Before Elvis, before The Beatles, before Michael Jackson and before whomever the latest pop star of the day is…there was Frank Sinatra. The teenage girls of the day swooned, screamed and peed in the panties uncontrollably when Sinatra sang on stage at theaters like the Paramount theater in New York City. By the late 1940’s though Frank’s career was in a downward spiral. His film career up to this point was mediocre. There was the occasional big hit like Anchors Aweigh, On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but more often there were second-rate films like The Kissing Bandit, Double Dynamite and It Happened it Brooklyn. More importantly for his career, his popularity on the record charts was also spiraling downward. Frank, of course, would rebound in the early 1950’s in both film and his music, but things were shaky for the future Chairman of the Board during the post war years. So why write about one of Sinatra’s less important films? There was a personal connection, well sort of, that attracted me to watch.
As the title states, It Happened it Brooklyn, takes place in New York City’s largest, in population, borough. To be more specific, the film takes place in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn at New Utrecht High School. It’s located on 80th street between New Utrecht Avenue and 16th Avenue. That’s about three blocks from where I lived long ago. I am being so specific here because, as you may have already guessed, and here’s the connection, New Utrecht is my high school alma mater. Most of the film, except for a few early scenes in the film, take place at the school. Of course, the school you see on screen is a set in Hollywood. Want to see the real school? Well, all one has to do is watch the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter. Those shots of the school in the background as an elevated train passes by is New Utrecht. Yes, my high school has been immortalized by both Frank Sinatra and Sweathogs. As an aside, the TV series star, Gabe Kaplan, was an alumni of the school.
Now back to the film…
Frank Sinatra’s Danny Miller is in love. Like most soldiers, Danny carries a photograph of his love. Unlike most soldiers though, Danny’s love is the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the end of World War II and Danny, still in England, is about to be discharged from the military. He’s moping around whining about how much he misses Brooklyn and especially his bridge. A wise cracking Brooklyn born Army nurse (Gloria Grahame), tells him to buck up and quit his whining. She pretty much berates him for his attitude, even telling him she’s ashamed he’s even from Brooklyn. Naturally, this being a musical, a song is about due. Danny sings and plays the piano to Whose Baby Are You? Overhearing all this is a rich Duke who believes what he pansy grandson, Jamie Shellgrove (Peter Lawford), needs is a dose of Brooklynese to give the boy a slice of real life. Danny, attempting to get a bit of Brooklyn spunk back in his life, after the nurse’s brow beating, tells the Duke he should send the kid to Brooklyn and he personally will straighten Jamie out.
Danny soon returns to Brooklyn, and his beloved bridge, singing Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn’s Brooklyn Bridge, on the bridge, and to the bridge. While most of the movie was shot in Hollywood this particular scene was shot on location in New York on the bridge.
With the post-war shortage, Danny moves in with Nick Lombardi (Jimmy Durante), a friend and the janitor of his alma mater, New Utrecht High School. Nick lives in a basement apartment right in the school. Just like all school janitors everywhere, right? About this same time, Nick meets music school teacher, Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson). Anne had greater ambitions than teaching; she wanted to be an opera singer. But rejection, after rejection, after rejection, she has resigned herself to being a school teacher. Danny meanwhile has his own ambitions to become a singer/songwriter instead of a shipping clerk. Danny becomes smitten with Anne even though everyone in the audience will recognize they’re not a good match. When Lawford’s Jamie finally arrives in Brooklyn, Danny attempts to teach the upper crust Brit how to be hip. Meanwhile Jamie and Anne slowly begin to fall in love.
It Happened in Brooklyn was an odd follow up to Sinatra’s previous hit film, Anchors Aweigh, which also starred Kathryn Grayson. (1) That film was a typically colorful big splashy MGM musical while It Happened in Brooklyn was filmed in black & white. The musical numbers are fun here, but they are simply choreographed. That said, they did not cut back on the music itself. Among Sinatra songs are It’s the Same Old Dream and Time After Time, the latter became a big hit for the crooner. Later in the film, Grayson does her own version of the tune. Sinatra and Durante do a fabulous duet with The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart. Frank, doing his best Jimmy Durante imitation during the number. As expected, Kathryn Grayson has her own solo operatic number. The most surprising musical number in the film is when Sinatra and Grayson team up for a duet of La Ci Darem la Mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Then there is Peter Lawford who has a musical number of his own, a swing version of Whose Baby Are You Now? to which he dances and sings. While Lawford’s dancing is adequate, he manages to sing the entire song off key.
Sinatra’s Danny is a naive type, similar to the character he played in Anchors Aweigh and would play again in films like On the Town. The brash Sinatra we would come to know was still a few years in the future. Kathryn Grayson was one of several sopranos in the MGM stable. They seemed to have a special fondness for sopranos which included Ann Blyth and Jeanette MacDonald. Grayson would appear with Sinatra on film one more time the following year in The Kissing Bandit. As for Peter Lawford, he is just plain bland. In his defense, the character he plays is rather a stiff so it sort of works. If Lawford’s performance was the worst, Jimmy Durante practically steals the film with his brash comic antics. He and Sinatra have two musical numbers together and they shine in both.
Unlike most musicals, there’s a serene kind of low key charm to this film which partly comes from Frank Sinatra’s low-key performance. It Happened in Brooklyn is not one of MGM’s great musicals, but it is fun, if you give it a chance, and seeing him and Durante together is a real treat.
1) In between, Frank made a cameo appearance as himself in Till the Clouds Roll By.
This repost is my contribution to the Sinatra Centennial Blogathon hosted by Movie Classics and The Vintage Cameo running from December 10th through December 13th. Check out other worthy contributions on the link below.