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The Pick of the Pack

Swing back through time with the best--and even enjoyably worst--adventures of that band of roguish hipsters, the Rat Pack.

December 06, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though the Rat Pack's heyday was 40 years ago, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop still represent the epitome of hipness and cool. They played hard and drank hard--they always seem to have a drink in one hand and a cigarette or some gorgeous babe in the other. They appeared in concert together in Las Vegas and made several movies--some entertaining, some just dreadful.

The Rat Pack performances have been released on CD. HBO made an acclaimed TV movie about the gang and a rare concert of the group played to SRO crowds at the Museum of TV & Radio in New York and L.A. and was a ratings hit on cable's TV Land channel.

And now Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh pays tribute to the Pack with a remake of its most popular film, the 1960 caper flick "Ocean's Eleven." Opening Friday, this updated comedy thriller about a plan to rob some Vegas casinos stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle and Matt Damon--pretty cool dudes in their own right.

Here's a look at the Rat Pack movies, most of which are available on video. In January, Warner Home Video will release several on DVD for the first time. And this Saturday, Turner Classic Movies will be showing several of the films, including the original "Ocean's Eleven."

* "Some Came Running" (1958): The Rat Pack movie era began auspiciously with this well-acted and directed (Vincente Minnelli) adaptation of James Jones' novel that is set after World War II. Jones was a good luck charm for Sinatra, who won a best supporting actor Oscar and got his career back into high gear with the classic 1953 version of Jones' controversial war novel "From Here to Eternity."

"Some Came Running" was more than 1,200 pages, and because it was so long it was difficult to trim for film. The movie just doesn't measure up to "From Here to Eternity." Nevertheless, Sinatra gives a sturdy performance as Dave Hirsch, a veteran who comes back to his hometown in Illinois after failing as a writer. He returns with a new manuscript in hand, as well as a good-time gal with a heart of gold, Ginny (Shirley MacLaine in a touching, Oscar-nominated performance).

Martin also excels in one of his best dramatic turns as Bama Dillert, a gambler with tuberculosis who becomes drinking and card buddies with Hirsch. Arthur Kennedy plays Hirsch's strait-laced brother and Martha Hyers is the teacher who believes in Hirsch's manuscript and brings some stability to his life. MacLaine became a favorite Rat Pack gal pal while they were shooting on location in Madison, Ind.

* "Ocean's Eleven" (1960): The entire Rat Pack stars in this caper flick which, truth be told, isn't much of a movie. But it's definitely worth watching to see not only Vegas of 40 years ago but the Rat Pack at the peak of their "ring-a-ding-ding" coolness. And who can resist Davis' crooning of the Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen tune "Ee-O-leven" or Martin's boss rendition of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?"

Lewis Milestone, who directed the 1930 Oscar winner for best picture, "All Quiet on the Western Front," does his best to rein in the Pack in this freewheeling all-star romp. While filming the movie in Las Vegas during the day, Sinatra, Martin and Davis were performing at night at the casinos. The film revolves around a plot to knock off five Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve--the Sahara, the Flamingo, the Riviera, the Sands and the Desert Inn. All the crooks are veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division, and led by Sinatra's Danny Ocean.

It was Peter Lawford who found the story by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell. George Raft and Red Skelton make cameos as does MacLaine, who flew in for a day from L.A. where she was making "The Apartment."

* "Sergeants Three" (1962): Perhaps this misguided remake of "Gunga Din" should have been called "No Time for Sergeants 3." The Rat Packers headline this comedy adventure set in the Wild West with the boys playing sergeants attempting to open an outpost on the frontier. Davis plays the Gunga Din character--here called Jonah Williams. Sinatra produced; John Sturges, veteran of such classics as "The Magnificent Seven" and "Bad Day at Black Rock," directed.

* "Four for Texas" (1963): Another misguided western adventure-comedy with Sinatra and Martin playing con men trying each to take control of the port of Galveston, Texas, circa 1870. The two just seem to be biding their time in this movie, which is a very long two hours.

European sex symbols Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress play the objects of their affections. Charles Bronson, Victor Buono and Jack Elam also star. Popping up in the film are appearances by the Three Stooges, Arthur Godfrey and veteran cowboy star Bob Steele. Robert Aldrich, who later directed "The Dirty Dozen," helmed this film which did not set the box office afire.

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