Thursday, May 08, 2008

Frankie's shining hour

Didn't feel much like baseball last night -- which to those who know me well should tell you something. Got home from work just before 8 and surfed away from the Braves game to Turner Classic Movies in time to catch one of my favorites, the 1953 Columbia classic, "From Here to Eternity."

It's probably most famous for the then-provocative scene on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, but at its core, "Eternity" is Frank Sinatra's film. He's a supporting player, not the name above the titles, but he so dominates the role of Pvt. Angelo Maggio that he's noticeably missed when he isn't on screen.

File this one under Exhibit A for making the case that Sinatra, without question really, was the greatest entertainer of the American century.

I'll dispense with the usual plot summary other than to say this film focuses on the men that make up an army unit in Hawaii during the days leading up to the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It's a guy movie, full of the rhymes and rhythms of military life, but it has a little romance and all the other stuff filmmakers used to think they needed to tell a story.

Lancaster is his usual terrific self. Kerr is mighty fetching as his illicit lover. My favorite woman in the film, however, is Donna Reed, who I will insist to my grave was one of the most beautiful women of her day. More importantly, she was a darn fine actor.

But this is Sinatra's picture. You can almost feel that Maggio was a character he was born to play -- the scrappy Italian who ain't takin' nothin' off nobody -- ripped straight from his own sense of who he was as a man and a performer.

Frankie was down on his luck when this movie premiered. He'd been released from his longtime recording contract with Columbia. His records weren't selling anymore. His tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner had ended, too -- with Frankie holding the bag -- and the pieces of his broken heart.

He needed a comeback. Maggio was it.

From here, Sinatra made another fine little film ("Suddenly," in 1954) and bounced back on the music scene in a big way, making magic for Capitol Records during his long association with arranger Nelson Riddle. (Those Sinatra/Riddle albums of the '50s, by the way, are essentials for anyone who claims to love American popular music.)

After the film ended, I popped in some of Sinatra's early big band work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and thought awhile about what being an entertainer used to mean. Elvis may be the king, Ellington may be the Duke, but Sinatra really is the Chairman of the Board.

If you doubt me, watch "From Here to Eternity" and "Suddenly" back-to-back, then take a listen to the "Wee Small Hours" LP.

It's not even close, folks.

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