Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Rest of Them Walked

Film: Some Came Running
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.

6 comments:

  1. "All of the characters are more than a single trait. There’s some depth here for most of them."

    I think we saw different movies. While I thought this was an okay film - neither good nor bad - my single biggest criticism of it was what I felt was the lack of dimension of most of the characters. Other than Sinatra's character, and to an extent MacLaine's, everyone else was there for one reason only. Martin was there to tempt Sinatra away. The teacher was there to be a bitch. The brother was there to be a weasel. The sister-in-law was there to be a conniver. The boyfriend from Chicago was there to show up to cause trouble when it was convenient for the plot. The niece was there for the teens to identify with after the success of Rebel Without a Cause.

    I though both Sinatra and especially MacLaine did very good jobs in their roles. I felt Martin looked like he was barely holding back from breaking out laughing in every scene he had with Sinatra, though.

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    1. I guess I found something you didn't. It's entirely possible that I was swayed into my opinion by the more than solid performances of Sinatra and MacLaine.

      Still, I think there's some depth here. Bama's reaction to his sudden medical problem is perfectly in character--it felt like a real reaction.

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  2. I watched Some Came Running last night and I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would. Even two-thirds of the way through, I was rolling my eyes a lot at how badly miscast Frank Sinatra is, and how stupid a lot of the dialogue about writing is. But I had to admit that I was really into it in the home stretch and I was still wide awake even thought it was after midnight and I really wanted to see what happened because of some of the great acting.

    Yeah, I didn't buy Sinatra as a writer. Not a bit. And a lot of the dialogue, the cynicism, the discussions about being a writer, was just cringe inducing. It wasn't all Sinatra's fault, a lot of it was the script.

    But I kept smiling and saying, "This movie ..." a lot, which is a very good sign that I'm enjoying a movie despite its faults. It has a lot going for it.

    The number one asset of this movie is Shirley MacLaine. She's wonderful. I think this might be my favorite Shirley MacLaine performance. One of the reasons I disliked Sinatra so much was the way he was so dismissive of Ginny to run after Miss French. (I liked that actress too.) Sinatra's character was a bit of a douchecanoe with both of them in a lot of scenes.

    Arthur Kennedy and his wife and his daughter were all really good. I think Some Came Running would be a classic 1950s drama if Sinatra and Kennedy had switched parts. I can totally see Kennedy as the writer and Sinatra would have been much better as the jeweler brother.

    And then there's Dean Martin, who I'm not particularly fond of, though I love Jumping Jacks and I find The Silencers to be very enjoyable despite Martin's winking at the audience a lot and that continual smug look on his face. As Bama the gambler, he's really good as a douche and a phony, and I think he fit the part very well.

    It's a bit of an eccentric film to watch, and it has a few scenes that are a little hard to watch because they are a bit tedious, but there's a lot here to enjoy, thanks to some great performances from almost everybody except Sinatra and some great direction from Minnelli.

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    1. It is an odd film in a lot of ways. I like Sinatra in it, but I'm predisposed to like Sinatra in dramatic roles in general. It ultimately feels out of balance to me. There's too much drama for such small lives, but I get the intent of it, and ultimately, I think it's a film worth seeing.

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  3. Yes, this could very easily have become super dull and with Minnelli at the helm I honestly feared the worst. But it has a surprising edge. These uninteresting people are surprisingly interesting. Minnelli got a lot out of this story.

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    1. Uninteresting people made interesting sums up exactly what I think about this. It's a little story writ larger than life.

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