A Hole in the Head (Blu-ray)(Olive Films, 1.27.2015)
Frank Capra is both celebrated and notorious for his sentimentality, a trait that can be tremendously resonant when used truthfully (It’s a Wonderful Life being the best example), and hopelessly problematic everywhere else. The second to last film in the director’s illustrious career, 1959’s A Hole in the Head has a relatively dark view of family -- that suddenly and inexplicably turns heartwarming. While the film is full of historical curiosities (partly owing to a diverse cast that includes Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Thelma Ritter, and Keenan Wynn), Capra perpetrates bizarre misjudgments of tone, resulting in a puzzling clash of emotion and content.
Released four years before The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, this film similarly revolves around a single father and his good-natured redhead son. The difference here is the brazen irresponsibility of the father (Sinatra’s Tony Manetta), who neglects this child and racks up thousands of dollars in debt. Based in a Miami hotel, he eventually brings his wealthy brother Mario (Robinson) into the mix to help with his debts. However, Tony is unable to abandon his selfish impulses, making it necessary for Mario and his wife (Ritter) consider becoming his son’s guardians.
A Hole in the Head has a very ’50s understanding of parenthood. In relation to kids, women represent all that is calm, rational, and caring, while men are portrayed as endlessly selfish. Rather than offer his son any real guidance, Frank has a habit of making wildly insensitive remarks -- the title is derived from his claim that he needs his son like he needs “a hole in the head” -- carelessly ignoring his needs. (In one sequence, he dismisses this sleepy boy’s protests, forcing him to play cards at 4AM.) This makes for an interesting predicament, but rather than investigate the darkness, Capra allows the characters’ problems to abruptly vaporize.
That said, anyone interested in the aesthetics and values of late ’50s America should find plenty to enjoy in A Hole in the Head. While the film’s laid back approach results in low urgency drama reminiscent of television from that period, it also offers an intriguing glimpse of another era’s misguided take on parenting, gender roles, and humor. The transfer on this Blu-ray is not without wear and tear, but it offers a significant upgrade on the 2001 DVD. -- Jonathan Doyle