Frank Sinatra: How Frankie Came to Hollywood
Decades before Sting and Madonna made the leap from music to movies, Frank Sinatra did it, and he did it better than anyone else before (and, arguably, after) him -- he even walked away with an Oscar. Here's the long, hard path he took to win big-screen glory.
When Frank Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82, he was hailed by the world press as the 20th century's greatest entertainer, "The Voice" whose legend had dominated pop and nightclub singing for six decades. His Hollywood career was duly noted, but his presence in music so overshadowed everything else he did that his accomplishments on the big screen were given short shrift. In reality, few movie careers lasted as long or soared as high as Frank Sinatra's. Over a period of 40 years, he made a remarkable number of outstanding movies and won an Oscar for one of them. He costarred with everyone from Gene Kelly to Grace Kelly. As with his music career, though, Sinatra's longevity in movies was not a matter of serendipity. He was willful and deliberate, and his Hollywood strategy involved everything from glamorous affairs to (if rumors are to be believed) Mafia muscle. The young singer from Hoboken, New Jersey, who, as part of the famous Tommy Dorsey Band, sent teen girls into frenzies in the early '40s, was blessed with more than a great set of pipes. Though gangly and not conventionally handsome, he had a sex-charged charisma so potent the press dubbed its effect "Sinatramania." But Sinatra knew he wanted to be more than just another "band singer" and he knew that, ultimately, the movies were the medium that could make him that big star he wanted to be.
One of the most clever decisions Sinatra made as he plotted his Hollywood campaign was what not to do. He refused to cash in on his heartthrob singing image and rejected the idea of big-buck swoony romances. Instead, he took it slowly, knocking out a couple of low-profile musicals in which he sang uncredited with the Dorsey band and said not a word. Las Vegas Nights in 1941 and Ship Ahoy in 1942 functioned largely as screen tests, demonstrations that the camera liked him. In 1943, he once again merely sang--Cole Porter's "Night and Day"--but this time in a movie promoted as "The First Film Starring Frank Sinatra." The modest wartime musical Reveille With Beverly put him alongside the most popular crooner of the day, Bing Crosby. That led RKO Studios to summon him west to shoot another movie that would inaugurate a nonexclusive multipicture contract. Never one to miss a publicity opportunity, Sinatra had his promoters alert fans in advance of his arrival at the Pasadena Station in 1943, and the melee that resulted was dutifully reported by the very newspapers movie studios bosses monitored for signs of The Next Big Thing.
Sinatra kept things simple at RKO, again playing himself in the lightweight romantic comedy Higher and Higher, then taking on the role of a young singer in Step Lively. The fast, easy B-movies did the trick--Sinatra's record sales boomed and attendance at his personal appearances swelled. Had Sinatra's goal been merely to use Hollywood to enhance his singing career, he would have coasted along this way for years. He had different ideas. First he got himself out of his $100-a-week contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey. (Though he always maintained that his legal team managed the feat, it was famously rumored that mobsters personally "persuaded" the bandleader.) Second, he pulled out of his deal with RKO. Louis B. Mayer, the mighty head of MGM--which had an unmatched roster of gilt-edged stars like Clark Gable, Lana Turner and Gene Kelly--had tempted him with a five-year contract, and Sinatra knew if he was going to make a name for himself in the film racket, he was going to need the A-level budgets, directors and costars that RKO could never provide.
MGM was canny at zeroing in on a potential star's essential appeal, then grooming and promoting it. With Sinatra they decided to play on his contradictions. He was shy, but a ladies' man. He was arrogant, yet insecure. He was happy-go-lucky, but also prone to melancholy. With the late '40s musicals Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town, MGM successfully presented him as likable but naive. But MGM and Sinatra fumbled badly when he was shoved front and center in a lead role in the Western musical The Kissing Bandit. Sinatra was growing frustrated with the movie business--it was taking longer than he realized to make it to the level that interested him. When he mouthed off to a reporter that "Most pictures stink and the people in them, too," and said he was thinking of quitting, his relationship with MGM soured. Sinatra had come to see himself as an actor who could be taken seriously; Mayer saw him as a troublemaker who flouted his authority, baited the press, brawled in nightclubs and refused to do retakes.
During his MGM years, Sinatra remained married to Nancy Barbato, whom he'd wed in 1939, but he couldn't help but notice that few things boost a career higher than a strategic relationship with a red-hot star. He'd had a series of extracurricular affairs, most notably with reigning sex symbol Lana Turner. When he embarked on a highly-publicized affair with the extraordinary-looking Ava Gardner, things were more emotionally charged. Gardner was as freewheeling as any woman who ever hit Hollywood, and she had men falling at her feet. She was also free-speaking, and she boosted Sinatra's lover-boy image by famously boasting, "Frankie only weighs 120, but 100 pounds is cock." MGM, which prided itself on its wholesome image, grew more disenchanted with Sinatra and finally let him go.
Sinatra's relationship with Gardner, whom he proceeded to marry, marked both a perilous downward spiral in his career and a new, more successful phase. Studio press releases had announced that Sinatra was being let out of his contract to pursue TV in New York, but the 1950 debut of TV's "The Frank Sinatra Show" on CBS met delay after delay, then disappeared fast. Nothing was going well: his screen comedy Double Dynamite was tanking; he was suffering from severe throat problems; his marriage to Gardner, whose career was soaring as his slipped, grew increasingly troubled. He signed a deal with Universal in 1952, but nobody much cared for Meet Danny Wilson, in which he was cast all too believably as a foul-tempered singer. The studio let him go. Then, in a stunning domino effect, his agency dropped him and Columbia, the record company for which he'd been making hits for a decade, bounced him, too.
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