By Phil Hall | December 19, 2004

This DVD offers a wonderfully strange episode of Frank Sinatra’s TV variety show. Broadcast on December 10, 1959, the program was originally planned to be taped entirely outdoors in Palm Springs, California. However, an unexpected freakish rainstorm cancelled that plan and the show was hastily reassembled for taping in a bare studio which Sinatra compared to a handball court.

But even such unlikely circumstances, this particular Sinatra offering was among the best of the series. Despite the bad weather, Sinatra was in good spirits thanks to a guest roster which included the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, the brilliantly loopy British comic actress Hermione Gingold, fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford and Sinatra’s then-girlfriend Juliet Prowse. Sinatra, who admitted that he was rarely 100% comfortable on television, never seemed more relaxed in the small screen setting.

This is basically a typical old-time variety show, spiced with a few historic surprises. Lawford seems to ad-lib a plug for his brother-in-law, Senator John F. Kennedy, to which Sinatra responds that Richard Nixon will be demanding equal time. Sinatra cites his upcoming film “Can-Can” (Prowse was his co-star in that flick) by noting Soviet Premier Khurschev’s alleged anger at the production (the Russkie leader sat in on the filming of a dance number from that film during his 1959 tour of Hollywood). Sinatra also makes a sincere get-well wish to “Can-Can” composer Cole Porter – he looks straight into the camera and tells Porter not to change the TV channel!

Sinatra solos on several tunes, most notably “I’ve Got the World on a String” while standing astride two chairs (the original outdoors plan was to place him on a sand dune) and while serenading Prowse with “It’s All Right by Me” (the genuine affection he has for Prowse is poignantly visible). Fitzgerald offers a lovely turn on the sentimental ballad “There’s a Lull in My Life” and then shows a comic side in playing straight man to Sinatra as he serenades her with jokey lyrics in “Can’t We Be Friends” (the song has Sinatra generously praising Fitzgerald’s supposed rivals Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington and Della Reese before coming to recall her glory).

Gingold and Lawford perform together on three songs, and her bizarre charm helps to deflect his lack of song-and-dance talent. Gingold is such an amazing personality that it is strange she was not given more to do on this show, whereas Lawford only confirms his standing as the weakest link in the Rat Pack chain (he flubs one line, offering a tortured pronunciation of “alligator” which baffles Sinatra). A benign pop quartet called the Hi-Los turn up a few times, but their presence is completely forgettable.

This DVD is taken from a kinescope of the one-time-only broadcast of this program. The visual quality may not be pristine, but the peak-level Sinatra on display here more than compensates for any potential shortcomings on this disc.

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