Saturday, November 29, 2008

THE TENDER TRAP (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Based on the Max Schulman/Robert Paul Smith Broadway smash, director Charles Walters’ The Tender Trap (1955) is a rather poignant romantic comedy that manages to be as bright and buoyant as it is introspective and revealing about the prototypical relationship between a middle-aged man and younger woman. The sparkling screenplay by Julius J. Epstein delivers top notch support to this tale of a swinger whose days of bachelorhood are at an end.

Sinatra is cast as Charlie Y. Reader – a playboy with a revolving bevy of beauties at his beckon call. At present these include ‘professional dog walker’ Helen (Carolyn Jones) and virtuoso violinist, Sylvia Crewes (Celeste Holm). Meanwhile, Charlie is visited by his best friend, Joe McCall (David Wayne) who begins his sabbatical in Charlie’s den of iniquity with all the envy of a married man who considers himself anchored to his profession, his wife and their three children. Joe will end his stay with sober appreciation for the fact that his own days as a rover are gladly behind him.

Charlie doesn’t really see how womanizing has become a self destructive way of life until one evening when, while out with Sylvia and Joe, he accidentally runs into Julia Gillis (Debbie Reynolds); a fresh-faced kid with high moral ideals about the right man who will one day become her husband. Julia has her entire life mapped out – right down to the last detail.

At first, Julia’s precocious verve amuses Charlie. Gradually, however, Charlie comes to understand just how far removed from Julia’s optimism and jaded he has become. Worse, Charlie finds himself falling in love with her – a development that infuriates Joe who has already begun to have deeper affections for Sylvia. Charlie attempts to seduce Julia in his trademark swinger style. But with Julia the slick approach fails to catch on.

Meanwhile, Joe asks Sylvia why she tolerates Charlie’s philandering. Her reply is a resignation of all hope in ever finding ‘the right man’; she’s simply willing to settle for second best in the hopes that something good will come of the experiment.

At first, Sylvia’s hand seems to play itself out. Forced by Joe to admit that his life is a fraud, Charlie proposes marriage to Sylvia. She accepts and the trio proceed to throw a garishly out of control party to celebrate the occasion. This delirium comes to an end when Julia confesses her love to Charlie and he, in turn, suddenly realizes that he cannot resist her any longer. She’s the girl for him and he’s the right man for her.

The Tender Trap may start out as just another vintage romantic comedy from the 1950s, but it ends its’ stay on the screen as a very adult and 'tender' revelation about middle-aged insecurities and the very real prospect of being alone for the rest of one's life.

Frank Sinatra is in rare form. After a decade of playing foolish, malnourished fops at MGM, Sinatra defied L.B. Mayer to his own detriment. He was black-listed from virtually every studio in the early 1950s and all but lost his recording contracts at Columbia, Decca and RCA. Sinatra’s resurrection mid-decade was largely due to his seminal performance in From Here To Eternity. The Tender Trap benefits greatly from Sinatra's more mature acting style, revealing new depth to both the man and the character he plays.

Although The Tender Trap opens with a musical performance by Sinatra (singing the title tune) the rest of the film is void of his singing talents - a fairly gutsy move considering the sway Sinatra's singing chops had on a marquee. But Sinatra’s acting performance stands alone without the luxury of his trademark vocal abilities. So too does Debbie Reynolds radiate a sincere maturity beneath her usual plucky exterior. David Wayne has never been better served on the scree as the frustrated married man on the verge of throwing over his family for a dead-end tryst.

The second best performance in the movie, however, belongs to Celeste Holm; providing layers of subtext to Sylvia that reveal her as a woman young enough to long for the fragile blissfulness of a husband and home, yet mature enough to understand that happiness may be a relative term for the successful woman who has aged beyond her romantic expiration date.

The Tender Trap is a great and sadly underrated movie that deserves a second chance. Hopefully, this DVD will reintroduce audiences to the film’s sobering reflections on life and love for posterity.

Warner Home Video’s DVD presentation is just a tad below par. The original Eastman color stock is in a state of faded decomposition. Though colors can appear relatively bright and vibrant, flesh tones are frequently washed out. Actor’s faces sometimes have a ghostly white patina with a loss of fine detail.

Age related artifacts are most noticeable during fades, dissolves and splices. On the whole, the image will not disappoint. It is not, however, an ideal presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, recapturing much of the former glory of Cinemascope’s original 6 track stereo. Extras are limited to a rather engaging featurette on Sinatra’s 1950s film tenure with commentary from biographers and film historians. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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