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Both Sides Now: The Duality of Sinatra, Small Towns, and “Some Came Running”

Tribeca Film Festival’s centenary celebration of Sinatra includes Minnelli’s melodrama that dramatizes a split in the actor’s persona.
This year's Tribeca Film Festival is paying a special tribute to Frank Sinatra, with Sinatra at 100: Film & Music, a centennial celebration honoring his film career. As part of the event, there will be an April 21 screening of On The Town (1949) with High Society (1956) and Some Came Running (1958) being shown April 24. Among the three films, the 1958 feature, one of the greatest of all American movies, is of particular interest, especially when it comes to the dual nature of Sinatra the man, the actor, the screen persona, and the very films that frequently drew his talent.
As a remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940), High Society depicts the humorous romantic frivolity of upper crust socialites. Some Came Running is something entirely different. This is “low society.” In Some Came Running, those on the margins, those who make up society's lower rungs, those are the more earnest, the more recognizable, and the more interesting. High Society, while also a very good film, is the epitome of escapist Hollywood sheen; Some Came Running is a glimpse into a more authentic reality. It's a split scenario that often arose with Sinatra and his films—the balance between portraying/being a relatable average Joe and the wealthy, classy gentleman. It's also a crucial theme that runs throughout this Vincente Minnelli classic.
Director Vincente Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, and Frank Sinatra
Some Came Running was one of the final 10 films produced by the eclectic Sol C. Siegel, who also produced High Society, and the MGM production was the third film of 1958 for the versatile and still underrated Minnelli (his first film of the year, the Best Picture-winning Gigi, also garnered him a Best Director Oscar). Shot in Cinemascope and Metrocolor, Some Came Running had the legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels manning the camera, and the film boasts a cast that includes Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, and Arthur Kennedy, the latter three all receiving Academy Award nominations. To say there was talent behind the film is an obvious understatement. But arguably the name most associated with the film today is Sinatra, who himself had one Oscar win and an additional acting nomination by this point.
That Sinatra receives the attention is understandable, for not only was he the biggest name of the time, but the crux of the film—its narrative thrust and thematic relevance—rides on his shoulders. He plays novelist Dave Hirsh, a drunken soldier put on a bus by some Army buddies in Chicago, only to awaken in his Indiana hometown of Parkman. Joining him is Ginnie Moorehead (MacLaine), some additional baggage he apparently picked up in the WindyCity. Both are a little worse for wear, and the first thing Dave does upon stepping off the bus is seek out an early morning hair of the dog. Ginnie is intent on hanging around, but unsure of his deeds the night prior, Dave is quick to send her on her way.
The news of Dave's arrival catches like wildfire, if for no other reason than he is the long lost prodigal brother of Frank (Kennedy), a prominent, upstanding member of the community who owns a jewelry store and is on the board of a neighborhood bank. Talk travels fast and the brothers, who have had no contact for 16 years, are suddenly and uncomfortably reunited. But animosity and antagonism—intentional or otherwise—instantly damper the family reunion. No matter Frank's halfhearted efforts at reconciliation, however earnest they may be, his wife, Agnes (Leora Dana), makes no secret of her distain toward Dave. As the film progresses, Frank takes personal offense from a drunken brawl between his "black sheep" brother and a Chicago hood, and Agnes, too, thinks he is disgracing the family, that he is a social humiliation. Dave's entrance into Parkman seems to be the catalyst for preexisting drama, which begins to steadily uncover any number of small town secrets, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of those only to happy to have been kept in the dark.
Still, Frank, Agnes, and others in the town can't quite get a handle on Dave. He is the "handsome rascal," as even Agnes acknowledges, yet Frank declares his secretary, whom he himself has his sights on, too nice a girl for Dave, being the "wandering brother" that he is. This conflicting view runs throughout Some Came Running and appears in much of Sinatra's work, from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) to Pal Joey (1957) and A Hole in the Head (1959). Despite character flaws and misdeeds, mischievous, sometimes even immoral behavior runs up against allure and generally inherent decency. It's also a behavior that in many ways contributed to Sinatra's legendary status in real life, as an entertainer and personality. Scandal and controversy confront the glamour of star magnetism and the perception of a fun-loving everyman.
There is something about Sinatra—in life and in film—that appeals to men and women in almost equal measure. As far as Some Came Running is concerned, his self-deprecating lack of seriousness when it comes to his writing adds to a sense of coolness and an effortless talent. He can easily impress, he just doesn't have to. Despite his early-established disrepute, Dave (via Sinatra's screen persona) instantly has our allegiance. He is polite, amicable, and charming. Given the stolid banality that envelops Frank, we also appreciate that Dave rebels against the bourgeois complacency of his brother's life. He comes on perhaps too strong with Gwen French (Hyer), a friend of the Hirsh's and a creative writing teacher, but just as she avoids his advances, she also remarks upon his sensitivity. As he steadily works on her, there's an air of desperation in his haste, and though she's reluctant at first, she partially—momentarily—succumbs. It would seem she's primarily drawn by his talent, but it's hard, in any case, to deny his charisma. His romantic insistence appears legitimate, even if "crude," as she puts it.
Women may appreciate the way Dave professes his love for Gwen, or the way he instantly cares for his niece, who represents innocence long since lost for him, but he's also a self-professed "expert on tramps." Men recognize that he can play cards and handle himself in a fight, but he also tends to be moody, especially when he's sober. On the one hand, he embodies the hard drinking, down on his luck roamer, but he's also a published novelist who tucks away Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe in his suitcase. His lack of posturing with regards to his obvious education and apparent skill leads one to surmise that he's slumming it to a degree, that he's hiding something: his personality, his intelligence, his world-weary sophistication. But then again, a man like Dave is doomed to run, to run from his past—in Chicago and elsewhere—and to run toward an uncertain future, not settling long enough to plan accordingly. As we see through the course of Some Came Running, his past catches up with him, and he catches up with his past.
When Gwen teaches about Émile Zola's interest in "depraved people" and their still existing morality, it's an oddly self-effacing commentary in terms of the film itself, and to a certain extent, it stops the film cold in its obvious relevance. But certainly her lectures about great writers and their strengths and weaknesses is apt. Ultimately, Dave represents a duality of class, decency, respectability, and romantic ambition; he personifies a struggle between vice and virtue.
In opposition and compliment to Sinatra's Dave, stalwart partner in entertainment Dean Martin, as Bama Dillert, is an unabashed outlier. He is wise to the ways of the town's affectations and those of its citizenry. He knows the score, and is quick to call others out. "You don't mince words," observes Dave. That's true, and he's in the minority. Just as the personalities of many featured in Some Came Running are marred by suppression and an adherence to polite convention, so too are their thoughts and private notions, which are never afforded an outlet for expression. "Are you suggesting—?" starts Frank at one point. "I'm saying it!" cuts in Dave. Indeed, there is a big difference between the two: acceptably proper suggestions and outright statements ride a fine line in this town.
Still, as personally straightforward as Bama is, he is also something of a contradiction: a good-natured bad influence. Like Sinatra, it's hard to resist Martin's attraction (look at his interaction with the nurse at the hospital), but he's also the one who crassly remarks, "I don't know what it is about them pigs, but they always look better at night." (And he's still likable!) In any case, there is an obvious bond between Bama/Martin and Dave/Sinatra, in this, the duo's first film together. This type of genuine actor interaction transcends screenplays and directors and takes the form of self-conscious stars informing character representation and audience appreciation. Between the two, a casual ease grows progressively more evident, from the early session of backroom poker to Dave's concern over Bama's diabetes diagnosis, a clear signal to them both about the inevitability of their physically self-destructive lifestyle.
In Bama, Dave sees one path that lies before him. "I can drink and you can write," Bama points out to Dave. So the question then becomes, which is Dave going to do? Bama is content, with no motivations or ideals aside from those he is currently and happily living. So when Dave scolds Bama for drinking even after his diagnosis, it's a personal affront, and an indication of Bama's damaging lifestyle, obvious even to Dave who has similarly been around the boozy block a time or two.
The other dual conflict for Dave has to do with Gwen and Ginnie, the two romantic and supportive poles in his life, both of whom also represent the dual nature of Dave himself. Between Gwen, on the surface the essentially decent one, and Ginnie, the superficially less reputable, Dave's decision when it comes to these women is a situation complicated under the weight of contradiction and hypocrisy. Gwen knows and enjoys Dave's work, but he is dismissive and disdainful of her analysis and her probing questions. Ginnie, however, a common floozy according to Frank, a pig according to Bama, is sweetly pathetic, and in her naivety Dave sees that he doesn’t have to try with her, that there is no intellectual contest. She loves him unabashedly, unconditionally, passionately. Though she lacks Gwen's capacity for literary analysis, she loves Dave even if she doesn’t understand him. She cares little for his accomplishments: she loves the man, not his work. This is something comparatively refreshing when compared to Gwen, who judges Dave on his perceived life and the people he likes and voices her own personal expectations for his behavior, not at all a fair evaluation on her part. However, would Ginnie ever attempt to steer Dave toward a more meaningful and productive life as Gwen does? Should she? Bama chides Dave for his eventual proposal to Ginnie. He doesn’t see the sense in the union and he anticipates the disappointment and regret that, truth be told, seems likely. Yet curiously, as often as Dave mocks Ginnie—she's too dim, he's too wise—he's also quick to defend her. It's another ambiguous incongruity arising in the relationships between the protagonists of Some Came Running.
Without any operatic or sentimental musings, Some Came Running focuses on the dramas and dreams of small town America. Gossip is part and parcel for a milieu like this, with secrets and scandalous rumors moving faster than almost anything else in the neighborhood. But don't be fooled by the high-minded morality of the town. Parkman itself is a site built on conflicting oppositions: bars and neon lights on one hand, ornate domestic dwellings on the other; country club soirees and sleazy motel rooms; paternal concern and simultaneous marital infidelity. The setting, like Dave, fluctuates between a potential life of socioeconomic prestige and comfortable domesticity and a free wheeling life of booze, broads, and illicit activity.
During the production of Some Came Running, Sinatra was often unhappy under Minnelli's direction. He apparently tore pages out of the screenplay to keep the shoot moving along and condemned the director's penchant for rehearsal. According to MacLaine, Sinatra and Martin accused Minnelli of showing more concern over background scenic elements than the actors. While there is no denying Minnelli works with a notably stylized sense of space and carefully arranged mise-en-scene, more often than not, it's at the service of the performers, giving them ample and appropriate room for movement and interaction. Minnelli was much more than just a director of musicals (though he was certainly one of the great directors of musicals), yet he managed to integrate his choreographer background into all genres and settings, as is evident here.
With Some Came Running's widescreen format, Minnelli's typically distanced camera placement and the mostly interior settings, the space around the characters is expertly utilized to accentuate their positions and their entering and exiting of the frame at the periphery. It's a contained space, but one that maintains a clear surrounding openness. While designed with the utmost visual consideration, these sequences remain relatively restrained, befitting the film's themes of emotions and actions kept in check. The full extent of Minnelli's ecstatic stylistic capabilities are only shown during the film's kaleidoscopic finale, when Parkman is primed for its centennial celebration and bustles with excitement as the carnival rolls into town. In contrast to their otherwise controlled lives, in this venue, the townsfolk let loose. It's a time and place for latent desires and threatened action to materialize. The mosaic of colors and movement build to an intense visual and narrative crescendo that dramatically escalates the tenor of the film to this point. Much of this comes from Minnelli's direction of characters and/in their environment, but it also comes back to the overarching theme of duality within the film. The chaos of this final sequence stands out primarily when seen in contrast to the relative normalcy and sedation of the rest of the film. 
While Some Came Running benefits from a number of gifted individuals in front of and behind the camera, it's easy to think of the picture as "a Frank Sinatra film." Dave Hirsh is one of several increasingly more daring characters for Sinatra, characters he deliberately sought out to broaden his acting scope and characters that, at the time, stood in ever more marked contrast to his refined identity. The film is an exposé of the conflicts between supposed manners, interpersonal morality, and dominant social mores, and the post-war tendencies toward greed and materialism. In line with many similarly critical incitements of the 1950s and the American small town underbelly, the film is largely concerned with the contradictions and hypocrisies of just such a setting. In its depiction of the repressed middle class, the film seems to be primed for clichéd melodrama. Yet it avoids the trappings of overblown emotional outbursts and unbelievably hokey scenarios.
Part of this, again, has to do with Sinatra, and the perhaps paradoxical way in which so many of his screen characterizations, and subsequently the films themselves, were able to remain grounded. Arguably, Sinatra's greatest gift in terms of screen performances, and one sees this in Some Came Running as well as anywhere, is his regular guy validity, his believability, and the poignant personal connection he creates with viewers from all walks of life. All of this despite the fact that the man behind those roles was the larger than life Frank Sinatra—a testament to his acting talent if ever there was one, and yet another duality concerning one of the greatest entertainers of all time.

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