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Fly Me To The Moon
Reflections on the Rat Pack Everybody knows what they did. This is what they meant.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
The vaudeville tradition that was the distant ancestor of their routines had relied on ethnic stereotypes: Irish and blacks, Germans and Jews, Italians and Poles—but as victims, as the lower-class butts of jokes. This was something altogether different, stars at the pinnacle of American entertainment who acted as if style and class and success were not at all incompatible with ethnic identification, whose act in fact proclaimed that they were truly American because they were Italian, or black, or Jewish.
It was as if that mixed-race gang of street kids from The House I Live In had learned the lesson about intolerance and grown up to embody it. Or, better, as if the World War II platoon of countless movies—Kowalski, Bernstein, Johnson, Maggio—had moved to Vegas; having beaten the Nazis, they would now conquer America.
The Rat Pack helped define what post-war meant, partly by allusions, overt and implicit, to World War II. Ocean’s 11 , the movie they worked on in Vegas between shows and cocktails—if work is the right word—was a heist-cum-buddy picture injected with hep talk and Playboy philosophy. Directed, presumably with clenched teeth, by veteran Lewis ( All Quiet on the Western Front ) Milestone, it is a bad but fascinating film in which Pack-plus-friends play an ex-platoon reunited for one final mission, stealing millions of dollars from five Las Vegas casinos, including the Sands.
The story reinforced associations already there. Except for Sammy, all the Rat Packers were linked to war pictures: Sinatra had his famous comeback in From Here to Eternity ; Martin first garnered respect as an actor in The Young Lions ; Sinatra got Lawford his first role in years in Never So Few ; and Joey Bishop was in The Naked and the Dead (“I played both parts” was his standard line). Like Ocean’s 11 , these stories were variations on that powerfully mythic multiethnic platoon. Now the war and its sacrifices were over, proclaimed both movie and stage act. Fitted out with tuxedos and bar carts, the old platoon, like their counterparts all over America, could guiltlessly grab for the money and pleasure that glittering Las Vegas symbolized—because success, fantastic American success, was the other side of the coin.
If their ribbing reminded audiences of their origins, if Dean’s singing “Volare” and “Arrivederci Roma” and Joey’s Jewish way of cracking wise and Sammy’s blue notes alluded to the old neighborhood, it was a neighborhood they and their audiences had succeeded in leaving behind. They had gone off to war from those overcrowded city streets and returned to buy houses in the new suburbs. They could relax a little and enjoy it, be Jewish or Italian or whatever, indulge in expensive cars or vacations, because the story of America was a kind of perpetual-upward-motion machine for every generation. And the second-generation immigrants on stage showed just how far, how fast, and how luxurious the ride could be.
The war and its sacrifices were over, their stage act proclaimed: Go and guiltlessly enjoy the fruits of victory.
The act worked because each of them projected a different attitude toward that aspiration and its success: Frank was the embodiment of slum kid become American classic; the others were foils. Dean, with what Variety called his “somebody wrote this song so I might as well sing it” attitude, suggested to the audience that the whole American success thing was a racket. Joey warded off envy with classic Jewish self-deprecating irony. Sammy, with his heartbreakingly perfect accent, turned every number into a drama of aspiration, giving everything to win over the audience, to have it accept and love him despite his race; the message was about overcoming odds. And Peter was the ultimate foil; he stood for the elegant but desiccated Anglophilic WASP culture whose day was over.
Philip Roth, in his novel of the postwar generation American Pastoral , describes this dream: “As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grand-father to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.” This was the other fantasy that the Rat Pack projected, the giddy, disorienting flight to American success. “The best is yet to come,” Frank sang, “and babe, won’t it be grand.” Fly Me to the Moon .