Oh, bleah. Okay, yes, this film has come cultural/historical/whatever significance – with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on hand, it’s considered an early “Rat Pack” film – and the cast gives good performances, but I found the plot irretrievably soapy and wasn’t interested at all.
Sinatra is “Dave Hirsh”, a World War II Vet and middling-successful writer – he’s written two books and wrote for Stars and Stripes, but blew a lot of the money on wine, women and song. At the top of the film, he’s waking up from a bender on a bus en route to his Indiana hometown; his drinking buddies thought it’d be hysterical to send him there, and the cocktail waitress Ginny who’d taken a shine to him (Shirley MacLaine) has joined him. Dave swore he’d never return, but decides to spend at least a few days catching up with folks – including his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a respectable businessman with a social-climber wife (Leora Dana) and teenage daughter (Betty Lou Keim). After gently trying to talk Ginny into returning home and checking into the local hotel, Dave starts his hometown tour.
Dave and his sister-in-law Agnes do not get along; she sees Dave as crude and lower-class, and Dave resents how she’d treated him as a child (Dave is a good deal younger than Frank, and when their parents died she had Dave placed in an orphanage instead of she and Frank taking him in). But Dave’s niece Dawn likes him and Frank wants to mend fences. Also – the prestigious Professor Robert French (Larry Gates) admires his work, as does Professor French’s daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer); Gwen’s single to boot, Agnes realizes, and could maybe reform her wayward brother-in-law. So when Frank asks to have Dave for dinner, Agnes says sure – if she can also invite a couple guests?….Her scheme works, to a point – Dave does fall for Gwen, but she does not reciprocate. Her interest, she tells him, is strictly in his work. It’s still enough to cause Dave to give up drinking and dig out a manuscript he’s been working on, using it as an excuse to win Gwen around.
However, Dave can’t leave the low life behind entirely. He stumbles across an underground card game run by “Bama Dillert” (Dean Martin), another drifter who’s put down roots in town. Dillert introduces him to some of the other less-fussy women in town – including Ginny, who’s stuck around after all, in hopes of catching Dave’s eye again. And thus is Dave torn between two women, and two worlds – the polished, intellectual Gwen, who fascinates him (and may be warming to him) but comes from an upper-class world, or the crude, naive Ginny, who’s a little bit of a ditz but who adores him. …Oh, what ever shall he do?
Yeah, that “who will Dave end up with” is the big engine of the plot, which always just bores me to tears. Especially since Gwen’s portrayed as a repressed spinster who actually did like Dave all along but was just Afraid Of Her Feelings At First or whatever. I actually respected their initial scenes, where she gives him a righteous smackdown about how she likes his work but that is different from liking him – so then when we got to the obligatory moment where she is finally Overcome With Passion and kisses him, I actually shouted “oh, come on” at the screen. It is such a trite, demeaning character trope; one I admit I used to fall for, but now really hate.
Conversely, and happily, “trite” and “demeaning” are words that Shirley MacLaine seems to avoid with her performance as Ginny. She could have really gone ditzy and crude, but her Ginny seems more like Giuletta Masina’s Cabiria from that film; a little idealistic, a little tough, not quite the brightest but strong enough to command respect from others. Ginny melts and fawns over Dave when he shows her even the tiniest bit of kindness, but when he tries to push her away, instead of dissolving into a puddle she draws herself up and scolds him. “I’m a human being, you know! You gotta be nicer!” She even summons the courage to give Gwen a surprise visit at the school where she teaches, to size her up and have a bit of girl talk straight out of the lyrics to Jolene. ….That talk has some unintended consequences which also made me grumble, but it fleshed Ginny out a lot.
Still, the “which woman will Dave choose” plot bored me. It seems to have even bored the screenwriter, since they threw in a bunch of other subplots that made the whole thing feel like a soap opera – Frank Hirsch flirting with his secretary, Dawn starting to Go Bad, a jealous ex-boyfriend of Ginny’s turned stalker. The film even throws in a Serious Illness subplot for Dillert during the last 20 minutes or so that gets completely dropped 5 minutes later. And that’s the hell of it – a lot of these scenes are well shot and well acted, with a few of the plot threads all weaving together into a tense final sequence with Ginny’s ex, gun in hand, tailing Ginny and Dave through a crowd; but those expert shots and those good performances are supporting a story I just plain didn’t like. One saving grace, at least, is that apparently the book which inspired the film had even more soapy subplots, and reviews of the time praised the film for cutting a lot of them out.