Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rat Pack rewind

Last week, as part of its month-long Frank Sinatra tribute, Turner Classic Movies broadcast all four movies featuring the fabled Rat Pack, or, as they preferred to call themselves, "the Clan." Sinatra's brood, Frank Jr. (diffident, but straight-ahead), Nancy (out-of-it, but I like her anyway) and Tina (poised, attractive, but I wouldn't want to tangle with her), co-hosted the pix with Robert Osborne. I skipped the first, and most successful, Ocean's 11 (1960)--I find it a chore to sit through, with the mechanics of the big heist both lazy and hazy, and the boys clearly weren't trying too hard as they squeezed in the filming between their Vegas engagements. I'm not all that keen on the new ones but they're breezier and more efficient, yet also more knowing. It's easy to see why the original was a hit--through the prism of a too-loose narrative it seemed to give insight into the ring-a-ding lives of its performers. It lets you in on their 24/7 world, just as the current pictures put an ironic distance between us and them.

[As it happens, I stayed at Sinatra's stomping ground, the Sands, in 1996, the year it was demolished and made over into a convention center. The maids were changing the sheets but that was about it in its final hours. Somewhere, in the faded carpets and cheap, cigarette-burned furniture, I thought I could see the ghosts of its joie de vivre past.]

The second, 1962's comic Western Sergeants 3, is much better. It's also, technically, the last: the expendable Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were cut loose after this one, for various internecine reasons, and the vital Sammy Davis, Jr. missed the next (lucky him) and returned for the last. In between the classics The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, director John Sturges rode herd on the principals, in a remake of 1939's Gunga Din shot, in glorious widescreen, in Utah. I love Gunga Din but this one has the same structural weakness, for impatient contemporary viewers especially--after a rip-roaring opening it settles into semi-improvisational romantic and interpersonal hijinx before starting up again as the pack takes on a Native American cult in the post-Civil War West. [By virtue of being better-written and more structurally solid the original gets away with all the tomfoolery, though Martin's double takes are sly.] Still, the action scenes (particularly the ones set in the mountainside Injun lair and a perilous rope-bridge crossing that might have inspired a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), are well-staged, the score by frequent Sinatra collaborator Billy May rousing, and Davis touching in the Sam Jaffe part, even if the all-in-good-fun spirit denies him the tragic character arc that gives Gunga Din its heart.

Sinatra (who except for Ocean's 11 produced all these pictures) said they were meant to be nothing more than entertainment, but that is tested by 4 for Texas (1963). It didn't help that the film was carelessly cropped after the opening titles; still, I doubt there was anything missing from the frame that might have helped. I'm a fan of director Robert Aldrich and have read (and written) spirited defenses of his less-regarded work. Never a one on this picture, however, and I doubt anyone will pick up the banner. Aldrich and Sinatra, a good match on paper for a more dramatic movie, reportedly clashed during the filming of this sludgy riverboat gamblers farce, and even with Charles Bronson, Victor Buono, and the lusciously blank Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress in the cast it just sits there, uncomfortably docked. Most painful is a feeble, final reel appearance by the last incarnation of The Three Stooges, though they at least are more in their element. I imagine it's preferable to some of the comic pictures Sinatra and Martin made. I am not, however, planning to check.

1964's Robin and the 7 Hoods is more like it. It's a cheerful, if dawdling, picture, despite the disruptions of JFK's assassination and the kidnapping of Sinatra's son during shooting. The only (sort-of) musical in the bunch, introducing the standard "My Kind of Town" in the opening credits and in performance by Sinatra toward the close, it has a pleasant Roaring Twenties atmosphere in ganster-ridden old Chicago and with the welcome Peter Falk (as the bad guy) and Bing Crosby (as a fop) in the cast a new pack is complete. Barbara Rush also has more to do in the distaff part, an afterthought in these boys' club movies. [Edward G. Robinson also shows up in an opening sequence cameo.] Sinatra's role in these pictures was pretty much to hold them steady, which he does; this one's stolen by Sammy, whose song-and-dance routine "Bang!," atop a speakeasy card table, is the highlight. [This is one of those films that must look like absolute hell minus letterboxing.] With a revamped book and more musical numbers--they are sparsely apportioned, as if no one really wanted to commit to the genre--this might work as a Broadway show. Gordon Douglas, an old Sinatra hand, directs anonymously but functionally, and I wonder what path these shows might have taken had there been more of them. The gig was concluded, however, save for an appearance by Martin, Davis, Jr., Rat Packette Shirley MacLaine, and the Chairman of the Board in 1984's The Cannonball Run II, one of Burt Reynolds' good-ol-boy vehicles, and a picture to make 4 for Texas look like vintage Preston Sturges.

Speaking of Sinatra, the last of the four, thus far terrific TV specials TCM is broadcasting, 1973's Ol' Blue Eyes is Back, airs tomorrow. This one pairs him with his MGM buddy, Gene Kelly. I'll be tuning in.

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