American Film of the 50s- Some Came Running, by Aaron Pinkston
Many of the films from this series on American films of the 1950s have been concentrated in the most important genres of the decade. We’ve seen a few instances of film noir, a war film, a classical western and a musical — the final three films of the series all take place in perhaps the most important genre of the period, at least the one most specifically tied to the period, the melodrama. Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running inhibits all the major markers of the genre, from the bold colors, heightened emotions and oppressive music. Though the film may not be as acclaimed as the melodramas to come in this series, it certainly holds as a representative of the genre and the time in which it was made.
I have a very personal relationship with melodramas, especially from the 1950s, being the subject of one of my first and favorite film classes in college. Some Came Running is a film that I have seen, but one that I forgot almost entirely — for me, it didn’t have the staying power of Douglas Sirk or a film like Leave Her to Heaven. After seeing it again, I think it’s a fine film, but probably my least favorite of the series so far, partially because I don’t think it holds up. Overall, it feels very stagey and overly dramatic (I know, a strange criticism for a melodrama), and add in the bloated runtime and it really isn’t that much fun to watch. Still, as with all the films in this series, there is quite a bit to analyze given the context.
The film opens with a man named Dave Hirsch (played by Frank Sinatra) on a bus, arriving in a small town named Parkman, Indiana — the town Hirsch is from. It’s never really discussed why Dave has come back to Parkman, but there seems to be a bit of baggage he left behind before going into the Army and it all comes to a head upon his return. While in Parkman, he comes into contact with three different circles of people: his older brother Frank and Frank’s family, a school teacher and her father, and a gambler (Dean Martin) and low-class type of girl (Shirley MacLaine), who has come to Parkman with Dave from Chicago. These three social circles pull on Dave, who is the only person that can navigate between them, and they play as pretty standard archetypes of groups in the 1950s — the middle class family, the upper class intellectuals and the lower class socialite types. Much of the drama is derived between these circles, created by certain social expectations and responsibilities.
Some Came Running gives a great example of a small-town middle-America on film. In Parkman everyone knows everyone and news travels fast. As soon as Dave steps foot in town, people start talking about him, extra peculiar given that we don’t see him interact with anyone except the desk man at the modest inn he’s staying at. When news travels fast, there are no secrets, which is an important facet of the melodrama, a genre where much drama is driven by characters keeping or losing secrets. One of the great 1950s touches of Some Came Running is how the perfect nuclear family is destroyed by secrets — and how their perfectness is a total lie. It has often been spoofed in films and television shows that the ideal nuclear 1950s family isn’t what it seems when the doors are closed and no one can see inside, and Some Came Running is a fantastic example of that social criticism. Frank Hirsch, his wife and daughter are very much the American ideal, with their public personas, good standing in business, membership to the country club, etc. but they are profoundly unhappy and can’t connect with each other. The film posits that the return of Dave, the “black sheep” of the family, has brought this rift in the family, but it is clear that their problems go beyond that — there are a number of implications about a relationship between Dave and Frank’s wife, but I think it’s pretty clear that they would be unhappy if Dave wasn’t around. The film is both on-the-nose wonderfully subtle in showcasing their family dynamic. They are obviously cold and angry with each other, but a very quick shot showing the parents coming out of separate bedrooms in the middle of the night goes a long way in showing the fractured state of this family. The cynical nature of the film destroys an argument that the parents sleep in separate rooms due to the 1950s anti-sexuality stance in the media. It probably plays nicely with the ratings board or censoring body, but nails the point into the ground.
Dave’s brother Frank is an important 1950s character outside of his family, as well. Frank serves as the very 1950s idea of the self-made man, a businessman who made it through hard work and dedication, or so it seems. We are introduced to Frank not by meeting the character, but by showing his storefront, Frank Hirsch Jewelers, an important location throughout the film. Introducing us in this way ties the character to his job, something the 1950s liked to do. Some Came Running takes this idea and shifts it through its cynical filter, turning the self-made man into a selfish one. He certainly has wealth and can fill his house with wonderful artifacts, but they seem impersonal, mirroring his fractured family that can’t fully interact with each other. The self-made man keeps his transgressions hidden, and that is shown to be more dangerous in the eyes of the film. The biggest difference between Frank and Dave is that Dave shows his flaws, and in the long run he is able to be redeemed. Frank, however, hides his faults, which creates the tension in his relationships, and when his secrets come to light they explode. Moreover, the film pokes holes through the very idea of the self-made man, with Frank’s wife constantly pointing out that he inherited his jewelry store from her father. The idea that people of wealth owe just as much to connections as hard work completely destroys this 1950s ideal.
It wouldn’t be a post in this film series without briefly talking about the dynamics between men and women. Some Came Running has a particular view of women, with its male characters breaking women into two particular categories: women that you sleep with and women that you marry. This dichotomy is shown through the frigid school teacher Dawn and the overly-emotional tramp Ginnie. The love triangle with Dave really isn’t much of a love triangle in this way — Dave has no vested interest in Ginnie while he falls completely for Dawn, who rejects him. Dave breaks the idea of these two types of women twice, and both times it goes terribly for him. When he tries to have sex with the marrying kind, he gets rejected, and when he marries the sleeping-with kind, the natural order seems to sort itself out.
The portrayals of Dawn and Ginnie are nearly as troubling as how the male characters talk about them. I think Dawn is supposed to be sympathetic, at least to a point, as she’s identified as being both smart and beautiful, but it’s easy to side with Dave’s frustration. Their relationship is quite tragic, as they should be together, but she is keeping him away from her true emotions. Showing the audience that she does really care for Dave, but can’t commit, is endlessly difficult. She’s the archetype of the ice queen and when Dave misrepresents her as a sexual woman, she erupts. Ginnie, on the other hand, ultimately gets some sort of redemption by the end, but she is often tough to watch. Dave is quite mean to her throughout the film, but she continues to tuck her tail between her legs, blindly following him wherever he goes. When Dave finally decides that she is “good enough,” his first move is to domesticate her — being a wild woman, I guess it’s partly to prove she is worthy of marriage. When Ginnie finally pronounces her love, saying she would do anything for him, he responds by asking her to clean up their house, which comes off laughably bad, but it’s hard to judge what the film is trying to say here — whether it’s trying to be cynical or conforming to the backwards ideas its characters has had on women.
In a previous post I noted that the three big-time icons of the 1950s were Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean — perhaps I left out the star of Some Came Running, Frank Sinatra. He is mostly known as a musical performer, entertainer and overall socialite, and it’s pretty easy to forget that he was an actual movie star. Other than Some Came Running, he had notable starring roles in hugely important films like From Here to Eternity, Ocean’s Eleven, The Manchurian Candidate and The Man with the Golden Arm (no, that’s not a James Bond film). He certainly had a type of appeal that stemmed from his ultra-cool manner, and many of his film roles were able to play off of that, whether using it or playing against it. Personally, I felt Sinatra was a bit stiff here, though he is without a doubt a leading man. As was often the case, Sinatra’s rat pack bud Dean Martin also plays a prominent role, as Dave’s best friend Bama Dillert. I think Martin is an underrated actor, though he often plays the same type of role, he’s really effective as the dangerous, mean-spirited drunk. He brings the coolness of Sinatra, but wears his emotions more broadly, which works for the melodramatic tone of the film.