Vincente Minnelli’s best non-musical drama hits on a magic combination — a tough tale of small-town malaise, his patented hyper-expressive sense of visual design, and a triple-win in casting, including Frank Sinatra in his most committed performance this side of The Manchurian Candidate. Frankie may even have said Yes to a Take 2 now and then. The fireworks begin when ex-soldier, lapsed intellectual writer and self-styled gambling bum Dave Hirsh inadvertently returns to his hometown. This is also Dean Martin’s best picture, with a breakout role for Shirley MacLaine as the pathetic woman with the purse made from a stuffed toy. With Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy and the great Nancy Gates.
Some Came Running
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 137 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date November 16, 2021 / 21.99
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Leora Dana, Betty Lou Keim, Larry Gates.
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Directors: William A. Horning, Urie McCleary
Film Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by John Patrick, Arthur Sheekman from the book by James Jones
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
We open with a digression about the source quote for the title of James Jones’ book. I found it courtesy of Geraldine V. Koohtow: “Taken from St. Mark, the title refers to those who have come running to find the meaning of life, but are prevented from finding it by their obsession with materialism.” The actual St. Mark quote describes Jesus’s frustration with people rushing to him for easy solutions and miracle cures, ignoring his teaching that what they need are spirituality, prayer and fasting. At least that’s how I interpret the passage.
I suppose this is a reference to Dave Hirsh’s intellectual soul-sickness in the book. In the movie Some Came Running Hirsh’s status as a modern man of importance is established in an incredibly clumsy way. Dave Hirsh drifts about with just one bag of possessions, from which he pulls out a stack of ‘important’ books, to reveal that he’s a writer, a deep thinker. The books all look brand new, too — this is one serious bit of bad exposition. *
With that foo-paw out of the way we can proceed to enjoy Some Came Running, a big-scale soap about non-conformists in Middle America. It’s the transition movie between Frank Sinatra’s earlier film career and his later Rat Pack persona, that set the standard for the all-American boozing, swinging ring-a-ding lifestyle. Sinatra sang with authority and when motivated put a great deal of charm and feeling into his acting. While the method actors worked overtime to find the inner truth of characters, Sinatra merely behaved in a natural and relaxed way and let his audience come to him. He may be playing himself, but Sinatra’s grounded performance elevates Vincente Minnelli’s typically fussy and stylized super- soap opera.
As one of the postwar writers in search of the Great American Novel, James Jones hit both a raw nerve and pay dirt with the publishing blockbuster From Here to Eternity. His Some Came Running is an 1100-page followup charting the return of a very James Jones-ish ex-serviceman to his home town, three years after the war’s finish. The intent is clearly to tell Mr. and Mrs. America how it really is from the point of view of a directionless nonconformist with a knack for both writing and trouble.
The story has ‘TV miniseries’ written all over it. Lapsed writer Dave Hirsh (Sinatra) causes a stir when he returns to Parkman, Indiana. He immediately gravitates to another laid-back hepcat, hard drinking gambler Bama Dillert (Dean Martin). He also weathers the demands and insults of his obnoxious brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a wealthy jeweler at odds with his two-faced wife Agnes (Leora Dana). The only immediate family member that Dave cottons to is Dawn, his virginal niece (Betty Lou Keim).
Dave has serious woman problems as well. Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine) is a hopelessly awkward but adorable floozie who comes to Parkman on Dave’s bus after a long night’s drunk. Pathetically unsuited for polite society, Ginnie hangs about like a lovesick dog hoping to attract Dave’s attention.
Ginnie: “You know the only time you talk nice to me is when you’re loaded?”
Dave: “Let’s get loaded.”
Dave instead makes a play for the local schoolmarm. College English teacher Gwen French (Martha Hyer) remembers Dave’s earlier writing success and is turned on by his unpublished short story. Dave takes this as an amorous green light and is surprised when she rejects his aggressive advances. Various misunderstandings ensue: Dave is frustrated by Gwen’s frigidity. He also defends Ginnie when Bama calls her a pig. A violent resolution arrives in the form of Raymond Lanchek (Steven Peck), Ginnie’s jealous, pistol-packing old boyfriend.
Poking fun at Some Came Running is easy for those that would see its author as a narcissist nominating himself for culture hero status. Dave Hirsh’s amorous troubles come off as autobiographical self-strokes. Gwen French repels Dave’s crude come-ons, but gets hot and bothered by reading his sensitive, meaningful short story. If the story really is an autobio, James Jones had an ego that won’t quit. Dave Hirsh’s status as a literary giant is never in question. One girl is willing to die for him.
Yet we recognize the forces driving Jones’s characters, and the actors make them extremely appealing. Dave is searching for his destiny in a way that the small-minded Frank and Agnes can never understand. Gwen French tries to reshape Dave into her preconceived image of a literary lion, but he prefers a life of gambling and booze with the wrong kind of people.
This is 1948, when real men take charge of their romances. Dave sees two bunny rabbits on Gwen’s lawn. He advises the second: “Your girl went thataway, buddy.” Dave would say that his direct approach with Gwen is just an honest reaction to the signals she’s sending. When that fails, he hopes his short story will motivate her to jump into his bed.
The dysfunctional domestic situation out at Frank Hirsh’s mansion borders on parody. Some scenes play as unintentional comedy, as when Frank Hirsh and his secretary Edith (beautiful Nancy Gates) ‘innocently’ end up in a petting party at lover’s lane. But the most awkward moments center on outmoded ideas about writers as an elite class. Gwen’s father Professor French (Larry Gates) needs only one glance to determine that Dave is ‘sensitive.’ Gwen tells her class that great artists are above morality. “Good writers feel more deeply than the rest of us” she says, with a straight face. Dave Hirsh mostly expresses his sensitivity with caustic sarcasm. Brother Frank finds out that Dave isn’t married: “I guess we’ll have to find you a girl.” Dave: “Swell, tonight soon enough?”
The drifting life is given a good PR image. Dave hangs out in bars with gamblers who never go bust and loose women that stay cute and funny when they’re drunk. Drugs, vagrancy, organized crime and corruption have no place among Dave’s sordid companions. Consuming vast quantities of alcohol apparently has no ill effect on anyone; hard liquor is a constant. Yet the sinner and nonconformist Dave Hirsh is the most upstanding person around. Those that point to his amoral lifestyle merely reveal their own hypocrisy.
When the teenaged Dawn runs away with a salesman Uncle Dave is the one to provide paternal support and guidance: “Dawn honey, bummin’ around can only make you a bum.” The look on Agnes’s face when Frank says “You married me, not my brother,” makes us wonder if Dawn could actually be Dave’s daughter. That’s the kind of construction that convinces me that Some Came Running is at heart a soap opera.
Some Came Running may be a high point in the career of Martha Hyer. She had the beauty and the talent but never caught the brass ring despite landing many promising parts. She’s even great as a drunken mess in Arthur Penn’s The Chase. Her Gwen French gets a bad rap for treating poor Dave Hirsh so poorly. The film brands her as an intolerant prude for being wary of a man who drinks, gambles, runs around with trollops and gets arrested for knife fights. I mean, what’s her problem, anyway?
Having proven his acting ability in pix like The Man With the Golden Arm Sinatra goes for a more laid-back approach. He’s extremely smooth and polished here and seems engaged at all times — he hasn’t yet descended into the one-take-and-don’t-bother-me sloth of his Rat Pack persona.
In this picture Dean Martin finally broke the mold of his previous association with Jerry Lewis. His soldier in The Young Lions isn’t all that impressive but Bama Dillard is an original, an unregenerate and self-centered boor who hides behind a handsome face and slick manner. French critics already gaga over director Minnelli’s coded designs and MetroColor stylization, loved Martin’s portrayal of a loner who thinks he doesn’t need other people. Bama doesn’t explain himself to anybody, he just is. That includes his habit of never taking off his hat, a character quirk that Jean-Luc Godard took as cinematic genius.
The film’s big winner is Shirley MacLaine, whose indomitable pixie Ginnie Moorehead gives the show a heart. Ginnie’s infantile innocence is expressed in her awful clothing choices, topped by a pitifully ragged plush toy purse that looks like a dead Snoopy dog. Possibly inspired by Giulietta Masina’s hapless prostitute in Nights of Cabiria, Ginnie might as well be wearing a big sign that reads ‘abuse me.’ When plastered, she makes a spectacle of herself singing with a nightclub band. Dave patronizes Ginnie mercilessly until he makes a sudden major decision to respect her as a person and accept her love. Who needs to understand life to live it fully? What’s wrong with Ginny’s unconditional devotion? We’re so happy to see Dave treat Ginnie seriously, we don’t worry that their relationship might last no longer than his next mood swing.
Note: I realize that the book has a completely opposite conclusion. James Jones seemingly needed to make his alter ego Dave Hirsh become a martyr as well. Sinatra leveraged his clout to insist that Dave and Ginnie swap places for the final scenes. What career-conscious star wants to give the final, teary-eyed close-ups to someone else?
Elmer Bernstein’s growling, dynamic underscore opens Some Came Running with the assurance that something heavy will go down, a promise kept by the bombastic (for 1958) finale. Out of nowhere, a minor character suddenly invades Parkman’s carnival of life with a bottle of booze and an itchy trigger finger, igniting one of Vincente Minnelli’s most praised sequences. The visuals lurch into visual high gear with blasts of primary color and camera choreography worthy of the director’s MGM musicals of a few years earlier. The violent episode works best on a big screen, where the first flash of wall-to-wall crimson shocks us free of the film’s relaxed pace. And the set-piece works — it’s as if an ‘Engine of Fate’ has kicked in and can’t be stopped until blood is spilled. If one wishes to make a case for Vincente Minnelli’s cinema-architecture ideas about design creating drama, a decent argument is right here.
* Frank Sinatra has a superficially similar ‘stack of books’ scene in Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, which seemingly relates to his character’s status as a victim of brainwashing. Is there a David Hirsh connection I’m not seeing?
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Some Came Running is a very happy surprise. I’ve been watching this show since the low-resolution laserdisc days when one had difficulty reading facial expressions in the many wide shots. This knockout new Blu-ray blows away even the recent hi-def but compressed cablecasts on TCM. William Daniels’ images are especially sharp and crisp, with strong contrasts both light-dark and between colors. The garish color effects at the end are distinct and punchy — all that glowing red no longer turns into video mush, as it once did. On HD Blu-ray, the show has regained its visual proportions. It reminds me of seeing it for the first time back at UCLA. (We don’t do screen grabs for WAC discs; the ragged images seen here in no way reflect the Blu-ray’s fine encoding.)
It is a very pretty movie. MGM was all but closing up its in-house production system but the success of Gigi and Frank Sinatra’s clout enabled Vincente Minnelli to film on distant locations, something he was denied back on Brigadoon. The Indiana locales blend nicely with interiors filmed back at the studio. When Gwen invites Dave to take a stroll on the grounds of her family estate there was always an unintentional laugh. Her beautiful garden view overlooks a forest and a river, and perfectly frames a set of factory smokestacks!
The extras are repeats of what was on the 2008 DVD. The original MGM trailer emphasizes the From Here to Eternity connection. A video featurette The Story of Some Came Running is flashy but superficial. Several experts and pundits switch from dimestore 1950s sociology to an okay analysis of the on-set chemistry between the film’s big stars.
But the featurette is buried under glitzy graphic eye candy — animated stills and manipulated scenes from the movie that become an irritating distraction. It plays like an audition reel for a graphics artist. Perhaps the prevailing style has changed with Criterion’s example of plain and simple cuts between photos and talking heads. With so much informational overkill and glitz out there Plain and Direct now denotes honesty, and is less of a headache.
Too bad the WAC couldn’t pinch a Turner Classic Movies filler featurette produced years ago, a video piece on a revisit to the town where Some Came Running was filmed. Locals came on camera to recall being dazzled by the stars. Some of them got to play extras. It’s very nice.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some Came Running
Supplements: Featurette, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Sam Hamm on Some Came Running: