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A Hole in the Head

A Hole in the Head(1959)

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teaser A Hole in the Head (1959)

In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra had bounced back from personal and professional setbacks, won an Oscar®, and released some of the best music of his career. By the end of the decade, he was bigger and busier than ever, turning out two films a year and hit record after hit record. With A Hole in the Head (1959), Sinatra would close the decade on a high note. The film was a box-office success, and its theme song, "High Hopes" won an Oscar® and was one of the most popular songs of the year.

Since the film was directed by Frank Capra, and was advertised as a warm family comedy, audiences may have expected a lighthearted romp. The comedy is there, and the warmth, but there is a darker, desperate undercurrent in the film, which suits Sinatra's edgy personality. He plays Tony Manetta, a small-time promoter running a shabby hotel in Miami's South Beach neighborhood, a run-down area at the time. The widowed Tony is raising a young son (Eddie Hodges) and dreaming of creating a Disneyland-type resort. But he's about to lose his hotel because of his irresponsible ways, and his stodgy businessman brother (Edward G. Robinson) is after him to give up his freewheeling life and settle down with a respectable widow (Eleanor Parker).

A Hole in the Head was based on a Broadway play of the same name by Arnold Schulman, which had starred Paul Douglas. In the original play, the characters were Jewish, but for the film, which Schulman also scripted, they were changed to Italian, over Schulman's objections. Robinson, who was Jewish, explained the change to Leonard Spigelgass, who co-authored his autobiography: "Jews are out of fashion." That's probably too simplistic, and the fact that both Sinatra and Capra were Italian was obviously part of the reason. Still, the script retained much of the Yiddish-style humor, especially in the character of the older brother as played by Robinson.

The film gave Sinatra the opportunity to work with two men he greatly admired, Robinson and Capra, both of whom were his personal choices for the film. Sinatra's agent packaged the film as a "Sincap" production, with Sinatra getting two-thirds of the profits, and Capra one-third. It no doubt rankled Capra that he was the lesser partner and had to share the creative control with his leading man, but Sinatra was still a huge star, and Capra had not made a film in eight years. At 61, the director had to prove that he wasn't over the hill. It didn't take long for Capra to show that he still knew how to handle stars. As an actor, Sinatra was at his best on the first take, and hated to rehearse or do multiple takes. Robinson, on the other hand, liked extensive rehearsals, and got better as he went along. According to Capra's autobiography, he managed to satisfy both men by having Robinson rehearse with someone else reading Sinatra's lines, and convincing Robinson that to do so was not disrespectful to him. And Capra instructed the other actors to keep it interesting for Sinatra by improvising dialogue, while Capra kept the camera rolling.

The superb cast featured veterans Thelma Ritter as Robinson's warm-hearted wife, and Keenan Wynn as Sinatra's old friend, now a successful businessman. Carolyn Jones, who had been nominated for an Oscar® for playing a "kooky" girl in The Bachelor Party (1957), played a comic variation of that role, Sinatra's free-spirited girlfriend. Making his film debut in A Hole in the Head was 12-year old Eddie Hodges, who played Sinatra's son. Hodges had appeared in the Broadway show The Music Man (1957), and had also been a contestant on a quiz show, Name that Tune. (His partner on the quiz show was future astronaut and future Senator John Glenn.) Hodges later appeared in several other films, most notably The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and had several hit records in the early 1960s.

Some of the Miami scenes were filmed on location, and part of the fun of watching A Hole in the Head is seeing a Miami Beach very different from today's high-glitz version. The Fontainebleau Hotel, then the epitome of Miami glamour and luxury, was the setting for a few scenes. The Cardozo Hotel, now refurbished and owned by singer Gloria Estefan, was the location for the Garden of Eden, Tony's shabby hotel. Today, of course, South Beach is one of Miami's hippest neighborhoods, and Tony Manetta's impossible dream, a Florida Disneyland, is a longtime reality.

Most critics liked A Hole in the Head, and welcomed Capra's return. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "It is hard to say which is the more exciting...the picture itself, or the drama of Mr. Capra's amazing return." Crowther also had high praise for the acting. "Edward G. Robinson is superb...Eleanor Parker is touchingly responsive....But the prize goes to Mr. Sinatra, who makes the hero of this vibrant color film a softhearted, hardboiled, white-souled black sheep whom we will cherish, along with Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, as one of the great guys that Mr. Capra has escorted to the American screen." The Times picked A Hole in the Head as one of the top 10 films of the year. Peter Bogdanovich, then a critic for Frontier magazine, was one the few who disagreed, calling the film "overlong, meandering, and mawkishly sentimental." But his was a minority opinion, and A Hole in the Head was a box office success, tying for #11 for the year on Variety's list of the year's top-grossing films.

"High Hopes" not only won an Oscar®, but also had a new life as a political campaign song. Peter Lawford, one of the charter members of Sinatra's "Rat Pack," was married to John F. Kennedy's sister. In 1960, Sinatra and the rest of the Pack were active in Kennedy's presidential campaign, and with new lyrics, "High Hopes" became JFK's theme song. Schulman's original play also found new life, as a Broadway musical called Golden Rainbow (1968-69) starring Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. The show did not use the song "High Hopes," but one of the songs from the score, "I Gotta Be Me" did become a hit for Sammy Davis, Jr.

Frank Capra went on to make one more film, Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a big budget, color remake of his 1933 hit, Lady for a Day. In spite of wonderful performances by Bette Davis and an Oscar®-nominated Peter Falk, it was not a success. Capra spent years trying to get financing for various projects, but he never directed another film.

Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Arnold Schulman, based on his play
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editor: William Hornbeck
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Eddie Imazu
Music: Nelson Riddle, song "High Hopes" by James Van Heusen & Sammy Cahn
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Tony Manetta), Edward G. Robinson (Mario Manetta), Eddie Hodges (Ally Manetta), Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Rogers), Carolyn Jones (Shirl), Thelma Ritter (Sophie Manetta), Keenan Wynn (Jerry Marks), Joi Lansing (Dorine).

by Margarita Landazuri

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