Wednesday, April 24, 2019

‘Some Came Running’ Stars Go the Distance 1958

Frank Sinatra & James Jones' realism versus MGM & Minnelli's gloss in 'Some Came Running.'

Some Came Running has a critical reputation that has run the gamut over the decades. Running was a big commercial success back in 1958, but received mixed reviews. Critics were kind to the actors and Minnelli’s magnificent finale, but not to the source material and MGM gloss.
Today’s critics, film fans, and TCM have revised this movie into the realm of an “essential” film. I always enjoy Some Came Running as a highly entertaining melodrama, with a strong cast, top-notch production values, and an intriguing look at postwar middle-class American morals, as filtered through Hollywood's studio system era. However, an essential classic? Not quite. Censorship and MGM’s “classy” gloss dilutes Some Came Running’s consideration as a classic.
Look what the Greyhound dragged in! Sinatra as the boozy ex-soldier and MacLaine as the brassy babe.

Some Came Running, James Jones' 1200 –plus page follow up to his breakthrough novel From Here to Eternity, was a critical flop, but reader curiosity made Jones’ soldier homecoming story a commercial success. Then MGM bought the behemoth, boiled it down, which was directed by stylish Vincente Minnelli. Frank Sinatra made one of Hollywood's most famous comebacks as scrappy Maggio in Eternity, and was enthused to star in another James Jones’ saga.
Sinatra's Dave and Martin's Bama in their first film scene together.

The old ‘you can’t go home again’ advice certainly proves true for Sinatra’s Dave Hirsh. The army vet rolls into town on a bus, sleeping off a drunk, though how he could catch any zzz’s with Elmer Bernstein’s bombastic opening score is beyond me. With Shirley MacLaine’s good-time Ginny tagging along, Sinatra decides to stick around Parkman, Illinois, where he proceeds to get into non-stop trouble. His partner in hi-jinks is Dean Martin’s Bama Dillert, a gambler and boozer. Not helping Dave’s homecoming is Ginny’s psycho ex-boyfriend, who won’t take no for an answer. Meanwhile, Dave’s older “respectable” brother Frank has introduced him to an academic daughter and father, Gwen and Professor French. Dave is instantly in love with her, but his bad boy baggage gets in the way, not to mention Gwen’s inhibitions. Things come to a head at Parkman’s Centennial celebration, vividly depicted by director Minnelli’s acclaimed carnival climax.
Minnelli expertly introduces the characters and their stakes in the film’s opening scenes. Mid-way, though, Running begins to stroll, dwelling too long on the cynical soldier’s romance with the respectable writing teacher. Perhaps the several drunken altercations could have been tightened up, too. The 137 minute melodrama could have easily been kept at two hours.
Shirley MacLaine got her first juicy role with 'Running' as tart with a heart Ginny Moorehead.

At first, the female stars of Some Came Running got the lioness’ share of praise. Running is recalled as Shirley MacLaine's big breakthrough and Martha Hyer's career peak. Both got Oscar nominations, so that was the take at the time. 
Shirley MacLaine, looking like Stella Dallas, confronts tasteful teacher Martha Hyer over Sinatra's soldier.

Shirley MacLaine rightly became a star in Some Came Running, after several years of getting miscast or stuck in middling material. As Ginny Moorehead, this became the Shirley MacLaine boilerplate role for many years: the tart with a heart. MacLaine is warm, charismatic, funny, and dramatic as the floozy who follows Frank’s Dave Hirsh to his hometown, and now works at a bra factory. However, the flip side of Shirley's star quality is present as well: over the top and too “on.” A decade later, MacLaine’s mugging would turn to caricature as yet another bimbo in Sweet Charity. At times, Ginny comes off like Lucy Ricardo's trashy sister! Part of this is due to the screenplay. In one scene, Ginny actually calls the library a 'li-berry.' Is anyone really that dumb? Minnelli should have dialed Shirley's shrillness down a notch, but both he and MacLaine had a tendency toward overstatement. Running set Shirley MacLaine off on a long career. While Shirley’s Ginny is great fun and touching, she’s also grating instead of ingratiating, at times.
Martha Hyer as Gwen French, the 'classy' other woman in Frank's Dave Hirsh's life.

Martha Hyer had a rather odd career. Hyer was 30 when her career finally got traction, and was often cast as the bland second lead that lost the leading man to the unique Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren. And while she wins Sinatra at the end of Some Came Running, Shirley stole the show. Somehow, Hyer got a best supporting actress Oscar nom as Gwen, the prudish college teacher who lives with her father. Even more astounding is how Hyer got a nomination over Judith Anderson and Madeleine Sherwood in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also an MGM production. Hyer always reminds me a pod person who gives slightly stilted line readings, as if she’s visiting planet Earth. To be fair, she has some of the movie’s worst lines, not to mention constantly referring to Sinatra’s character by his full name. Hyer was another actress pitched as the next Grace Kelly; let's just say that Martha Hyer was at least more talented than Tippi Hedren. The one scene where Hyer comes to life is when she and Frank get down to business and her Gwen has a hard time warming up. Totally ‘50s, all silhouettes and symbolism, with the uptight teacher letting down her hair, in every way, it is still an effective scene.
When Hyer's frigid Gwen allows Sinatra's Dave to let her hair down, it unleashes her womanly desires!

As skillful as the supporting actresses are, they’re working against the stereotypical female roles that they're given to play—and this is true of stars MacLaine and Hyer, as well. The women are typecast as whores, virgins, bitches or saints. That the actresses breathe any humanity and life into the roles is to their credit, as well as Minnelli, an empathetic woman's director of the highest order. Leora Dana bristles as Agnes, Frank Hirsh’s frustrated country club wife. As rigid as Dana is, she gives you a feel for how trapped Agnes is in her life. Betty Lou Kiem is bright and likable as Dawn, the good daughter, and not insufferable like so many ‘50s movie ingénues. Nancy Gates is genuinely touching as Frank’s secretary, Edith Barclay, who lets her guard down and goes for a romantic drive with the boss. When discovered, she’s the one who must pay. Nancy Gates had a sympathetic and sensual quality that should have led to bigger opportunities. Connie Gilchrist is a warm presence as working class local, Jane Barclay, Edith’s mother. She runs into Sinatra’s Dave at Smitty’s, the local watering hole, and Gilchrist is a breath of fresh air, as always.
Nancy Gates' secretary takes boss Arthur Kennedy out for an after work drive.

I think the male performances are the real standouts in Some Came Running, as they are more naturalistic and hold up better. This is partly because the women's roles were archetypes that are more aptly stereotypes today. The other is the way the actresses played them, when female stars' performances were still more "elevated" than their male co-stars, during the last gasp of studio era “star” acting.
After praise in several post-Eternity roles, Frank Sinatra's persona was rapidly overshadowing his acting roles, and critics began to downplay his abilities. Some non-Sinatra fans claim that he just walked through his movies. The fact that he was famous for doing one or two takes only didn't help.
Frank Sinatra at his naturalistic best, a mostly complementary contrast to Shirley MacLaine's splashy performance.

I think Frank Sinatra's terrific in Some Came Running. As Dave Kirsh, he's the prodigal son who comes back home after 16 years. Aside from a wanderer and carouser, Dave’s been a writer, a soldier, and he's now back where he started. Sinatra is a natural actor, his wry, sarcastic humor is terrific, but he's not afraid to show his tender side, either. His scenes with MacLaine’s tart are alternately sweet or volatile. Dave’s sarcasm toward his phony brother is funny, as are his bantering scenes with Dean’s Bama. Frank’s scenes with love interest Martha Hyer, as Gwen French, become increasingly tender, after his character’s initial bad boy come-ons. Aside from his famed vocals, Frank had a very distinctive and expressive speaking voice, no surprise, for a singer famed for his phrasing.
Like The Manchurian Candidate, Frank is depicted as a deep thinker who loves books, when he's not boozing or chasing broads. Sinatra always came across as street smart, so it's believable that his character is a rough and tumble writer. 
On the flip side, this is yet another movie where Sinatra is at least a decade too old for his role. Honestly, he was even long in the tooth at 38, as Private Maggio, in From Here to Eternity. But Frank's 'bad boy' rep lasted decades. So, Sinatra was 43 in Running, yet his character left boarding school before he was 18 and gone for 16 years as the film begins... Another familiar Frank trope is there's a fight scene where Sinatra is super unconvincing. He still sports the famed scrawny physique here, and the fights feel “stylized,” and it’s about as convincing as Elvis' karate moves!
Frankie's rep as a lover boy is a bit pandered to here, where he's all over Martha Hyer like white on rice. It looks worse by today's standards, but even for '58, 40-something Sinatra acting like he's never seen a woman before is a bit much.
Especially amusing is when Martha's Gwen, the frigid writing teacher who maintains she's only interested in Dave the writer, not the frisky bad boy. After reading a story that the struggling novelist had given up on, Gwen summons him and announces with a straight face: "Dave, you have a very exciting talent!" Any Sinatra fan worth their salt knows that Frank was famous for an exciting talent, other than his singing pipes. And he proceeds to apply that talent to Gwen’s own analysis paralysis!
'Some Came Running' introduces Dean Martin as a strong dramatic and comedic actor.

The real surprise was how good Dean Martin was as Bama Dillert, the seemingly sanguine gambler who never takes his hat off. Martin, one of the most laid back show biz personalities ever, is another actor easy to underrate. But Martin just about steals the show and that's saying something with MacLaine turned loose here. Martin is likeable and great with the one-liners and double takes, but he's also a bit melancholy and fatalistic. 
As the gambler who gloms on to Frank’s new guy in town, Martin is at first his genial self. But as time goes by, you realize Dillert's willful obliviousness that life is just one long party is a defense mechanism. Later, when Sinatra’s Dave decides to marry MacLaine's Ginny, Martin’s Bama lets him have it, and he's pretty harsh about it. And Dean plays those not-so-genial moments well, too.
'Kid' brother Frank Sinatra to Arthur Kennedy in 'Some Came Running.' Arthur was a year older than Frank!

Arthur Kennedy once specialized in playing sensitive guys. As he grew older, Kennedy also excelled at playing creeps. Now a character actor, he was most memorable as sleazy janitor Lucas Cross in1957’s Peyton Place. Kennedy is great here, too, as Sinatra's “older” brother, Frank Hirsh, who married well and abandoned his kid brother Dave in a boarding school. In real life, Arthur was only a year older than Frankie! Kennedy is a comic bad guy here, the sanctimonious ass who is actually a sad case. Frank Hirsh reminded me of Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. Kennedy's scenes tangling with Sinatra are alternately dramatic or offer comic relief. Still, the scene when Kennedy's restless Frank takes his secretary out for a drive captures that small town desperation well. 
Vincente Minnelli, who gets downgraded by some critics for his non-musical films, does a great job giving Some Came Running in-depth characters, dramatic situations, and some Douglas Sirk-like subtle digs at American social mores. Yet, his love of MGM gloss gets the better of him, especially with the French father/daughter characters, who are pure drivel.
The home of the phony French family, complete with kitchen/library combo, perfectly sums up intrusive MGM gloss.

The extensive location scenery in Madison, Indiana as the fictional Parkman, Illinois gives authenticity against the MGM gloss. Elmer Bernstein’s score starts sonorously, like a Bible epic, but once Running gets going, his usual trademark jazzy and bombastic style kicks in.
As someone who grew up in a middle-America small town, Some Came Running has a real feel for that life. However the duality of that authenticity versus the genteel MGM version of upper middle class life keeps Some Came Running from being a true classic. The post war era feels right, though I often forgot the movie was set just after WWII. Except for Frank’s uniform and a marquee playing Elizabeth Taylor’s 1946 Courage of Lassie, the movie feels like 1958. Still, the post war era of celebrating peace and prosperity with smoking, drinking, gambling, and hanky panky was a party that lasted a mighty long time! Frank has more fun doing all of the above with Martin’s gambler and MacLaine’s bimbo, than engaging in stilted banter with the collegiate French family—who can blame him?
Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in the brilliant Minnelli finale of 'Some Came Running.'
Watch Some Came Running for its stellar cast and James Jone’s recognizably human characters in this mid-west version of Peyton Place.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 


  1. Dean Martin stole every scene he was in - THAT's where the Supporting Actor nod should have gone!

    1. Though I thought Arthur Kennedy was great, he's played that kind of jerk before, and Dean Martin was proving what a natural actor he was!
      Cheers, and thanks for writing... Rick

  2. I just found this site, God knows how I ended up here, and found myself laughing out loud, literally, twice while reading this one review. I'll be reading a lot more here, that's for sure!

    1. Hi, Thanks, glad you're enjoying my blog. You can follow me on one of the sidebars, usually post twice a month. And there's a link at the bottom of each post where you can go to my FB movie page... where all the extra stuff goes!
      Cheers, Rick