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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sinatra Out Of The Gate

Step Lively (1944) Is RKO Encore for "The Voice"

RKO in the 30's spent heavily ($255K) to acquire Broadway's hit play, Room Service, then lost money customizing it for the Marx Brothers. There was still the property, at least, to remake as background to song sensation Frank Sinatra, Step Lively an early credit. The play was keyed to run/shout tempo, so success rides upon one's own threshold for that, but songs are good, several to become Sinatra standards. Audiences came to see FS, other cast members just noise between his tuning, their fate not unlike that of performers on Ed Sullivan before and after The Beatles came on. There was trade report of fans tearing down balcony rails in swoon over Sinatra, so management might have wished for less of him and more of co-stars George Murphy and borrowed-from-Metro Gloria DeHaven. RKO used Step Lively to feature a comic duo, Alan Carney and Wally Brown, stars of low-budgeters the company hoped would unseat Abbott and Costello (they didn't). Sinatra's was a gentle presence, the speaking voice a little high, timid around girls, an ideal non-threat for femme fans. Frank's would prove the ideal template for moving teen idol merchandise past parental concern over sex shorthand his songs conveyed, the joke being that 4-F FS was too scrawny to prey upon innocence (wartime cartoons kidded his image mercilessly along these lines). Step Lively has played Warner Instant Archive in vivid HD.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon remembers childhood exposure to Frank Sinatra's output:

Hi John,

Saw your post about "Step Lively", which I must confess I've never heard of. Was this the FIRST Sinatra film? So funny when you accurately describe his screen demeanor and the implications. How wrong could any impressions be? By the time of his death some surmised that Sinatra probably had had THOUSANDS of notches carved on his virtual bedpost. Unbelievable. Not that he was unattractive, nor even unattractive or uninteresting to males in his way, but the extent to which he scored in every conceivable way, both as a beloved entertainer and actor and even (choke) lover speaks to his once-in-a-lifetime vivacity and pure charisma. There's Ava Gardner's priceless comment which she, obviously not giving a flying fig, told an actual reporter: "He doesn't weigh much, but 25% of it is cock!" Ha! I greater love hath a woman for her man, I guess. My dad, for instance, thought he was cast from gold, and collected his records back when they were made of black Bakelite or whatever it was in the '40s, on into the era of "modern" lps; and dad also attended many of his movies when they were new, even if it meant having to haul the kiddies (me and my younger brother) along to a drive-in. Thus I saw things like "A Hole in the Head" from the backseat of the family Ford station wagon, and much worse fare such as, gag, "Sergeants Three", a true ordeal if you're a movie fan who reveres "Gunga Din" as I now do. Then, I hadn't a clue. I even got dragged to see "Four for Texas", and at this distance I couldn't tell you which film was worse, but I think the answer is the classic, "They BOTH were!" We also went and saw the weak "Robin and the 7 Hoods", but this one had some fine original songs written for it by the crack team of Van Heusen and Cahn, including "My Kind of Town", which became one of FAS's anthems.

I saw the Great Entertainer in Long Beach in 1984, and it was an unforgettable experience. Worth whatever I paid for it, and now, that seems entirely immaterial. It really was...Frank Sinatra, and that guy was up to even his own enormous reputation.

6:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon follows up with some thoughts on Sinatra and 60's films he did (Part One):

Hi John,

Yes, with my memory functioning lately at idle speed, where I'm lucky to kick it up to 10 mph (!), I've remembered a couple of other of Frank's starring vehicles from Back When that we also took in, including the still-impressive "Manchurian Candidate". I actually FELL ASLEEP, as far as I can remember---perhaps not---before the ending. But I remember the spellbinding weirdness of it, and it reminds me of how much kids take in and how much they 'get it', with the single exception of an adult perspective, which is often mistaken IN adulthood as the end-all and be-all...and I don't think that's so. I think kids register and retain almost everything. I did. Certainly it's true that experience, as it piles on, changes our opinions. Sometimes I even regret the extent to which it does.

Later 'Franks' were "Von Ryan's Express", as you've reminded me here, where he sort of imitates the ending of the James Mason film "The Man Between", a shattering ending where the good guy doesn't make it. (Hope I've remembered that title correctly shy of jumping to Mason on the IMDB.) We also went to see "The Detective". Considering the frank (no pun intended...sort of!) content of that picture, not to mention the truly subversive and almost nihilistic content of "Manchurian Candidate." I have to laugh to myself thinking what my parents MIGHT have decided if they'd had any idea what the content of those two films was going to be. "The Detective", as you may remember, was about the death and, er, 'dismemberment' of a gay man, back (in the '60s) when just that much alone was enough to distress the average American, while of course at the same time stirring up prurient interest! And a public figure who had a homosexual double life is eventually implicated. All the parties interested in keeping a lid on the details impinge upon Sinatra's job as a detective and simply finding the guilty party. However, an innocent man is executed for the crime before the revelation of the real murderer. This of course finally causes Our Man Sinatra, with his burdensome conscience and integrity (something FAS was good at playing; some felt his role model as an actor was one-time buddy Humphrey Bogart), to scrap his career and to a great extent his self-identity as a cop in the final reel. That, too, was assimilable to me even though I was, oh, about 12 I guess, at that time.

6:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

Again---it's ludicrous to remember the movies I was denied seeing, especially the almost fairytale-like horror films, on account of specious concerns that I'd turn out like a bent twig from the experience, when you simply consider the content of things like these films; or. e.g., 'that' sequence in "Lawrence of Arabia", which I saw when I was 9, when Lawrence is detained by the perverse Turk, and the blood lust and primitivism the script has him demonstrating shortly thereafter. Parents have to realize that what's going to happen is going to happen with their kids. That's what I've found out, as a parent myself. The whole idea that movies play this primary role in shaping or corrupting or programming is just not true. (Nor comic books, re: the 1950s, nor gaming, today, nor the Evil Internet.) I do however think it's a bad situation when kids are not presented with choices that may expand their notions of art or their sense of the world and its variety and history. This is where education can play a role, and when the arts programs are starved to divert the tax money to the Pentagon or some pork barrel, it's a crime in my opinion. My lifelong interest in classical music was sparked by a teacher who played us some Aaron Copland music, I think it was "Billy the Kid" ballet music, when I was in 7th grade. Wasn't even a music class! There I think I have to credit that one teacher's initiative vs. a publicly-funded class. Me, I would endorse a mandatory class or classes in popular and 'high' culture, and hope to give today's kids a wider perspective (art, music, movies, poetry, literature) than what they think these areas represent, if they think of them at all.

6:54 AM  

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