Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

Has it really been a decade since Frank Sinatra went to the Big Casino in the sky? As a remembrance of his talent, Warners has released four box sets featuring selections from his cinematic output. The Golden Years Collection brings together several of his major triumphs. Unlike many other singers who sought fame on the screen, Sinatra didn’t play it safe. He didn’t have Colonel Tom Parker sticking him in family-friendly musicals like Elvis. Sinatra dared to make shocking films along with his audience pleasing fluff. His great comeback started with From Here to Eternity (not in this set) which had his character end up in a way that startled the bobby-soxers. He wasn’t afraid to play with his fans’ emotions. Golden Collection presents five films made over a decade that reveal Frank as controversial, comforting and confused on the screen.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955 – 119 minutes) is the grandfather of Trainspotting. Sinatra is Frankie Machine. He’s kicked his heroin habit and wants to go straight by being a drummer in a big band. However the neighborhood hoodlum (Darren McGavin) doesn’t like a clean Machine. He lures Frankie back to the underworld of narcotics and marathon Poker games. Frankie doesn’t get much support at home with his wife (Eleanor Parker) stuck in a wheelchair. He finds hope in the eyes of downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak). This leads to more confusion when he needs an anchor to hold him steady. Is he going to be destroyed by the dope fiend life? Director Otto Preminger deals with drugs without being allowed to use the graphic images that are normal in today’s junky cinema. When Sinatra goes into a withdrawl meltdown, he’s as believable as the victims in the 16mm drug documentaries shown in health class. You feel his body twist in pure pain. Who needs needle injections and fake vomit to sell the sickness? The opening is monumental with Saul Bass’s first major animated credit sequence punctuated by Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score. You know you’re not going to see a sweet film. The Man with the Golden Arm is proof that Sinatra wanted to be an actor and not merely a matinee idol.

Tender Trap (1955 – 111 minutes) is a romantic comedy for Sinatra’s fans who were uptight about seeing their idol begging for a fix. He plays a big-time talent agent who has his way with the ladies. He should have a revolving door installed in his bedroom to keep the flow uninterrupted. He’s the ultimate stud. But into such a dreamy life steps Debbie Reynolds. She’s not capable of seeing her night of ultimate pleasure being translated into notch on Sinatra’s bedpost. She’s got a marriage plan when she meets a man. Can she break the swinging stallion and train him into being husband material? Or will she unleash her inner slut? It wouldn’t be a romantic comedy if they didn’t give it a screwball try. The Tender Trap shows that Sinatra could take the intensity level down without losing his ability to captivate an audience.

Some Came Running (1958 – 137 minutes) is Sinatra and Dean Martin being serious. The script is adapted from James Jones’ follow up novel to From Here to Eternity. Sinatra plays a vet returning from World War II to his small Indiana hometown. He’s not sure what to do with his life since before the military career, he was a failed novelist. The only thing he has a knack for is the cards. Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine) has followed him from a drunken night in Chicago. She thinks he likes him. But he wants lady luck as his companion. He hooks up with Bama (Martin), a card player with plenty of superstitions. Things don’t quite go swell for the returning warrior. There’s an amazing final showdown in a carnival that sets the bar for pursuit amongst amusement rides. While there’s light moments between Frank and Dean, they know when to play it straight and intense.

None But the Brave (1965 – 105 minutes) is Sinatra’s only directorial effort. Before Clint Eastwood made Letters From Iwo Jima, Sinatra went with the Japanese perspective on a World War II island battle. The Warner Brothers logo and film title are in Japanese. The Japanese soldiers speak Japanese amongst themselves instead of accented English. You need to turn on the English subtitles to figure out what’s being said. A Japanese army garrison has been stuck on a Pacific island without a radio. They are in the process of building a boat to reconnect to the military chain of command. A dogfight over their island leads to a plane full of U.S. Marines crashing onto the beach. Instead of being a hardcore battle film, None But the Brave ponders if these two isolated forces will unite in order to survive against nature. It’s like Hell In the Pacific with more men. Sinatra takes a supporting role of a Navy medic on the crashed flight. He brings a little lightness to the stiff marine attitude. This isn’t a peaceful war film. There’s plenty of folks getting gunned down. As a director, Sinatra won’t dazzle your eyes with elaborate camera movements and kinetic editing. He keeps the camera motion simple and lets the actors provide the action instead of the splices. The scene where he amputates a soldier’s leg shows he has an advanced understanding of tone and tension. It’s a shame Old Blue Eyes didn’t press his eye against the viewfinder for a second time.

Marriage on the Rocks (1965 – 109 minutes) falls into the genre of “Cinema of the Uncool.” Frank tries to tap in the hipness of the times. He wants to create a “now” sexual comedy with Dean Martin, but ends up making a glorious mess. Sinatra is a married workaholic at an advertising firm. His right hand man and best friend is swinging single Dean. Sinatra’s neglected wife (Deborah Kerr) is frustrated at her absentee spouse. Can this marriage be saved in the early days of the cultural revolution? You can tell that Sinatra still doesn’t have a clue about what’s really happening. When they go out to a hippie nightclub, the feature performer is Trini Lopez singing “There Was a Sinner Man.” Trini is way too clean cut for this groovy establishment. He’s pure Vegas on the psychedelic stage. But Sinatra wasn’t eager to share the screen with a real rock band. It would have been hilarious to see Dean and Frank dancing to the Kinks or the Standells. The twist of Marriage on the Rocks is Sinatra tries to revitalize his marriage with a vacation to Mexico. Things get confused with a local official (Cesar Romero) This leads to Sinatra and Kerr accidentally getting quickie divorce. A second bit of confusion leads to Kerr unwittingly marrying Dean. What’s a guy to do when he marries his buddy’s wife? In the midst of the growing sexual revolution, this film does its best to maintain a sense of chastity. The humor comes less from what’s being done on screen than what they’re denying in the scenes. This isn’t quite up to the standard of The Tender Trap, but it’s fine kitsch gold from Frank and Dean.

Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection is a solid box set of the crooner’s top shelf acting moments. He doesn’t mug it up for the camera and sing a song or two to keep the audience happy. He’s delving into characters. Who would imagine the man who sang “That’s Life” would be tying up a vein? He exaggerates his swinger image on The Tender Trap. This is perfect for the casual Sinatra fan. The only one in the batch that doesn’t quite touch the gold standard is Marriage on the Rocks. It’s a twisted piece of tinsel. This is a collection that will allow a fan of Sinatra to remember Old Blues Eyes as a thespian.

The video on The Man with the Golden Arm is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The other four films are 2.35:1 anamorphic. There’s a few rough patched on The Man with the Golden Arm with visible scratches. This isn’t too distracting since it’s such a gritty topic. The other four films are in better shape. The audio on all five films are Dolby Digital mono. The mix is good without any noticeable defects. The subtitles on Golden Arm are in English and French. None But the Brave has only English subtitles. The other three films have subtitles in English, French and Portuguese.

The Man with the Golden Arm trailer (2:12) prepares you for a shocking film. Saul Bass’ animation is a major component of the visual pitch.

Shoot Up, Shoot Out: The Story Behind The Man with the Golden Arm (19:27) has film critics and historians breakdown the taboo nature of this film. It wasn’t every Hollywood film that featured a smack freak as the hero in 1955. They cover the relationship between director Otto Preminger and Sinatra that allowed them to go beyond the Hayes Code.

Frank in the Fifties (15:56) has film historians and critics discuss how Frank was a rock star during this era. It’s more fluffy than informative.

Tender Trap Trailer (2:29) lets us know this is a “riotous comedy.”

The Story of Some Came Running (20:35) is an effective documentary with film historians and critics giving the background on the film. Don’t watch this until after you’ve seen the movie. Why don’t movie studios run “spoiler” warnings on these type of bonus features?

Some Came Running Trailer (3:50) pushes how this film is the follow up of From Here to Eternity.

None But the Brave trailer (4:21) shows Sinatra behind the camera and calling “cut.” He talks straight to the audience to push the film.

Marriage on the Rocks (3:41) claims “Everyone’s going a-go-go!” You’d almost think this was a true open marriage flick.

Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection contains five films Sinatra made during his glory days in Hollywood. Four of the five show that he could bring the acting muscle when the role required it. He wasn’t just up on the screen playing himself all the time. This box set makes a statement that Frank’s could break your heart with more than his saloon songs.

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Warner Home Video presents Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection. Starring: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Darren McGavin, Debbie Reynolds. Five Movies on Five DVDs. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: May 13, 2008. Available at Amazon.com