Monday, October 5, 2015

That's the Nectar of the Gods, Baby

In August, the Vogue Theater had a three day Frank Sinatra Film Festival.  I had seen several of the films on the program.  I decided not to rewatch such classics as From Here to Eternity & Anchors Aweigh even though I enjoyed them greatly.  Instead, I saw two films on the program which I had not previously seen.

The Joker is Wild starring Frank Sinatra, Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain & Eddie Albert; directed by Charles Vidor; (1957)
Suddenly starring Frank Sinatra & Sterling Hayden; directed by Lewis Allen; (1954)

The festival was sponsored by Jack Daniels which was introducing Sinatra Select or was it Sinatra Century?  I don't know.  I didn't attend the opening night where they were reportedly pouring small samples of some Sinatra-branded Tennessee Whiskey.  The occasion is that 2015 is the centennial of Sinatra's birth.  The title of this post is the tagline from a Jack Daniels commercial I used to see fairly often on television.  I thought there were FCC regulations which prohibited the advertising of hard alcohol or distilled spirits on television.  According to the commercials, Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels and regularly drank it while on stage performing.  The disembodied but satisfied voice of Sinatra utters the tagline in the commercial; presumably after having a sip of said liquor.

Speaking of drinking on stage, The Joker is Wild is a biopic of Joe E. Lewis, a popular singer & comedian who was a close friend of Sinatra before the making of the film.  As a young man, Lewis was a popular club singer in 1920s Chicago.  He ran afoul of one of Al Capone's associates.  In retaliation, the mobster had Lewis' throat and tongue cut so that he couldn't sing.  This incident & the events leading up to it are depicted in the film with Sinatra as Lewis and Eddie Albert as his best friend and pianist Austin Mack.

Once an up-and-comer, Lewis is unable to sing and now reduced to working as a comedian in a shabby burlesque house in NYC.  This is where Mack finds him several years after the incident.  He arranges for Lewis to perform at a charity benefit hosted by Sophie Tucker (who plays herself in the film).  Although he is unable to sing, his comic ad-libs launch a career revival for Lewis as well as capture the romantic interests of wealthy socialite Letty Page (Jeanne Crain) and later showgirl/actress Martha Stewart (Mitzi Gaynor).

Riding high on career success, Lewis' hard drinking & self-loathing drive away everyone who cares about him.  The film ends on a bleak note considering that Lewis was still alive at the time & that he and Sinatra were such good friends.

Sinatra skillfully captures Lewis' self-destructive tendencies.  I have to wonder how much of Sinatra's personal life infused his performance.  At times, it seemed as though Sinatra was playing a version of himself which may not have been so well-known in 1957 - mob ties, hard drinking, sarcastic, failed relationships, etc..

The relative obscurity of The Joker is Wild is a surprise to me.  I thought this was one of Sinatra's better & more memorable performances.  The film paints a complex and at times unflattering portrait of Lewis.

Suddenly has the look & feel of a B film but I'm not sure of its development & production history.  The title refers to the fictitious town of Suddenly, California.  It's the town where the President of the United States will be making a hastily planned & unannounced stop.  Only Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) & his deputies are aware the plans.

As Shaw and the visiting Secret Service agents secure the town, a trio of strangers arrive claiming to be federal agents.  We quickly learn that the three are assassins paid to kill the President.  The leader of the three is John Baron (Sinatra).  Baron & his associates kill the Secret Service Agent-in-Charge and hold several people hostage in a house overlooking the train depot where the President will transfer to a waiting car.  The hostages include the house owner Pop Benson (a retired Secret Service agent), his widowed daughter-in-law (Nancy Gates), her son Pidge, Shaw and a TV repairman.

There is a romantic subplot involving Shaw & Ellen (Gates).  Ellen can't get over the death of her husband during WWII.  However, most of the story is set during the hostage crisis as the hostages surreptitiously attempt to foil the assassination while the assassins try to keep the hostages in line while preparing for the President's arrival.  Ostensibly a paid assassin, Baron has what would now be called PTSD.  A decorated sniper during the war, Baron was discharged because he liked to kill too much.  Shaw picks up on this and continually pushes Baron's buttons while the TV repairmen secretly hooks up electrical wire to the metal table that the sniper's rifle is clamped to.

The film is very tense at times.  Hayden is a bit wooden in his delivery of some dialog but he finds his groove in scenes when he is playing opposite Sinatra who is a tightly coiled sociopath.  Suddenly features another strong performance by Sinatra.

Both The Joker is Wild & Suddenly are worthwhile films.  I recommend both films.

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