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For solid entertainment it's hard to top something like Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Frank Sinatra grabbed buddies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., enlisted some wonderful character actors, tossed in the great Bing Crosby and modeled the whole thing after Guys and Dolls (1955).
Set in 1920's Chicago, Robin and the 7 Hoods opens with the city's chief gangster (Edward G. Robinson) being forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil. His replacement (Peter Falk) has big plans but he didn't take into account the competing gangster Robbo (Sinatra) and his band of not-quite-merry men. With his new sidekick Little John (Martin), Robbo sets about the humorously complicated business of rebuilding bombed nightclubs, laundering money through orphanages and avoiding bullets. Along the way he discovers the charms of Marian (Barbara Rush, later on TV's All My Children and 7th Heaven) not to mention whether crime really does or does not pay.
Robin and the 7 Hoods was shot late during 1963, not one of Sinatra's better years. The same day they filmed a funeral scene they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. A couple of weeks later they were preparing for a kidnapping scene when news came that Sinatra's son had in fact been kidnapped. Frank Jr. was recovered with no harm but the kidnapping scene never made it into the completed film.
As Newsweek so aptly said, "To get the film done would have been laudable; to get it funny was heroic." The songs - "My Kind of Town," "Style," "Mr. Booze," & "Don't Be a Do-Badder" - were the work of Sinatra faves Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen who even got an Oscar® nomination for "My Kind of Town", which has since become something of a Chicago anthem. Composer Nelson Riddle matched them with a nomination for his score.
Director: Gordon Douglas
Producer: Frank Sinatra, Howard W. Koch
Screenplay: David R. Schwartz
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Music: Nelson Riddle
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Robbo), Dean Martin (Little John), Sammy Davis Jr. (Will), Bing Crosby (Allen A. Dale), Peter Falk (Guy Gisborne).
by Lang Thompson
Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)
Despite the number of high-profile entertainers included (such as Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr.), movie projects involving the Rat Pack seemed to have existed purely at the whim of the leader of the Clan, Frank Sinatra. In the early 1960s, Sinatra had the clout to instigate such projects, as well as his own production company to produce them. Following up on such films as Ocean's Eleven (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and 4 for Texas (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) became the most substantial outing from a musical standpoint, featuring a full soundtrack of songs by Sinatra cronies Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, which included the future standard "My Kind of Town." The film also proved to be the most traumatic movie shoot of Sinatra's career and was a swan song to the 1960s incarnation of the Rat Pack as well as Sinatra's farewell to movie musicals.
The screenplay by David R. Schwartz takes a vague Damon Runyan-style approach to the Robin Hood legend, transferring some names and incidents to the gangland Chicago of the 1920s. The opening of the film is one of its best scenes, as a conference of mobsters brings out a birthday cake for boss Big Jim (Edward G. Robinson in an unbilled cameo). The "celebration" ends in a hail of bullets as Big Jim is killed and Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) tries to take control of the North Side. His adversary is Robbo (Frank Sinatra), Big Jim's hand-picked successor. Big Jim's daughter Marian (Barbara Rush) wants Robbo to rub out the gang that killed her father and gives him fifty thousand dollars. Robbo sends his pal Will (Sammy Davis, Jr.) to give the money to the local orphanage instead. When orphanage worker Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby) takes the story to the press, Robbo and his gang become Robin Hood-like heroes to the public. Marian then uses her charms to sway Robbo's pal Little John (Dean Martin) to help her in a counterfeiting scheme and use Robbo's charity as a front. Meanwhile, Guy and Robbo take turns destroying each other's illegal nightclubs, because, as Little John puts it, "When your opponent is left holding all the aces, only one thing left to do - kick over the table."
Following the release of Sergeants 3, both Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop had fallen out of favor with Sinatra, so for the latest film a new name was added to the Clan, Sinatra's singing idol and his co-star from High Society (1956), Bing Crosby. With the addition of Crosby, Robin and the 7 Hoods became a full-blown musical, and producer Sinatra recruited songwriter pals Cahn and Van Heusen to write the tunes and his longtime arranger Nelson Riddle to score the film. To direct, Sinatra initially brought in an old colleague from his MGM contract days, Gene Kelly. Three weeks before the start of principal photography, however, Kelly was out. Some sources indicate that Sinatra was uncomfortable with the level of choreography Kelly was planning for the picture; Sinatra cryptically told the New York Post, "If you're the producer, you're supposed to make the decisions. I wasn't making any decisions. I was taking orders." Gordon Douglas was brought on to helm the picture; Sinatra felt that the veteran director had gotten a good performance out of him in the Warner Bros. musical Young at Heart (1954), with Doris Day.
Having surrounded himself with friends and trusted colleagues, Sinatra should have had a smooth time shooting Robin and the 7 Hoods; it turned out to be anything but smooth. Years later, in fact, co-star Victor Buono remarked, "It's amazing the movie got finished." The first delay on the film occurred when President Kennedy was killed in Dallas; Sinatra had been a tireless campaigner for Senator Kennedy in 1959 and a great personal friend (although the relationship became strained after JFK's Inauguration). Frank Sinatra, Jr. is quoted in the book Sinatra Treasures on the assassination and an eerie premonition his father experienced on location: "They were filming a scene at a cemetery on 3rd Street and Western Avenue (when they bury Big Jim). My father told me [that] on that day, in between takes, he stepped out of the shot and sat on a tombstone to have a cigarette, and when he looked down on a grave it read, 'John F. Kennedy 1883-1940.' The next day they were filming again in the cemetery, and he was in a car when it came over the radio that President Kennedy had been assassinated. They were in the middle of a take, and my father went over to director Gordon Douglas and put his hands up and told Gordon to cut. That alone delayed the picture a good ten days."
The other major delay on Robin and the 7 Hoods occurred soon after the death of the President, when on December 8, 1963, nineteen-year-old Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped at knifepoint in Lake Tahoe and held for ransom. With friends in high places, Sinatra Sr. consulted with both Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover before meeting the demands and handing over $240,000. Five days after his abduction Frank Jr. was released unharmed and two days after that the authorities captured the rather amateurish kidnappers. Of course, production of the film was shut down during the entire ordeal. By all accounts, Sinatra had lost all enthusiasm in the project by this time and the remaining filming was rushed. According to Lew Irwin, author of Sinatra: A Life Remembered, "he wrapped up filming... so fast that he did not include a Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen song that Cahn thought was one of the best he had ever written for Sinatra...Cahn later called this omission 'the one great disappointment with Frank Sinatra in my life.'"
Robin and the 7 Hoods opened in Los Angeles on June 29, 1964 and in New York on August 5th; critical response was mixed. Life magazine's Richard Oulahan offered a rave, after first listing the other "Clan" movies, which he judged to be "mistakes." "To my utter surprise," he wrote, "it turned out to be a swinging film, fast-moving and lighter-than-air....Here a plot is merely a place where stiffs are planted. The characters, the gags, the color, the songs and the goofy situations are what count. And they count up to a lucky seven." Oulahan writes that "the songs are unmemorable, yet they all fit the occasion like diamond cuff links on a white-on-white shirt. ...With this off-gait, off-beat film, Sinatra and the Clan have finally made their point. I sincerely hope that they will stop, now that they're ahead."
Meanwhile, the critic for Time magazine was less impressed, writing that "Robin and the 7 Hoods is less exciting than Little Caesar, less convincing than The Roaring Twenties, and less tuneful than Guys and Dolls....The actors snap their fingers at the plot, and ...the rest of the film runs to self-parody, augmented by boyish enthusiasm for booze, broads, violence and bad grammar. Though 7 Hoods offers negligible entertainment value, it does provide innocuous occupational therapy for the western world's best-paid gang of rebels without a cause." Variety claimed the film was only "slightly wacky" but had praise for the performances: "[Peter] Falk comes out best. His comic gangster is a pure gem. Sinatra, of course, is smooth and Crosby in a 'different' type of role rates a big hand." In The Hollywood Reporter, James Powers called the film "...better than its predecessors because there are not so many inside jokes, because there is more story and with it, new jokes, and because the stars work harder." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dismissed the effort completely, calling it "an artless and obvious film."
In spite of the grousing of Mr. Crowther, Robin and the 7 Hoods did respectable business at the box-office, even in the year of Beatlemania. There may have been too much plot getting in the way of the music, but response to the Cahn and Van Heusen tunes was positive. Each artist gets a showcase number, as Dean croons "Any Man Who Loves His Mother" while ironically hustling pool, Davis cavorts through "Bang! Bang!" while destroying a nightclub, and Bing relives a little Going My Way (1944) magic as he croons "Don't be a Do-Badder" with a group of orphans in tow. Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" is a showstopper, of course - it was nominated for an Oscar® as Best Music, Original Song (it lost to "Chim Chim Cher-ee" by the Sherman brothers from Mary Poppins). There is also a memorable group effort on "Mr. Booze," a tongue-in-cheek ditty concerning the evils of alcohol. Aside from a rushed and nonsensical ending, there is little evidence of Sinatra's behind-the-scenes travails in the final film, and it is hard to challenge the joy evident in the number "Style", a mid-film sequence which showcases the trio of Sinatra, Martin, and Crosby in a simple setting performing a soft-shoe routine in natty evening wear. As Tom Santopietro writes in Sinatra in Hollywood, "No one knows what's happening in the plot, there's no sense that the three men are even playing characters, and it doesn't matter one damn bit. The audience is simply watching Frank, Dean, and Bing in top form, and that's plenty good enough. Sinatra appears to be having an absolute ball -- and with good reason. He is performing a clever song with his onetime idol (Crosby) and his best film pal (Martin)."
Robin and the 7 Hoods would turn out to be the last movie musical appearance by both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. After its release, Sammy Davis, Jr. began a long run on Broadway in the show Golden Boy, and while Dean Martin made another film with Sinatra, the comedy Marriage on the Rocks (1965), he also began production on his long-running TV series The Dean Martin Comedy Hour (1965-1974). Gordon Douglas went on to direct Sinatra in his trio of late-1960s detective films: Tony Rome (1967), The Detective, and Lady in Cement (both 1968).
In 2010 Robin and the 7 Hoods was adapted to a stage production with a new book by Tony Award-winning Rupert Holmes which keeps the main characters and Chicago setting but throws out much of the convoluted plot of the original. The stage adaptation also adds many other more famous Cahn and Van Heusen songs, such as "Come Dance with Me," "Call Me Irresponsible," "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," and "High Hopes."
Producer: Frank Sinatra
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: David R. Schwartz
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Production Design: LeRoy Deane
Music: Nelson Riddle
Songs: Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen
Film Editing: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Robbo), Dean Martin (Little John), Sammy Davis, Jr. (Will), Bing Crosby (Allen A. Dale), Peter Falk (Guy Gisborne), Barbara Rush (Marian Stevens), Victor Buono (Deputy Sheriff Alvin Potts), Hank Henry (Six Seconds), Robert Foulk (Sheriff Octavius Glick), Allen Jenkins (Vermin Whitouski)
by John M. Miller
Sinatra in Hollywood, Tom Santopietro, 2008, Thomas Dunne Books.
Sinatra Treasures: Intimate Photos, mementos, and Music from the Sinatra Family Collection, Charles Pignone, 2004, Bulfinch.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., Gary Fishgall, 2003, Scribner.
Sinatra: A Life Remembered, Lew Irwin, 1998, Running Press.