Prestige dramas in each decade in American cinema each tend to have their own flavor, and in the ’50s, it was the social melodrama that held sway. These were movies that took a hard look at the American way of life and generally said, “Gee, some folks are upset.” That’s a glib rendering of the theme. What they were really saying is that the ideals of post-war American success might be at odds with the reality of people’s lives.
Some Came Running, director’s Vicente Minnelli’s 1958 entry into the genre, is based on a novel by that famous chronicler of WWII, James Jones. His From Here to Eternity was the source of a major hit for star Frank Sinatra, so MGM was hoping to strike gold again from the same vein. But Some Came Running is a much different beast. The novel is 1200 pages long, and was panned by critics when it came out. It’s a rather dour, semi-autobiographical examination of life in small town America.
Dave Hirsh (Sinatra) is an army man who, by drunken mistake ends up on a bus back to the town where he grew up. He arrives with a floozy in tow, Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine), whom he does not remember but pays off. He decides to look up his brother, who had essentially abandoned him in a boarding house when they were younger. Dave still resents it, and his brother Frank resents his brother’s sudden intrusion. Frank is a big man in town, and doesn’t want his reputation sullied by his brother’s antics. Dave is a writer, and some thinly veiled portraits of his in-laws have caused some bitter feelings.
Still, he goes to dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, and meets their friends, the Frenchs. Gwen French is a creative writing teacher and an admirer of Dave’s writing. Dave admires her looks and tries to get somewhere with her, but the only talent she wants from him is literary.
Frank is pretending to be high class; Gwen is, and between his brother’s phoniness and Gwen stiffness, Dave inevitably goes back to slumming. He gets his floozy back, befriends a card sharp name Bama (Dean Martin) and gets into trouble, again. Which embarrasses his brother when it ends up in the papers.
Some Came Running is all about family and social tension. The Hirsh brothers hate each other, but Frank can’t be seen publicly hating his brother. Frank’s marriage is mostly loveless, and his daughter can feel that tension, too, without quite knowing what it is, and with no idea how to deal with it.
The story of Some Came Running is not particularly streamlined. It is vignettes in a family life, and has the grace to allow most of the characters to be fleshed out enough so their individual scenarios aren’t just caricatures. Frank Hirsh is an irritating blowhard, but the scene where he realizes that his designs on his mistress are impossible (“When I married my wife, you were four years old”) gives him a dimension that didn’t seem reasonable in his earlier scenes.
The performances are pretty uniformly great, particularly Dean Martin as the card sharp Bama. He’s a sick man (diseased, not in his head) but he tries to play it off with a genial aplomb that’s pretty infectious. It’s a beautifully shot film, as well, with a climax at a local fair that uses the colored lights of a Ferris wheel to turn then realistic film into a kind of fantasia.
The question is, to whom would this film appeal, in modern times? For an enthusiast of Minnelli (who was an expert in set design and composition), it’s a feast. The film is filled with beautiful compositions, and terrific scene work. The Blu-ray transfer is astounding in its clarity, with the almost pastel quality of its colors.
But it’s a ’50s melodrama. And that might have a specific appeal, not for a general audience. These sort of stories might seem hokey, or even incomprehensible to a modern audience that isn’t understanding of the kind of behavioral restrictions people lived under. The conundrums of the Hirsh family might not feel particularly relevant to a modern audience.
Some Came Running has many filmic qualities. The performances are excellent, and the cinematography is beautiful. It looks fantastic for a late ’50s film. But it also feels like a historical artifact. All of the social pressures that the film depicts are very much of its own time. I feel it is lazy criticism to call a film “dated”, but Some Came Running is very much of its date.
Some Came Running has been released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive collection. Special features include a featurette “The Story of Some Came Running” (21 mins), and a theatrical trailer.