Rat Pack – 3 = FOUR FOR TEXAS (Warner Brothers 1963)

The wait is finally over, my new DirecTV receiver has arrived and is all hooked up! Unfortunately, all my DVR’d movies have vanished. And since it was filled to about 70% capacity, that’s a lot of movies! Needless to say, I’ve got to load up the ol’ DVR again. Thanks to TCM, I re-recorded one of my old favorites the other day, FOUR FOR TEXAS, an action-packed Western comedy I’ve seen about 100 times already (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration). This combines the two leaders of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin , with the talents of director Robert Aldrich. The result is an all-star, slam-bang entertainment that is loads of fun for film fans.

The pre-credits sequence looks like we’re about to watch a traditional Western, with a gang of outlaws led by Charles Bronson   riding out to ambush a stagecoach. But wait, that’s Frankie and Dino defending the coach, shooting it out with the robbers. Frank is Zack Thomas, who’s got a $100,000 hidden onboard; Dean is Joe Jarrett, a sharp-shooting con artist. After the stage crashes, Zack and Joe are the only survivors. Joe holds Zack at gunpoint intending on stealing the loot. Zack turns the tables, but Joe turns ’em right back and leaves Zack in the desert, high, dry, and horseless.

Seems Zack “persuaded” Galveston banker Harvey Burden (a dyspeptic Victor Buono ) to get the money so he could open a riverboat gambling operation. Zack serves as “protection” to Burden and his crooked cronies. What he doesn’t know is it was Burden who hired Matson (our man Bronson) to bushwhack the stage and kill Zack in the process. While Zack relaxes with his main squeeze Elya (the voluptuous Anita Ekberg), who should come riding into town but good ol’ Joe Jarrett. Zack sends some of his boys (led by Mike Mazurki and Richard Jaeckel ) to jump Joe and get the dough back, but Joe’s aided by his driver (Calypso singer Edric Connor) and little Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits Joe’s loot (sewn into his jacket!) and takes him to meet riverboat owner Max.

Joe has second thoughts about investing when he sees the run-down, decrepit boat, and even thirds when Max begins shooting at him from a window! That is, until he gets a look at Max in the flesh – it’s Ursula Andress , fresh off her success in DR. NO! Naturally, they hook up, refurbish the boat, and get ready for opening night. Meanwhile, a cargo ship owned by Zack gets scuttled, and Zack assumes Joe’s behind it. He and his men storm the dock, looking for a hostile takeover, and the two go mano y mano (or at least their stunt doubles do!). Little do either of them know Burden’s the guilty culprit, and has sent Matson and an army of men to destroy the boat and kill Zack once and for all.

My favorite scene in the film has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the arrival of The Three Stooges   (Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe) delivering a nude portrait of Ursula to the ship. The comedy vets get to do their old “point to the right” gag, receiving a triple-slap from Dino for their troubles. They’re then accosted by a couple of elderly widows out to ban the painting, and revive their “toughest man in Texas” routine. It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure Martin appreciated it, having been a member of a comedy team himself with Jerry Lewis.

Director Aldrich is noted for his testosterone-fueled films like KISS ME DEADLY and THE DIRTY DOZEN , but he had his lighter side, too (THE LONGEST YARD, …ALL THE MARBLES ). He co-wrote the script with Teddi Sherman but allegedly wasn’t happy with it, nor with Sinatra. The film works for me though, with its plush sets and gorgeous Technicolor, Frank and Dean trading quips and barbs, Anita and Ursula both looking beautiful, and the top-notch supporting cast. Bronson plays his role totally straight, and it’s one of his best villainous performances. (His sick offscreen laugh is dubbed by Frank Gorshin, warming up for his later gig on BATMAN as The Riddler!). Buono gives another of his ace bad-guy turns as the cowardly, corpulent Burden. The roster of Familiar Faces popping up includes Wesley Addy, Marjorie Bennett, Virginia Christine, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam , Fritz Feld, Arthur Godfey (in a comic cameo), Percy Helton , Jonathan Hole, Yaphet Kotto, Jack Lambert , Manuel Padilla Jr, Eva Six , Abraham Soafer, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton , and Dave Willock . Now THAT’S what I call a cast!

There’s plenty of brawling, romancing, double entendres, and laughs to be had viewing FOUR FOR TEXAS, but curiously, there’s no singing from either Frank or Dino. Most critics tend to dismiss the film as just another Frankie & Dino vanity production, but I enjoy it each and every time I watch. It did what it set out to do – it entertained me. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what a movie’s supposed to do?

RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television

“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back, and a style was born. When Frank Sinatra caught one of Rickles’ gigs, the comedian started lobbing his insult grenades at the superstar. Sinatra loved it, and Rickles’ career took off like one of his verbal poisoned arrows, landing spots on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and especially Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Don made his movie debut in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, a 1958 submarine drama alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Not bad company for a Jew from Queens! Highlights from his film career include the role of the shady carnival partner of Ray Milland in Roger Corman’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Rickles also appeared in four of AIP’s “Beach Party” flicks, playing basically different variations of the same character (Jack Fanny , Big Drag, Big Bang, Big Drop). He was “Crapgame”, the hustling supply sergeant, in Clint Eastwood’s 1969 WWII heist movie KELLY’S HEROES, and had a memorable role as Robert DeNiro’s lieutenant in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 CASINO. That same year, Rickles gained a whole new audience when he began voicing Mr. Potato Head in the TOY STORY series.

But it was episodic television where Rickles truly got a chance to shine. Rickles never headlined a successful sitcom on his own (the closest he got was two seasons as CPO SHARKEY), but his guest shots are among some of my favorite Don Rickles performances. For example, his Newton Monroe on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ,   a nebbishy door-to-salesman who’s given a boost of confidence by Andy and Barney (“I’m not inept anymore! I’m ept!!”). Or the renegade Hekawi Bald Eagle, son of Chief Wild Eagle, on F TROOP. He was fugitive kidnapper Norbert Wiley, raising a ruckus on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Rickles hilariously played Sid Krimm, old Army buddy of Maxwell Smart (“When do we meet the broads, Max?”) on a two-part GET SMART, with his close friend Don Adams as Agent 86. Best of all was his 1990 appearance on HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, as the mentor to Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the creepiest in the series!

And we can’t talk about Rickles without mentioning his insulting every star in Hollywood on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts:

We’ve been blessed to have such a man as Don Rickles to make us laugh over the years. Hail and farewell, ya hockey puck! We’ll miss you!

 

 

Turn That Frown Upside Down With ANCHORS AWEIGH (MGM 1945)

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(Post-election blues got you depressed? Cheer up, buttercup, here’s a movie musical guaranteed to lift your sagging spirits!) 

Gene Kelly  and Frank Sinatra’s first screen pairing was ANCHORS AWEIGH, a fun-filled musical with a Hollywood backdrop that’s important in film history for a number of reasons: it gave Kelly his first chance to create his own dance routines for an entire film, it’s Sinatra’s first top-billed role (he was red-hot at the time), it gives viewers a glimpse of the MGM backlot in the Fabulous 40’s, and it features the iconic live action/animation dance between Kelly and Jerry the Mouse (of TOM & JERRY fame). It’s a showcase of Hollywood movie magic, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Kelly), Color Cinematography (Charles P. Boyle), and Song (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn’s ” I Fall in Love Too Easily”), winning for George Stoll’s Best Original Score.

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The plot’s pretty basic: Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on four-day shore leave in Hollywood. Kelly’s a notorious wolf, ready to go out and chase “dames”, while Sinatra’s the shy type (a former assistant choirmaster from Brooklyn!). Kelly once saved Sinatra’s life, so now Frank feels Gene “owes” him, and wants to learn how to pick up girls. They come across a little boy (cute-as-a-button Dean Stockwell) who’s run away from home to join the Navy. They return the tyke to his pretty Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), an extra trying to break into movies who Frank falls for. Kelly concocts a yarn about Sinatra being friends with famous conductor/pianist Jose Iturbi, and promises Aunt Susie an audition. He’s also fallen for her, though he tries to deny his feelings, and the usual musical comedy complications develop.

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What’s important about ANCHORS AWEIGH isn’t the thin plot, it’s those incredible musical numbers that help carry it from routine fluff to a higher level of art. Kelly and Sinatra perform together on “We Hate to Leave”, “I Begged Her”, and “If You Knew Susie” (a raunchy tune with funnyman Grady Sutton as Grayson’s would-be suitor). If you look closely at the dance numbers you can see Frank’s eyes watching Gene’s feet as he tries to follow his steps. The skinny-as-a-rail singer was no hoofer, and Kelly had to teach him to dance, later chiding Sinatra that he made him look “adequate”. Frank gets his chance to shine in his solo singing efforts with that incredible phrasing of his, interpreting the aforementioned “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Brahm’s Lullaby” (sung to Stockwell at bedtime, which also puts Kelly to sleep!), “What Makes the Sun Set”, and “The Charm of You”, all of which no doubt had the bobbysoxers swooning in the aisles.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the dance numbers, and the success of this film led to the pair eventually co-directing such classics as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. They’d met on Broadway when Kelly starred in PAL JOEY, and were reunited in Hollywood for his breakthrough in COVER GIRL. ANCHORS AWEIGH made them a force to be reckoned with at the movies. Gene’s athletic dancing in a number with Sharon McManus as a little beggar girl to “Las Ciapanecas” is a delight, and the fantasy “The Princess and the Bandit”, where he finally confesses his love for Grayson, is a marvelous precursor to the AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet.

But it’s for the sequence with Jerry Mouse that fans cherish most. Reportedly, Kelly and Donen approached Walt Disney with the idea of using Mickey Mouse as Kelly’s dance partner, but the cartoon giant turned them down flat. The duo then went to MGM’s own animation department, where producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were more than eager to take part in this joyful scene. Kelly visits little Dean Stockwell at his school, and enthralls the kids with a tale of how he once served “in the Pomeranian Navy” and brought laughter back to an animated fairy-tale land by teaching the King (Jerry) how to sing and dance. This whimsical set piece still holds up 71 years later , a true work of Hollywood art that hasn’t lost any of its charm:

Beautiful Kathryn Grayson’s operatic warbling has never been my cup of tea, but she’s more than okay as Aunt Susie, and I did enjoy her singing the Spanish-flavored “Jealousy” in a very well shot nightclub scene. Jose Iturbi’s flashing fingers on the piano uplift the standards “The Donkey Serenade” and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” (performed by Iturbi and a battalion of young pianists at the Hollywood Bowl), and he brings humor and warmth to his small but pivotal role. A battalion of Familiar Faces is also on hand, including Pamela Britton as a waitress (from Brooklyn, of course!) with designs on Sinatra, Leon Ames , Henry Armetta, Bobby Barber, Steve Brodie, Chester Clute, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy , Henry O’Neill, Milton Parsons, Rags Ragland , Renie Riano, and the entire United States Navy Band! With MGM, it was always go big or go home!

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Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops in this lavish Technicolor marvel. Sidney started in MGM’s shorts department, most notably the OUR GANG series, before being promoted to features, and quickly became one of their top musical directors. His friendship with Hanna and Barbera helped secure their services for the Jerry Mouse segment, for which we can be forever grateful! Isobel Lennart’s screenplay doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful musical numbers, and has more than enough good jokes and quips to keep the viewer interested between the dancing and singing. ANCHORS AWEIGH is one of the great 40’s musicals from MGM’s dream factory, a film to be viewed and enjoyed over and over again. As they say in show biz, “Now THAT’S entertainment!”.

Batter Up!: TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (MGM 1949)

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The National Pastime is just a frame for TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to hang its picture in. That’s okay though, because producer Arthur Freed and the MGM Musical Dream Factory put together a rollicking, colorful romp with turn of the (20th) century baseball as an excuse to let Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, and company razzle-dazzle us with plenty of songs, dancing, romancing, and comedy.

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There’s not much of a plot in this outing. The World Champion Wolves are at spring training, awaiting the arrival of star diamond duo Eddie O’Brien and Denny Ryan, who’re off on a vaudeville tour. Eddie (Kelly) is a skirt chaser with Broadway dreams, while Denny’s (Sinatra) a shy, geeky guy who lives and breathes baseball. They get to camp just in time to hear the Wolves’ owner has died and left the club to his only relative, K.C. Higgins (Williams), who happens to be (gasp!) a girl! Eddie makes a poor first impression on K.C., so you just know they’ll end up together. Denny’s being chased by fan Shirley Delwyn (Garrett), who’s involved with a crooked gambler (Edward Arnold). Romantic complications and skullduggery ensue, but everything works out in the end, with Kelly, Sinatra, Williams, and Garrett breaking the Fourth Wall to reprise the rousing tune “Strictly USA”.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wrote the story for the film as a bullpen session for their later collaborations (ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN). Freed wasn’t ready to let the duo bat as directors, so he hired pinch hitter Busby Berkeley, the crafty veteran responsible for early hits like 42ND STREET, DAMES, and the GOLDDIGGERS series. This was Berkeley’s last credited film as director, though he did choreograph a handful of others in the 50’s. Kelly and Donen did handle the dance numbers here though, showcasing Kelly’s physical style. I especially enjoyed his exuberant tap number celebrating his Irish heritage on “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore”:

There are nine musical numbers in all, including the rip-roaring “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”, featuring third banana Jules Munshin, who costarred with Kelly and Sinatra in ON THE TOWN, along with Garrett. Esther Williams even gets some brief pool time, swimming along while singing the title tune. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, Richard Lane and Tom Dugan lend able support as the team manager and his coach. Familiar Face spotters will note Murray Alper, Douglas Fowley , Henry Kulky, Gordon Jones, and Sally Forrest . And yes, that’s Danny Kaye in a cameo as a train passenger sitting behind Kelly and Sinatra.

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If you like classic musicals and baseball (and I do), then TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is a solid, bases-clearing triple. Filled with toe tapping songs and silly slapstick bits (thanks to uncredited gagman Buster Keaton), it’s as American as apple pie and “Strictly USA”. And who can argue with that?

Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra: SUDDENLY (United Artists 1954)

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board certainly had a long and varied career, beginning as a bobby-sox teen idol in the Big Band Era, then a movie star at glamorous MGM.  Hitting a slump in the early 50s, Sinatra came back strong with his Academy Award winning role as Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. His follow up film was the unheralded but effective noir thriller SUDDENLY.

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The title refers to the sleepy little California town where the film takes place. Suddenly was once a wild and wooly Gold Rush settlement, now just a peaceful suburb. Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is a stand-up guy, in love with local girl Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), a war widow with a son, Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen’s not ready to stop grieving her husband’s death, and to further matters she abhors guns. Her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, gets exasperated at the way Ellen overprotects Pidge and keeps turning Todd away.

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Todd receives some major news through the wires: The President of the United States will be arriving by train at 5:00pm for a stopover. The news is top secret, and Secret Service agents, led by Carney (Willis Bouchey), descend on Suddenly to secure the area. State police are summoned, streets blocked off, and shops are closed so the disembarkment will go off without a hitch. Three men arrive at the Benson home, which sits on a hill overlooking the train depot. John Baron (Sinatra) and two others (Paul Frees, Christopher Dark) claim to be FBI agents sent to protect the president. They set up shop at the Benson house, but Pop has some suspicions about the whole thing.

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Everything’s been secured except the house on the hill. When Carney finds out his old boss Pop Benson lives there, he goes up with Todd to say hello. They’re met at the door by Baron and his men, who gun down Carney and wound Todd. The truth is now revealed: Baron is a hit man assigned to assassinate the president! Todd and the Bensons are held captive while they wait for the train to arrive so ex-Army sniper and Silver Star winner Baron can do the dirty deed. Baron exerts his will over them all by threatening to kill Pidge first if anyone tries to stop him from his murderous task.

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The tension is unrelenting in SUDDENLY, and the ingenious ending will have you cheering the good guys on (I know I did). The role of John Baron is a total departure for Sinatra, and he pulls it off superbly. Baron is cool, calm, and collected one minute, a raging psycho the next. He’s completely lacking in empathy, his motto is “ace, deuce, craps, it don’t matter”. The only thing Baron’s ever been good at is killing, and he enjoys the power it gives him. A sociopath with no redeeming qualities, Baron brags about his kill rate in the war, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence to get his way. Sinatra nails the role of Baron like he did his many songs, and though he’s a real rat, it’s among his finest performances.

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Director Lewis Allen does a good job here. Allen made his feature debut with 1944’s ghostly THE UNINVITED, followed by a semi-sequel, THE UNSEEN. After making the 1951 bomb of a biopic VALENTINO, his career was up and down. SUDDENLY gives Allen a good showcase, but the rest of his filmography is uninspired. He ended in TV, including episodes of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and THE INVADERS. Screenwriter Richard Sale got his start in the pulps, and wrote such varied film fare as MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE, GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (which he also directed), and the Charles Bronson starrer THE WHITE BUFFALO. His screenplay for SUDDENLY seems to have inspired another Sinatra film, 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, with Frank as the hero and Lawrence Harvey the psycho-shooter. SUDDENLY was allegedly remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll. I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films and from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. I’ll stick to the original with this one.

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Frank Sinatra was always a saloon singer at heart, and my contribution to his 100th birthday bash wouldn’t be complete without a song. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes at his mid-60s peak doing one of my personal favorites. “That’s Life”. Cheers, Frankie!