Sunday, June 12, 2011

"The Ratpack" Are Entertaining In 'Robin'

I wasn't expecting what I saw in this film. A description of "Robin and the 7 Hoods" called it "A cross between 'mobster drama' and 'Guys and Dolls'. I've seen several mobster dramas. I've never seen "Guys and Dolls", but, having watched this film, I can say that the description is probably very apropos. It takes a hard edged story of two mobsters looking for total control, and combines it with musical numbers and elaborate sets.

The film is a story of the 1920's, in prohibition-era Chicago. At the beginning of the film, the man who controls the mob activity in South Chicago, a man named Guy Gisborne (played by a very young Peter Falk), and a corrupt police chief, to use the vernacular,whack the city's big mob boss, known as "Big Jim", played by Edward G. Robinson. From the first scene, we see two genres come together. In the scene, Big Jim commands a long table of corrupt cops, city officials, and mobsters. After a seemingly random musical number, the scene culminates in simultaneous gunfire, and the death of their leader. With hopes of total control, the south-side boss tries to take over the north side of Chicago, and gain total control. The problem (and herein lies the conflict of the film), is that the north side is controlled by a man only known as Robbo, played by Frank Sinatra (who also acted as producer of the film), and his friend and accomplice, Will, played by Sammy Davis Jr. Knowing that they're outnumbered by Gisborne, Robbo and Will enlist the help of an Indiana pool shark, John, played by Dean Martin, and the director of a city orphanage, Allen Dale, played by Bing Crosby. Together, Robbo, Dale, Will and John, begin donating money to the orphanage to make them appear as generous philanthropists, much like Robin Hood and his merry men. With this cover, they can continue running the illegal dealings of peddling alcohol for profit. If this weren't enough, and third party is looking for total control. She happens to be the daughter of slain mob boss Big Jim, Marian, played by Barbara Rush. She plays both bosses of Chicago, in her quest to replace her father as the omnipotent mob boss.

This film is intriguing for many reasons, but namely, the joining of two very different film styles. A story of the mob starring these very famous faces would have been enough, albeit very strange. While adding musical numbers, elaborate sets and choreography seems strange, it actually works well. Some films have tried, unsuccessfully, to pair one genre with a musical. When it's done poorly, the story line isn't enhanced by the music. When a film has to completely stop for a musical number, it doesn't work. While the musical numbers in this film may seem random (and some of them the number in which Davis performs a number about the joy he gets from the sound of a pistol makes when it's fired after he and the rest of his cronies smash up Gisborne's bar), you don't get the feeling that it is just a random occurrence. A mobster probably WOULD get immense joy from firing a gun, or destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property (although perhaps not enough to break into a musical interlude). But I digress. The film switches relatively seamlessly from a dark, almost noir-style film to lighthearted musical and vice-versa. Also present is the very easy going rapport between the members of the rat-pack. Each of them, Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and, in this film, Bing Crosby, have a very easy going nature with each other, trading the jibes and sarcasm that became ubiquitous in their other movies, as well as in their famous stage act. Being a lover of biting sarcastic humor (I know...hard to believe, but it's true), this chemistry alone made the film enjoyable for me to watch. If this had been the same film, but with a different cast, it would have been unwatchable.

You may read this and say to yourself "It sounds too strange to actually work", and, at first, I did too. But something about it was too fascinating to simply delete it off my list. Perhaps it was the A-List cast, or the fact that I am a sucker for a good musical. While this isn't a musical the caliber of a "Singin' in the Rain", just watching the chemistry between the four big stars in the film makes it a worthwhile, and entertaining film. I recommend it.

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