Saturday, December 12, 2015

Film Review: Higher and Higher

"Higher and Higher"  *** (out of ****)

Happy Birthday Mr. Sinatra!

Today would have marked the 100th birthday of the greatest pop vocalist of all-time, Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra. That kind of statement may be considered an exaggeration if said about any other singer but with Frank Sinatra it is considered just plain truth telling.

In celebrating Mr. Sinatra's birthday I have selected what may be considered a strange choice for honoring the birthday boy. However, there is a method to my madness. The musical chosen shows Mr. Sinatra in the beginning stages of his movie career. In "Higher and Higher" (1943) audiences got to see the beginnings of a monumental pop icon. This RKO comedy (really a "B" picture) was Mr. Sinatra's first screen appearance in a significant role.

When "Higher and Higher" was released Mr. Sinatra was not the leader of the rat pack. He was not "Mr. Las Vegas" or "the chairman of the board". All of that was a good 10-15 years off into the future. In 1943 Mr. Sinatra was a nice boy from Jersey (Hoboken to be exact). He was a clean-cut married man with children. To us old-timers he was known as "the voice" and had a legion of "bobby soxers" that followed him around. He was a big band vocalist. singing with the great Harry James and his orchestra. One of his biggest hits during this time was "All or Nothing At All". Mr. Sinatra later moved on and worked for Tommy Dorsey, where during the war years "sang the songs got us through the war", "I'll Walk Alone", "If You Are But A Dream" and "I'll Never Smile Again".

His screen persona, at this time, was that of a shy, timid kid who didn't know how to act around girls. The girls thought he had a nice voice and was "dreamy" but Mr. Sinatra just couldn't get the courage to talk to them. And he was skinny. Boy, was he skinny! The Bob Hope joke was he was so skinny even when standing in a shower the water misses him.

In his early screen roles Mr. Sinatra basically played some variation of himself. In "Higher and Higher" for example he plays a singer named Frank Sinatra. Nothing too difficult for the kid!

The plot for "Higher and Higher" comes from a Broadway play written in 1940 with the same title. The play was written by Gladys Hurlbut and Joshua Logan with a screen adaptation by Jay Dratler and Ralph Spence, who wrote several comedies including the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Cracked Nuts" (1939) as well as the Ritz Brothers comedy "The Gorilla" (1939).

Cyrus Drake (Leon Errol) is a bit of an eccentric millionaire (aren't they all?) who has discovered he is bankrupt and has 30 days to leave his home before all of his possessions are taken over by the bank. What will he do? His staff, which hasn't been paid in seven months, hatches up a plan. Mr. Drake was married at one time and had a daughter. The wife left him for another man and now she and her daughter live in Switzerland. That was 15 years ago. But, what if Mr. Drake's daughter, Pamela, returned home? She would be a debutante. And what if she married a wealthy man? That would solve all of Mr. Drake's problems and his staff would even get paid.

This kind of story recalls the type of comedies being made during the Great Depression. Stories revolving around people down on their luck hoping to strike rich or marry for money.

The staff agrees the maid, Millie (Michele Morgan), should be the one to impersonate Pamela Drake. However, she doesn't want to do it. Besides be afraid it will be discovered she is not really Mr. Drake's daughter, Millie is also in love with Mike (Jack Haley), who is Mr. Drake's valet, and the brains behind this scheme. He doesn't notice Millie but suspects Millie is in love with a crooner who lives next door, played by, you guess it, who sings lovely songs to her.

The wealthy bachelor decided upon for Millie is Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor (Victor Borge). Millie has no interest in Victor and tries to secretly make Mike fall in love with her. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra really does like Millie but she is not interested in him either. However there is another maid, Mickey (Marcy McGuire), that works for Mr. Drake, who does like Frank but he doesn't notice her.

And so "Higher and Higher" comes down to the age old movie question, what will the pretty young lady do? Will she marry for money or love? And, will any one be able to actually say how they feel to the person they care for?

What sets "Higher and Higher" apart is Frank Sinatra is in it. If Mr. Sinatra was not in it, I feel somewhat confident in saying, the American movie going public would have completely forgotten about this movie and today it would be obscure, not even released on DVD. But, with the appearance of Mr. Sinatra in it and the fact it is one of his first major roles in a movie, "Higher and Higher" becomes something of a curiosity piece. Audiences may find it fun to watch the movie so they are able to see how Mr. Sinatra started his movie career.

This makes it sound like "Higher and Higher" is a time waster. Not really. It is a light, silly diversion. It is not a great comedy or even a great musical. It has a cast comprised of, at best, really good character actors, us old-timers will recognize; Leon Erroll, Dooley Wilson, Mary Wickes, Victor Borge (who we get to see play the piano) and making his screen debute, Mel Torme (!).

The two stars of the movie are Jack Haley and Michele Morgan. Haley is going to be best remembered for his performance as the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Morgan will be better known to French audiences for the performances she gave opposite Jean Gabin including "Port of Shadows" (1939) directed by the great Marcel Carne.

Haley was not a leading man and that hurts the movie for me a little bit. It is so difficult to see why Millie would be in love with his character Mike. Haley was not an attractive man. One would think if you place Frank Sinatra in a movie, that would be the man the female characters would be fighting over. It is hard to believe a woman would rather be with Jack Haley over Frank Sinatra. And I'm a man saying this! Plus, Haley didn't really have the acting chops to carry a movie. He was a decent enough entertainer with a mildly pleasant singing voice.

What "Higher and Higher" really wants to do is showcase Mr. Sinatra. In his first scene he sings the ballad "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night". Notice how the scene is framed. As Mr. Sinatra is singing the camera pans to Millie, who is swooning. This makes the audience feel they are being witness to something "great". Look at the effect his voice has on people. You will notice this too in "Step Lively" (1944), where Mr. Sinatra gets to play a character not named Frank Sinatra. RKO really tries to "sell" Mr. Sinatra as a phenomenal breakthrough talent, while also poking a little fun at him. There are a lot of Bing Crosby (Mr. Sinatra's idol) joke comparisons.

This is done a bit too much though. At the end of the picture, usually when audiences get to see the lovers get together, the image of the two lovebirds embracing is faded out so we can see Frank Sinatra in the middle of the screen sing! You don't that. You just don't. You don't take away from your romance plot. Audiences paid to see the lovers get together. In which case, what do you think audiences paid to see the movie for? The romance or Mr. Sinatra? It is clear what RKO thinks the answer to that question is. And I am sure they were right in their decision. But, you can still over sell something.

The director of the movie, Tim Whelan, actually may be better known as a comedy writer than movie director. He worked with Harold Lloyd contributing to comedy classics such as "Safety Last" (1923) and "The Freshman" (1925) as well as the Harry Langdon comedy "The Strong Man" (1926). One would think with these kind of credentials he would have been able to put together a much funnier movie than "Higher and Higher".

"Higher and Higher" is decent enough entertainment. This was actually the first movie I ever saw Frank Sinatra in when I was growing up. I remember seeing it on American Movie Classics (when the name actually stood for something) with my grandmother. Oddly enough it has stuck with me all these years. Naturally the main reason to see the movie is for Frank Sinatra. Happy Birthday!