The essential element to the Robin Hood story is not stealing from the rich and giving to the poor: this is a political statement, and politics even at its best is only a representative for values more basic and endurable. The essential element is that adventure will win out over civilization. Against Nottingham’s soldiers and laws, Robin offers an alternative in laughter, bellies warmed by comradery and self-assurance and ale, the spirit that places feeling good about helping others above running a successful business or keeping a kingdom in order. The real wrenching problem with Robin and the 7 Hoods isn’t the acidic law-and-order dialogue, skin-peeling musical numbers, or studio lot pseudo-acting. These only spice down the experience. It’s not even the fact that Robin does not steal from anyone to give to anyone else, since this isn’t all that essential. The real problem is that no one in this film, ever, gives a rat pack’s ass about doing the right thing or having even a bit of fun. “Don’t be a do-badder,” they say. They never do.
This moral naysaying is shockingly against type for a film bursting with Copacabana headliners. Remember that these are the guys hired explicitly to hold a mic in one hand, a drink in the other, and to generate a fantasy of wealth and well-meaningness that makes thousands of less charming people mistake clubbing for having fun. Robin and the 7 Hoods is drastically less endearing than any of its hoods. When was the last time you heard of a club act that got worse the more A-list talent they threw up on the stage? When was the last time you became bored, cynical, and insulted after watching Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr. shake their zoot suits without spilling a drop of complimentary brandy?
The first genuine atrocity of Robin and the 7 Hoods is that it turns these class-acts into encores in their own lives, like slumpy parodies of their own generation. The second social horror is in the painful purity of casting Frank Sinatra (who was under FBI surveillance for decades on suspicion of mafia affiliation) as a Chicago gang lord (Robbo, the Hood) who accidentally becomes a figure of social repute when he orders one of his men to get rid of some money, which accidentally ends up being donated to a charity. It feels too close to home, like a fluff piece fronting a campaign ad. This disposal of money is the off-hand cynicism that gives him the undeserved reputation of a merry man by the film’s media. It is impossible to be on Robbo’s side in this film, and not just because the key events are never shown (we only hear about the donation from a storefront radio). Old blue eyes should have been called cold blue eyes, for how businessman-like Sinatra himself waltzes over these sets, singing a note of a song here or there to prove that it’s his movie. He has one number to himself. Anyone else would be better as Robbo. The way Dean Martin walks anyplace like he’s already got his feet up makes him a far better heir to the cap and lederhosen than a real-life mobster banking on himself in a straight-edged parody of a children’s fable. Robbo doesn’t even star in this film – he oversees it, like Mussolini arranging his own political rally.
No one in the film can claim a shred of sympathy. It opens with a gang lord (Edward G. Robinson) being gunned down by his own mob. It’s played in such a way that despite the fact that the Tommy guns are filled with blanks, I really thought they were, like it was a joke. The gruff choir line dressed as gangsters, bursting at the cufflinks to break into the film’s first song, pass the buck to Peter Falk in a scene protracted to endlessness wherein Falk impresses upon the room how much of a movie mobster impression he can do. It wouldn’t be impressive at a dinner party (I don’t care how much contraband you pump into me). I had this impression of dreamlike sinking, as into a dark pool, when I realized that he would unironically talk like this for the whole film, like he’s an overdone mockup of another actor for a sketch on the Carol Burnett Show stretched to feature length. Then the first musical number began (“All for One and One for All”), and I swear I started taking on water. It’s quite probably the worst song I’ve ever heard in a major motion picture.
I do not hate musicals, even those that splice their songs into the film’s reality like they’re from another dimension where every person in existence is a dancer waiting to prove it (I feel like giving a sympathetic toast to Hello Dolly!, a film I hated and now envy). But Robin and the 7 Hoods is in its own class of classy awfulness. At one point, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby are standing in a room, with a song, and a skit about dressing up to be a gentleman mobster, and I swear it was like a live performance of impersonators at one of those senior community throwback gigs. This film immortalizes the parts of a performer’s life that should never be committed to celluloid: the depressing pall of cleaning up after everyone’s gone home, the grueling stand-up, the wafting through doorways out of the pure enjoyment of being introduced to people who already love you. Hope and Crosby used to make movies that were even less like movies, but by telling the camera directly that they were banking it for a paycheck it was at least less cynically nonconfidential. Robin and the 7 Hoods feels like a squeeze.
Even Sammy Davis Jr., a performer of such rugged vaudevillian panache that sometimes I don’t think he existed even in his own time, cannot reign in the catastrophe of the composition in Robin and the 7 Hoods. His song is not only unsatisfying melodically, never showcasing the actor’s range, but it’s a setup with no payoff. The entire song details his acuity with guns, an almost sadistic enjoyment with hearing them go off and destroying property, and this never comes up again. There is a final shootout against Falk but, and I mean this, it happens entirely off-screen. Why did we endure the eternal stand-up act of Falk’s character (called Guy Gisborne, to connect us to Sherwood forest again, as the film does, only in ways that make no difference) if not to see it through to the bloody end? Children at an orphanage are equipped with green caps and bows and do they rally behind Robin and save him from the coppers? No: they throw their caps down in disgust when he’s falsely accused of killing a police chief and then attend his rally when he’s acquitted. Charming. At least Sammy is still his energetic self one time: he leaps onto a bar counter at one point, earning him the distinction of being the only person in the film to burn any calories.
The film can’t claim the most basic knowledge of how to construct a joke, such as would be required of an emcee, a host at any dinner party or celebrity roast, the owner of any club. For instance, there’s a sequence in which Sinatra’s club converts as by Disney magic into a narrow chapel, after the card tables sink into the floor, the walls rotate, and the stools become altars. I was shocked this happened on-screen – it would be more par to the movie’s course to just film two separate rooms. But anyway. When Falk and the crooked cops show up to trash the place, they find only a church, and an interminable number called “Mr. Booze,” a song that is as long and frustrating to end as a particularly stuffy nose (no one seems like they want to be there. I guess I’m saying it blows). Anyway, the casino looks like a church. As soon as the cops leave, it converts back. What’s the joke? The payoff would have been Falk turning around without any cops to back him up, sure that a casino should be there, and when he returns five minutes later it’s full of card tables and scanty dames and no pews. He could look at the camera starry-eyed, like one of those goons Robin Hood conks on the head. And then he would go back and get the cops, and it would be the church again.
I’m just trying to scrape for the comedic minimum established by Looney Tunes and Stooges shorts, in a professed allusion to someone that calls themselves merry. Almost every shot in Robin and the 7 Hoods is a mid-shot of people in mobster getup, so much so that I had trouble seeing who was who (was the cameraman ordered to keep his distance from Sinatra so as not to reveal his age, and from everyone else so as not to make Sinatra seem like he was hiding something by comparison?). Dean Martin sings while hitting trick shots in a pool game but they all happen under the frame. Before this scene, he was acting like he couldn’t play pool (the precursor to a con perhaps?). But when Sinatra challenges him to a game he doesn’t know about Martin’s fakery: he plays him blind. I have seen a film that botches setups – I have never seen a film that abstains from seeing through so many of the ones that it’s already set up.
I will spare you the ending. It occurs in a world where good men always lose, even when they’re bad men who accidentally do something good for a change, played by men we like no matter what they do (though Robin and the 7 Hoods is testing that theory). Marian (Barbara Rush) takes over the Chicago mob by using charity and women’s advocacy as a front for counterfeiting. Robin and his men skip town. I would kick my child off my knee, before I let them stay there to hear this before bed.
Cast & Crew
David R. Schwartz
|Little John||Dean Martin|
|Will||Sammy Davis, Jr.|
|Alan A. Dale||Bing Crosby|
|Guy Gisborne||Peter Falk|
|Marian Stevens||Barbara Rush|
|Deputy Sheriff Alvin Potts||Victor Buono|