The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the December 10-13 Sinatra Centennial Blogathon, co-hosted by Movie Classics and The Vintage Cameo. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
“Look, fellas, religion makes no difference, except maybe to a Nazi or somebody as stupid. Why, people all over the world worship God in many different ways. God created everybody. He didn’t create one people better than another…Do you know what this wonderful country is made of? It’s made up of a hundred different kinds of people and a hundred different ways of talking and a hundred different ways of going to church. But they’re all American ways.”–Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In
It’s sadly ironic, but back in early November when I chose to write about The House I Live In for this blogathon, it seemed like this would be a fairly innocuous effort. Unfortunately, recent tragedies here and around the globe and comments from certain U.S. political figures have amped up the already-volatile debate on religious tolerance and persecution, making the message presented in this short as timely as when it was made.
Produced by RKO in the final days of World War II (It reached movie theaters in September of ’45, four months after V-E Day and one month after Japan’s surrender), the 10-minute film features Frank Sinatra, playing himself, in a recording studio singing “If You Are But a Dream.” During a break Sinatra heads outside to “get a smoke.” In the alley behind the studio, the crooner comes upon a group of kids getting ready to pounce on a lone boy.
Breaking up the fight, Frank wants to know “Why the gang war?” “We don’t like him. We don’t want him in our neighborhood or goin’ to our school,” one of the attackers replies. “What’s he got, smallpox or somethin’?,” Sinatra asks the juvenile mob. “We don’t like his religion,” one answers. When the ringleader shouts, “Look, Mister, he’s a dirty…,” Frank stops him before he can finish his slur (While specific faiths aren’t mentioned, it’s certainly implied that the boy being picked on is Jewish). “I see what you mean,” he tells them. “You must be a bunch of them Nazi werewolves I’ve been reading about!” (not to be confused with Werewolf Women of the SS).
Frank’s biting words get the gang’s leader riled, who says his father’s serving overseas and even been wounded in combat. “Wounded, huh?” notes Sinatra. “Say, I bet he got some of that blood plasma.” He asks the boy they were chasing if his folks ever donated to the local blood bank. Told they did, Sinatra suggests to the lad with the serviceman pop that his father’s life may well have been saved by their blood, then asks him,”Do you think maybe if your father knew about it in time he would rather have died than to take blood from a man of another religion? Would you have wanted him to die?”
Frank goes on to explain to his young audience how America’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths (see the quote at the top of this piece) and points out the insanity of prejudice. “Wouldn’t we be silly if we went around hating people because they combed their hair different than ours? Wouldn’t we be a lot of dopes? My dad came from Italy, but I’m an American. Should I hate your father because he came from Ireland or France or Russia? Wouldn’t I be a first-class fathead?” He then shares the story of how, shortly after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese battleship was sunk in an aerial bombing run thanks to the heroism of two men. “The pilot of that ship was named Colin Kelly, an American and a Presbyterian. And you know who dropped the bombs? Meyer Levin, an American and a Jew. You think maybe they shoulda called the bombing off because they had different religions?” “Use your good American heads,” he tells the boys. “Don’t let anybody make suckers out of you.”
Just to make sure he’s driven home his point, Sinatra treats the boys to an impromptu alley concert. Luckily, the orchestra inside the studio just happens to be striking up “The House I Live In” (also known as “What is America to Me?), a ballad first made famous by Paul Robeson. “The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street,” he sings, “The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet. The children in the playground, the faces that I see. All races and religions, that’s America to me.” Frank bids them goodbye and heads back into the studio, as the gang–now joined by the boy they were harassing–head off to collect scrap metal or plant a victory garden or some other wartime activity.
Of course, it does seems a bit incongruous nowadays when Frank’s on-screen brotherhood message is peppered with references to “the Japs.” And a line from the title song about “my neighbors white and black” was left out so as not to “offend” segregated Southern audiences. In spite of these missteps, The House I Live In–the film–went on to win an honorary Academy Award for its moving presentation of a theme that was in line with Sinatra’s long-standing and well-documented views against racial and religious prejudice. As for the song itself, so taken was the Chairman with The House I Live In that he made it an often-performed part of his concert repertoire for the rest of his career.
Even as his political affiliation shifted over the years from Kennedy-era Democrat to Reagan-era Republican, Frank was steadfast in his commitment to equal treatment and fair play for all Americans. “A friend to me has no race, no class and belongs to no minority,” he was quoted in a late ’50s Ebony magazine interview. Given how tempestuous the country’s attitudes on race and religion have gotten in just the last few weeks, it certainly seems as though we could use some more heartfelt words of wisdom from Francis Albert Sinatra on how to get along in this house we all live in.
Unfortunately, The House I Live In is not currently available on home video, but in the interest of brotherhood, you can watch it here: