’ Ocean’s Eleven – and the party beforehand is on Frank. The festivities kick off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday August 21 at the Vogue theater when Festival Presenter Jack Daniel’s hosts a pop-up whiskey bar pouring Frank’s own premium label. It will be accompanied by savory snacks. By that time you should be in the mood to watch an 11-man team (comprised of Sinatra’s Rat Pack buddies) blow up Las Vegas. Now that is what we call “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!”
A special “All Festival Pass” is available for only $35.
For the complete schedule and advance ticket information visit the website.
Ocean’s Eleven 7 PM Buy Tickets
From Here to Eternity 9 PM Buy Tickets
Pal Joey Noon Buy Tickets
Guys & Dolls 2:15 PM Buy Tickets
Anchors Aweigh 5 PM Buy Tickets
On the Town 7:30 PM Buy Tickets
The Joker Is Wild 9:30 PM Buy Tickets
Sunday’s trailers coming next week with Frank’s short film, The House I Live In.