The first thing you notice is sound – the iconic croon emanating from the doors of the Sinatra: An American Icon exhibit. It’s fitting for the man known as “The Voice.” Beyond the bowties and ticket stubs that showcase his “bobbysoxer idol” years, visitors enter the era of Sinatra on film. Lavish posters bill Sinatra as a guest star, a second fiddle to Gene Kelly, a supporting actor, an Academy Award winner, and later as a leading man helming big pictures alongside the likes of Grace Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, and the Rat Pack. It’s a side of Sinatra that is surprisingly overlooked in mainstream media that tends to pay more attention to his music but Sinatra, the actor, was more than a song and dance man. In a film career that spanned more than five decades, you’re treated to a filmography of impressive range.
I had the chance to visit the Sinatra: An American Icon exhibit here in Miami. It’s currently on display at HistoryMiami until June 5th. Along with the exhbit, the museum hosted several events including screenings of his films On the Town and A Hole in the Head. While touring the film portion of the exhibit, I was surprised to hear the surprise from fellow guest who didn’t know about Sinatra’s vast filmography. It amazes some that the man who didn’t get the girl in favor of Gene Kelly or Peter Lawford at MGM could later portray a man struggling with a heroin addiction in Man with the Golden Arm.
“He’s remarkable in terms of the range of films he performed in. Certainly when he made his early films. He initially made appearances as part of the Dorsey band and the Pied Piper then eventually making smaller films for RKO and then bouncing on mattresses with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh at MGM and becoming a first above the title star in Anchors Aweigh. If you look at the trailer for ‘Anchors Aweigh’ it starts with “The Voice,” it was a big calling card. Gene Kelly is third billed,” says film historian George Feltenstein.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Feltenstein about the “The Voice” as an actor for this piece. Feltenstein is a renowned film historian who is also Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog. He’s also a big Sinatra fan who had the privilege of seeing Sinatra live in his youth and now helps the Sinatra family and estate. We spoke for about an hour about Sinatra’s film career, his technique, and what his legacy means today.
What’s interesting about Sinatra is that he worked for almost every major studio in his time. Not many were able to get that luxury in the time of the studio system. When that method of work was disbanded, many careers went along with it or some actors were reduced to supporting or even background characters of very 60’s types of films that didn’t showcase their talents but rather exploited their age. Sinatra actually flourished in the 60’s but we’ll get to that later.
Sinatra got his start at MGM, the Hollywood dream factory. Like all MGM stars, Sinatra did as he was told and the studio took advantage of that voice but not much else. If you watch those early films like Take Me Out to the Ballgame and It Happened in Brooklyn, you’ll see a very different Frank Sinatra than the Jack Daniels drinking, fedora wearing symbol of masculinity that has become so ingrained in popular culture. This Sinatra is an awkward, gangly dork. Like a kid brother, he’s often there to make the lead actor look better.
“Those early roles didn’t really shine a light on the dimension that he brought to the screen during his serious roles,” Feltenstein explains.
Sinatra could have easily stayed in those roles becoming a very comfortable “smiling Jim” but there was more to this man. He made one of the greatest comebacks in Hollywood history with From Here to Eternity for Columbia Pictures. In the exhibit, you’ll see the Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Maggio as well as posters of the film and his personal copy. From Here to Eternity put Sinatra in an all star cast with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed and a then unknown Ernest Borgnine. Feldenstein calls From Here to Eternity a turning point in his career. It showcase Sinatra’s viability as an actor, something that shouldn’t have been all that surprising to studio heads and audiences.
“It carved in stone that he wasn’t just a musical performer, he wasn’t a comedian, he was to be taken seriously with what he could do as an actor. But if you study his songs, you can hear the actor in the singing,” he explains.
Feltenstein says you can’t appreciate Sinatra as an actor without understanding how it relates to Sinatra the vocalist. Sinatra is a masterful storyteller as a vocalist which is why you’re moved when you hear his songs.
“He phrased every lyric in a way that he was acting his songs. And then had was that beautiful voice to go along with it. There was a reality and a vibrancy to his singing and I think that’s one of the reasons why he made such an impact on the world.”
Feltenstein points to the musical High Society as an example.
“When he’s singing You’re Sensational to Grace Kelly, listen to the way he phrases every one of Cole Porter’s lyrics. That sequence is as passionate and sensual as a blatant love scene but it’s all communicated through lyric and music and visual performance as an actor. He was remarkable.”
One of the standout pieces of memorabilia in the Sinatra: An America Icon exhbit is a tuxedo worn by Sinatra during one of his performances. The suit embodies the Sinatra mystique of the Rat Pack years we’ve come to know and love and no other film showcased their appeal than Ocean’s 11. Feltenstein calls Ocean’s 11 an underrated film in the Sinatra canon.
“Ocean’s 11 tells you who the Rat Pack was, what their legacy was, and what their chemistry was. The fact that it got remade by Soderbergh and George Clooney is a great homage to the chemistry of the original and the plot was strong enough for two sequels.”
While George Clooney may have taken on the role of Danny Ocean for modern audiences, it’s clear there will never be another Frank Sinatra. Many thanks to GeorgeFeltenstein and HistoryMiami for taking the time of out of his schedule to discuss Sinatra’s film legacy. Here are some films he says you must watch in order to understand the brilliance of Sinatra, the actor.
Essential Frank Sinatra:
From Here to Eternity
Some Came Running
The Tender Trap
The Man with the Golden Arm
You can celebrate Sinatra’s film legacy this weekend. HistoryMiami will be hosting Icon off screen: Sinatra on location at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 2nd. The event is a discussion with film critic and archivist Kevin Wynn. The Tender Trap will air on Turner Classic Movies on June 5th.