Some Came Running (1958): Minnelli’s Oscar-Nominated Melodrama, Starring Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine in here First Oscar Nominated Role

MGM had bought the rights to James Jones novel even before the book got published. Jones striking literary debut, From Here to Eternity, was a best seller that became a successful, Oscar- winning film, directed by Fred Zinnemann.
Some Came Running was touted as a thinking man’s Peyton Place, the sleazy melodrama that had become a popular and better picture than Grace Metalius novel was, though many reviewers derided the book for being self-indulgent.

Nonetheless, convinced that there was a vivid melodrama in the book, Sol C. Siegel, who took over Schary’s job at MGM, remained excited, and in fact decided to supervise the production himself. John Patrick, who scripted High Society and Cukors Les Girls, and Arthur Sheekman, were asked to turn the 1,200-page novel into a 120-page script, a manageable if arduous challenge. Minnelli found Jones’s hero Dave, a conflicted a writer, utterly compelling. Dave fits perfectly into Minnellis gallery of brutish-sensitive and tormented male artists. For this role, Minnelli wanted Frank Sinatra, who rose quickly after winning a Supporting Oscar for From Here to Eternity, which established him as a dramatic actor. Two years later, in Premingers 1955 Man With the Golden Arm, as a drug-addiction drama, Sinatra distinguished himself as a self-destructive misfit, for which he received a Best Actor nomination.

Minnelli had wanted to direct Sinatra in a musical, ever since he saw him in Anchors Aweigh. Then, on the set of Till the Clouds Roll By, in which Sinatra had a cameo, Minnelli barely saw him. Whenever they ran into each other at parties, they would reiterate their wish to work together, but they couldnt find a project that would interest them both. Now under contract to MGM, Sinatra was excited that his first film for the studio would be Some Came Running to be helmed by Minnelli.

As Sinatras companion, gambler Bama Dillert, Minnelli chose Dean Martin, who had just made an impressive dramatic debut, in The Young Lions, opposite Brando, after the split with Jerry Lewis. Minnelli thought that Martins languid irony and smooth charm were major assets for his role. However, casting Shirley MacLaine as the wayward female lead, Ginny, a dimwitted slut with a heart of gold, happened in serendipitous way.

The emphasis on the conflicted passions and ambivalent feelings of the middle-class characters makes Some Came Running one of Minnellis most effective and popular melodramas.

In the picture, class differences and familial feelings drive the narrative forward. Minnelli exploits every stereotype about the American middle class life. Tussling with the suffocating Midwestern life of his elder brother, Frank (Arthur Kennedy), Dave is so disgusted that his cynicism dominates the tone of the entire film. Daves search for a real home–his desire for familial identity–reveals that home might be a myth rather than reality.

A far cry from Father of the Bride, Some Came Running offers a critical anatomy of the new moral disorder of American middle class. The central theme of individual identity shapes the films conflicts, most of which derive from Daves hatred of his brothers duplicitous bourgeois mores. The film is also a critique of misogyny, exposing masculine imperatives that result in the tragic, sacrificial death of Ginny, the movies one innocent woman. Dave is the link between two worlds, each defined by a distinct set of characters and values, each conveyed in vastly different locales. Smittys bar, where Dave and his cronies congregate, is contrasted with the country club, where the snobbish Frenches and Hirshes socialize. If the former setting is full of life (and smoke) and seedy, the latter is clean, cold, and stale.

Melodramas moral clarity is founded on principles of differences. The films two worlds clash but cannot become one unified whole. Gwen French is posited against Ginny Moorehead, and Dave is forced to make the right choice between the two women. Like most melodramas, Some Came Running provides an image of the idyllic life that first has to be destroyed in order to to be later reestablished on new principles, reflecting a better social order. In the movies final shot, at Ginnys burial on the hillside, the camera moves gracefully over the cemetery to reveal an unobstructed view of the river far beyond. Its the first time in the whole movie that Martins Bama takes off his hat, and respectfully so. In this composition, a tentative cosmic harmony is suggested. But in the foreground, we see the tombstones, just as we see Wade Hunnicutts tombstone in the final shot of Minnellis next film, Home From the Hill. The two shots are meant to be vivid reminders of the heavy price paid to achieve that utopian image.

The movies opening shots show natural landscapes through the window of a movie bus. As Dave rides the bus, we see the Great American Outdoors, mountains and rivers, which then give way to the monotonously boring sight of the storys locale, Parkman, Indiana. Dave Hirschs moral odyssey begins literally with physical journey. He is returning to his home to uncover his origins and heritage. Daves army uniform lends him individual identity, but not for too long. Once the uniform is removed, hes like an orphan in Parkman, out of one institution (the military) but nowhere to go, no real family to return to, and no career to speak of. Theres nothing remotely stable in his new existence, other than the bottle.

AuthorJames Jones had trouble clarifying the perversities of people in love in his novel, Some Came Running. While he fully examined the world of his people with detail and skill, making them graphic, he couldnt seem to find what had made them tick, what drives them to behave the way they do. In this, and other respects, Minnellis taut and more focused movie improved upon the novel. As the cool, lonely and skeptical Army corporal who returns to his hometown, Sinatra is riveting, beautifully casual with a bottle, bullseye-sharp with a gag, and shockingly frank and impertinent in his womanizing tendencies. The principal object of his attention is the schoolteacher, played by Martha Hyer, who wants to help him out with his creative writing, but he is more interested in a livelier game.

Martin is also engaging, as a genial professional poker player, who adopts Dave as a pal. Martin is impressive in his comical way of hard-boiled simplicity, and delivery of suitable lines, and, of course, his boisterous pot-walloping with Sinatra and MacLaine came naturally to him.

In a tougher, straighter role, Arthur Kennedy does a crisp and trenchant job of exposing a measly and rather pathetic boob inside. Leora Dana conveys the pettiness of his wife, and Betty Lou Keim is touching, as their young daughter who is learning the first, sleazy facts of life, namely, that her father is a hypocrite and an adulteror, who carries on and impregnates his admiring secretary. Their fast trip to Lovers Lane disillusions Keim, encouraging her engage in a fling with a traveling salesman.

The N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crwother complained that the tussles with the demons of sex and love, represented in each in various measures, are never made meaningful or clear. Sinatra is quick to offer marriage to a curiously ambivalent Hyer, but is nothing loathe, when rejected, to marry the impossible MacLaine. Totally misunderstanding Minnellis ironic approach, Crowther wrote, Minnelli, who kept it flowing naturally to this point, has to hoke it up with grotesque action and phantasmagoric stuff with colored lights, which isnt consistent with the foregoing excellence of design in color and CinemaScope.

End Note:

Several years ago, while showing this movie in a film class about melodrama, a student offered a most interesting interpretation.  Introducing himself as openly gay feminist, he suggested that Gwen French, the rigid and conservative school teacher, wears her hair in a “French Roll,” like a phallus pinned to her.  While she doesn’t write, Gwen desires Dave (Frank Sinatra who plays a writer), representing the phallus; writing is the phallic activity of commanding the word.