Classic Film Review: A Lump of Coal from Capra, “A Hole in the Head” (1959)

All most folks remember about Frank Capra’s next-to-last film is Frank Sinatra introducing “High Hopes” in it, sung in a duet with the cinema’s “other” 1950s redheaded little boy, Eddie Hodges.

“High Hopes” won the best original song Oscar, and would go on to become a Sinatra signature tune and John F. Kennedy campaign song. “A Hole in the Head?” Meh.

They weren’t using the term “dramedy” to describe movies and TV shows way back when, and they should have coined it for Capra. But he was far-removed from the holiday-themed humor and emotions that embellished his classic ,”It’s a Wonderful Life,” the pathos/comedy balance he achieved with “Meet John Doe” and the wit of “It Happened One Night” and “Mister Deeds Goes to Town.”

“A Hole in the Head” is a drab all-star “comedy” — “color by Deluxe” — a tale of a slow-footed, slightly-fast talking hotelier and hustler trying to hang onto that hotel, and custody of his little boy, while arm-twisting his dull, conservative and wealthier older brother for cash.

Edward G. Robinson plays the brother, Thelma Ritter is his “We’re taking Ally home with us!” wife and Hodges, who originated the role Ron Howard played in “The Music Man” on Broadway, is Ally, the son our widower dotes on, sings with and mock-threatens “I’m gonna FLATTEN you” when they disagree.

Sinatra had no knack for acting with children. None. And Hodges, great in the song and OK elsewhere, never really brings that sparkle that Howard, seven years his junior, delivered on screen practically from birth.

“Hole” is about Tony Manetta’s (Sinatra) desperate efforts to hang on to his Garden of Eden Hotel long enough to “knock it down” and make a Florida “Disneyland” (years before Disney World plans) right there in Miami. But he’s missed some mortgage payments.

His old pal from the Bronx (Keenan Wynn) is rich enough to bail him out. But he’s hard to get ahold of, bouncing hither and yon, staying at the tony Hotel Fontainebleau just down the beach.

That leaves his brother “back home” in the Bronx. But Mario (Robinson) has other plans for his spendthrift, dress-like-a-big-shot, Cadillac convertible-driving “bum” brother. Come back home and take over a five-and-dime, or let us raise the kid.

He and wife Sophie (Ritter) even arrange for Tony to meet “a nice lady,” Mrs. Rogers (Eleanor Parker) to marry and come “home” with. She’s pleasant, conservative and sad, a sharp contrast to the wild child Tony dates — one of his hotel’s long-term guests, Shirl. Carolyn Jones, destined for small-screen immortality as Morticia in TV’s “Addams Family,” steals the movie with this uninhibited, hotheaded, bongo-playing, surfboard-riding first-gen Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.

“I go where the KICKS are. And when the kicks stop comin’? SHOOooooosh!”

The fading art deco hotel also has a resident lush who staggers in, shouting “GERONIMO!” to one and all, earning an “EXCELSIOR!” from the desk clerk (Dub Taylor), a decade before Stan Lee started saying it. But that’s about all the “local color” “Hole in the Head” manages. “Fawlty Towers” this isn’t.

Robinson has many of what pass for the funniest lines in Arnold Schulman’s script.

“Even when he’s lying, he’s lying,” Mario says of his brother. On hearing one too many “I should drop dead” if I’m lyings from Tony, “If he dropped dead all the times he was supposed to drop dead, I’d go into the cemetery business.”

Sinatra’s Tony, supposedly desperate, never breaks a sweat. That robs the comedy of its ticking-clock urgency. Forty-eight hours before his eviction and Tony lets the ever-dismissed Shirl distract him with a run to the beach for some late night surfing.

The movie’s so overwhelmed with rear-projection driving scenes, so soundstage-bound — even that surfing stop is on a soundstage, with godawful process shots putting Jones on a surfboard — that I figured Sinatra was already in his post-Oscar throw-his-weight-around “I’m not leaving home to make no movie” phase.

But yes, there are exteriors that are unmistakably Miami in the late 1950s…and a couple that are obviously West Coast, with hills in the distance. Florida’s short on hills.

“Hole” is a movie of long monologues, scenes that sadly drag on as first Mrs. Rogers makes a long confession, then Tony forlornly tops it. These are, to a one, a drag.

“High Hopes,” when it pops up and where it pops up, seems shoehorned in — more a contract rider than a scene organically a part of the larger story.

I’ve missed getting around to every Capra picture, despite my best efforts. This one has almost no moments you can describe as “Capraesque.” I think he’s out of his milieu here. He was on much surer ground with the more sentimental curtain call “dramedy,” “Pocketful of Miracles (1961),” which gave us Bette Davis as a bag lady and dressed up Glenn Ford as a dandy of a 1930s gangster.

“A Hole in the Head” is a hole I should have left empty in my Capra collection.

Rating: Approved

Cast: Frank Sinatra, Carolyn Jones, Eleanor Parker, Edward G. Robinson, Thelma Ritter, Dub Taylor, Keenan Wynn and Eddie Hodges

Credits: Directed by Frank Capra, scripted by Arnold Schulman. An MGM release, streaming on Amazon, Tubi, etc.

Running time: 2:00

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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