- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

As an unabashed admirer of Frank Sinatra's music, I would like to be able to say I love the new six-CD box set "Sinatra in Hollywood" and that it's worth every penny of the $119 list price being asked by Rhino Records. But I can't.

The only people liable to spend that kind of money are ardent collectors who would buy the Hoboken telephone directory if Frank set it to music. I'm that kind of collector to my knowledge, I own every studio recording he ever made but I found the set disappointing. Chances are, you will, too, if you're a certified Frankophile.

First, a disclaimer. I consider Frank Sinatra the greatest singer of popular songs this nation has ever produced. His voice, his interpretations, his ability to capture nearly every human emotion in his music these are rare and beautiful qualities whose effect has not been diminished by time or even by his death in May 1998.

Yet it is important to know that Mr. Sinatra, like any artist, turned out his share of dreck; in other words, his judgment was not infallible. When it came to making movies, his modus operandi was significantly different from when he was in the recording studio. In fact, the contrast was startling.

When the studio microphone in front of him said Columbia, Capitol or Reprise, Mr. Sinatra would do a song countless times, if necessary, to get it right. This painstaking procedure resulted in perhaps 20 of the finest thematic albums in creation, from the wildly uninhibited "Come Dance With Me" to the agonizingly sorrowful "Only the Lonely."

On-screen, however, Mr. Sinatra was known as "Charlie One-Take" for his often careless method of working. During the period from 1940 to 1964, when he was making films, Mr. Sinatra always seemed to have something else to do, somewhere else to go, somebody else to see. "Sinatra in Hollywood" reflects this approach, as well as the fact that he often was forced to do mediocre material before he became "chairman of the board" and called his own shots.

The boxed set contains some superb songs, but rarely does Mr. Sinatra perform them as well as on vinyl. Because he never sang a tune exactly the same way twice, collectors may be interested in owning the film versions though many have been available for years on bootleg CDs.

Almost never do these efforts produce new magic. The exception might be "Ol' Man River" from "Till the Clouds Roll By" in 1946. It's his best version of this American classic and much more moving without seeing the lily-white suit and the pedestal with which the producers burdened him in this otherwise worthless biopic of composer Jerome Kern.

The principal attractions for collectors in any Sinatra product are previously undiscovered or unavailable tunes. "Hollywood" offers its share of these, including "The Last Call for Love" from "Ship Ahoy," "We're on Our Way" from "The [lamentable] Kissing Bandit" and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" from "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." None of the "new" songs is likely to capture and enrapture true believers, however.

Then there is the matter of Mr. Sinatra's partners on film. In "Hollywood," he sings with such superstars as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Doris Day. He also sings, if that's the word, with Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante and flat-as-a-pancake Shelley Winters.

Not even Mr. Sinatra can spin some of this dross into gold. The absolute nadir is "Siesta" from "The Kissing Bandit," in which he rues the presence of a horsefly buzzing about his beak. Other non-gems: "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg" from "Take Me out to the Ball Game," something called "Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya" from "It Happened in Brooklyn," "Pearl of the Persian Sea" from "On the Town," and "Mister Booze" from "Robin and the 7 Hoods."

Then there are the interviews and promotional spots, most of them superfluous. Why do we need to hear Mr. Sinatra accept Academy Awards for "The House I Live In" and "From Here to Eternity" on a set supposedly dedicated to music? Worst of all is a fawning 1954 interview by gossip goddess Louella Parsons, who chides Mr. Sinatra for not being a "good boy."

In fairness to the producers, the set does give us a chance to hear some great soundtracks in their entirety rather than bits and pieces. Mr. Sinatra's songs from his first two low-budget RKO productions, "Higher and Higher" and "Step Lively," are mostly wonderful, as is the belated classic "I Fall in Love Too Easily" from "Anchors Aweigh." The scores from "Pal Joey" and "High Society" are marvelous, too.

My favorite is "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin," from a World War II propaganda short called "The Road to Victory." It includes this wonderful, if dated, lyric, "We'll take a hike through Hitler's Reich and change that 'Heil' to 'Whaddya know, Joe?'" If nothing else, the song serves as a reminder of just how long Mr. Sinatra's career lasted.

You'll have to decide whether these assets justify the purchase price, which also includes a nicely done 120-page book about Mr. Sinatra's film career. Inexplicably, perhaps, he never sang on the screen after 1964, although he continued with albums, TV shows and tour dates for another 30 years.

Oddly, too, a number of the selections are not from films. About 25 numbers are outtakes songs recorded during the making of movies but not used in the final versions or alternate takes, meaning commercially released recordings of tunes done in connection with movies.

If you don't have much of Mr. Sinatra's music or are a recent convert, I would skip "Hollywood" and instead buy a batch of his classic albums from the 1950s and 1960s. You might as well hear the master at his most masterful.

Dick Heller is a sports columnist and copy editor for The Washington Times. He can be contacted at [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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