Photos courtesy of Movie Star News and MGM Deluxe DVD Archive
A favorite film for TCM programmers, “Some Came Running,” based on the enormous James Jones novel — is an interesting movie for myriad reasons. Primary among them, it’s the first flick that co-starred Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin — prompting them to launch their version of the Rat Pack — and it’s the first film that garnered Shirley MacLaine an Academy Award nomination. In her career, MacLaine would nab six Oscar nods, but only won once, in 1984 for “Terms of Endearment.” In this 1958 outing, MacLaine plays a garish woman with “indefinable” morality and a desperate need to be loved and cherished. Her seeming vulgarity — too much makeup, too-tight dresses, no table manners or behavior restraint—is at war with her vulnerability. MacLaine is only 23 when she made this film, and she looks that age or even younger! With a pixie haircut and a puppy-dog purse, MacLaine’s characterization of Ginny is heartbreaking.
The MGM producers had a hit with “Some Came Running” — it made money worldwide and received very good reviews. At Oscar time, MacLaine, Arthur Kennedy, and Martha Hyer all received nominations for their acting. None of the trio won. The film also racked up nods for Best Original Song and Best Costuming. That’s where the combined genius of Walter Plunkett, the costume designer, and leading lady Shirley MacLaine joined forces. The movie’s director Vincente Minnelli wanted Shirley to look “hokey.” That’s the phrase he used, and that’s what Plunkett set out to do. When compared to the other principal actresses in the cast, mainly Martha Hyer, MacLaine had to look cheap and trashy. Minnelli even went so far as to kneel down in front of MacLaine and paint her face with over-applied makeup. He wanted her to look clownish and tawdry.
But Shirley MacLaine was one smart cookie — her knowledge probably came from her many reincarnated lives, right? — and she knew that the audience’s sympathies would be won over if she made Ginny seem more like a lost soul. She wanted her version of Ginny to be a grown woman who has never grown too far from her inner, innocent, wounded child. With teetering heels, skirts that emphasized her derriere, blouses that she was almost always bursting out of, the MacLaine character could have been seen as a “woman of ill repute,” “a woman of the streets.” Yep, the movie was filmed in the 1950s, and there was a definite perceived code of conduct, dress, and appearance in the mind of the public.
Shirley cleverly turned this edict to be “trashy and wanton” on its head by carrying a stuffed-animal purse wherever she went in the film. Prior to the first day of shooting, she had gone to a specialty shop and commissioned the perfect plush puppy dog, with zippered back and fuzzy strap. She proceeded to make it her own personal sidekick. In one of her autobiographies, MacLaine wrote: “By the time I arrived on location with that puppy dog, I was completely in character. Frank saw me get off the bus and just fell down laughing. ‘That’s Ginny,’ he said.” MacLaine carries that puppy dog with her in so many crucial scenes; it should have been listed in the film credits as a co-star. It helps to solidify her performance as a good-hearted woman who wants the fairy-tale life that she wished for as a young girl in the Chicago slums.
Clutching the stuffed animal like a witch’s familiar, the Ginny character finds herself immersed in an upper-middle-class, well-educated, middle-American town. Like a loyal puppy dog, she’s followed a weekend fling back to his hometown of Parkman, Indiana. (The historic town of Madison, Indiana, was used as the location double, and there are still tours to this day of the sites and sights from the film.) Sadly, this brand-new beau — an alcoholic novelist turned alcoholic soldier (Frank Sinatra) — can’t even remember that he’s traveled to Indiana with this clingy girl. The character that Sinatra plays, Dave Hirsh, is bright, articulate, and downright nasty. When he gets drunk, he uses his words and his wit to demean MacLaine’s Ginny. Each and every time, it comes across like a grown man humiliating a child. By standing there, cradling her pocketbook, holding on to the one item that is familiar to her, MacLaine steals every scene, and steals the audience’s heart.
MacLaine kept that puppy-dog purse after the film wrapped — she gave it to her two-year-old daughter, Stephanie “Sachi” Parker. She knew that two things had helped her earn her first Oscar nomination: Frank Sinatra’s wise decision to change the movie’s finale, which gave MacLaine a much more dramatic and grittier conclusion, and the presence of the puppy purse.
Years later, when Shirley MacLaine toured the world as a singer and dancer doing a musical retrospective of her Hollywood career, she’d reminisce about her time with Sinatra and Dean Martin, fleshing out their characters in “Some Came Running.” She admitted that she had a “thing” for Dean, but wouldn’t act on it (she knew he was a married man with a family and a devoted wife) and she’d joke how Sinatra made her an honorary member of the Pack. (The prior version of the Rat Pack was presided over by Humphrey Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall.)
The entertainer would tell her fans that Ginny was one of her favorite screen roles because it let her examine her own self-doubts, her own anxieties, her own personal insecurity. These are traits that she spent her life confronting, defeating, and putting behind her. She’d let audiences know that Ginny’s posture — her pigeon-toed stance and her hunched shoulders — were all examples of a woman who was always protecting herself, because life had kicked her around so much. And when it came to that puppy-dog purse? “It was something that looked so cheap and so juvenile. It was like Ginny had a pair of puppy-dog eyes hanging on her arm. How could you hurt a woman like that? How could you want to hit her? Having that dog was half the battle!” she explained.
Puppy dog pocketbooks, good-time girls with hearts of gold, brazen men who think the world is theirs for the taking (including the women they love and leave along the way) — “Some Came Running” is a movie that gives a glimpse into an America that doesn’t exist anymore, or maybe never did.