The salvation of Frank Sinatra
Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/23/03
50 years ago, 'From Here to Eternity' put crooner back on career track
By MIKE BARRIS
Special to the Press
It remains, nearly a half-century later, one of the most phenomenal comebacks in the history of show business, and in the history of popular song.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Fifty years ago this month, Frank Sinatra -- a one-time crooner and movie-musical idol of the nation's young women and teens who had tumbled to has-been status -- went to work on the film "From Here to Eternity."
For his surprisingly moving portrayal of the feisty Army private Angelo Maggio, the Hoboken-born entertainer -- who did not sing in the picture -- ultimately would win the Academy Award for best supporting actor.
The achievement would restore Sinatra to the pinnacle in Hollywood and all of show business; it would transform him from song-and-dance man to serious actor.
But most of all, it would pave the way for Sinatra to remake himself from a wartime crooner, written off by just about everybody as old-fashioned and washed up, to a swinging song stylist who is still regarded as the greatest pop singer in history, even nearly five years after his death in May 1998.
"The greatest change in my life began the night they gave me the Oscar," Sinatra once said.
"It's funny about that statue -- I don't think any actor can experience something like that and not change.'
Sinatra's fall and rise had its roots in the lean years that dogged his career after World War II ended.
During the war, the spindly crooner with jug ears, bow tie and blue eyes bewitched millions of lonely women who had husbands and boyfriends in the service by offering fantasy romance via such songs as "Night and Day," "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and "These Foolish Things."
(A punctured eardrum suffered at birth kept Sinatra out of the service.)
No GI Joe
Sinatra's arranger of the day, Axel Stordahl, wrapped the singer in an acre of strings, the perfect showcase for Sinatra's slowly sung vocals -- which featured his extraordinary breath control -- and suggested slow, sensual lovemaking.
The combination of his long, seamless phrases, and his fragile appearance literally made millions of women swoon.
As the war ended and the GIs returned, women no longer needed Sinatra to provide imitation romance.
His popularity skidded. To make matters worse, Sinatra seemed to be hurting his own cause.
He blamed music publishers and record companies for his slipping record sales, saying they preferred commercial mediocrity over quality.
Irate over New York Daily Mirror columnist Lee Mortimer's continuous assaults on Sinatra's life, career and politics, the skinny singer slugged Mortimer in a club, antagonizing the press.
In yet another act of defiance, he posed for photographs with the major chieftains of America's underworld.
As if that weren't enough, the father of three alienated family-minded fans with his very public affair with screen beauty Ava Gardner, while he was still married to his wife, Nancy.
Sinatra also thumbed his nose at Hollywood, refusing to show up on time for work, refusing to do multiple takes of a shot.
"I wasn't paying enough attention to my job at the time," Sinatra recalled in a 1965 television interview with Walter Cronkite.
"I think I was tired. It's not an excuse, it's a fact. I had worked tremendously for the years preceding that period, 300 dates a year or more, and I was traveling constantly -- and I had a personal problem (Gardner)."
To add to his woes, the public's musical taste was changing: country singers like Hank Williams and belters like Frankie Laine were gaining the upper hand on the pop charts.
As if it weren't enough that his record sales had virtually died -- in spite of his condescending to make silly novelty records like "Mama Will Bark" (a duet as barking dogs with the actress Dagmar) which were in vogue at the time -- movie offers started to vanish.
The stress of overwork and the depressing turn of his personal and professional fortunes finally took its toll on Sinatra's famed vocal cords.
He was doing three shows a night at the Copacabana, one of the legendary New York nightspots, in the spring of 1950. At the same time, he was continuing to sing nightly on NBC's "Light Up Time" radio program.
"I went out to do the third show at the Copa at about half-past-two or quarter-to-three in the morning, and I went for a note, and nothing came out," Sinatra later told Arlene Francis.
"And I merely said to the audience, as best as I could (whispering), 'Good night.' "
He canceled the rest of the engagement and spent the next few months recuperating.
By 1952 he had been dropped by his talent agency, Music Corporation of America, his movie studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and his record company, Columbia.
Desperate to save his career, Sinatra refocused on Hollywood.
Role made in heaven
He believed he was born to play the part of Maggio, the tough little soldier in James Jones' novel "From Here to Eternity," which portrays Army life in Hawaii just before Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Driven by violent pride, the hard-nosed Italian-American GI would rather die than allow the brutality of the stockade to dash his spirit.
"I knew that if a picture was ever made, I was the only actor to play Private Maggio," Sinatra said.
"I knew Maggio. I went to school with him in Hoboken. I was beaten up with him. I might have been Maggio."
When Sinatra heard Columbia Pictures had optioned the book for a movie, he implored an old acquaintance, studio boss Harry Cohn, to give him the role.
By all accounts, Sinatra gave a spellbinding screen test, but Cohn -- still not convinced Sinatra was more than just a song-and-dance man -- had his mind set on the Broadway actor, Eli Wallach, as Maggio.
When scheduling problems prevented Wallach from accepting the role, Sinatra was given the part.
Helping to sway the vote in his favor were his screen test, his Italian-American background and his thin physique (he was meager compared to the well-built Wallach -- more Maggio-like).
Also helping Sinatra's cause was his fee: he cost the studio only $8,000, rather than the $150,000 a picture he had pulled down in his heyday.
Shooting on "Eternity" began in Hollywood on March 2, 1953.Sinatra was galvanized to be in the company of seasoned actors like Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Ernest Borgnine.
During shooting, Sinatra and Clift became drinking buddies and close friends.
"Monty really coached Sinatra in the part of Maggio," recalled Clift's friend, Jack Larson, the actor who played Jimmy Olsen on the "Adventures of Superman" TV series in the 1950s. "He spelled out every beat, every moment, and Sinatra was grateful."
Production on "Eternity" concluded in June 1953.
The picture opened Aug. 5, 1953 in New York. Audiences saw a scrappy little Army private named Angelo Maggio die (he is mortally injured, trying to escape the cruelty of sadistic stockade sergeant, Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine)); but they witnessed the birth of Frank Sinatra, the icon.
The film garnered rave reviews. But the most enthusiastic accolades were for Sinatra.
"He does Private Maggio like nothing he has ever done before," Time magazine said.
The New York Post rhapsodized: "(Sinatra) proves he is an actor by playing the luckless Maggio with a kind of doomed gaiety that is both real and immensely touching."
Nearly eight months later, on March 25, 1954, Sinatra sat nervously in Hollywood's Pantages Theater, site of the 26th Academy Awards ceremonies.
He had been nominated for the award for best supporting actor. But the competition was formidable: Eddie Albert (who had been nominated for "Roman Holiday"), Brandon de Wilde ("Shane"), Jack Palance ("Shane"), and Robert Strauss ("Stalag 17').
The audience cheered wildly when Mercedes McCambridge announced that the coveted Oscar would go to Sinatra. Sinatra's daughter, Nancy, seated next to him, burst into tears.
Humbly, and even shyly, Sinatra told the audience he was "deeply thrilled and very moved." He apologized for his lack of a formal thank-you speech "because this (dramatic acting) is a whole new kind of thing."
"I just want to say, however, that they're doing a lot of songs here tonight, but nobody asked me (to sing)," he quipped.
The movie took eight Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Director (Fred Zinnemann), Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), and Supporting Actors (Sinatra and Reed).
After more than five years in purgatory, Frank Sinatra was back.
He would go on to make a total of 60 movies, including acclaimed dramatic films such as "The Man With the Golden Arm" and musicals including "Pal Joey."
More importantly, with his new arranger Nelson Riddle, he would churn out a series of standard-setting singles ("I've Got the World on a String," "Young At Heart") and landmark albums ("In The Wee Small Hours," "Songs for Swingin' Lovers") for his new label, Capitol Records.
The Riddle-Sinatra sound -- much lighter than the Stordahl-Sinatra sound of the 1940s -- would become the definitive Sinatra sound, even as he continued to work with other talented arrangers.
Sinatra's travails had deepened his art. He used his genius for phrasing to expose the emotional content of a song with a grace and panache that has never been matched.
A more carefree, confident singer, he became the best-known advocate of standards, saving the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and others from obscurity, thus ensuring the preservation of the Great American Songbook.
As the years pass, he remains "The Voice," the greatest singer in the history of popular music.
And it all happened because of the comeback that began 50 years ago this month.
Mike Barris, Elberon, is a guitarist and music journalist who teaches "Perfectly Frank: An Appreciation of the Music of Frank Sinatra" at Brookdale Community College in Middletown.
THE BEST OF 1953
BEST PICTURE: "From Here to Eternity"
BEST DIRECTOR: Fred Zinnemann, "From Here to Eternity"
BEST ACTOR: William Holden, "Stalag 17"
BEST ACTRESS: Audrey Hepburn, "Roman Holiday"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Frank Sinatra, "From Here to Eternity"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Donna Reed, "From Here to Eternity"
Source: "The Complete History of Oscar"