Lazy, talentless, opportunistic and rude - the Rat Pack weren't as cool as we think.
Would somebody please stop the miserable, periodic revival of the Rat Pack?
The January 2002 issue of Playboy magazine contains an article by Bill Zehme about the film Ocean’s Eleven (1960), timed to coincide with the release of the remake. The next day, NPR radio flogged the Rat Pack, with guest Angie Dickinson, who played Frank Sinatra’s estranged wife in the film, followed by Gerald Early, editor of The Sammy Davis Jr Reader. In conjunction with Early’s book, NPR played a clip from a new CD, The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands – where we hear the Rat Pack unmasked.
In the clip played, Sammy Davis Jr is on stage with Sinatra and Dean Martin standing behind him. Davis tells the audience he’d like to do impersonations of other famous singers singing the song ‘All The Way’, but before he can commence, Sinatra needles him. When Davis, trying to maintain the appearance of nonchalance, fires back with a quip, Sinatra says, ‘Why don’t you get Paul Revere, get on your horse and get the hell outta here’, before yelling, ‘The Yiddish are coming, the Yiddish are coming, the Yiddish are coming!’. Dean Martin chimes in, parodying a rabbi praying in Hebrew. This goes on for a couple of minutes before Davis, trying desperately to disguise his humiliation, says, ‘Oh, shut up’, adding, feyly, ‘You thilly goose’, and is finally allowed to sing.
Listening to that brief clip made me cringe. It is so unpleasantly unfunny. Sinatra’s treatment of his ‘friend’ Sammy Davis Jr shows just how vengeful and insensitive he could be. In 1959, Davis dared to tell reporter Jack Eigen that ‘there are many things [Sinatra] does that there are no excuses for. Talent is not an excuse for bad manners. It does not give you the right to step on people and treat them rotten’. Sinatra responded by calling Davis ‘a dirty nigger bastard’ and had Davis’ role in Sinatra’s upcoming film Never So Few (1959) rewritten for a young Steve McQueen. Only after months of grovelling and a public apology did Davis manage to ingratiate himself again with his master.
In November 1966, Sinatra interspersed some patter into a concert, making Davis and the situation in Watts the butt of his jokes. ‘He has an opening of his own…down in Watts. It’s a gas station. He calls it Whitey’s. He sells three kinds of gas…regular, ethyl, and burn, baby, burn. He had a wedding anniversary recently, and I sent him a gift – yeah. I sent him and Mai a love seat covered in zebra skin, so when they sit together they won’t be so conspicuous.’ (Davis’ wife, Mai Britt, was white.)
Apart from the perpetual interest in Sinatra, the Rat Pack revival seems inexplicable. I recall being amazed a few years ago when I heard there was going to be a movie and a book about the Rat Pack. In Zehme’s Playboy article we discover that while filming Ocean’s Eleven in Las Vegas, the Rat Pack, which temporarily enlarged to encompass some of the film’s supporting actors, burned the candle at both ends, staying up, boozing and wenching till sunrise. The film came last. I suppose these kind of stories fulfil a teenage boy’s (or teenage man’s) fantasy. If the Rat Pack phenomenon isn’t just a marketing ploy, then most Americans must truly be eternal 12-year-olds.
And what of Ocean’s Eleven (not, as Zehme and others call it, Ocean’s 11), the major visual record of the Rat Pack? Even apologists for the film, like Zehme, admit that it’s pretty poor – the reason to see it not being any inherent virtues, but because it catches the Rat Pack together in their native element, rats preserved in amber. It is ridiculous to try to argue that, apart from Sinatra, who is wildly overrated, as every performer who reaches the pop icon status becomes, any of the other rats exhibited any great talent.
Sinatra was a lazy actor, with what movie critic Pauline Kael called a ‘sometimes evident acting ability’, and he showed little interest in the filmmaking process. He worked only nine days out of 25 during the filming of Ocean’s Eleven. He far preferred partying till sunrise, showing up in the afternoon for his desultory contribution to the film. He would do one take, consider his scene done, and depart.
Kael perfectly described Dean Martin’s screen persona as ‘sloshed yet ambulatory’ – aptly summing up his musical legacy as well. And I have never been able to work out what fans of Sammy Davis Jr keep touting as his great talent. Technically, he may have been a wizard singer and dancer, but what did he do with it? Energy should not be confused with talent.
Davis never had a decent film role, and ridiculed his role in Ocean’s Eleven in his nightclub performances: ‘My friend Frank asked me to play a garbage collector in the picture – can I thank you enough, sire?’ Peter Lawford was the colourless Englishman from Central Casting who Sinatra used to gain access to John F Kennedy. Sinatra mocked him as ‘the brother-in-Lawford’ and discarded him after JFK severed his relationship with Sinatra at brother Bobby’s urging. Lawford said: ‘I was Frank’s pimp and Frank was Jack’s pimp. It sounds terrible now, but it was really a lot of fun.’ What fun. Joey Bishop, ninth-billed in the film, was in Ocean’s Eleven because he opened for Sinatra and moderated the Rat Pack’s antics on stage. That remains his tenuous claim to fame.
On Salon.com, Karen Croft excoriates the remake of Ocean’s Eleven for being a cynical, market-driven effort, while celebrating the original film for its clever plot, character development and great music. Great music?! How many of you would like to hear ‘Eee-O-11’, the film’s lame title tune, again? The original film was little more than an excuse to put a group of performers, notorious at the time more for their off-screen antics then their talent, on screen – so the public could get a glimpse of the Rat Pack’s fabled nocturnal revels and hi-jinks. As film correspondent Leonard Maltin writes, ‘Everyone’s in it, but no one does much’.
Ocean’s Eleven was a potboiler assembled by aging journeymen at the end of their careers. Written by Richard Breen (uncredited), Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, it takes nearly half its 127 minutes just to assemble the 11 members of Sinatra’s crew for the scene where he explains the details of the heist. By the time he directed Ocean’s Eleven, 65-year-old Lewis Milestone, who directed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), was well past his glory days, quite willing to serve as a compliant hack.
A telling anecdote reveals the contempt Sinatra had for the whole enterprise, and by extension, the audience for the film. When Buddy Lester told Sinatra, ‘Geez, Milestone’s a big dramatic director! Let’s do what he says’, Sinatra replied, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t bother anybody’. And he didn’t. He patiently withstood the pack’s pranks, including the liberal use of firecrackers, cherry bombs and stink bombs to enliven the working atmosphere. It is fitting that Milestone’s next directing assignment was replacing Sir Carol Reed on Marlon Brando’s embattled remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). After being removed from PT 109 (1963) for working too slowly, Milestone wisely retired.
Ocean’s Eleven has never been well regarded, even by writers with an affinity for the Rat Pack. In his book Cult Vegas, Mike Weatherford writes, ‘The energy that went into the Rat Pack’s fabled evenings at the Sands is noticeably missing in the film, along with any real sense of urgency’. It’s a lousy film, only momentarily brightened by the trick ending that Milestone conceived. As Amazon.com’s Tom Keogh writes, Ocean’s Eleven is ‘more an historical artefact than a good time’. It is a disservice to viewers who haven’t seen the film before to try to elevate it beyond that. Even Joey Bishop, the last living member of the Rat Pack, said, ‘If it was so great, why wasn’t there an Ocean’s Twelve?’.
The existence of the Rat Pack had less to do with genuine camaraderie than mutual opportunism, convenient circumstances and Frank Sinatra’s need for attention and sycophants. I hope the release of the Ocean’s Eleven remake will be the last opportunity for a revival of interest in the Rat Pack. They deserve to be forgotten.
Peter L Winkler is a writer based in Los Angeles. His article ‘Who Killed Nick Adams?’ appears in the current issue of Filmfax, and he has written about movies
for CineFan and has reviewed laser discs for Video Theater, where he was associate editor from 1988 to 1992. He is currently seeking a publisher for his book on James Dean, which contains exclusive new research into the actor’s life.
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