Film history

Sinatra’s films shattered the postwar myth of the white American male

In his roles, Frank Sinatra often embodied the outsider, the man excluded from America's suburban success story.

Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday on December 12 is being celebrated with all the requisite fanfare: Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, CBS’ Sinatra 100 All-Star Grammy Concert, exhibits at the Lincoln Center and Grammy Museum, a London Palladium show and a number of book publications.

But while Sinatra was an extraordinary creative force in American popular music, his film career is often an afterthought, damned by the inconsistencies of a dual-career artist.

Yet it’s on the screen where Sinatra’s wider cultural significance lies.

If the 20th century was, as Time publisher Henry Luce termed it, “The American Century,” then Hollywood told the story of a nation reveling in its economic and cultural rise.

And if Hollywood provided the narrative, then its protagonist was the white American male, frequently depicted as a middle-class, married suburbanite.

Sinatra, in his films, explored the main tenets of this identity. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he offered a striking, alternative idea of masculinity.

Masculinity, redefined

In the 1940s, few would have thought that Frank Sinatra’s screen career would have any sort of lasting influence. Sinatra was often limited to playing implausibly naive characters in RKO and MGM musicals, and both studios attempted to suppress the potent sexuality that Sinatra had harnessed as a musician to induce hysteria among his teenaged fan base (known as bobby soxers).

But even in these musicals, we see the roots of his unconventional screen persona. While military triumph and notions of male bravery were fresh on everyone’s minds, Sinatra played sailors on shore leave whose greatest fear was the opposite sex (Anchors Aweigh and On the Town). In Take Me Out to the Ball Game, he portrayed a singing baseball player lit for audience consumption like a fully fledged glamour girl.

Sinatra’s screen image constantly challenged the period’s norms, disrupting the postwar obsession with the middle-class white male so incisively laid out in the first seasons of Mad Men. He was the antithesis of Gregory Peck’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a character who symbolized both the trappings – and trap – of the American Dream.

In truth, the country was a mix of classes, races and ethnicities, despite minorities and the poor being relegated to a cultural hinterland. Sinatra, as a high-profile Italian-American, embodied this outsider, the man excluded from America’s postwar suburban success story.

He starred in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which tested the limits of Motion Picture Production Code censorship through its groundbreaking portrayal of heroin addiction. Playing a poker-dealing junkie named Frankie Machine, Sinatra presented a darker image of America, a world of urban losers who used drugs, alcohol and emotional blackmail as a means of escape, a place where – as one character puts it – “Everybody’s a habitual something.”

America’s postwar masculine ideal was always more myth than reality, and Sinatra reminds us of this in surprising places. Take the 1954 Warner Bros musical Young at Heart. For the first 30 minutes, it’s packed with optimistic self-assurance, as Doris Day and Gig Young court one another in an idyllic Connecticut setting. But the arrival of Sinatra’s working-class musical arranger – with a name changed from something “a little more Italian” – transforms the film into a feast of noir melodrama.

Vulnerable loners on the margins

Meanwhile, Sinatra’s portrayals of postwar outsiders are often tied to the war veteran’s vulnerability. Emotionally expressive male stardom in the 1950s is frequently connected to James Dean’s teenage angst or Marlon Brando’s “Hey Stella” yell, which depicted male vulnerability through a boyish intensity.

Sinatra instead has a more mature take, conveying a world-weariness borne of the veteran’s experience. In Some Came Running (1958) he plays a war hero author who, in desperation, marries Shirley MacLaine’s sweet floozy (“I’m just tired of being lonely, that’s all”). And in The Manchurian Candidate he skillfully portrays a Korean war veteran in the midst of a breakdown.

Even Sinatra’s playboy characters were a direct challenge to the middle-class male ideal that Playboy started promoting in its first issue in 1953. While the magazine repeatedly expressed its admiration for Sinatra’s sexually liberated male lifestyle, describing him as “surely the hippest of the hip,” it balked at the kind of working-class persona Sinatra exuded in a film like Pal Joey (1957).

For Playboy, a man’s refinement was marked by his education and an understated Ivy League style, alongside ownership of “the hi-fi set in mahogany console” and “the racy little Triumph.” Sinatra’s Joey Evans, on the other hand, is an MC who trades sex with Rita Hayworth’s wealthy widow for a share in a nightclub. But Joey’s attempt at sophistication – donning a smoking jacket and monogrammed slippers – ensures he remains no more than a gigolo.

Significantly, in a nod to America’s ultimate outsiders, Sinatra didn’t hesitate to tie his films to the burning issue of the time: civil rights.

While the US Army remained segregated, Sinatra’s 1945 short The House I Live In aimed to teach racial tolerance to a younger generation. And only months after news cameras captured angry white southerners protesting the desegregation of a school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sinatra’s Kings Go Forth suggested that racism and inequality weren’t just Southern problems – they were nationwide afflictions.

So as you celebrate Sinatra’s 100th birthday by popping in Songs for Swingin’ Lovers or In the Wee Small Hours, it’s important to remember that his films and on-screen characters also form an essential part of his cultural legacy.

In peeling away the sanitized sheen of postwar, middle-class America, Sinatra largely succeeded in exposing (to borrow from Frankie Machine) a “down and dirty” side of masculinity that Hollywood largely ignored.

Karen McNally, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, London Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.