Saturday, March 18, 2017
From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, Part 2
Part 1 of From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies covered vocalists who doubled as character actors - Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Mel Tormé among them. Also noted such entertainment icons as Louis Armstrong and Harry Belafonte. Did not leave much for Part 2, but here goes - starting with a host of crooners who successfully made the jump to acting in Hollywood movies. Several who started in big bands would become the top entertainment figures of the mid-20th century.
Dino did not necessarily want anyone to think he was anything but the Glenlivet-sipping host of The Dean Martin Show and/or one-liner machine entertaining an SRO audience on such records as Dino In Vegas and in The Rat Pack, but he also possessed a conscientious side; Dean took his movie roles seriously, showed up on time, prepared and ready to roll. It's a good bet that Dino never admitted to having that side as long as he lived!
Especially in Some Came Running and Rio Bravo, he demonstrates undeniable character role mojo.
Bobby Darin, among the few to sing swingin' Rat Pack-Tony Bennett-Mel Tormé style standards, then shift gears, whip out an acoustic guitar and sing gospel and folk numbers (at one point, Bobby's accompanist was none other than guitarist Roger McGuinn, soon to form The Byrds and rule the L.A. rock scene), is a favorite here at Way Too Damn Lazy Too Write A Blog.
The following clip offers a glimpse of Darin the musician and entertainer, plus an endorsement from none other than George Burns.
Bobby epitomized the concept of "all-around entertainer", as did his friend Sammy Davis Jr. Although character acting was not Darin's primary focus - delivering a show-stopping musical mix with a touch of comedy and celebrity impersonations for SRO audiences was - he has his moments as a supporting player in several movies. Most notably, Bobby co-stars in Don Siegel's Hell Is For Heroes with none other than daredevil screen icon (and big time jazz enthusiast) Steve McQueen.
Vocalist and silver screen star Doris Day, who began her career as the vocalist from Les Brown and His Band Of Reknown, remains to movies what Dionne Warwick is to 1960's pop records: both made it look easy. Her renditions of standards are frequently exceptional.
For decades the Doris Day - Rock Hudson comedies were met with snickers and snark by the hipper than thou. Seen 50 years after packing the movie palaces and neighborhood theaters, surprise - these light romantic comedies strike this writer as surprisingly fun, nicely done and entertaining, to no small degree because of the deft work of the two stars and, in key supporting roles, Comic Character Actor Hall Of Fame first ballot selection Tony Randall. Day's films with James Garner are also delightful. It should not be a surprise, given Day's abilities as an entertainer and how Hudson co-starred with heavy hitters James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant without getting overpowered or defined as a pretty boy lightweight.
Formulaic? Sure. Hollywood entertainment? Of course. That said, seeing how skillfully the cast handles the character relationships and farcical situations, the reaction is, "damn, they're good!"
Essential to Day's success as a star of movie musicals is her ability to not just belt out those songs but get into character. In Calamity Jane, she is not a singer-movie star cast in a role but essentially portraying herself; one believes she IS Calamity Jane and that's the key to the movie's success.
Further demonstrating versatility: Miss Day's role as Ruth Etting - and co-starring with the great James Cagney - in the biopic Love Me Or Leave Me.
Whatever tumult was transpiring offscreen, in a wide range of movies, Doris Day, onscreen, exemplifies the line "nice and easy does it every time."
Before Crosby, Sinatra and Doris Day starred in Hollywood movies, there was a crooner who became a headliner of movie musicals: Dick Powell. The Pittsburgh master of ceremonies and singer debuted in feature films in 1932, AFTER Bing and would, as part of a team with ever-spunky Ruby Keeler, headline musical after musical after musical for Warner Brothers, before his second career in hard-boiled film noir roles, and third career as a prolific director/producer in television.
Transitioning from chorus boy to hard-boiled gumshoe, Powell proved one of the stellar presences in film noir. He is believable, either as Philip Marlowe or the poor sap targeted by the femme fatale, in several unbeatable classic movies.
The legend of Sinatra can overwhelm everything, including his work as a character actor. His role as Maggio in From Here To Eternity, which won an Oscar for Best Actor In A Supporting Role, was just one of many examples of stellar film acting from The Voice. One imagines that Sinatra, if he cared to talk about it, would insist that music to movies was not a jump at all, that singing was the purest method acting a person could do; "you can't do the song justice, pally, without feeling what the lyrics mean and giving them your all." No doubt there were some interesting conversations between Sinatra and Brando on the set of Guys & Dolls.
The Man With The Golden Arm is fascinating. While Frank did not have issues with opiates, he knew friends, band mates and colleagues in the music world who did, and having an idea of how they suffered very likely informed this part.
The Chairman Of The Board's musical bent and skill interpreting the songs of Rodgers & Hart meets his equally strong character acting impulse for a bit of a tug of war in Pal Joey.
An adaptation of the stage show based on John O'Hara stories and starring Gene Kelly, it is on the surface a 1950's style musical in which Frank plays his ultra-macho "ring-a-ding-ding" self. As the film progresses, his character, Joey Evans, evolves - slowly - from womanizing scumbag to someone who might actually choose a partner, become emotionally involved and make the effort to do right by her. Sinatra delves into the part and, as he does many times in his movie roles, gives the character some unexpected depth. Pal Joey is one of the better showbiz flicks - and it never hurts to have the formidable star power of Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth in the cast.
Sinatra's performance in Some Come Running, in an ensemble cast with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, would be a standout.
Between tours, Frank would tackle the occasional character role thoughtfully and with the same conviction with which he sang, right up to his last starring role in the 1980 crime thriller The First Deadly Sin.
Although there were quite a few more luminaries from the music world who acted in films and television back then - Hoagy Carmichael comes to mind, as well as bandleaders who played themselves in movies (Louis Jordan of 5 Guys Named Moe fame) - the rise of rock and soul music to some degree put the kibbosh on this, especially as the 1960's progressed. Still, the trend of musicians transitioning into acting, rather prevalent in mid-20th century entertainment, would continue into the 1980's and 1990's, not surprisingly, as vocalists/lyricists from hip-hop (Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur) are experienced actors and performance artists. Many in more recent memory - Will Smith, Ice Cube, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake - deftly carried their onstage success into movies and television, in some cases as filmmakers, skilled in front of and behind of cameras. To arguably a slightly lesser degree than such crooners as Sinatra and Cole did in the 1950's, they would still profoundly influence the entertainment world, from TV shows to Broadway.