Saturday, August 26, 2017

From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, Part 4: The Rat Pack

In the immortal words of Joe E. Lewis, "it's post time" and passing of Jerry Lewis last Sunday brings to mind The Rat Pack - and especially Dean Martin.

In the Rat Pack, which featured three musicians who transitioned successfully into movie acting, the comedian was Dean, no doubt by fueled by a decade of setting Jerry Lewis up, often adroitly, in nightclubs, movies and such classic television shows as The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Lewis, arguably the last of that old school showbiz breed, would note that his partner, suave onstage persona notwithstanding, was a modest individual offstage who had no idea how talented he was.

Martin was an interesting anomaly in show business, perhaps more akin to Bing Crosby than to his colleague and pal Frank Sinatra.

As Bing and Dean made their names as relaxed entertainer/crooners, the concept of either as driven, unrelenting and ambitious - descriptive words that fit Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. like a glove - proved the diametric opposite of their showbiz brand, even though when they first rose to fame, that's exactly who they were.

While Dino did not necessarily want anyone to think he was anything but the devil-may-care swingin' Dino from Dean Martin Live In Las Vegas, The Rat Pack and The Dean Martin Show, he took his movie acting jobs seriously.

In particular, Dean digs into his character roles in two unbeatable classic movies, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo - and darn near steals these movies from some very big stars.

Dean also plays a most unsympathetic scoundrel of a character, the showbiz lout, in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid and pulls it off. The movie audiences of 1964 no doubt were taken aback by this - and it may not be an accident that this role would soon be followed by a return to Lil' Ol Entertainer Dino.

The larger-than-life Cult Of Personality legend of Frank Sinatra can overpower and obliterate everything, including his fine work as an actor. That said, one would surmise that The Chairman Of The Board, in one of his reflective times, would insist that transitioning from music to movies was not a transition at all, just part of an organic whole. Frank might mention Mabel Mercer and stress that singing, performed the right way, with proper attention to the lyric, was the purest method acting any artist could do.

Sinatra no doubt was intrigued by dramatic acting, and his performances in From Here To Eternity, which won an Oscar for Best Actor In A Supporting Role and Some Came Running were standouts. Among a fair number of plum character roles in Sinatra's five decades in movies, there's that baaaaaaaad bad guy, an assassin no less, in the 1954 thriller Suddenly.

Perhaps the most provocative, and still timely, of the films The Chairman Of The Board appeared in, was The Manchurian Candidate, directed by the frequently inspired and brilliant John Frankenheimer.

Sammy Davis, Jr. was arguably the last of a breed that also included Bobby Darin and Mel Torme: the entertainment dynamo.

An accomplished and acrobatic dancer with The Will Mastin Trio, Sam was the monster musician of the trio, ridiculously adept on piano, vibes, drums and other instruments. He also had a likability and warmth that was not just in his music or showbiz persona, but part and parcel of who he was as a person.

As part of Sammy's Mr. Entertainment persona, he could segue seamlessly into character acting, much as his contemporary and fellow musician, actor and child entertainer Mel Tormé did.

The first installment of From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies noted a little known masterpiece directed by Leo Penn (a.k.a. Sean's father), A Man Called Adam, in which Davis stars as a combative yet talented jazz trumpeter. As expected, Sam puts his heart, soul, intelligence and intensity into the part.

The indie film features an all-star supporting cast that also includes Tormé, Louis Armstrong and Rat Pack mainstay Peter Lawford.

Whenever Sam got the opportunity to act on stage or screen he made the most of it, right up to his last silver screen appearance in Nick Castle's 1989 film Tap.

Mostly, the 1960's did not mean character parts in dramas for Rat Packers not named Sinatra, but did mean a series of goofy comedies and spy film spoofs.

Just a few years after the ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack movies, that is to be expected.

In closing, one could do a helluva lot worse, pally, than relaxing by listening to some great records by Frank, Sammy and Dino, enjoying their movies and pondering their wide ranging careers in music and on the big screen.

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