Hollywood stars, by definition, are known for their public personas, but in private communication, there’s so often something personal to be learned about even the biggest celebrities. Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall’s new book Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking (Abrams) brings together some enlightening examples of that phenomenon. In this excerpt, Frank Sinatra — in between a cheerful greeting and a subtle reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Day Is Done” — opens up about his ideas on how the movies could make a difference in addressing some of America’s most pressing problems.
In this letter to Albert Maltz, Frank Sinatra praises his acclaimed screenplay for Pride of the Marines, which was being released just as the war in Japan was coming to an end. Maltz’s script was based on the true story of Al Schmid, a Marine who was blinded at Guadalcanal after singlehandedly killing two hundred Japanese soldiers. Pride was among the first films to tackle the issue of physical and mental rehabilitation for veterans and to frankly address problems that returning soldiers might face, such as unemployment and racial and religious discrimination. The fight against bigotry was an important issue for both Maltz and Sinatra, who had recently collaborated on a short film called The House I Live In, in which Sinatra sings the title song in order to preach tolerance to a group of boys who are tormenting a Jewish classmate. The RKO short was released widely in theaters in November 1945 and earned a special Academy Award the following year. In 1947, Maltz was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and later was blacklisted and imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten. In 1960, Sinatra attempted to break the blacklist by openly hiring Maltz to work with him on an adaptation of The Execution of Private Slovik, but Sinatra was forced to abandon the project under pressure from powerful industry and political forces.
My dear Albert:
This is probably the first letter I’ve written anyone in quite a few moons. However, in every instance there’s an exception to the rule and in this instance, you’re it!
I have just seen “Pride of the Marines” and throughout my entire chaotic existence, I have never been so emotionally moved by anything—whether it be a film, a book or a story. Honestly, Albert, I was genuinely awed.
You see, you must first understand—excuse me, I know you do understand—that my anxiety and interest in our social discrimination (or what have you) problems have been hungrily awaiting such valuable assistance. When I think of the tremendous amount of Americans who will see and hear and be made aware of this deplorable problem, I tell you, Albert, it’s wonderful. A thousand guys like me could talk to kids in schools and people in auditoriums for a year and we’d still only reach a small amount in comparison.
Please don’t think I’m going overboard on this thing; it’s just that I’m completely convinced that the greatest, most effective weapon has suddenly come to life for the millions of bigoted, stupid, anti-everything people. I’m sure that they have read it in books and newspapers and I’m sure they’ve heard it on their radios, and I’m also sure that they have been talked to—but I tell you, Albert, this is it—just plain movies. You’ve got to hit ‘em right in the kisser with it and, baby, you really did.
So there—I’ve said my piece and unlike the Arab and his tent and his silence, I will very loudly fold up my soap box and make a helluva lot of noise on my way out.
P.S. If you haven’t already guessed how I feel—just for the record, I know that you’re the best goddam writer around. And believe me, it’s a big “around”.
Excerpted from the new book Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking (Abrams) compiled and edited by Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall. © 2019 Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall. Letter courtesy of Frank Sinatra Enterprises.