Friday, November 5, 2010

“Honey, if you're an average girl then I've been dating boys…”

One of my earliest classic movie memories as a kid was sitting down in front of the TV to watch a film starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis…it didn’t matter which one; I pretty much loved them all and thought Dean and Jer were two of the funniest people to walk the planet.  (Though I reluctantly admit my attention would start to wander whenever it was time for one of Dean’s songs.)  I’ve stated on the blog on several occasions that my favorite films of Lewis (and Martin’s, for that matter) are their various teamings; the two entertainers had a chemistry that one rarely finds in the “buddy films” of today—Dean, the older brother figure who alternated between patience and exasperation with Jerry, the mischievous “kid” of the twosome.

It’s also interesting to note that the Martin & Lewis films were the first indication to me as a youngster that movies weren’t just put together on television for my amusement; that what I was seeing were films that had originally played to large audiences in movie theaters in the same fashion as the Disney comedies my mother and father would take my sisters and I to on occasion.  I recall seeing Sailor Beware (1951) on ABC’s Monday Night Movie a long time ago—and I realize that the concept of these older films once playing on network television might seem mind-boggling to the younger TDOY readers, but I swear I’m not making that up—and doubled over with laughter at the sequence where Jerry has been left outside on the deck of a submarine that has submerged.  My father, who was watching it with me, began to describe in amazing detail as to what was going to happen next—and figuring that his predictions of events to come in the movie were a little too coincidental, I turned to him and asked how he knew all this stuff because “this movie’s never been on TV before.”  He laughed and told me that he had seen the movie about the time he was in the service over in Germany—and let me tell you, I rolled that thought around my adolescent cranium afterward for days on end.

Depending on what day of the week you ask me, Sailor Beware is my favorite Martin & Lewis film…but I’m also partial to Living It Up (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955), Pardners (1956), etc.  I am aware that Dean and Jerry’s movies do not feature them to their full comic advantage; the films are simply unable to capture the spontaneity and chaos of their nightclub act (the only medium that came close were their appearances on TV’s live The Colgate Comedy Hour).  But now that I’m older, there are a number of Martin & Lewis vehicles that simply aren’t as wonderful as I remember—chiefly among these is That’s My Boy (1951), a huge box office hit for the team when it was first released but now the only material that amuses me are the scenes with the unsung Eddie Mayehoff.

Halloween night, I had just finished the annual Rancho Yesteryear showing of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and because I wasn’t up to watching The Haunting (1963) on TCM, I decided to put my DVD of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in and have at that instead.  Unfortunately, a preliminary search of the apartment did not turn up the DVD—I know it’s around here someplace, but I didn’t want to futz with a full body cavity search…so spying the The Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis Collection Volume 1 box set on a nearby shelf, I opted to continue the combination of chills and laughs with their 1953 horror comedy Scared Stiff.  It had been ages since I sat down with it—but the experience wasn’t exactly what I had hoped.

Nightclub entertainer Larry Todd (Dean) gets the word that gangster Shorty (Leonard Strong) wants to see him after Shorty learns Larry has been fooling around with his girl Rosie (Dorothy Malone).  Larry’s all set to head for the hills, but Rosie talks Larry’s pal, busboy Myron Mertz, into meeting with Shorty instead—and when Larry comes to Myron’s rescue, a mysterious individual named Ramon Cariso (Paul Marion) is shot and killed in the hallway.  Larry, who was in close proximity to Cariso when the man was croaked, is convinced that he shot him because he fired his gun at the same time as Cariso’s killer.

Larry asks Mary Carroll (Lizabeth Scott) to hide him from the police—and as it turns out, Cariso was trying to warn Mary against taking a trip to Cuba to visit a nearby island she’s inherited in a will.  Learning that Mary is in trouble, Larry and Myron end up stowing away on the boat taking Mary to Cuba and function as her “bodyguards” while earning money for their passage performing with their old friend Carmelita Castinha (Carmen Miranda).  Once in Cuba, Mary, Larry and Myron explore a spooky old manse that belonged to Mary’s ancestors…and narrowly miss being eliminated by Cariso’s murderer, who’s trying to take possession of the house after discovering a secret treasure inside.

Yes, I know what you’re saying—“That sounds sort of similar to the plot of that Bob Hope movie, The Ghost Breakers (1940).”  I commend you on your amazing cinematic perception.  Truth be told, most of the Martin & Lewis comedies were adapted from earlier film successes—Sailor Beware was a reworking of The Fleet’s In (1942); Living It Up a remake of Nothing Sacred (1937); You’re Never Too Young a redo of The Major and the Minor (1942); Pardners a reboot of Rhythm on the Range (1936).  My policy on remakes has been made pretty clear over the years but I’m going to come clean here—I think all four of these films are every bit as entertaining as their originals…and in the case of Living It Up, I think it’s superior to Nothing Sacred (it’s one of those “classic” films that unfortunately has not worn well), knowing that I risk both the ire of Carole Lombard fans and being struck down in my tracks by the Classic Movie Gods.  (Heretic, thy name is Ivan.)

Scared Stiff, however, isn’t in the same company as the aforementioned films—but admittedly; following The Ghost Breakers is a tough act to follow.  Breakers is one of Bob Hope’s all-time best efforts, and what makes it stand head-and-shoulders above most of his films is that it not only features the comedian in his wisecracking prime but it also offers a meaty plot and some first-rate scares.   (Breakers, strangely enough, is also an exception to the “remakes mean trouble” rule: it was filmed twice previously in 1914 [by Cecil B. DeMille] and 1922, both titled The Ghost Breaker.)  If you’ve never seen Breakers…you’ll probably enjoy Stiff—after all, there are some sequences in the film that most assuredly bring the funny.  But for those familiar with the earlier movie, Stiff comes up—and I only half-apologize for this pun—a bit limp.

One of the interesting things about Stiff is that while the serious material performed by Hope in Breakers is farmed out to Dean, the comic bits are parceled out fairly equally to both him and Jerry…and in fact, in the last third of the film, Jerry is assigned the back seat (much in the way that Willie Best, as Bob’s valet and sidekick, is in Breakers) as far as the plot goes, concentrating on Martin and Scott’s attempts to solve the riddle of the old house.  In Breakers, what was a funny sequence with Hope’s character locked in the steamer trunk of heroine Paulette Goddard becomes in Stiff a vignette where Martin’s trapped in the suitcase up until the time it’s dropped off at the pier…and then somehow Jerry winds up in the baggage until it’s finally placed in Scott’s stateroom.

In the 1940 film, with Bob locked in the trunk and carrying on a conversation with valet Willie, a drunk happens onto the scene, played by—oh, I know this is going to shock you—Jack Norton.  Norton the drunk is convinced that the conversation between Hope and Best means that Willie is an incredibly talented ventriloquist, and the sequence generates big laughs.  In Martin & Lewis’ version, the inebriate is played by Frank “Crazy Guggenheim” Fontaine—and what made me chortle about this is not that it’s one of the highlights of Stiff (it is) but I couldn’t help but think of that old Tom Lehrer song, National Brotherhood Week…in which he explains that the previous week was “National Make-Fun-of-the-Handicapped Week,” which is chaired by Lewis and Fontaine, “as you know.”

Another one of Stiff’s highlights is a surrealistic sequence that could very well be a blueprint for some of the gags present in many of Lewis’ solo films: he has a conversation with his alter ego in a full-length mirror in the hotel’s hallway:


MIRROR MYRON: You’re not gonna run out on Larry—are you?  Remember…he’s your best friend…and he’s in trouble…now you go in there…and show that gang…that you’re just as tough as they are…
MYRON: I can’t go in there and fight that whole mob—they got guns!
MIRROR MYRON: You can get a gun…
MYRON: They got blackjacks
MIRROR MYRON: You can get a blackjack…
MYRON: They got big strong muscles
MIRROR MYRON: You can get a blackjack…


As Myron reluctantly ventures down the hall, his mirror image leans out to continue to prod him in a nice little bit of split-screen magic.

Scared Stiff also gave Dean and Jerry the opportunity to work with Carmen Miranda, Stiff being her cinematic swan song (she succumbed to a heart attack in 1953).  Sadly, Carmen doesn’t figure much into the plot outside of providing Dean and Jerry’s characters with a means of paying for their passage to Cuba but the musical numbers they do (Carmen, Dean and Jerry perform San Domingo and Song of the Enchilada Man) are a lot of fun; at one point in the movie Jerry gets to do his pantomiming-to-records shtick, imitating Miranda singing Mama Yo Quiero. Probably the best-known song is Stiff is I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine, which Dean croons at the movie’s beginning.

Where Stiff misses the mark compared to Hope’s Breakers can be attributed to several aspects.  First, I think the casting of Lizabeth Scott is all wrong—because I associate Scott with noir films, I kept expecting her to double-cross Martin and Lewis even though she’s supposed to be the damsel in distress.  I think Diana Lynn, a contract player who did three movies with the pair—My Friend Irma (1949), My Friend Irma Goes West (1950) and You’re Never Too Young—would have been a much better choice.  Also, the zombie in Breakers—played by Noble Johnson—was a genuinely terrifying menace; Stiff’s zombie, played by Jack Lambert…


…looks like a guy who’s on a bender.  The last part of the movie—with Larry, Myron and Mary exploring the old house—is really where Stiff can’t compare to Breakers; in the Hope film, the mansion was a dark, mysterious place with spooky atmosphere.  In Stiff—even though one of the characters points out that the house has no electricity…


…geez, there are enough lights in there to land a plane.  And this supposedly from one lit candle.

Stiff does feature a good supporting cast—Dorothy Malone is seductively fun as the chorus girl whose tendency to flirt gets her would-be paramours in trouble (as a waiter played by character great Henry Brandon learns to his regret), and George Dolenz, Mickey’s (of the Monkees) dad, is competent in the part essayed by Paul Lukas in the Hope version.  The script was written by Herbert Baker and Walter DeLeon, with “additional dialogue” by a then-unknown Norman Lear and his partner Ed Simmons—both of whom were writing Dean and Jer’s TV and radio show at the time.  The funniest exchanges, however, are retained from the Hope movie…including this, one of my favorite bits of comic dialogue of all time:

MYRON: You’re not going up there, are you. Larry?
LARRY: Of course I am…you can stay here if you want… (Pause) But if a couple of guys come running down here in a few minutes, let the first one go by…that’ll be me
MYRON: Yeah, well if anyone passes you that’ll be me

Oh, I almost forgot—if you’re wondering what Bob Hope thought of this film…well, he must not have had too many bad things to say about it because he and a crooner friend of his appear in a brief cameo towards the end.  (But I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it.)


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4 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Even the dialogue with the mirror is about halfway borrowed from a Hope movie (My Favorite Brunette.

Winifred said...

That brought back memories of my childhood going to the pictures every week and those two were high on my list of favourites along with Abbott & Costello. Like you I got bored when Dean Martin sang.

I never saw them on telly here in the UK I don't think they showed many films back then. Have to say I've never ever seen one of their films on telly at all. It's a shame because I think a lot of children would love them. Thanks for the memories.

Stacia said...

Halloween night, I had just finished the annual Rancho Yesteryear showing of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Hey, next year a bunch of us should live blog watching A&CMF on Halloween night. I've never seen it before. (Sorry.)

I love Dean Martin so much it's unseemly, but I just cannot take much of Lewis. There are a couple of moments of pure undiluted genius in "Nutty Professor" and he's phenomenal in "King of Comedy" -- and he's also the only good thing about the otherwise execrable "Boeing Boeing" -- but movies like "Disorderly Orderly" or "Cinderfella" make my head hurt.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Hey, next year a bunch of us should live blog watching A&CMF on Halloween night.

Oh, deal me in -- I think that would be so much fun. (Like I need an excuse to see the movie again, of course.)

I love Dean Martin so much it's unseemly, but I just cannot take much of Lewis.

This is why I prefer the Martin & Lewis films to the solo Lewis stuff. There was a dynamic between the two that vanished once they went their separate ways. I like a few of the Lewis solo projects--generally they're the ones in which he let someone like Frank Tashlin sit in the director's chair, like Orderly, Rock-a-Bye Baby and my personal favorite, It'$ Only Money. Professor may be the only Lewis-directed movie I can sit through, but even then it's because I find it more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha.