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

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Mothering Instinct: Frankie Sinatra and his Matrons

From top: Betty Garrett, Celeste Holm, Vivian Blaine
The enduring image of Mr. Frank Sinatra today is from the early 60s: that ring-a-ding-dingin' wiseguy crooner, chairman-of-the-board for the Rat Pack, shtupping a plethora of broads, singing with a cigarette and tumbler of Jack Daniels/rocks in one hand, mic in the other. But did you know that during WW2 he used to be called a skinny little runt? Even into the 50s he was often but a naive wingman to blustery Gene Kelly in MGM musicals, losing girls even to Bing Crosby. He always ended up hooked up with aggressive, strong women; they pursued him, because of 'the mother instinct' --and this Brooklyn beanpole never put up more than token resistance as he wound up with the girl who wanted him, rather than the girl he wanted. If she had a good pitching arm, a car, her own apartment, a money-making job, and refused to take no for an answer, what could he do? Ring-a-ding-done! 

It all began during the Second World War with Sinatra's quiet storm radio broadcasts. Singing torchy ballads with a revolutionary new mic technique that carried right through the speakers clearer and more intimate than all the other crooners on the airwaves, like he was right there in the room, like an early version of an ASMR video. With their men all overseas, lonely women across America swooned in adoration. It made soldiers listening on Armed Forces Radio jealous to hear about it, so in the interest of patriotism and good sportsmanship Frank played up the mother instinct aspect. Nothing to be jealous about, sailor! Frank was just a skinny kid with a golden voice, from the neighborhood - the runt of the block; women could love him and not be unfaithful because they just wanted to cook for him and make sure he had his mittens. He was no threat to a red-blooded mesomorphic serviceman and he was a good sport about being mistaken for a broom or carried off by strong winds when he guested on Bob Hope or The Jack Benny Show.

Anchors Aweigh, w/ Pamela Britton
But after the war he found it a hard persona to shake. Most soldiers were home, but not all of them. War widows were abundant; their mother instincts were more intense than ever. Having been married to a soldier or sailor killed in the war kind of liberated you from having to be a 'good' girl. And now they could do something about it, like make the first move on little Frankie and not take no for an answer.

First there was the savvy Brooklyn girl (Pamela Britton) whose assertiveness in getting Sinatra into the sack in Anchors Aweigh (1945) leaves Kathryn Grayson free and clear for Gene Kelly. She's great, but she comes in only 3/4 of the way through a long, uninteresting slog spent with kids, cartoons, dull classical operetta, and a very distasteful scammer streak of misogyny courtesy cockblocking sailor Gene Kelly. Schooling his buddy the virginal Sinatra in all the wrong ways to woo a sincere girl, first by sneaking onto the studio lot and harassing conductor Iturbi, expecting the world to just bow to the intensity of his manufactured needs. In a bid to escape Gene's connivings, Frank finds an aggressive Brooklyn-transplant waitress; she's an endearing consolation prize and his emotional journey is tempered by some of his best early Columbia torch songs like "I Fall in Love too Easily." That early 40s Columbia period contain maybe my favorite recordings ever, period, but I'm not a huge fan of everything that came after (i.e. on Capitol). And Frank and the girl from Brooklyn provide some grounded relief from the MGM treacle and Kelly's obnoxious braggart persona. It also sets the stage for the best of Sinatra's mothering hometown girls to come, a real she-wolf on no small dancing and singing skill, Betty Garrett.

Take Me Out the Ballgame (w/Betty Garrett)

In Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) Sinatra and Garrett' relationship was perhaps best summed up by the song "It's Fate, Baby it's Fate," a duet wherein she makes aggressive passes and Frankie tries to argue his way out while she chases him around the empty ballpark: 
 Betty: Too late, baby, too late,
So accept your destiny,
It's fate, baby, that you were meant to fall into love with me.
I'm gonna start it out on my astrology, and phrenology

Frank: It does not matter that you are Aquarius, or Sagittarius

Or Gemini or Scorpio or Taurus the Bull, Capriconicus or Pisces the fish.
Betty: Winter, summer, spring or fall,
As long as you were born at all,
Mister, you're my dish.
It's fate baby, it's fate.
Frank: Can't I even put up a fuss?

Betty: It's fate, baby, the stars have written that you and me is Us.
On the Town (w/Betty Garrett)

In On the Town (released the same year) she's a NYC cabbie who sings "Come up to My Place," and--in a move very bold for 1949--convinces Frank's sailor to abandon planned sightseeing for a quickie / nooner at her place. Their hook-up vibe gets so intense that the clueless cockblocking of her sniffling roommate is almost not funny. We feel the heat. Finally she packs the roomie off to the movies so she and Frankie can presumably have some of the most forthrightly implied casual afternoon sex since Dorothy Malone closed up the bookstore in The Big Sleep (1946).  (See more about my love for the Garrett / Sinatra dynamic in my 2006 piece, "The She Wolf Gets Her Man").

Guys and Dolls (w/Vivien Blaine)
Garrett was a blast in both roles and was a tough act to follow. She wound up blacklisted----and Frank had troubles of his own. He finally lost the 'ie' at the end of his name when he landed a major role in From Here to Eternity (1953) but he still made musicals, of course, and still had to contend with bossy broads like Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) in 1955's Guys and Dolls, but it wasn't until 1956 that his musical persona began a transitional phase.

He made two films that year-- The Tender Trap and High Society. The staid, supportive, witty, and patient Celeste Holm took over the hungry matron role for both. Like Garrett she was a working girl. A photographer in High Society and a concert violinist in Trap, she was high class, less aggressive than Garrett but on the other hand started the film already hooked up with Frank. A lady of substance rather than a brassy girl from the neighborhood, Frankie was making the grade from the outset, but there was no sparks with Holm. She was his launch pad, boosting his courage and catching him if and when he ever fell. She was the consolation prize, the holding pattern while he reached for radiant stars like Grace Kelly or fell for unattainable hick virgins like Debbie Reynolds.

High Society (w/Celeste Holm)

In High Society, Holm is in the place usually reserved for Joan Blondell or post-code Jean Harlow, the patient, long-suffering girl friday. It's Grace Kelly of course that Frank really sparks with. She's supposed to be Bing's true love but as soon as Sinatra gets behind the bar, pours some drinks, and sings to her, an alchemical transubstantiation occurs before our eyes and ears, the beanpole kid from Brooklyn vanishes and the super cool 'swinger Frank' is born. The bar is clearly his place of power, his voice the sonic equivalent of the giddy warm flush in your cheeks when the first drink lights up your soul like a beam of cocktail hour setting sun. Kelly's whole body seems to respond to his voice like a kitten to the touch, and his voice reacts to her response to his voice, elevating the voice in turn. The mold of 'Frankie' and the mother instinct shattering from the low throb vibrations. Together they leave Bing looking almost anemic, ready for the hospital matron Celeste to lead him out to pasture.

This moment wasn't just a Hoboken son getting lucky with a future princess but a career-turning revelation. A deep, poetic, sincere romanticism that Sinatra could only really convey in his best recordings comes out onto screen finally, and the last shred of the old innocent 'Frankie' disappears forever. The booze, the bar, the saloon song, the intimacy of two people alone at a bar, this--it was clear--was Frank's place of power, and the world's knees were shaking. He was so in control he could even go flat, slurred and boozy on half-spoken lines like "she got pinched in the Asss/ ter Bar." and get away with it.

But he still had to go back to Holm in the end, because he would never be able to go all the way into high society. He was meant for the quiet hideaway bar with the fishbowl tip jar on the piano, rather than the ritzy soirees. And Holm, at least in High Society, wins him by default. But her mother instinct had just gone obsolete. She expected her Icarus high-flyin' swinger would plummet back into her arms once his wings melted into the morning's hangover and the bar was closed but there was a city where the bars were always open, the crooning, drinking, and seducing could go on 24/7. There was no need for hangovers or Holm in... Las Vegas.

In Frank and Holm's other 1956 film, The Tender Trap, he plays a swinging New York City talent agent with a constant stream of dames, allegedly, but he only ever wakes up with Holm, whose classy carriage (she's an orchestra violinist) and Broadway wit anchor his confidence, one cool swinger to another. Her steadfast availability made him a lazy lover; why bother putting in any effort when Holm's handy? She will put up with his tomcatting because she's got nothing better going on, for now, and so the years pass. Easy sex keeps them dependent until they meet marriage-minded virginal singer Debbie Reynolds (one of Frank's new clients) at a restaurant. Amused by her naive hick integrity, they're like Grant and Russell with Bellamy at lunch in His Girl Friday. Grilling her on her life goals (she wants three kids and a home in the country, all within five years, or bust), she doesn't even recognize they're kidding her along. Holm gets to seem cosmopolitan here but then the censor steps in, presumably, and it's revealed Holm is just a plain old-fashioned girl, too.

The Tender Trap 

Holm is great, was great, before Reynolds' bossy and controlling attitude stains her disposition by contrast. Frank refuses to value her homespun malarkey but his womanizing attitude buckles like arctic summer ice when Reynolds finally falls into his arms; he's finally bigger than someone, and its beautiful to see both of them being swept along against their will, despite the icky censor-sanctified subtexts. Luckily Holm doesn't need to look far to find a man who appreciates her, she doesn't even make it out of the elevator before she's found an upgrade of her own.

Frank was now drawing the A-list stars, but nothing could prepare him for the Shirley MacLaine experience. Her garish 'party girl' make-up and a solid range of acting chops didn't preclude her playing the doormat, adopting some Vivian Blaine-shrillness as the 'party girl' who won't stop chasing Sinatra even back into his hometown (where he goes for a frigid uninterested English teacher instead) in the non-musical Some Came Running (1958). As he almost did with Holm in Trap, Sinatra marries Shirley for the wrong reason and she runs into her pimp's bullet mere hours afterwards, to save Frank's life and open him up for some more reciprocal relationships. Were any of them coming? Or just some more mothering easy Brooklyn-type broads (whom he considered himself too good for) and slumming college-grad good girl virgins (vice versa)?

Some Came Running (w/Shirley MacLaine)
Pal Joey (1957) was another musical, from the year before, another Sinatra stepping persona stone. Here he's a self-aggrandizing but small-time crooner / strip club emcee, 'mothered' by "mice." A new form of Sinatra film was cohering wherein the songs 'functioned' within a diegetic/organic context, and the babes competing for him were both hot and aggressive and he treated them with more disdain. With his method of seduction stated as: "treat a tramp like a lady and a lady like a tramp" it's natural he would get one of each to fret over: Kim Novak is the small town innocent in the chorus and Rita Hayworth a rich widow / ex-stripper. A bunch of showgirls do his laundry, serve him bagels, and so forth but since none of them get jealous we wonder if they just feel that old devil mother instinct still. If so they don't do a good job mothering: Frank looks very, very thin, wan, undernourished, especially compared with Novak, a big girl more suited to a big man, like Bill Holden with his shirt open in Picnic. 

But Frank had found his inner fire, and it gave off a heat of saloon whiskey and artistic aspiration and that old black magic. He knocks our socks off with his "Lady is a Tramp" rendition, performed for Hayworth in the empty club, and when he starts to walk away from her at the end of the films, in his iconic white raincoat and hat, you can feel an earned gravitas in his step, the dockside fog enveloping him like an admiring friend, with a dog and Novak at his side. Bogey had that same walk and a similar raincoat and fog in Casablanca, and we all know Bogey ran the original Rat Pack, which Frank had been an admiring young pup in. The apprenticeship had paid off. He'd get Bacall and the chairmanship.

Pal Joey (w/Kim Novak)

A mark of his maturity was his willingness to look foolish and asshole-ish as a character in a film rather than just being self-effacing. In one of the Joey songs, "My Funny Valentine," Novak sings of his less-than-Greek figure and unsmart dialogue, so we finally knew who that song was about! For "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," Hayworth refers to him a "half-pint imitation." Each song is a smoldering high in the film, each asking the eternal Frank question: why is it that this half-pint imitation-- skinny, arrogant, class climbing so-and-so can still deliver the sexual smolder in spades? It's a testament to all three performers that we can feel their rapture so keenly. As Stephanie Zacharek recently wrote about Baz Lurhman's Gatsby, there's a difference between a faker and a phony. And Frank can submit his faker balloon persona to enough withering epiphanies and humiliations to bring down ten Gatsby gondolas, and still be floating over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Pal Joey (w/Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak)
By 1960, due no doubt to all this good bad behavior (and advanced age), his mother instinct stigma had receded even farther, to the occasional needy ex-one night stand cum-stalker or the occasional Rat Pack rib, while in the foreground the McLaine broad types, the slumming socialite types, and the homey types were coalescing into one perfect package, such as Angie Dickinson in 1960's Ocean's Eleven. An ironic mention of the old mother instinct is found in a snatch of dialogue between Dean Martin and Dickinson upon their meeting up:
DM - What made you come back? I've come to the conclusion it must be love. Mother love
AG: I'll consider many things: mistress, plaything, toy for a night, but I refuse to be a mother, that's out.
DM - Don't get me wrong, I'm the mother....
Ocean's 11 (Angie Dickinson)

Then there was one final mother: Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). This one comes in like a relapse, understandable since Frank's character is in the process of becoming unglued as a result of nightmares and PTSD. Hardly a matron or a broad, Leigh follows him out of the train's bar car after she notices him shaking and glazed with sweat, unable to make eye contact. She gives him a cigarette because his hands are too shaky to light his own, gives him her address and phone number, presuming a man in his DT-esque condition will effortlessly remember both. He finally calls her but it's to pick him up from jail, and in the cab home she announces she's already broken off her engagement before even getting the call, because, why? Because this sweaty, shaky, twitchy, nervous wreck in a uniform is such a catch?

Manchurian Candidate, The (w/ Janet Leigh)
In the car she says she's an orphan, and a reincarnated Chinese laborer (an eerie prefiguring of Mrs. Iselin's Asian connections). Is she a spy, or is the mothering instinct here gone so rogue it's red? Like a cool hottie reflection across the Central Park pond of evil scheming matron Angela Lansbury, Leigh's character is sexy and smart, but her love is so total and so unearned its unnerving. Clearly it's meant to be, as this movie's a paranoid nightmare down to its last cigarette. At least, by the end of the film Frank finally looks great, sober, and secure. The sweat glean is gone, the uniform is pressed, and he's not skinny anymore. He's once more ready to evolve.

Then, JFK died. It traumatized Sinatra deeply and brought an immediate end to all innocence (and shelved the CANDIDATE for years).

Mother instincts were out, for keeps.

Do I have a purpose here, in following this 'mother instinct' thread? Maybe just that-- as a recovering alcoholic ex-rock band bassist/singer, ex-husband--I've had my own 'troubles' with mothering co-dependent women. I've been fought over like a chew toy and then discarded; I've had bad luck finding the middle ground between being ignored and suffocated in a relationship. I've tried to escape and failed; I've stared out hotel windows at dawn onto small town main streets with a bourbon in my hand and unopened Steinbeck on the bed.... not even trying to be legendary, just trying to not shake and sweat, tuning in the TV and feeling lucky to find Artists and Models. Have I suffered for Frank's sins? Is the whole mother instinct thing and Frank's efforts to be rid of it underwriting the boozy misogyny that coursed through his Rat Pack schtick, which in turn infected generations of men like me?

Pal Joey (w/Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak)

Frank would know--he was always more intellectual and caring than he let on--but he's flown off to the next marquee. Hopefully in the next life he won't have to spend a whole first half of a film career escaping, and then submitting to, the tender trap, and then maybe those of us who follow after him won't confuse maturity with womanizing, won't end up settling for the one apron string that ties us up faster than the rest just so we can spend the rest our stage time hacking at it, bemoaning our leash like the courageous dog who's a coward off it. It's not fate, baby, it's not fate, it's just men trying to figure out how the hell they wound up in your bed, again. Once they figure it out, they're gone. They'll call you, baby, but don't let them call you a mother.

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