Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney


Howard Adelman


To Esme — With Love and Squalor!

[No Spoiler Alert Needed]

Did Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney have anything more in common than smoking, a love of model trains and owning homes in Palm Springs? Their personalities were in stark contrast – Walt Disney was the epitome of the family man, of American optimism and hope and the admirer of suburbia with its green grass and neat homes even before suburbia was invented. Frank Sinatra, in contrast, was a moody manic-depressive, a lover of the limelight rather than shedding brightness and colour over everything, a hard drinker and a womanizer, and the star singer of the forties and fifties who transformed himself and won the Oscar as best supporting actor in From Here To Eternity as the moody and bitter Private Angelo Maggio.

The two certainly did not have politics in common for Walt Disney was a right-wing Republican. I was only 15 years old at the time, but I remember the scandal when Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and named cartoonists and directors who were allegedly associated with the Communist Party. From my far better informed classmates, I would learn that Walt Disney hosted Hitler’s great documentalist, Leni Riefenstahl, when she came to America in the year I was born. And Walt seemed to have a low regard for the many studio bosses who were Jewish. He also never managed to mix Blacks and Whites in his film, and that heritage has been preserved in his current hit, Frozen.

Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, had a mother who was a local Democratic ward heeler in Hoboken, New Jersey; she was an inside member of the Democratic Jersey political machine. In contrast to Walt, Frank never was called before HUAC though he, in fact, was a major contributor and USA would go on to raise money for Democrats, especially Jack Kennedy, and for Martin Luther King. However, by the time King was assassinated, Sinatra became a Republican, was a close friend of Spiro Agnew and a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan. But he remained a socially liberal party member.

So what do the two have in common beyond the list of three items I presented in my opening sentence? Something they never knew about or recognized. They had me in common, in spite of Walt Disney’s politics and even though I despised my father for being a womanizer who finally left the family for good when I was 12. However, my father had introduced me to the movies and took myself and my older bother very often from the time when we were very young. I still cry when I just think of Bambi’s mother being shot. I loved Pinocchio and Dumbo and even the dumb but terrifying horror films we saw. I can still remember some scenes, one in particular from a horror film I saw when I was four. My father was not very interested in protecting my young mind. He just wanted me to love Charlie Chaplin and I did.

When Walt Disney was testifying before HUAC, I was watching Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Unlike Walt Disney who lied about his age to become a soldier in WWI, Frank Sinatra got a deferment, either legitimately or illegitimately depending on which story you believe, but Sinatra was absolutely wonderful as the troubled young private in the American army in Hawaii just before PearlHarbour. His acting made me forgive him for having to listen over and over again to his singing because my aunt Jennie, who lived with us in the late forties, absolutely swooned over him. Finally, but not very graciously, I mitted that I loved his singing and his songs.

Well yesterday was nostalgia day. Yesterday evening we went to Koerner Hall to hear John Pizzarelli play his seven-string guitar with his wonderful quintet and sing a selection of songs in tribute to Frank Sinatra. He sang such oldies as How You Look Tonight, How About You, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning and One For My Baby and One More for the Road. I even heard one I never recognized – Its Sunday. Actually, I am not so sure about what John Pizzarelli sang because his singing flooded my head with old Sinatra tunes such as Frank Sinatra playing Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and singing The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York, Adelaide and Sue Me — though none of these were included in John Pizzarelli’s selections. Pizzarelli is a great guitar player, a delightful raconteur with many stories about Frank Sinatra – whether true or apocryphal – but one personal one when he was the opening act for a Frank Sinatra tour in Europe in the eighties – I had no idea Frank Sinatra was still touring and singing then. He told of his one and only and very brief meeting of a nervous performer with a great star. After a not-too-long shaggy narrative beginning to indicate his nervousness before the great Blue Eyes, he repeated Frank’s only words and advice to him – “You look terrible; you oughtta eat something.” John Pizzarelli’s scat singing was phenomenal, and he did it with even more delight and grace than the stories he told.

However, the best bit of nostalgia was yesterday afternoon. I took my granddaughter, Esme, to see the Walt Disney new hit, “Frozen”, a musical cartoon adaptation of Christian Andersen’s dark tale of Snow Queen, made into a very happy but unusual romance in the Disney style. We saw the 3-D version. I gather the critics have raved about it. They are correct to rave. It is vintage Disney for the twenty-first century in both style and substance. The plot twists into a female buddy movie and the heroine is full of spunk, courage, passion, determination and loyalty. The virtues are all traditional but the character who wears them is not. Even the snowman as the humorous side-kick is a phenomenal joy.  Most of all, the frozen landscapes provide a type of glitzie beauty that Disney always strived for but the frozen landscape suddenly made this fictional world seem almost naturally supernatural.

However, the greatest delight of the day was not the marvellous feature-length animation but the five or six minute madcap chaos and frenetic short that preceded it – Get a Horse, also in 3-D, a film that manages to marry old hand-drawn black and white cartoon technique with contemporary computer generated 3D.  I won’t give away the plot by saying it opens as if the cartoon was made in the late twenties at the time of Steamboat Willie. It has many of the classic Disney characters – Pluto, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, and Pete as Rob Ford, playing the villain. Oh, it wasn’t Rob Ford, but it could have been. In the traditional style, Pete gets dropped on his head, has his vehicle dropped on his head, gets a pitchfork up his ass, and many more physical punishments for being such a bully.

But the short is not just a nostalgic throwback, authentically vintage in  capturing all but the rubbery quality of the cartoon characters. The cloudy and flickering light of those old movies is not only married to the precision and inventiveness of the present, but the technique used becomes part of the movie. The short is self-referential not only in historical and character terms but to the contemporary technology as well. It has to be seen to be believed – which should have been Walt Disney’s motto for creating magic on the screen. The greatest innovation is the way the technology achieves the marriage of the two in the very film as the characters jump through the screen from the black and white past to the brilliant colour of the present to break through the fourth wall.   

Disney and Sinatra did have one more thing in common in spite of their differences in politics and character. They were both marvellous magicians and the child in me has always loved real magic.