Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.
Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 today, December 12, 2015. He died at the age of 82 in 1998. For at least the last 55 years of his life, he was an iconic figure in American show business, starting out in the early 1940s as a “crooner” who sang popular tunes with big bands for audiences of wildly enthused teenage girls known as “bobby-soxers.” He starred in film musicals, but branched out in his 30s to dramatic roles (MIRACLE OF THE BELLS) and, after a career slump in the early 1950s, made a remarkable comeback in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, playing the role of Maggio, a defiant, ill-fated young soldier in the days before Pearl Harbor, and winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, launching a film career with renewed vigor that turned him into one of the biggest movie stars in the country in the 1950s and ’60s. During all this time, he made a series of best-selling record albums and cemented his reputation as one of the finest American singers of the 20th century, continually challenging himself and trying new things. His private life kept the gossip columns busy as his love life went through ups and downs and he became renowned for wild antics with a group of show biz buddies known as the Rat Pack, who hung out with him, performed with him and made movies with him. Long after he phased out his movie career, he continued making Top Ten recordings and performing live all over the country and the world.
One of the things I want to do on this blog is scan images from my movie still collection, something I was never able to do before I got a scanner late last month. While I can get screen grabs from any movie scene contained on any DVD I have, there’s an art form to the traditional movie still that’s hard to recreate via screen grab. Besides, I have many stills I want to share that are from movies I don’t have on DVD. There are different kinds of stills one can collect from the era before EPKs (Electronic Press Kits). There were black-and-white stills sent out to newspapers and magazines. These generally had no border. And then there are those that were sent out from the National Screen Service, a company set up to provide posters, lobby cards, stills, etc. to theaters for display. They had text on the bottom listing basic info about the film (title, cast, director, producer, studio), plus copyright info, plus a notice from the National Screen Service declaring the still to be its property, with the proviso that it be returned after use. (Not all of them got returned—otherwise I wouldn’t have any.)
These NSS stills used to be displayed prominently in glass cases set up around the outside areas of the theater and in the inside foyer before entering the lobby. Some theaters made lots of room for such displays, some just didn’t have the space for more than a few. I remember the stills used for such displays being predominantly black-and-white, but I must have seen some in color occasionally. I loved looking at these pictures and the accompanying posters when I passed theaters, no matter what was playing. Even when I’d just seen the movie, I was always keen to see exactly which scenes were displayed and compare them to what I remembered from just seeing the movie. I learned early on that the stills didn’t always match what was in the movie. Sometimes the stills featured scenes that weren’t in the movie at all.
I decided to open this series with a color still from MURDERERS’ ROW (1966), a secret agent spoof starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm and produced by Columbia Pictures.