The first hour of A Hole in the Head is slow going. It shouldn’t be slow going, not with everything the film has going for it, but director Capra is real lazy. He’s lazy with his composition, he’s lazy with his actors, he’s lazy with the pace. It’s amazing how the film’s pluses are able to turn things around in the second half.
The script’s a very stagy adaptation of a play, with original playwright Arnold Schulman doing the adapting. Capra takes the easiest approach possible to everything in the first half of the film, which takes place almost entirely at lead Frank Sinatra’s hotel. It’s not a nice hotel, Sinatra’s not a good hotelier, but there’s something interesting about a little bit of a rundown hotel amid otherwise glamorous Miami Beach. Capra is indifferent to that possibility, unfortunately. Instead, he plops the camera down and shoots almost everything in medium shot, two characters in profile. It’s beyond boring.
Sinatra’s not just an unsuccessful businessman, he’s a widower with an eleven year-old son (a likable Eddie Hodges) and a twenty-one year-old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones). Between Schulman’s script and Capra’s direction, none of the actors get much favor, but Jones easily gets the worst treatment. She’s actually got a character and she does well. Schulman’s just lazy. She lives in Sinatra’s hotel, they’re not discreet, yet Hodges never gets to acknowledge her. Not really. When the film finally does try, it cops out. Worse yet, it cops out with one of editor William Hornbeck’s awful fades. Terrible editing in Hole. Not sure if it’s Hornbeck or just Capra refusing to take the time to get solid coverage. I’d assume the latter.
But Sinatra’s also unlikable in this first part of the film because it’s about him being a deadbeat dad. When redemption does arrive, in the film’s deftest move, it doesn’t come in the shapes of Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter (Robinson’s Sinatra’s successful, if miserly, brother and Ritter’s Robinson’s very patient wife) or Eleanor Parker (as the widow who Robinson wants Sinatra to marry), it comes because Sinatra finally gets a character to play.
By not shooting his actors in close-up, except as comedic reaction shots, Capra never asks them to act. He never asks them to try. I guess Hodges does get close-ups, but it’s so he can be likable, which is probably worse.
Sinatra and Parker have a very nice, very grown-up scene, with Sinatra leaving the hotel and going somewhere not shot in front of rear projection for once. Hole definitely shot on location in Miami, but not enough. At least not when none of the studio-shot inserts come close to matching. (Again, Capra’s clearly checked out).
After that scene, the whole thing starts to turn around. Schulman and Capra take Sinatra (and the viewer) outside the hotel, the script gives Hodges something to do besides be cute, Ritter and Robinson aren’t just playing for laughs anymore.
And, in the last half hour, A Hole in the Head gets quite good. The cast has a whole lot of goodwill banked from the first half, when Capra and the script clearly waste them, and it all pays off towards the end. The actors save A Hole in the Head. They save it from Schulman’s unsteady script, from Capra’s unimaginative visualizing of said script, from Hornbeck’s jarring cuts. They even save it from the awful Nelson Riddle music.
Capra asks everyone to do movie star acting in a story needing a far more muted approach. Sinatra, Parker, Ritter, Robinson. They’re all good enough actors to know what their characters need. Would better direction improve the film? Definitely. But it does all right without it.