Like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra is one of those pop icons whose greatness is in inverse proportion to the number of great films they actually made. Sounds like heresy, but it’s true: The Chairman of the Board appeared in only three indisputable classics — On the Town (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) — and you can count the near-classics on one clenched fist. But Warner Home Video knows there are enough devoted Frankophiles out there to turn a profit, especially since the company’s four new boxed sets include 11 new-to-DVD films. They’re pegging the release to the 10th anniversary of Sinatra’s death only because his centenary in 2015 would make us wait too long.
Ol’ Blue Eyes had three distinct phases to his filmography, corresponding to the singing career that remains his greater achievement. The initial burst of fame, when his Columbia sides made the bobby-soxers swoon and the media label him ”The Voice,” is encapsulated in FRANK SINATRA: THE EARLY YEARS, and the sad truth is there’s not a good movie among its five new-to-disc titles. There’s plenty of weirdness, though, and a sense of a young, untested performer searching for a persona. Higher and Higher (1943) is the first film to use Sinatra as an actor rather than a guest vocalist, but only just: His character’s still called ”Frank Sinatra,” as if the studio, RKO, didn’t trust their third-billed star to remember a different name. All bow tie and Adam’s apple, he sings ”I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” and causes the women to pass out. When not singing, he has no idea how to work the camera. Step Lively (1944), a threadbare musical remake of the play Room Service, casts Sinatra as a tenderhearted naïf. He plays along nicely, but the songs are still the only reason to give the movie a glance.
Jumping from RKO to MGM, Sinatra found himself pegged as a scrawny schlemiel with great pipes and no luck with girls. The silly but cute It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) pairs Frank with Kathryn Grayson and Jimmy Durante, and introduces him to a young British actor named Peter Lawford. Still, it’s hard to take the future Chairman seriously when he’s singing a love song to the Brooklyn Bridge. Of The Kissing Bandit (1948), a Technicolor costume romp with Grayson, there’s little to say except that Sinatra hated it and that the Mexican dance routine between Ann Miller, Ricardo Montalban, and Cyd Charisse is the closest the MGM musicals ever got to a three-way. Of the romantic comedy Double Dynamite (1951) there’s even less to say: Released when Frankie’s career was on the skids, it costars Jane Russell and Groucho Marx and is actively painful.
The packaging for Early Years is as skimpy as the movies: no extras, and not even chapter menus so you can skip ahead to the musical numbers. From this period also comes the boxed set The Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly Collection, collecting three previously released titles pairing the two stars: the overrated and overlong Anchors Aweigh (1945), the lesser-known but very enjoyable Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and On the Town (1949) — movie musical perfection.
It’s not until Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years that the sets finally deliver on the hype. Sinatra had won his Oscar in 1954 for Eternity (not included), and his new recording contract with Capitol was bearing mature fruit: He was about to become the reigning sound and sensibility of the Eisenhower era. The double whammy of The Tender Trap and The Man With the Golden Arm in 1955 — the year of his first long-playing 12”, the classic In the Wee Small Hours — showed that Frank could do it all. Directed by Otto Preminger, The Man With the Golden Arm bagged its star an Oscar nomination and proved without a doubt that Francis Albert Sinatra possessed the stuff of a great film actor. His performance as an inner-city heroin addict is brave and fully felt, even if the film surrounding it now feels dated. Once groundbreaking, Man now looks like the ’50s social-problem movie it always was, but Sinatra’s cold-turkey scenes are heartbreaking and Kim Novak provides tremendous support.
The Tender Trap, by contrast, is first-rate ring-a-ding ding. A zippy sex farce starring Sinatra as a ladies’ man, David Wayne as his envious buddy, and Debbie Reynolds as a girl with marriage on the brain, it should have curdled into passé hubba-hubba long ago. Instead, it plays like a charm. If you want a sense of how thoroughly Frank bestrode the decade, check him out singing the title tune with devil-may-care majesty. Some Came Running (1958) offered another fine dramatic performance, in retrospect Sinatra’s last great one. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on a James Jones novel, it’s a brooding tale of a prodigal-son WWII veteran returning to confront the hypocrisies of his Indiana hometown. Matching Frank step for impressive step are new screen pals Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, the latter Oscar-nominated and deeply touching as an adorable floozy.
Only Man, Trap, and Running get featurettes, signaling that the other two titles in the Golden Years box are lesser goods. Sinatra’s only foray into directing, None But the Brave (1965), is an earnest but stodgy pacifist drama about U.S. and Japanese soldiers stranded on an island during WWII (and why did Warner maroon English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue on the closed-caption option only?). Marriage on the Rocks (1965) is just plain bad, an unhip marital comedy that should have starred Bob Hope and Lucille Ball rather than Sinatra and Deborah Kerr.
Finally, there’s The Rat Pack Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which repackages Ocean’s Eleven (1960), 4 for Texas (1963), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), along with the new-to-disc Sergeants 3 (1962), some period promotional materials, and an unprepossessing deck of cards. (Couldn’t they have used Frank’s face for the king of clubs? Dean for the joker?) This is the era of Complacent Frankie, when he and the Pack treated movies like movable parties. To be honest, it shows. Ocean’s and the de facto sequels are fun, nostalgic artifacts, but it’s a stretch to call them classic or even very good — except for Martin, the effort’s just not there. Sergeants, a cavalry remake of Gunga Din with Sammy Davis Jr. in the old Sam Jaffe role, isn’t as racist as it sounds, but it’s still pretty weak, and the commentary track by Frank Sinatra Jr. is oddly muddled. (No, director John Sturges was not the son of director Preston Sturges.) By this point, Sinatra had his own record label (Reprise) and was still cranking out the hits. In 1965, his big one was ”It Was a Very Good Year.” On the cinematic evidence in these boxed sets, he was off by a decade. C+