How Did the Rat Pack Get Its Name?

  •  The film industry has experienced a shift away from movie stardom, with franchises and studios now generating interest in upcoming releases.
  •  The Rat Pack was a group of friends and co-stars known for their hangouts in Las Vegas casinos and around Hollywood, and their star power helped promote their films.
  •  Despite their flaws, the Rat Pack films were a product of a time when talent alone could generate interest, something that is not as common in today’s industry.

One of the most significant changes in the film industry since the “Golden Age of Hollywood” has been the devaluation of movie stardom. Although now its film franchises and occasionally studios) generate interest in upcoming releases, the film industry used to rely upon the appeal of compelling stars that could inspire audience interest based on their name alone. Few movie stars were as dominant within the industry as the Rat Pack gang. Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Errol Flynn, Jerry Lewis, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop led lives that were just as exciting offscreen as they were onscreen. However, the name behind the Rat Pack traces back to a crude joke made by Bogart’s wife (and frequent co-star) Lauren Bacall.

Who Were the Rat Pack?

Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Peter Lawford in Sergeants 3
Image via United Artists

The Rat Pack was a term loosely associated with a group of friends (and occasional co-stars) that frequented Bogart and Bacalls’ home in New York City. Beyond their shared stardom, the gang was known for their monopoly on a series of Las Vegas casinos that served as their popular hangout spot. The group was never necessarily a formal one, as Bacall and Bogart’s home also attracted celebrities such as Cesar Romero, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Janet Leigh. However, Bogart’s son Stephen identified Sinatra, Judy GarlandSid LuftSwifty Lazar, Nathaniel Benchley, David Niven, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, George Cukor, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Jimmy Van Heusen, and his father as the original “founding members.”

While these stars may have glamorized the big screen, their activities offscreen soon grew a bit salacious. Stephen Bogart noted that after his father returned with several friends from a stunt in Las Vegas, his mother indoctrinated them with the name “Rat Pack.” Bogart and Bacalls’ home was occasionally referred to as the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack“, and served as the gang’s primary hangout destination up until Bogart’s tragic death in 1957. Sinatra became the de facto leader of the Rat Pack in the aftermath and used the gang’s notoriety to their advantage. Sinatra and his fellow Rat Pack members starred in a series of films together that capitalized on their shared celebrity status.

Although Sinatra and Peter Lawford had co-starred together in the seemingly forgotten 1947 musical It Happened in Brooklyn, it wasn’t until 1958 that the “Rat Pack” created a genuine hit. Vincent Minnelli’s drama film She Came Running isn’t necessarily regarded as a classic. The film was based on a book by James Jones, whose previous novel From Here To Eternity had been adapted to the big screen and taken home the Academy Award for Best Picture. While She Came Running lacked From Here To Eternity’s emotional specificity, it certainly made up for it in star power. The film benefitted from the promotional tours that the Rat Pack led together, generating interest in the film that it wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Although She Came Running received rather dismissal reviews at the time of its original release, the film was a box office hit, and established the precedent that the Rat Pack could seemingly sell anything together. The success of She Came Running inspired several subsequent star vehicles for members of the “Rat Pack,” including the 1959 war drama Never So Few, the 1960 musical comedy Pepe, the 1962 Western Sergeants 3, the 1963 neo-noir thriller Johnny Cool, and the 1963 Western satire 4 For Texas.

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