From Here to Eternity

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From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

There’s a reason From Here to Eternity won eight Academy Awards and was nominated for five others. The stellar cast is in large part responsible as two leading men and several supporting characters of almost leading caliber delivery hard-hitting performances.

The story follows a Hawaiian military base in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s official entrance into World War II. Because the country is not at war for most of the picture, however, we get to see what life was like for the “30-year” men who enlisted with the aim of making a career out of military life. Yes, they do drills, but they also spend their evenings in town getting drunk and meeting women.

But the story is as unsavory as that. It commences with the arrival of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Pruitt (Montgomery Clift) on base, having transferred from his post as a bugler because he was passed over for the first bugle position. He was directed to his receiving base because Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober) once saw him box and aspires to have his division win the inter-regiment boxing league. Pruitt refuses to box, however, because the last time he did he blinded a man.

Pruitt’s story surrounds the intimidation and mistreatment he receives at the hands of the other boxing men in the ranks who try to pressure him to enter the ring. Pruitt makes a great pal, however, in Pvt. Maggio (Frank Sinatra) –a high-spirited soldier who introduces Pruitt to the benefits of a social club in town. It is at said club that Pruitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed), with whom he quickly falls in love. The two maintain a romance that is stifled by Lorene’s confession she does not want to marry an army man.

Maggio, meanwhile, makes a fast enemy in “Fatso”, the sergeant of the stockades (Ernest Borgnine). At a bar in town, Maggio argues with him over the sergeant’s piano playing, the musician calls Maggio a “wop” and the disagreement continues for months. When Maggio is given a last-minute assignment to cover the watch, he shirks his duty and goes on with his original plans to get drunk. His court martial lands him in the stockade where Fatso brutally beats him for weeks. Maggio escapes from the stockade and finds his way to Pruitt only to die moments later.

But those two dramatic tales are not alone in From Here to Eternity. Burt Lancaster as Sgt. Warden presents the story’s romantic plot. Warden is assistant to Cpt. Holmes and catches the eye of the philandering officer’s wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). Although Karen has been known to get around herself, she confesses to never having known a feeling like that she experiences with Warden. By the end of the movie, the couple hopes to get married, but if Karen is to divorce Holmes, Warden will have to secure an officer’s position in order to transfer out of the regiment. The enlisted man is resistant to the idea, however, and when the war starts, everything will change.

No matter which character you become invested in, by the end of From Here to Eternity you will find yourself heartbroken. For a war movie set during (relative) peace time, the tragedies endured by the various characters are significant. Although the villains –Cpt. Homes and Fatso– get what they deserve, the sweetest character –Maggio– suffers the worst fate. Sinatra won the Best Supporting Actor award and deservedly so. He had pushed to get the role for which producers had passed over Eli Wallach because of his salary demands. Filmmakers thought Sinatra’s skinny build portrayed the helpless image the character called for, and so he got the part. Joan Crawford endeavored to take the role of Karen but also had demands that put her off for the filmmakers. The role was a different one for Kerr who typically played sophisticated roles. Although she brings an upper class air to the part, the character nevertheless has a semi-sordid past.

The direction of the film, by Fred Zinnemann is also superb with beautifully composed deep-focus shots and some of the most memorable scenes in movie history –see Lancaster and Kerr cavorting among the waves. From Here to Eternity does nothing to show the Army in a positive light, yet the Army itself approved its screening in camps. The Navy, meanwhile, banned it for its derogatory portrayal of a sister service.

Source: TCM.com

Feature: Caught in the ‘Tender Trap’

TCM will be playing one of my favorite Sinatra movies this weekend, The Tender Trap. The story is a cute comedy about perpetual bachelor Sinatra and the young woman who ensnares him for domestic life –Debbie Reynolds. The song “The Tender Trap” refers to “love” being the tender trap, but the movie is about marriage being that fate. For that reason I thought the movie a fitting title to use for part of the engagement photos Ryan and I had done last August at an old movie theater in Bexley, Ohio. I convinced the staff to change the marquis for us and below is the result. I couldn’t help but share it!

We’re getting married this October and are planning several Art Deco and movie elements to the festivities, which I’m sure you will appreciate, so I might be sharing more details in the future. Tender TrapPhoto by Chantal Stone Photography

4 for Texas

Dullsville

4 for Texas (1963)

     Immediately upon it’s opening, 4 for Texas informs us that Charles Bronson‘s character is the villain and characters named Zack and Joe are the good guys, a fact that is easy to forget as we stumble through a sloppy story in which Rat Packers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra arenotgood pals.

     Sure the two characters seem to be on great terms as the start of the movie takes us on a high-speed horse-drawn stagecoach race. Bronson’s Matson is leading a horseback gang that seeks to take both the $100,000 the coach is carrying and the man defending it, Sinatra’s Zack Thomas. With Sinatra on the roof of the coach and Martin’s Joe Jarrett inside, they fend off the attackers with some sharp shooting before the coach crashes a safe distance from the villains. The following exchange, however, sees the money and power change hands a few times between Zack and Joe, who are firmly enemies by the time the latter walks off with the cash.

     The money came from dirty Galveston banker Harvy Burden (Victor Buono) who hired Zack to protect the coach and Matson to attack it. The money was meant to be Zack’s to buy a bum river boat that he would transform into a gambling operation. The man is consoled by French girlfriend Elya, played by the ever voluptuous Anita Ekberg.

     Joe meanwhile arrives in Galveston and makes a fast friend in Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits the stolen money from Joe’s jacket lining into Harvy’s bank, where it cannot be touched. Our two main men have back and forth arguments about the money, but Joe opts to pursue setting up the gambling boat himself, especially after meeting its owner, the less-classy seductress Maxine (Ursula Andress). When the gambling operation is ready to open, however, Joe will have to fend off Zack before both parties are forced to team up against Matson.

     4 for Texas is a silly comedy complete with cameos from the aging Three Stooges. Sinatra and Martin had the time of their lives on the set, much to the chagrin of Director Robert Aldrich. Sinatra in particular often arrived late and refused to do more than a couple takes. The lack of effort does not necessarily show in the performances, but the story and overall picture are sloppy. Sinatra comes off as the villain for a good portion of the movie while our favors side with Martin. The women do not particularly bring anything to the picture, nor do they advance the plot in any irreplaceable way. And let’s be honest, in many ways Ekberg with her mountainous bosom and Ursula with her comparable curves were probably only incorporated into the picture as eye candy and/or as a distraction for the stars.

     4 for Texas was certainly not the worst Sinatra or Martin movie I have seen, nor the worst western Sinatra did (see  The Kissing Bandit). It also has a certain amount of glamor that has its appeal, but as a story it lacks all quality. One will not be bored watching this movie, it just is likely to leave the viewer dissatisfied.

The House I Live In

Gasser

The House I Live In (1945)

     I am not sure whether it is really worth giving the 10-minute short The House I Live In a rating as it is not something one can really grade. The only reason I sat down with this quickie is because I’m such a Frank Sinatra fan that, naturally, I need to indulge in any chance I can get to see his work.

     Sinatra plays himself as we open on a scene of him recording a song in a studio before he takes a smoke break and wanders out to an alley. There he finds a group of boys who have chased another kid into a corner and clearly plan to give him a beating. Sinatra intervenes and learns the outcast is disliked purely for his (unnamed) religion. The crooner proceeds to tell the boys they are Nazis because only Nazis care about a person’s religion.

     Sinatra sort of proceeds to call the bullies jerks and other names before heading back to work, which prompts his singing to the boys of “The House I Live In,” a ditty about all the things that make America what it is, most especially the people.

     The short won a Special Oscar for Best Tolerance Short Subject –seriously– and a Golden Globe as Best Film for Promoting International Good Will. It was among the many patriotic films being pumped out by studios during the war to promote America’s allies and the cohesiveness of the country’s people. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Curiously, The House I Live In writer Albert Maltz would later be blacklisted during the McCarthy era as was Composer Earl Robinson, who wrote the title song.

     Sinatra comes off as harsh when disparaging the boys, which really sends a broader message to the public in general about picking on those who are different. If only celebrities today would make TV spots calling homophobes and those who think all muslims are all terrorists a bunch of assholes. I am being a bit facetious, but perhaps we can learn by Sinatra’s message and song of tolerance as the world never seems to be without its prejudices.

Source: TCM.com

The Fighting 69th

Gasser

The Fighting 69th (1940)

     One of the reasons I started blogging about the classic movies I am constantly watching is because I tend to forget what I have seen. Often movie titles reveal little about a movie’s actual plot and many of the scenarios blend together to the point that I found myself getting 15 minutes into Sinatra‘s Higher and Higher more than once before realizing I had already endured it. The same is true of James Cagney in The Fighting 69th. I sat through this entire movie the other day and eventually concluded that, indeed, I had seen it before yet had entirely forgotten it. And as the days passed since watching it last week I found again that it was becoming forgettable.

     I am not sure what makes a movie flee one’s memory banks. I’m sure the pedestrian nature of some stories or the unimpactful story of others makes a movie not worth remembering, but The Fighting 69th is not a story or a performance worth mentally abandoning. Cagney not only gives a great performance of an arrogant, if not obnoxious soldier, but it is one of only two movies I can think of that depict American war cowards (the other be For Me and My Gal). The ratio of war-hero to war-coward movies must be in the range of thousands to one and yet The Fighting 69th leaves only a fleeting impression on me.

     Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett who has joined up with an all-Irish New York military outfit that during the Civil War was known as the Fighting 69th. They maintain that title in World War I. During training stateside, all Jerry can do is complain about how he wants to see some action and slur sass at his superior officers, including Father Duffey, played by common Cagney costar Pat O’Brien.

     Even when the troop gets to Europe, Jerry tries to show his mettle by carrying multiple loads while the other men struggle to endure the endless walks in the mud. When the bullets finally start flying, however, Jerry becomes a royal screw up. He sends up a flare from the trenches one night that signals to the enemy their location, and the shell fire results in an underground cave in that kills many soldiers. Jerry continues to make spineless mistakes that result in the death of others to the point that he is imprisoned and set for execution. The man will thankfully redeem himself before his end.

     Cagney does a great job in this role that although it separated him from his gangster persona, still rings of a low life. The story is poignant in that it connects us with three brothers among the Fighting 69th of varying rank (Alan Hale, Dick Foran, William Lundigan). When one dies our hearts break as they do when the poet we’ve gotten to know also meets his fate. Although the reaction might vary by viewer, I did not feel remorse for Jerry’s loss as it became a necessary means to an end and solution that could pardon him from his past sins.

Lady in Cement

Dullsville

Lady in Cement (1968)

     Welcome to post-Production Code cinema, Frank Sinatra, where nudity, violence, homosexuals and strippers abound. That is essentially what I though when watching 1968’s Lady in Cement in which Sinatra as a private eye gets to search for the killer of a naked woman he found at the bottom of the ocean, her feet in cement. He trolls through a bar run by a gay man where scantily clad but mostly dressed women shake their stuff, meets up with an undercover detective dressed in drag at an actual strip show, and gets to make out with a woman far too young for him.

     The movie was released to New York audiences a mere 20 days after the new Motion Picture Association of America rating system was instituted on Nov. 1, 1968, but the Production Code the new ratings replaced had essentially crumbled by that point with many films being released without the MPAA seal of approval before that year.

     Sinatra playing Tony Rome follows up on 1967’s flick Tony Rome in which he plays the same character investigating the murder of a wealthy girl. In Lady in Cement he works with the help of a police detective to unravel a complex mystery in which the murders pile up. Rome is summoned to the boat house of a young woman where he is instead greeted by a large man with a gun –Gronsky (Dan Blocker)– who hires him to seek out a missing blonde who might be the same dame as the dead one in the water. Going to the gal’s place of work –that go-go dancing joint– Rome meets the girl’s roommate Maria (Lainie Kazan) who herself next ends up dead with Gronsky seen fleeing the scene.

    The information Rome does have points to a party held at the home of a young, wealthy socialite Kit Forrest, played by Raquel Welch in all her bathing-suited glory. Kit says she was too drunk to remember what happened at the party — the place the blonde was last seen. Her neighbor, gangster Al Munger (Martin Gabel), also warns Rome to stay away, but Rome has the hots for Kit, so that won’t be happening. The owner of the go-go joint is the next body on the pile and Rome is looking like the murderer. Fleeing from his police buddy he eventually lands at Kit’s and she reveals that she woke from a drunken stupor with the original girl’s body on her floor. Rome smells a frame up, however, and keeps digging.

     Sinatra was 53 when Lady in Cement was released and he was looking his age. I am the last person to denounce the Sinatra allure, but no longer the dashing young thing he used to be, he plays a mature detective well but teeters on the edge of sex appeal. Exacerbating his age, however, is 28-year-old Welch who is utterly unbelievable in her attraction to Rome. Granted, Sinatra had just divorced this same year from 23-year-old Mia Farrow, but I think we all are confused about why the 30-year difference there did not stop their union (she was three years older than Sinatra’s youngest child).

      Besides our lead male and female, the cast is essentially unnotable. No one gives a particularly stunning performance, and although the mystery is plenty complex, it is not superbly executed. Several inside jokes are contained within the movie, however. A car with a bumper advertisement for  Dean Martin Restaurant & Lounge is seen, a “You Make Me Feel So Young” instrumental is played in one scene, and Sinatra’s ex-wife Ava Gardner is alluded to when Rome mentions knowing a girl who used to date bullfighters.

Room Service

Gasser

Room Service (1938)

     From what I have found in my encounters with the Marx Brothers so far is that the films using some material of their stage shows and/or focused more on their antics than the actual story line are the ones that most tickle my fancy. Room Service, unfortunately, does neither. Based on a stage show and adapted for the Marx Brothers, it relies heavily on the actual story to generate laughs and not enough on the random actions or dialogue of the boys.

     The story would also become a Sinatra musical, Step Lively, although the two films differ greatly as one relies on musical numbers and the other on the personalities of its stars. Leading the pack as always is Groucho Marx as play director Gordon Miller who has occupied for some time without paying his bill a room in a hotel managed by his brother-in-law Joseph Gribble (Cliff Dunstan). He also has 22 cast members staying at the residence while he prays for a financial backer to appear to support his show. Also on his team are “treasurer” Binelli, played by Chico Marx, and silent as ever friend Faker, embodied by Harpo Marx.

     The trouble the crew faces is that the hotel director Wagner (Donald MacBride) is quite angry about the unpaid $1,200 bill. As Groucho, Chico, and Harpo start layering on Groucho’s wardrobe so as to more profitably abscond from the property, they hear from cast member Christine (Lucille Ball) who has landed a backer for the show. The trouble is, the man is coming to the hotel to discuss the matter. Heturns out to be the go-between for a wealthier and anonymous gent, looking to minimize publicity because he wants his girlfriend included in the show. He agrees to fund the play but will come back at 10 a.m. the next day to deliver the check and sign the papers. Now the boys are stuck trying to stay in their room without being jettisoned to the curb. The solution: someone must play sick.

     By this point, the play’s writer Davis (Frank Albertson), an airheaded guy from a small town who burned all his figurative bridges on the way out, has come to collect on an advance for his script in order to pay his lodging. With money obviously not available, he is invited to room with the three Marx brothers’ characters. He is also selected as the one to play sick –first with measles then a tape worm– so that the hotel cannot throw him out. This works in the boys’ favor but they are unable to leave the room or order room service as they wait around for 10 a.m. and the lot begin to whine of starvation. They eventually finagle a stolen meal from one of the hotel workers and a scene of physical comedy ensues as all four stuff their faces.

     The crew does secure their check the next morning but in the process Wagner and Gribble argue enough with the men to freak out the money lender, and although he leaves the money, has payment stopped on the document later. Nevertheless, Wagner thinks the money is legit and holds the check, extending credit to the theater crew. Groucho et al seize the opportunity to rush their show into production during the five days it will take the check to clear before Wagner finds out they’ve duped him out of $15,000. All starts to fall apart at the last minute before the actors hit the stage, so some false acts of suicide are used to distract Wagner from destroying the effort.

     This was the first movie for which the fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo, acted as agent for his siblings, securing for them a $250,000 fee. The film allegedly lost $340,000 at the box office, which perhaps solidifies my previous remarks about it not being my favorite. It was the first film the brothers did that was not written for them, which truly emphasizes how unique of performers they were. You could not simply cast Chico, Harpo or Groucho into any generically written part; the roles had to be crafted with them in mind from the outset.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

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