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DVD Review: The Frank Sinatra Film Collection

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The Chairman of the Board. Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Voice. The Man Who Was Almost Dirty Harry. He Who Fathered Sufficiently Less-Talented Offspring. Whatever you call him, there was only one Frank Sinatra. And let’s face it: who could possibly even hope to measure up to Frankie’s still-alluring charm, tenor, and screen presence? The answer, of course — no matter how hard some of today’s clowns may try (and they do) — is a very heartfelt and sincere “no one.” There will, undoubtedly, be those who will attempt to do so; and though my first piece of advice would most assuredly be “You’re a loon,” my second suggestion would be to watch an assortment of Mr. Sinatra’s motion pictures.

Serendipitously enough, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s two-volume release of The Frank Sinatra Film Collection — which covers the legendary icon’s filmic career from 1957 to 1968 — is that which you should seek: it not only contains some of The Chairman’s greatest works (often performing his own stunts, because Frankie was cool like that), but it also features some of his not-so-glorious moments — just so you can see for yourself that not everyone has a line of business wherein everything they touch turns to gold. To better elucidate what I mean by these somewhat shameful endeavors, I need only point to the film housed on Disc One of Volume 1 in The Frank Sinatra Film Collection, 1957’s The Pride and the Passion.

In the 2004 gay romantic comedy Touch of Pink, Kyle MacLachlan portrayed the Spirit of Cary Grant. Doing his best impersonation of the late actor’s inimitable voice, the performer opened the film saying “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome. I’m Cary Grant. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘But he’s been dead for 20-odd years.’ Actually, longer — I first died when I made The Pride and the Passion in ’59” to wit he shudders jestingly. OK, sure, the writers got the date wrong, but the sentiment is correct: this is one of those movies wherein a bit of everyone died — from those involved in the making of the film, to the ones who have had the misfortune of sitting through it.

Essentially, The Pride and the Passion is a prime example of how bloated and preposterous Hollywood’s historical epics from the ’50s and ’60s usually wound up being. Directed by Stanley Kramer, the man who would later bring us The Defiant Ones and On the Beach, this windy adaptation of The Gun by C.S. Forester features one miscast lead after another, with British officer Cary Grant attempting to reclaim possession of a huge cannon from his country’s neighboring Spaniards in the early 19th Century. Alas, such a task proves to be a complicated one — as the leader of a Spanish rebellion (Sinatra, complete with ridiculous hair and accompanying accent) wants to first transport the big gun 1,000km away to use against the invading French.

Amusingly, the troubled production seems to have been plagued by bad relationships. Frankie was there only so that he could try to rescue his failing marriage with Ava Gardner. Grant was there to get away from his disastrous merger with actress Betsy Drake — all the while pursuing his co-star Sophia Loren; his courting of the Italian sexpot was so neurotic, that it lead her to her first of two marriages with producer Carlo Ponti (a bond that was later annulled). Meanwhile, the husband and wife screenwriting team of Edna and Edward Anhalt were in the process of divorcing — hence 20000 Leagues Under the Sea‘s Earl Felton was brought in to organize the mess on paper. Unfortunately, nobody was able to coordinate the chaos that occurred off the pages.

OK, I’ve said entirely too much about that movie. Time to set my sights on Disc 2 of Volume 1, the oh-so-much better Kings Go Forth from 1958. Set in Southern France towards the end of World War II, Kings Go Forth not only finds Frank in the top-billed role as 1st Lt. Sam Loggins, but also gives him the chance to narrate the account. Loggins recounts his first encounter with young, fearless Corporal Britt Harris (Tony Curtis), whom he recruits as his radioman. From the start, Loggins feels something peculiar about spoiled rich kid Harris. Eventually, the two form a bond of sorts — a semi-friendly union that is put to the test once both parties fall for the same girl: Monique (Natalie Wood), an French-born American lass with an ancestry that was almost taboo at the time.

Helmed by Delmer Daves, the man who brought us several Cary Grant vehicles (An Affair to Remember and Destination Tokyo) as well as Demetrius and the Gladiators, Kings Go Forth is a better peek at Sinatra’s serious side of acting. Between the stark black-and-white photography by Daniel L. Fapp, an appropriately moody score by the great Elmer Bernstein, a fine script by best-selling author Merle Miller, Frank’s almost noir-like narration, and the sincere performances by all three leads, Kings Go Forth lives up to its title in my book. Plus, it’s nowhere near as depressing as the film from Disc 3 in Volume 1, A Hole in the Head from 1959.

Though marketed as a comedy, Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head is really a drama about Tony Manetta, a widower in Miami, Florida who owns a seedy hotel (called the Garden of Eden) and who has one very loud redheaded 12-year-old son, Ally (Eddie Hodges) in tow some of the time. The rest of the time, Tony’s tryin’ to find a way to either make it big or lookin’ for a good time with the gals; his present “conquest” being a shameless beatnik partygoer (Carolyn Jones) who currently resides in one of the suites above. As if his carefree lifestyle wasn’t already enough to bring about Child Protective Services, Tony also owes $5,000 on his facility; a bill which will find the Manetta duo homeless if not paid soon.

Calling on his elder, responsible brother, Mario (Edward G. Robinson, who makes for one of the least convincing Italian-Americans in cinema since Chico Marx) for help, his financially-secure sibling and his wife (Thelma Ritter) come to pay Tony and Ally a visit to “assess” the situation and determine whether or not they should take young Ally under their wing — a boy who is nearly fatherless as it stands, and who hangs out in the hotel all day with the establishment’s assortment of alcoholics and the like. Mario’s plan is to get Tony to marry an attractive, slightly-older widow (Eleanor Parker), and have the two operate one of his five-and-dime stores elsewhere. Naturally, that doesn’t fall into Tony’s idea of happiness: he’d rather take the money, sink it back into his failing hotel, and go on with his dream of acquiring most of the local area to build a Disneyland.

Co-starring Dub Taylor (as the hotel’s receptionist), Keenan Wynn (as Frank’s friend who struck it big, and whom he hopes he can get a loan from), and the shapely-but-never-fully-appreciated talents of Joi Lansing, A Hole in the Head is a very somber take on the play by Arnold Schulman (who also penned the screenplay), and introduced the world to Frank’s hit single, “High Hopes” — which he suddenly bursts out singing with his onscreen offspring Eddie Hodges during one scene, despite that the film is not a musical. The then-new tune succeeded in winning an Oscar just the same, and later became the campaign song for John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Lastly on Volume One, we have the Oscar-winning 1960 musical comedy, Cole Porter’s Can-Can (Disc 4, in case you haven’t been keeping track), with Shirley MacLaine, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier, and Juliet Prowse (in her feature film debut). Walter Lang, the director of such musical hits as The King and I and There’s No Business Like Show Business (as well as misses like Snow White and the Three Stooges) gives us a 142-minute feature complete with an overture and entr’acte. This time ’round, Sinatra plays French barrister François Durnais (with an American accent — I guess he called it quits with the brogues after The Pride and the Passion), who is in love with nightclub owner Simone Pistache (MacLaine, also with an American accent), and frequently defends her whenever her business is brought in on obscenity charges — something that tends to happen whenever the girls at the club perform the prohibited dance, the can-can.

Strangely enough, this Todd-AO extravaganza features several Cole Porter songs from other projects (such as “Let’s Do It,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “You Do Something to Me”), instead of keeping all of the tunes from the original musical play, though the movie does keep the immortal favorites “I Love Paris,” “It’s All Right With Me,” and “C’est Magnifique.” The great Louis Jourdan takes what would have been the lead had Can-Can been more faithful to the stage version: a judge who (also) falls for Miss Pistache — thus creating a love triangle exclusively found in this film. Monsieur Chevalier portrays the veteran judge friend of Sinatra’s Durnais, while Juliet Prowse plays a potential love interest for Frank. Character actor Nestor Paiva has a minor-but-somewhat-prominently-billed role as a bailiff.

Moving on to Disc 1 of Volume 2, we find ourselves at one of my all-time favorite political thrillers, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, crafted by the masterful hand of John Frankenheimer. If you’ve only ever seen the god-awful 2004 remake from Jonathan Demme, you’re missing out on a classic piece of Cold War fun — in this gripping tale of brainwashing and assassination with Sinatra as Army Intelligence officer Maj. Bennett Marco. According to the statements of all who were in Maj. Marco’s platoon in the Korean War, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in one of his best performances, and who ultimately makes the whole movie) saved the lives of everyone in their remaining infantry and took out an entire enemy squad in the process. But in actuality, Marco’s troupe was captured and subsequently brainwashed as part of a secret Communist conspiracy to find someone whom they can convert into an unwitting assassin — and Raymond is the perfect candidate for the Reds’ dastardly evil plans.

As Marco tries to determine why he’s having horrific nightmares about his squad and their former Staff Sergeant, Raymond — the stepson of a controversial McCarthy-like politician (a scene-stealing James Gregory) — is called into action by his handlers. Angela Lansbury delivers one of her most cold-blooded performances as Harvey’s mother (and was only three years older than her onscreen son, interestingly enough), Janet Leigh is Sinatra’s love interest (who certainly works fast — and falls in love with Bennett almost immediately), and Henry Silva and Khigh Dheigh (Wo Fat on the original Hawaii Five-O) play Asian bad guys (though neither of them were Asian). Paul Frees lends his famous (uncredited) voice as the film’s opening narrator in this political masterpiece.

Disc 2 of Volume 2 is a one-way ticket aboard Von Ryan’s Express, another WWII ditty from 1965. But, whereas the earlier wartime flick Kings Go Forth was more of a romantic drama, Von Ryan’s Express is more like Frank Sinatra’s Great Escape — and it’s just as fun as that sounds! Set in 1943, Von Ryan’s Express opens with American pilot Colonel Joseph L. Ryan crash-landing in German-occupied Italy, to wit he is promptly put into a POW camp run by fascist Italian major Battaglia (Thunderball villain Adolfo Celi), where he immediately clashes with a British officer, Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). Soon after his imprisonment, Italy surrenders to the Allies — leaving the large band of brothers from both sides of the Pond to fend for themselves in a land that is still under the control of the Nazis (and we all know how sympathetic they are).

So, with the help of Battaglia’s former captain, Oriani (Sergio Fantoni, who’s a total delight here), Ryan and Co. make plans to get the hell out of Dodge. Once captured by ze Germans, however, the plans change. Wolfgang Preiss (from the atmospheric West German Dr. Mabuse films), Edward Mulhare (of TV’s Knight Rider fame) as the delightful vicar, Brad Dexter, singer John Leyton, newbie James Brolin, Vito Scotti, and bombshell Raffaella Carrà also star. Mark Robson — who started out making Val Lewton horror films in the ’40s and wound up churning out disasters like Earthquake and Avalanche Express in the ’70s — directs this theatrical triumph based on David Westheimer’s novel of the same name. Jerry Goldsmith provides a score that almost sounds like he was experimenting on what would later become the soundtrack to Planet of the Apes.

Next up is the 1966 epic Cast a Giant Shadow (Disc 3, Volume 2), which features our hero in a minor role. As to why this film made it in the set is anyone’s guess, really — but, should you find yourself a little overwhelmed from seeing Sinatra so much by this point in the set (assuming you’re watching all of these films back-to-back, that is), the fact that he’s only in this account of real-life Arab-Israeli War hero Mickey Marcus a wee bit might seem like a bit of a relief. The real star of this one is Kirk Douglas, who plays Colonel David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus: a Jewish-American officer asked to journey to the recently-declared state of Palestine so that an experienced leader can train the Israeli army for invading Arab forces during the 1948 war.

An historical epic from United Artists, Cast a Giant Shadow features Frankie in a small part as an American bomber pilot named Vince, who gets to swoop in and drop a special delivery to the bad guys. Senta Berger, James Donald, and Topal co-star with the wonderful Mr. Douglas (young Michael Douglas makes his debut here, too, folks), with Angie Dickenson, Yul Brynner, and John Wayne also taking time out of their schedules to deliver enlarged cameo appearances. A good film, yes — but Im really not sure if it should have been included as part of The Frank Sinatra Film Collection.

As we find our way to the second volume’s fourth disc, we enter prime Sinatra territory with 1967’s Tony Rome — the first of two films featuring Frankie as author Marvin H. Albert’s fictional private detective, Tony Rome. Not only is this first-rate Sinatra material, but it’s also a great example of how swingin’ the sixties were. Set in Miami, the streetwise, tougher-than-tough Rome lives on a houseboat, drives a convertible, and can hold his own against any regular bar patron. He also gets into more trouble than he’s really out on the lookout for when asked by a seedy hotel’s house detective (who’s an old acquaintance, though hardly a friend) to escort an unconscious woman back to her residence — the home of powerful millionaire Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland).

The young lady in question — Diana Pines (Sue Lyon, in one of her few “big” roles) — comes complete with a mystery for Tony to follow. It seems her missing diamond brooch has vanished, and no one (naturally) wants to take credit for the theft. Worse still, several members of the family keep hiring and re-hiring our private dick for one reason or another. Knocked out, beaten up, and assaulted by every kind of hood and authority the greater Miami area has to offer, Rome soon finds himself smack dab in the center of regular conspiracy — complete with fresh corpses, suspicious faces, and shapely figures. Jill St. John co-stars as a divorcée, Gena Rowlands is the stepmother, Richard Conte plays Miami PD lieutenant Dave Santini, and Lloyd Bochner is a posh drug dealer in this neo-noir flick. There’s also a memorable cameo with Car 54, Where Are You? star Joe E. Ross.

The hardboiled investigator motif obviously worked well for either Sinatra or the public, and — the following year — The Detective (Disc 5 of Volume 2) premiered. This time, however, Frank is a seasoned police sergeant named Joe Leland — and his life is nowhere near as swingin’ as Tony Rome’s. This gritty tale based on the straightforward adult look at police work written by Roderick Thorp begins with protagonist Leland — whose estranged wife (Lee Remick) is a rampant nymphomaniac — investigating the brutal death of a homosexual lad whose genitals have been sliced away (oh, my!). His examination of the murder reveals his own eagerness to promote, as well as the discriminatory opinions of his fellow officers (played by the likes of Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Robert Duvall, Horace McMahon, Al Freeman, Jr., and Tom Atkins).

As time goes by, and the case comes to a close, the newly-promoted Lt. Leland is asked to look into the mysterious suicide of a man by his beautiful widow (Jacqueline Bisset) — a task that leads him into a larger ploy. Lloyd Bochner (again!) plays a shady psychiatrist, William Windom plays the suicide victim, Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) has an early role as a murder suspect, and Sugar Ray Robinson’s in it, too. One of the biggest-grossing films of ’68, The Detective is a somber police drama that still packs a punch today. A second Leland novel, Nothing Lasts Forever was re-written and filmed in 1988 as Die Hard with Bruce Willis — which also became a big hit.

Lastly in The Frank Sinatra Film Collection, we have the second Tony Rome feature, Lady in Cement (Disc 6, Volume 2) — also from 1968. Opening with a spectacular underwater segment directed by Ricou (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) Browning, Tony (Sinatra) discovers a naked blonde woman with cement shoes at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by hungry sharks and a groovy Hugo Montenegro score. Returning to the land, Rome is hired by a very large and very agile feller named Waldo Gronski (Dan Blocker, in the midst of his role as “Hoss” on Bonanza) who is searching for a blonde of a different color (so to speak) — an assignment that leads him into the path of gangsters, babes, a sleazy gay club owner, and still more magnificent Hugo Montenegro music (that sounds like it should be in an Italian spy flick).

Returning from the original film is co-star Richard Conte as Rome’s PD pal, Lt. Santini. Raquel Welch (whom we first see in a fetching bikini) gets second-billing as Sinatra’s love interest, and Richard Deacon and Martin Gabel turn in supporting roles. B.S. Pully pops up in a cameo (he was also seen in A Hole in the Head), the iconic Bunny Yeager has a role as a masseuse, and Joe E. Lewis appears as himself in another adaptation of a Marvin H. Albert novel (yes, every film in The Frank Sinatra Film Collection was adapted from another source), with a script co-penned by Albert himself. Gordon Douglas directs this not-as-greatly-appreciated-but-just-as-much-fun-as-the-previous-movie, tossing in more than one reference to Sinatra’s life and career (even Blocker is seen watching his own TV show). Definitely not as serious as Tony Rome (it’s nowhere near as humorless as The Detective), Lady in Cement has all the makings of genuine cult classic — and is a great film to conclude The Frank Sinatra Film Collection with.

Now let’s talk pluses and minuses. Undoubtedly, The Frank Sinatra Film Collection is a must for anyone who loves the one and only Blue-eyed Chairman — and the assortment of MGM/Fox-owned releases has a number of great titles in it. Price-wise, the set is most assuredly a deal as compared to the individual releases of each movie included herein. The drawback here, however, is that all of the movies featured in this collection have already been issued on DVD in the past; there are no new-to-DVD flicks to be found here.

The upside to that is that, if any of the films received Special Edition treatment in the past (e.g. The Manchurian Candidate), then those are the versions housed here (complete with special features). Unfortunately, when it comes to movies such as The Pride and the Passion and A Hole in the Head, we get the same old non-anamorphic widescreen transfers released back in the days prior to 16:9 television sets becoming standard. Some discs have stereo sound, some have mono. English (SDH) subtitles are featured on some, but not all DVDs. As for special features — well, I think I’ve made my point. The only thing that has changed the artwork found on the discs themselves — reflecting the set’s theme.

Of course, this is a damn cool set either way you look at it; I’ll recommend it in spite of all the recycled discs. In short, Frankie says “Relax” — and to pick this set up. But just remember, kids: you’ll never be as cool as Frank Sinatra was.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.