Higher and Higher
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1943 was a very good year in the career of Frank Sinatra. It was the year he became a true phenomenon, the first teen idol in American music history. And it was also the year he appeared in his first starring role in a film - Higher and Higher (1943) - playing a very close facsimile of himself, a rich kid named Frankie who sings. Prior to this, he had appeared in musical cameos in Las Vegas Nights (1941), Ship Ahoy (1942), and Reveille With Beverly (1943) but Higher and Higher was the breakthrough role that launched his screen career.
Sinatra, a former singer with Tommy Dorsey's band, had gone solo in 1943 with an appearance with Benny Goodman at New York's Paramount Theater. Teenage girls, then known as "bobby-soxers," swooned and screamed and lined up to see him. As would happen with Elvis Presley a decade later, film studios took notice. RKO promptly signed Sinatra to a seven-year contract with Higher and Higher as his first film for the company.
Higher and Higher was based on a 1940 Broadway musical with tunes by the prestigious team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In typical Hollywood fashion, the filmmakers kept the contrived plot about a bankrupt businessman's attempts to get rich again by passing off his maid as a debutante, and dumped most of the show's songs. They kept only a lesser one, Disgustingly Rich, which Sinatra did not sing. And they left out one of Rodgers and Hart's loveliest torch songs, It Never Entered My Mind (a few years later, Sinatra made up for that oversight, recording that song and seven other Rodgers and Hart numbers). In Higher and Higher, though, Sinatra sang five of the film's eight songs. One of them, I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night, by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, was nominated for an Oscar®, as was the film's scoring. Another, A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening, also became a hit. McHugh would become one of Sinatra's favorite songwriters.
Although he was given star billing, Sinatra's role in Higher and Higher was strictly supporting. He was not even the romantic lead - that honor went to Jack Haley, who was usually cast as a sidekick. The film's focus was the maid, played by newly-arrived French actress Michèle Morgan, a refugee from Nazi-occupied France. Barbara Hale, a decade before she became Perry Mason's secretary Della Street on television, played Sinatra's love interest. Veteran comic character actor Leon Errol was featured as the broke businessman, and pianist/comedian Victor Borge makes a rare film appearance. Look for another crooner, Mel Torme, in a supporting role, and future Oscar® winner Dorothy Malone in a bit as a bridesmaid.
Higher and Higher premiered on New Year's Day, 1944. The New York Times critic said it should have been called "Lower and Lower." But the shrewd Variety critic noted that it was "light in vein but rich in comedy and song values, plus having a very fine pace, the picture is destined to rank high at the box office." Sinatra's second film under his RKO contract was the minor musical Step Lively (1944), and he also made an RKO short, the Oscar®-winning The House I Live In (1945) before MGM bought his contract and made him as big a movie star as he was a singing idol.
Director/Producer: Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Ralph Spence, William Bowers, Howard Harris; based on the play by Gladys Hurlbut, Joshua Logan
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Editor: Gene Milford
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: songs by Jimmy McHugh & Harold Adamson, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Michele Morgan (Millie), Jack Haley (Mike), Frank Sinatra (Frank), Leon Errol (Drake), Marcy McGuire (Mickey), Victor Borge (Fitzroy Wilson), Mary Wickes (Sandy), Barbara Hale (Katherine Keating), Mel Torme (Marty).
by Margarita Landazuri