By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
The original Rat Pack entertainers were primarily known for their individual accomplishments and their group antics in shows in Las Vegas and films in Hollywood, but they also owed homage to Mexico for contributing to their fame. They included iconic American figures Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin. While Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop may not be much recognized among the younger generations, they too were part of the Rat Pack.
The name Rat Pack was bestowed on them by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, who, after seeing the disheveled group after a night of heavy drinking, said, “You look like a pack of rats.” They were famous for partying, and one place where they could party without being mobbed by adoring US fans was Acapulco. They helped contribute to the reputation of Acapulco in the 1950s and 1960s as a glamorous place for rest and recreation. According to Sammy Davis Jr., who frequently faced major discrimination in the US, they were warmly welcomed in return by the Mexican people. So warmly, that Davis was invited to provide inaugural entertainment in Acapulco in 1977 by the newly elected President José López Portillo.
Another soon-to-be president, Jack Kennedy, was an honorary member of the Rat Pack during the time his sister, Pat, was married to Peter Lawford. He also shared their attachment to Acapulco, where Jack and Jackie had honeymooned. The group was redubbed the Jack Pack during the times he hung out with them. However, the relationship did not go well once Jack reached the White House, due to Sinatra’s alleged connections with the mob. Ironically, Lawford and Pat divorced soon after Jack was assassinated. Lawford married Mary Ann Rowan in Puerto Vallarta. The ceremony was performed by Luis Fabela Icaza, deputy mayor of Puerto Vallarta.
The Rat Pack’s fame and fortune overlapped with the Golden Age of Cinema in Mexico, so it is not surprising that Mexican superstars and the Rat Pack were involved in some of the same films. The revered Mexican comedian, Cantinflas, was the leading actor in the film, Pepe. Bit parts by Rat Pack members playing themselves included Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin.
A number of films made by individual Rat Pack members were shaped by their Mexican retreats. Bogart might be best known for Casablanca, but film critics agree that one of his best performances was in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This film, which has definitely withstood the test of time, was shot in the state of Durango and the city of Tampico. One of the first Hollywood productions to be shot outside the US, the film was selected to be preserved by the US Library of Congress.
A far less critically acclaimed movie, Marriage on the Rocks, starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in non-singing roles, also was set in Mexico. The comedy involved fast divorces, faster marriages, and remarriages in a Mexican beach resort. The concept of Mexico aiding and abetting serial marriages so offended the Mexican government that they banned the film and all other Sinatra films. In addition, Sinatra himself was banned from entering the country. When asked about the ban, the official response was, “The government is empowered to bar anyone from entry without giving any reason.”
Perhaps the worst quasi-Mexican movie made by a member of the Rat Pack was The Ambushers, a spoof on the James Bond films, starring Dean Martin. Martin, as the spy Matt Helm, is off to Mexico to track down a stolen flying saucer. Although the film featured a bra that shoots bullets and a device that makes men’s pants fall down, it was not banned in Mexico but simply ignored.
Although they spent many weeks partying and on location in Mexico, the selection of songs by Rat Pack members just barely reflected their attachment to the country. South of the Border was a hit recording made separately by Sinatra and Martin. Martin introduced an English version of La Paloma to fans who lived north of the border, but the Spanish version did not make it into his repertoire. Even Sammy Davis Jr., who was of Cuban descent, largely eschewed Spanish in his performances for standing-room-only crowd in Acapulco – ending with one word – “gracias”.
All the members of the Rat Pack are now gone. The former glamour of Acapulco has faded. But if you would like to spend time remembering the good old days, have a drink at an old rat-pack haunt, the now refurbished and re-glamorized Madeiras restaurant in Acapulco. Or watch the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven featuring the whole pack. It’s in English of course, but you can probably find a copy with Spanish subtitles.