Music made Frank Sinatra, but the movies saved him.
The story is the stuff of Hollywood legend. The definitive once-in-a-lifetime comeback. In 1952, Sinatra's vocal cords had hemorrhaged, and so had his career. MCA dropped him and it looked like the crooner was finished, that he was on a downhill slide from here to eternity.And "From Here to Eternity" just happened to be the title of the prize-winning James Jones novel that was being developed for the screen by Fred Zinneman. The director had already cast most of the roles (Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr) when Sinatra began furiously lobbying to play Maggio, the runty Army rebel.
He besieged Zinneman and producer Harry Cohn with cables signed "Maggio" (though he never, as "The Godfather" had it, put a horse's head in anyone's bed). He screen-tested for the role, and Cohn finally agreed to hire him, for a paltry $8,000.
But the part was the turning point in Sinatra's career: The Oscar he won for best supporting actor put him back on top in terms of commercial viability. He was nominated again in 1955 - this time for best actor - for the title role in "The Man With the Golden Arm," Otto Preminger's code-testing dope melodrama.
But Sinatra never really gave himself over to movies. A few films - "The Joker Is Wild" or "Pal Joey" - played off his image of the moody, womanizing tough guy who could also be a soft touch. But movies simply weren't his style. As Zinneman pointed out, he was always best on the first or second take; after that, he lost interest.
Yet he appeared in 57 films from 1941 to 1980. Most of his '40s films ranged from forgettable to embarrassing. He once quipped about his first grandchild, "All I ask is that (daughter) Nancy never lets her grow up and see `The Kissing Bandit.' "
But he also made a terrific trio of memorable MGM musicals with Gene Kelly - "Anchors Aweigh," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the legendary "On the Town" with its stunning opening number, "New York, New York" (not the song of the same title he sang in his later years).
It was the 1953 Oscar for Maggio that counted, and the singer-actor worked steadily throughout the '50s in just about anything and everything Hollywood had to offer.
In the early '60s, Sinatra coasted through a series of Rat Pack/Clan flicks, starring his nightclub cronies Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. The films - "Sergeants 3" (which was filmed in Utah), "Ocean's 11," "Robin and the Seven Hoods" among them - were mostly self-indulgent fooling around, but they had a certain appeal.
By the late '60s, he was doing detectives with varying degrees of success in such films as "Tony Rome" and "The Lady in Cement." In 1970, before his "retirement," he made "Dirty Dingus Magee," a sad attempt to capitalize on the trend in cutesy Westerns. His last feature, "The First Deadly Sin," made in 1980 and co-starring Faye Dunaway, pretty much disappeared without a trace.
Somehow, Sinatra's signature cool was never fully captured on film. The process was simply antithetical to his style. He hated the tediousness of the technology, and he missed the immediate connection and instant gratification of performing for a live audience.
Sinatra could've left us a far better film legacy than he did. He could've chosen more challenging roles or applied himself in less-challenging films. But whereas his singing was somehow sacrosanct, he let his movie career succumb to laziness and self-indulgence.
Still, Sinatra did give us at least half a dozen decent-to-excellent pictures. And he made one bona fide classic - John Frankenheimer's 1962 knockout "The Manchurian Candidate," which mixes a brainwashed Laurence Harvey and an ambitious Angela Lansbury with an assassination plot.
The movies were essentially an addendum for Sinatra, an adjunct to what he did and loved best. Yet, he had a star's presence and an adoring public who would follow him anywhere - even to something as unfortunate as "Assault on a Queen."
He had a movie star's selfishness and a movie star's seductiveness. He coulda been a contender and chose not to, but at least he wasn't a bum.
Frank Sinatra videos
- "Las Vegas Nights" (as Dorsey vocalist) (1941)
- "Ship Ahoy" (as Dorsey vocalist) (1942)
- "Higher and Higher" (acting debut) (1943)
- "Anchors Aweigh" (1945)
- "Till the Clouds Roll By" (cameo) (1946)
- "It Happened in Brooklyn" (1947)
- "The Miracle of the Bells" (1948)
- "The Kissing Bandit" (1948)
- "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949)
- "On the Town" (1949)
- "Double Dynamite" (1951)
- "Meet Danny Wilson" (1952)
- "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
- "Suddenly" (1954)
- "Young at Heart" (1955)
- "Not As a Stranger" (1955)
- "Guys and Dolls" (1955)
- "The Tender Trap" (1955)
- "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955)
- "Meet Me in Las Vegas" (cameo) (1956)
- "High Society" (1956)
- "Around the World in 80 Days" (cameo) (1956)
- "The Pride and the Passion" (1957)
- "Pal Joey" (1957)
- "Kings Go Forth" (1958)
- "Some Came Running" (1959)
- "A Hole in the Head" (1959)
- "Never So Few" (1959)
- "Can-Can" (1960)
- "Ocean's Eleven" (1960)
- "The Devil at 4 O'Clock" (1961)
- "The Road to Hong Kong" (cameo) (1962)
- "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
- "The List of Adrian Messenger" (cameo) (1963)
- "Come Blow Your Horn" (1963)
- "4 for Texas" (1963)
- "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964)
- "None But the Brave" (1965)
- "Von Ryan's Express" (1965)
- "Marriage on the Rocks" (1965)
- "The Oscar" (cameo) (1966)
- "Cast a Giant Shadow" (cameo) (1966)
- "Assault on a Queen" (1966)
- "The Naked Runner" (1967)
- "Tony Rome" (1967)
- "The Detective" (1968)
- "Lady in Cement" (1968)
- "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970)
- "That's Entertainment" (on-screen narration) (1974)
- "The First Deadly Sin" (1980)
- "Cannonball Run II" (cameo) (1984)
- "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (voice only) (1988)
- "Entertaining the Troops" (documentary) (1989)
- "Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones" (doc.) (1990)