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When Frankie Went to Hollywood
Frank Sinatra and American Male Identity
By Karen McNally
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2008 Karen McNally
All rights reserved.
The Postwar Success Story and Working-Class Alienation
"Frank Sinatra," says an agent who wishes he had Frank's account, "is just about the hottest item in show business today" ... his new success spreads like a Hoboken cargo net across almost every area of show business.
Goodman's 1955 Time magazine profile of Sinatra is a stark illustration of the star's developing class image. Essentially a comprehensive examination of the extreme successes and failures of Sinatra's career, the article's treatment of Sinatra's Hoboken background makes plain the location of his attitudes and behavior in a highly specific class identity. As Time applauds Sinatra's ability to resurrect his defunct career against all odds, the magazine's constant references to the star's urban, industrial upbringing in New Jersey tie Sinatra's story indelibly to an American working class. Sinatra's desire for the extraordinary level of success he achieves in the 1950s, and his public displays of resentment and hostility, in this way become an expression of a conspicuous working-class identity. The cover illustration with which Time accompanies the article illustrates the magazine's unease about these distinct class associations. An inset drawing of Sinatra in a pink shirt and fedora presents a familiar picture of the star, and surrounding newspaper cuttings highlight the impact of biography and commentary on Sinatra's image. In the midst of this imagery, the addition of a ravaged face resembling Dorian Gray's painting indicates a clear discomfort with the working-class male identity Sinatra presents.
The changes that occur around Sinatra's working-class identity and their illustration of shifting cultural attitudes toward class are the subject of this chapter. As ideas of the average American male alter from World War II to the 1950s, Sinatra's working-class image exposes the extent to which issues of class alienation and disenfranchisement are concealed in a postwar culture stressing the elimination of class barriers. The abundance of sociological texts and films of the 1950s focusing on the white-collar, middle management suburban husband highlights the cultural dominance of this definition of the American male. Equally, the concerns expressed in these texts with regard to a lack of ambition and a desire for conformity reveal the anxieties surrounding middle-class masculinity.
In the context of the prominence of the middle-class male, Sinatra's image introduces an alternative male identity into discussions of postwar American masculinity. Sinatra's class persona is established during World War II, when commentators reveal the ways in which working-class audiences engage with the star for the possibility he promises of career achievement. Sinatra's screen persona maintains this link with the working-class and ethnic identity that typifies the American male in 1940s Hollywood. The highs and lows of Sinatra's career impact substantially on the class element of his image. As postwar culture draws close connections between professional success and the middle class, Sinatra's highly public career slide challenges the certainty of upward mobility. Similarly, the level of success achieved by Sinatra following this decline, and the sense of resentment and nonconformity that circulates around him, makes his star image problematic. In the light of press portrayals of Sinatra, Herbert Gans's identification of his appeal for the working class of Boston's West End, where he was regarded as a "quasi–West Ender," indicates the potency of Sinatra's working-class persona by the late 1950s.
Sinatra's screen image works further to consolidate this class identity. In the 1950s, Hollywood increasingly focused on the middle-class American male's anxiety-fueled attempts to combine contented suburban family living with a manageable level of professional success and with expressions of individuality in a conformist environment. Sinatra's screen characters, however, invariably derive from an urban, blue-collar background, his medical student in Not as a Stranger providing his single middle-class role. Through these characters, Sinatra presents an alternative version of the postwar American male to the dominant middleclass model. In Young at Heart and The Man with the Golden Arm, Sinatra challenges assertions of postwar prosperity and social advancement, highlighting a sense of working-class alienation. At the same time, Sinatra's characters forcefully demonstrate distinct values that contest the ascendance of the middle-class male.
"Just a Kid from Hoboken Who Got the Breaks": The Cinderella Myth and the 1940s Everyman
During an interview in 1977, Sinatra discussed his rise to fame during World War II and observed, "I always felt that I was, in their minds, one of the kids from the neighborhood who grew up and became a success." Sinatra's identification of his symbolic value as a working-class success story is confirmed by the conclusions of several commentators who sought to explain his extraordinary early popularity. Following his employment as vocalist with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, Sinatra's solo performances at New York's Paramount Theater in December 1942/January 1943 and October 1944 were notable for bearing witness to the uniquely enthusiastic reaction of Sinatra's audience, which consisted largely of teenage girls, nicknamed "the bobbysoxers." By 1944, Sinatra's popularity was such that disturbances arose outside the theater when thousands of girls were unable to gain entry, provoking what came to be known as the Columbus Day Riots. One of those who attended this second round of performances was the editor of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven. The attention paid to Sinatra by this weighty journalist, normally concerned with the country's economic and political affairs, suggested that Sinatra's popularity held a cultural significance, which Bliven concluded was in part related to class: "Although I am told that devotion to The Voice is found in all classes of society, nearly all of the bobbysocksers whom I saw at the Paramount gave every appearance of being children of the poor ... he represents a dream of what they themselves might conceivably do or become. He earns a million a year, and yet he talks their language; he is just a kid from Hoboken who got the breaks." Bliven noted Sinatra's self-presentation as an ordinary American male and identified his particular appeal among the working class as a representation of the possibility of upward mobility. A series of articles by E. J. Kahn Jr. in The New Yorker made similar attempts to understand what Kahn termed the "social phenomenon" of Sinatra. Like Bliven, Kahn detected a central class element to Sinatra's image: "In public statements, he likes to describe himself as 'just a kid from Hoboken' and to imply that if a poor boy from a place like Hoboken can do as well as he has done in so short a time, this is indeed a land of hope and promise. His triumph has been as splendid as Cinderella's, and the storybook quality of his life is probably the basis of much of the appeal he has for young citizens who have never known anything even approximating success or prosperity." In what becomes a trend of feminizing imagery, Kahn recognizes the mythology already being created around Sinatra as the subject of a 1940s rags to riches fairy tale. Sinatra's references to his urban, industrial New Jersey background establish a precedent for the ways in which he would continuously be associated with a working-class identity constructed as part of his star biography and developed through commentary and his screen persona.
The positive presentation and reception of Sinatra as a working-class male occurs in the context of the prominence of the "ordinary" American in the 1940s. One of the legacies of the Great Depression was that poverty, unemployment, and blue-collar work were viewed as the average American experience. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies, designed to assist the plight of "the forgotten man," and the documentary and arts projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) highlighted working-class identity in the lean years of the 1930s. This promotion of the working-class white male continued into the 1940s, and in 1942 FDR's vice president, Henry Wallace, gave a speech declaring the twentieth century the "Century of the Common Man." This came as a response to publishing magnate Henry Luce's "American Century" editorial in 1941, which had promoted private enterprise and economic freedom in preference to social reform. When Sinatra actively campaigned in 1944 for FDR's reelection for a historic third term, he drew on this class imagery surrounding both the president and himself, telling audiences: "The thing I like about the President, he's pretty fond of the little man. Well, I'm one, even with all of my good fortune."
Hollywood cinema reflected this pride in the working man, most notably in the films of Frank Capra, which idealized the "Everyman" character portrayed several times by Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. In Stewart's challenge to political corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and his struggle against unfeeling capitalism in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and in Cooper's cynical abuse by a politicized media in Meet John Doe (1941), Capra reveres the smalltown, high-school-educated laborer or clerk as the embodiment of America's independent spirit. World War II combat films also celebrated the working-class male in positive representations of servicemen. Documentaries by Hollywood directors such as John Huston (The Battle of San Pietro, 1944), William Wyler (Memphis Belle, 1944) and John Ford (The Battle of Midway, 1942) paid tribute to the contribution of ordinary soldiers. Feature films such as Destination Tokyo (1943) and Battleground (1949) foregrounded the working class, often immigrant male (immigrant usually implying working class) as a symbol of the ordinary American's fight against fascism. Combat units were therefore filled with "GI Joes" who worked as mechanics or served in their fathers' stores in their civilian lives.
Sinatra commenced his Hollywood acting career in this atmosphere of the normalization of the working-class male identity. His initial roles at RKO were unrepresentative of the class persona Sinatra would develop through his screen career. Thomas Cripps describes Higher and Higher as "an egalitarian affair that was a jiving civilian twist on the war movie genre," pointing to the role reversal required for the butlers' ball as evidence of its liberal tone. However, in this tale of servants and their titled masters, Sinatra is, in part, connected to the upstairs class, playing singing neighbor "Frank Sinatra," who employs household staff. In Step Lively (1944), a remake of the 1938 Marx Brothers comedy Room Service, Sinatra's role again combines the loose class definition of the artist with upper-class associations, as he plays an aspiring singer and playwright who is also the nephew of a judge. At MGM, however, the class persona identified by Bliven and Kahn as a contributing factor to Sinatra's appeal as a singer begins to develop on screen. Sinatra's serviceman and veteran roles, in particular, connect with the working-class male identity made average by 1940s American culture. In Anchors Aweigh (1945), Sinatra plays U.S. naval man Clarence Doolittle, nicknamed "Brooklyn" after the New York district of which he is a native. As another sailor on shore leave in On the Town, Sinatra hails from the small town of Peoria and in It Happened in Brooklyn, he returns as an army veteran to his urban home. In a multitude of 1940s films, Brooklyn becomes synonymous with the idea of an urban, working-class, and often immigrant environment. The Danny Kaye comedy The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and the family melodrama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) are among numerous films that use the New York district as a byword for a standard urban American community. When Sinatra's characters display traits that problematically distinguish them from the regular male identity Brooklyn represents, the narratives become involved in resolving such deviancies. In Anchors Aweigh, Clarence's fear of women is disbelieved by Gene Kelly's navy "wolf" Joe Brady, who argues, "After all, you're no yokel. You're from Brooklyn!" Clarence's explanation is that "even in Brooklyn, things can go wrong," and the remainder of the film works toward reconstructing Clarence's male identity to fit the romantically confident urban image. In the same way, in It Happened in Brooklyn, various characters attest to the sociable confidence of the community's men, a trait that Sinatra's Danny Miller initially fails to display. His retiring nature is, once again, discarded through the course of the film, and Miller is restored to a working-class masculine norm. Sinatra's association with Hollywood's standardization of the Brooklyn male illustrates the positive class identity established as part of his star image in the 1940s. As Sinatra's image develops in the 1950s and cultural attitudes to male class identity alter, his working-class persona becomes more complex, illuminating the postwar cultural dominance of the professionally successful suburban husband and defining an alternative version of the American male.
"Sinatra Is All Washed Up": Upward Mobility and Career Failure
From the end of World War II, America began experiencing an economic boom that reached its peak in the 1950s and had a substantial effect on perceptions of American identity. Technological advances, new electronics industries, a postwar population growth, and a growing demand for new consumer goods all led to an expanding economy and increased prosperity. The growth in service industries that had occurred since the early part of the twentieth century continued apace, until by 1956 there were more white-collar professionals than manual workers. The subsidy of veterans' education through the GI Bill combined with these factors to indicate a trend of upward mobility, and the increased prosperity and change in professional status enjoyed by many Americans during this period of economic growth created an expanding middle class. The middle-class male was now defined by a middle-management level of white-collar success and a married life in suburbia, where the evidence of his success could be displayed. When William J. Levitt created a housing development in Long Island, his appearance on the cover of Time on July 3, 1950, illustrated the importance of lifestyle to the middle-class image, as the headline read: "House Builder Levitt: For Sale: A New Way of Life." The suburban home, complete with television set and car parked in the driveway, was an emblem of the professional male's success and upward mobility, and the growth of the suburban lifestyle shifted perceptions of the average American male from the urban working class to the middle class of suburbia.
This image of America as overwhelmingly middle class was promoted throughout U.S. culture. In 1959, Vance Packard quoted recent proclamations about the disappearance of class. A national periodical claimed America had become the "most truly classless society in history," and the director of a market-research company argued the country was becoming "one vast middle class." In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon drew on the suburban lifestyle as evidence of the opportunities for social mobility created by the capitalist system. In his "kitchen debate" with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Moscow's American National Exhibition, Nixon argued that the kind of machine-packed kitchen on display represented the prosperity and chances for professional advancement available to all American men and visible in the suburban family home. Elaine Tyler May explains: "In appliance-laden houses across the country, working-class as well as business-class breadwinners could fulfill the new American work-to-consume ethic. Home ownership would lessen class consciousness among workers, who would set their sights toward the middle-class ideal. The family home would be the place where a man could display his success through the accumulation of consumer goods." For Nixon, the suburban home symbolized America's ability in the 1950s to pull all its citizens into an idealized middle class. These assertions of a predominant class defined the average American male in clear terms as a successful, upwardly mobile figure.
The direction Sinatra's career was taking in the late 1940s and early 1950s markedly differentiates him from this male model and the atmosphere of optimistic postwar prosperity in which it developed. The slump that devastated his career gave the impression that the "kid from Hoboken" was being swiftly returned to his roots. As early as 1948, Modern Television and Radio headlined an article with the question "Is Sinatra Finished?" The article, by Metronome coeditor Barry Ulanov, discussed rumors alleging "Sinatra is all washed up!" and "'The Voice' is now just 'The Gargle.'" Detailing the political affiliations, gangster connections, extramarital affairs, and poor recording and film choices that had contributed to these rumors, Ulanov nevertheless concluded that Sinatra's career misfortune was temporary. His optimism was misplaced, however, and Sinatra's dual career as a singer and actor would continue to collapse.
Excerpted from When Frankie Went to Hollywood by Karen McNally. Copyright © 2008 Karen McNally. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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