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Monday, October 16, 2006

Robert Aldrich and The Rat Pack Do 4 For Texas

Should you want to introduce a civilian to the joys of Rat Pack frolicking, take my advice and steer them to CD’s. You’ll gain few friends handing out 4 For Texas on DVD. Most would amount to coal in my stocking, though I suppose there are adherents. I can enjoy Ocean’s 11, and of course, Some Came Running rests comfortably on a fifties pantheon, but what of Sergeants 3, Robin and The Seven Hoods, Marriage On The Rocks, and today’s object of scorn, 4 For Texas, their humor near level of Playboy Party Jokes, or dog-eared back pages from Adam or Nugget. Rat Pack movies were not to be approached seriously, least of all by their stars. They needed directors on a slide like Lewis Milestone, or tackle dummies with Gordon Douglas’ stamina to cope with Sinatra moods. Robert Aldrich was far too good for this enterprise. When I read that Sinatra got $750,000 against 10% on 4 For Texas (to Dean’s 250,000), it was clear a lot of money was paid under false pretenses, especially when you observe how little he actually does here. Aldrich lit Frank’s fuse when he scheduled ten days on a desert location for an opening stagecoach pursuit. Sinatra replied he would be there for five, then faded two days ahead of that. He’s to blame for the ruination of this show. Aldrich spoke well of Dean in hindsight, but he was ready to litigate on Frank. Estimates suggest the recalcitrant star worked only eighty hours over thirty-seven days. Martin is clearly hauling freight for both, the more so in an excruciating second half. He was on board with Aldrich’s script from early on, hoping to lure James Stewart or Robert Mitchum to co-star. Cruel fate gave them Sinatra at the eleventh hour. The star lived down to his reputation --- arriving late and unprepared, demanding pages be lopped from the script, insistence upon a personal hairpiece handler, etc. If the director thought he had a bad time with Davis and Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, he was about to find out how things could be worse.

I always thought Aldrich was better doing serious with comedy than comedy with serious. 4 For Texas opens with a scene that would challenge ardency of Dean Martin’s fan base. He’s on a besieged coach with meek Percy Helton, forever the figure of fun in a thousand shows, unceremoniously shot dead by the villains, and having his pockets picked by a same callous Dean who moments before identified himself as the good guy. This gallows humor has a particularly nasty smell, and it pervades much of action to come. It also reveals the cruelty that underlies much of Rat Pack humor. Would Vegas Dean react similarly if some poor chump at Sands Hotel ringside pitched forward with a bourbon induced coronary? You wonder as he steals Helton’s watch and smirkingly reads the inscription. Was this really the sort of image Martin wanted to project? Nothing makes you squirm like comical anti-heroes who go too far. This one disturbing scene sent my mind in a dozen directions --- like maybe I’m poolside at the Tropicana in 1962 and the Pack walks by. They say Dean projected Look, But Don’t Touch. With Frank, it was Don’t Even Look. Must have been disillusioning for a lot of fans that tried to approach these two.

Frank goes in for petty meanness as well, though it’s more expected from him. There’s a scene where corpulent Victor Buono reports to town boss Frank for his marching orders. Poor Vic is swaddled in wool suits and strangulating ascot ties. Digital clarity reveals beads of perspiration in virtually all his scenes. You wish this discomfited man could play it all in gym trunks with a glass of ice tea in his hand, admittedly a less engaging visual prospect, but merciful alternative to costumes he is obliged to wear. Fat people are there to be ridiculed in a Rat Pack universe, so bullying Frank takes pains to remind Buono that he doesn’t fit the bill with regards servicing Anita Ekberg, her own Amazonian proportions ironically more congenial to a man of Vic’s size as opposed to shrimpy Frank. This is the sort of condescension that goes on between Sinatra and everyone he shares scenes with, providing unintended parallels to behind-the-camera rancor provoked by the star’s imperious attitude. Dean had to be annoyed at times, but at least he takes pride of place in the matter of romantic pair-offs (as if romance could have any application to Rat Pack smoker reels). Ursula Andress, fresh off Dr. No’s Jamaica beach, must surely have quickened the pace of Dean's forty-six year-old heart, while alleged cock-of-the-walk Frank is cruelly paired with hulking Ekberg, she of bat-wing eyelashes fluttering beneath hornet nest wigs. Her summons to Frank for intimate dalliance plays more like a threat to his comparatively delicate frame, as she looks fully capable of wrestling him to a standstill.
Sinatra lies around much of the time getting shaved and manicured. How does such a sedentary figure become top dog in Galveston? Dean is slightly less plausible as a lawyer turned amoral thief and gambler, shading his characterization by making unlikely gifts to an orphanage. Three Stooges fans are well aware of the boy’s belated cameo during the last thirty minutes of 4 For Texas, though you get the impression neither Dean nor Aldrich had caught their act before. Jules White should have been along to wave the baton, for their pallid clowning here makes the Stooge’s own Sappy Bullfighters look like The Gold Rush by comparison. Arthur Godfrey shows up momentarily, but that gag lays flat today, as who remembers Arthur Godfrey? More engaging guests may well have been four Texas beauty contest winners exiting the shiny Plymouth shown here. Part of their pageant bounty was a week doing extra work on 4 For Texas. I’d love to sit down with one of them today. The four occupied bar stools on Dean’s gambling ship. From what I’ve read, there were Sinatra imported call girls filling period gowns as well. Were those Lone Star innocents despoiled by an encounter with seasoned pros? Champ seducers Frank and Dean must surely have put in bids as well --- it was almost compulsory with these two. No doubt the Texas girls took home insights, if not wisdom, they’d have been years coming by otherwise.

Two longtime friends of the Greenbriar, Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, have contributed a pair of outstanding books to the Aldrich canon. The Films and Career Of Robert Aldrich is analysis based largely on reflections of those who worked with the director, as well as thorough research by the writers. Robert Aldrich Interviews is a collection of these representing Aldrich at various stages of his life and work. Both books are a must, and can be got HERE and HERE.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad once told me about seeing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin when they headlined at the Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe in the 1960s, back when Frank owned the place. He said they wheeled out the liquor cart and stood there getting drunk and cracking bad jokes all night, singing only snatches of songs, and few of those. No doubt he was exaggerating, but my dad never had much use for Frank or Dean after that.

For me, the remarkable thing about Sinatra isn't the number of loyal friends he had, it's how many of the stories they tell make him sound, even in the midst of their admiration, like one mean S.O.B. I think Pauline Kael's offhand remark was right on the money: Frank Sinatra might have been a great movie actor, but he realized he didn't have to -- he was already Frank Sinatra. But what does that really mean, now that the swingin' ring-a-ding days are as distant and alien as Restoration England?

We'll always have the records, of course, the way Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, and it's nice to know that this Hoboken wise guy took something seriously -- when he was in the mood. Plus, his lifelong devotion to Ava Gardner gives a hint that this crusty drunk had a heart to break. But as for movies...? There are From Here to Eternity, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate -- and speaking for myself, I've always had a sneaking affection for the Tony Rome flicks. But besides that, and the movies where he tagged along with Gene Kelly, what? The Miracle of the Bells? Come Blow Your Horn? Dirty Dingus Magee? You blew it, Frank.

12:50 PM  
Blogger The 'Stache said...

Wow, John, you sound like one of those Frank haters. Your insights explain a lot about the second half of that movie and why Frank basically disappears. Still, Aldrich couldn't have been surprised. Or shouldn't have been. Sinatra had made it clear for years that he wasn't doing a lot of extended takes, etc. For what it's worth, the opening scenes work well, in my estimation. But you're right about the pairing of Frank and Ekberg, that's all wrong.

1:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Didn't mean to come down so hard on Frank, but it does seem that he robbed Aldrich of a chance to make a better movie out of "4 For Texas". Actually, I think Sinatra's fine in most circumstances. He was certainly effective when he applied himself. I only wish he'd been more patient with the Rat Pack shows. "Ocean's 11" could have been a terrific picture with a little more effort, instead of just the very good one it is now.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in a household where Frank and Dino (along with many lesser italian-american crooners) were part of the soundtrack growing up. And while I can enjoy and appreciate (but don't seek out) their music, it blows my mind that the Rat Pack stuff was, at the time, considered sophisticated adult entertainment. I've tried to get through Oceans 11 a few times and just can't do it. I love old showbiz, but it just lacks any kind of charm.

Saw a great print of Some Came Running a couple weeks ago and liked it, but wasn't as blown away as I expected (and really hoped) to be. But, as noted, they could both do good work when it was called for.

BTW, my mom caught both at the Paramount in their early days. Risked a beating to skip school and take the train into NYC to sit through multiple shows of Frankie. Later on did the same to see Martin and Lewis (Mom: "You hear about people rolling in the aisles, but believe me, people were literally rolling in the aisles")

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that Martin did finally make films with Stewart and Mitchum later. From the interviews with Aldrich, Mitchum seemed to carry some kind of grudge that seemed to preceed The Angry Hills. In addition to what if Mitchum or Stewart had been in 4 for Texas, what if Aldrich had stayed as director of The Yakuza?

I saw Texas in its theatrical run. For a twelve year old boy, nothing was hotter than Ursula Andress in that flimsy nightgown.

4:24 PM  

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