Format: DVD from Somonauk Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I hear the name “Vincente Minnelli,” I think of musicals. I tend to forget about films like The Bad and the Beautiful and instead remember things like An American in Paris and the regrettable Gigi. It’s not merely his success with musicals that causes me to think of Minnelli as a musicals director. It’s that even his non-musicals that I’ve seen tend to have quite a bit in common with that genre. Take a film like Some Came Running. There’s a larger-than-life quality to this film despite the fact that the film itself is not of earth-shaking importance.
And that’s really the thing about Some Came Running. It’s a small story about small passions and people, but it plays out like a grand drama. Normally this would put the film in danger of being overblown, but somehow, this one works. Small lives writ large. It works, but not nearly as well as large lives writ large. The draw isn’t so much the drama, but the cast and the novelty of the first on-screen pairing of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra), lost in a drunken stupor, is put on a bus to Parkman, Indiana. It’s his home town, and one he hasn’t seen in 16 years. A lot has happened in those years. He’s had a military career and has been a critically successful author, which means that his books were well received and made no money. Parkman is the last place he wants to be because of a difficult relationship with his older brother, Frank (Arthur Kennedy). Frank sent Dave off to an orphanage as a child. This allowed Frank to marry up in the community; his wife Agnes (Leora Dana) inherited a jewelry store.
Dave, considering himself a failed writer and a very successful alcoholic, rolls into town with Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine), a bar floozy who has a crush on him and who is desperately attempting to get away from small-time Chicago hood Ray Lanchak (Steve Peck). Dave’s reception in town isn’t the best. He resents his brother, and Agnes resents him. Worried about his brother’s effect on his social standing, Frank starts introducing Dave around to the best families, starting with the father-daughter duo of the Frenches. Dave is instantly smitten by Gwen French (Martha Hyer), a creative writing teacher who has her own crush on Dave for his writing skill.
Dave can’t resist the allure of the gutter, though, and starts hanging around with gambler Bama Dillert (Dean Martin). He’s torn between the two worlds. On the one hand, he finds himself desperately in love with Gwen, who reciprocates only a little. On the other hand, there’s good times, successful gambling, and Ginnie, who turns out to be a hooker with a heart of gold, minus the hooker part. In addition to Gwen, Dave also begins a paternal relationship with Dawn (Betty Lou Keim), Frank’s daughter, who is just starting to rebel against her parents.
There’s more, of course. The plot is remarkably intertwined, which is one of the great successes of the script. All of the characters are more than a single trait. There’s some depth here for most of them. Agnes, for instance, despises Dave since she believes he based a character in one of his books on her. So while she reviles him in private, she is openly too nice to him. Dawn rebels not because she’s 18, but because she sees her father dallying with his assistant, Edith (Nancy Gates). While these are not titanic characters shaping the course of the world, they are real people with depth to them, and that’s what makes the film work. More importantly, it’s what makes the story worth watching. This is a dull film with one- or two-dimensional characters. With real people doing the same things, they’re suddenly worth paying attention to.
When you look at Sinatra’s acting career, it’s easy to remember his Rat Pack stuff and forget the fact that the man could act when he was given a role with teeth. Sinatra was pretty good in musicals (even musicals I don’t like that much), but he could play the hell out of a dramatic role.
The strength of this film is also its greatest weakness—it plays like such a big story despite that it’s about such a small set of lives. Played differently and with the same depth of character, it would still be interesting, but would also be pleasantly tawdry, a pleasure both on its face and for prurient reasons. Instead, it really feels at times like everyone should be singing.
Regardless, I liked this one pretty well. Shirley MacLaine gives a great performance as a dumb but pretty kid mixed up in something way over her head. But that’s kind of another problem—things get violent between Dave and Ray a couple of times, and they’re violent over Ginnie. As it turns out, she’s a nice enough kid, but she’s also the kind of a girl who is anybody’s for a few drinks and a couple of turns on the dance floor. The passions here are real, but they also feel too big for the people having them. I know that’s not specifically true—my personal triumphs and tragedies feel like grand drama to me, too. I guess what it ultimately means is that Some Came Running is brilliant because it tries to make such personal issues into grand spectacle, subversive because it works against 50 years of Hollywood tradition of only the biggest of the big stories, or sadly fake because it builds dramatic mountains out of everyday molehills.
Why to watch Some Came Running: Frank and Dino’s first collaboration.
Why not to watch: The drama is writ too large.