Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The She-Wolf gets her Man: Frank Sinatra & Betty Garrett

Most romances in musicals follow one of two patterns: either the boy chases the girl and gets her, or the girl chases the guy and scares him away (poor Martha Raye!). But in two special musicals, On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, this mold was broken. Betty Garrett and Frank Sinatra shucked convention let the brassy, tell it like it is, slightly older, aggressive "woman" (as opposed to girl) finally get her man... and in this case the man was Frank. Double score!

Betty Garrett was a fine singer and dancer who went on to appear regularly on TV in shows like All in the Family (Edith's sister?). As for Frank Sinatra, one might initially think he'd squawk at being the pursued, but the choice was a canny one if you know the history behind it: During wartime, Sinatra was a radio constant and the women waiting at home for their solider boys swooned over his dreamy vocals, to the potential fury of the guys overseas, listening to the same broadcasts on army radio. Whether it was ace spin doctoring or just a running gag, the potential for jealousy was diffused by playing up Frank's skinniness and lost little lamb demeanor; gals could then adore him because he brought out their "mothering instinct" more than sexual desire. "Mothering instinct" is a phrase Garrett uses in each of these films.

On comedy shows like Fred Allen or Jack Benny, Frank was always being carried off by sudden winds or mistaken for a broom and locked in the janitor's closet, again emphasizing his 4F status, his inoffensive charm guaranteed to keep the girls warmed but chaste til the boys got home. There was a certain amount of this "mothering instinct" business still lingering in his roles for MGM even after the war (it would continue until he remolded himself as a serious actor in From Here to Eternity) in 1953.

In each film, Betty Garrett swoons at first sight over that "skinny little runt" and chases him around, belting out grand tunes and braying her intentions none too subtly as Frank runs and hides or sings meek responses of the "slow down and go away" effect. But in each film there is a magnificent turning point where Frank transubstantiates himself from copper to gold, where her changes from a 4F "mama's boy" to an early version of the rat pack razzle-dazzler who'd soon be ruling the roost at the Vegas Sands. Garrett responds to this change with a swoon, going from pursuer to deliriously submissive as Sinatra steps into the dominant role (with her support and approval).

In Take Me Out to the Ballgame this change comes after the big "Strictly USA" number. Frank's just tried to kiss Esther Williams, whom he adores because he saw her field a mean grounder to first. She kisses him back for a second, but it's apparently a flop. "No kick in it, hah?" Frank says. Hey, Frank's cool; he understands if there's no kick there's no kick. So then he transubstantiates his defeat as Frank the emaciated crooner into Frank the Vegas ratpacker, and says "C'mere, you" to Garrett--who's been chasing him like Robert De Niro in The Fan all this time--and gives her a big wet one. "Any kick in it?" he asks. You bet there's a kick in it. She loves it. (Read those last two sentences like Robert Evans for maximum effect - "you bet there's a kick in it").

In On the Town, Frank the sailor has fallen in much the same way with Garrett's extroverted NYC taxi driver. All the time he's resisting her and being coy, the innocent sailor abroad whose not used to brassy New York lassies. But then he lets Garret takes him up to her apartment for a nap (!) but her sneezy roomate is there. After some hilarity has subsided and the roommate's been sent to the movies, and you've been led to believe all this time that Frank's just kibbitzing, he suddenly drops the mama's boy veil and behold! Vegas Frank! He grabs Betty, who swoons into his arms.

In each case we have a romance begun by the woman, who is considered--relatively speaking--the less attractive of the pair. Sinatra was still a heartthrob after all and Garrett is deliberately playing up the "strong" aspects of her persona. So Frank's alchemical crossover is a result not just of a wiseguy getting hip to the situation and grabbing the gold--or in this case settling for the bronze-- but of Frank the actor/artist wriggling free from conventions of character, both as the scrawny crooner who draws out the mothering instinct and as the second fiddle to Gene Kelly.

In a way, Sinatra and Garrett's romances in these films forge a link to the comedies of Shakespeare, where not just the hero and the princess get married, but also his valet and her handmaiden, who represent a rough reversal of the traits of the lead two, the hierarchy does not devalue any of its members, but rather all members are considered to be at the level of the king so long as they are in accord with the king (and thus are reflections of his kingdom). I would go so far as in this case to say that Frank even surpasses the king, for while old Gene Kelly hoofs it up nicely he still comes off as a bit of an immature black Irish braggart by each film's end, while Frank has gone on to become a full adult, valuing Garrett for her strengths and not trying to relegate her to any pre-determined niche. Similarly in keeping his frailty and innocence he becomes more masculine, ala a hero in a Howard Hawks film.

So on this incredible first of August, I salute thee, Garrett and Sinatra!


  1. Anonymous03 July, 2011

    I love Garrett and Sinatra. Nice article.

  2. Gene Kelly was and is a legend. It was he who broke the mold when he was the director of "On The Town," and de facto director of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." Plus, he was gorgeous.


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