BluRay/DVD Reviews

DEAN MARTIN & JERRY LEWIS COLLECTION, VOL. 2

By • Jun 5th, 2007 •

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(Paramount Home Entertainment) Three Discs

For a midsummer’s cocktail of bodacious babes, over-saturated color and cross-genre (not to mention cross-gender) confusion, you could do a lot worse than ARTISTS AND MODELS, Frank Tashlin’s first go at directing Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It’s probably the most visually splendiferous–also mind boggling–entry in the new Martin & Lewis set (volume 2, for those who like to keep count.)

Tashlin produced some of the most leeringly suggestive cartoons at Warners in the late 30’s, and his pacing and comic inventiveness seems to have increased exponentially by the time of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Set in the world of comic book artists, the film starts with Martin & Lewis poised between the lips of a gigantic girlie poster above Times Square, the poster’s mouth coughing up spumes of red and yellow paint. It’s a strong beginning for a work that seems to defy all conventions of either film-making or sanity.

Most of the transfers in this set seem to have come from unbelievably pristine 65mm elements (Vistavision, Paramount’s widescreen process, was shot in 65mm for greater definition) which is the equivalent of mixing caramel corn with chocolate truffles, except cinematically, it’s a lot more fun. The colors pop, the light caresses, and the depth of field is simply astounding. Although original Vistavision releases were in four-track stereo, the mono tracks on this set are extremely dynamic and pleasing to the ear.

Jerry Lewis has been a bone of contention between French and American academics for decades, so it’s refreshing to see him again as part of a nightclub act. Personally, I’ve always preferred Dean Martin. Anyone who could come up with the line, “It’s Sinatra’s world. We only live in it,” deserves our deepest respect.

Still, Martin & Lewis seem so profoundly mismatched, they’re fascinating to watch. Lewis is an innocent, while Martin is so experienced he goes comatose in the midst of a kiss. Lewis is a perennial optimist, Martin a consummate ironist. Lewis can also be a hipster, but of the rough and outrageous kind, using surprise as a tactic.

Although Martin & Lewis are less cohesive here as a team–during the shooting of HOLLYWOOD & BUST, on the set’s last disc, they were hardly speaking to each other–these are by far their best films. The budgets are bigger, the scripts are better, and with Frank Tashlin, they had a comic director of the first rank. (1953’s MONEY FROM HOME, originally in 3D and 1954’s THREE RING CIRCUS are missing, which will sadden completists.)

ARTISTS AND MODELS
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone, Eddie Mayehoff, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, Jack Elam.
Credits: Directed by Frank Tashlin Screenplay by Frank Tashlin, Hal Kanter & Herbert Baker. Adaption by Don McGuire. Based on a play by Michael Davidson & Norman Lessing. Music by Harry Warren. Lyrics By Jack Brooks. Photography by Daniel Fapp. Produced by Hal B. Wallis.
Paramount 1955 108 minutes color aspect ratio 1:85 widescreen 16:9 enhanced.

In ARTISTS AND MODELS, Rick Todd (Martin), a struggling artist, and Eugene Fullstack (Lewis), an aspiring writer, are roommates in a Greenwich Village boarding house. Eugene talks in his sleep, and from these nocturnal mutterings Rick steals the plot of a new comic book. Unfortunately, Eugene includes half a formula for a top- secret space station in his nightly monologues, so the spies of all four continents are soon after them, including a lascivious Eva Gabor.

There’s also Dorothy Malone at her dishiest as a friendly upstairs neighbor (!), and Shirley MacLaine in a bat lady outfit of diaphanous midnight blue. The film changes styles and genres with the aplomb of Paris Hilton receiving a DWI violation. Included are two quotations (or cross-promotions) from what were then current Paramount films, REAR WINDOW and THE COURT JESTER.

Tashlin composes images the way a child takes its first steps–with a sense of discovery and resolute courage. At times, the bright, primary colors seem to overwhelm the live actors. Jack Elam as the head thug, his face pliant as silly putty, comes closest to occupying Tashlin’s cartoon universe.

Though Daniel Fapp was Martin & Lewis’ usual cinematographer, the look of this film is completely different, as if a paint box exploded in an empty room. During the climatic musical sequence at the Artists and Models ball, there are so many colors– plum, purple, lavender, lime and scads of bright red–I expected my television set to scream in agony. But it comes off with nary a blemish.

What does Martin & Lewis have to do with this? Lewis impresses as a smoothly comic improviser without the usual subtext of infantilism and neediness. That he is a limber and evocative performer–for instance, his sublimely goofy pas de deux on a staircase banister with a love-starved Shirley MacLaine–makes him worth watching. He also possesses a hilarious verbal talent for the poetics of repetition. “My subconscious was battling against my conscious, and the basic intelligence of my mind wouldn’t allow myself to comprehend some of the problems that were forethought prior to sleeping, and at the same time, not having any rest, because of no sedation whatsoever to make my rest and dreams any brighter or smarter than they were when I was much younger.” Ahhhhh, ok.

The god Pan reconfigured as crooning everyman, Martin doesn’t probe Bing’s dark side–he started doing parodies of Crosby in cocktail lounges–so much as explode all myths with a wink and a shrug. His acting (like his singing) has a subtle virtuosity in its apparent ease. Martin’s delivery to Eva Gabor of the line, “Put you over a bar and they’ll always be a full house,” is so lackadaisical, it turns into a zen koan. Grace (the state, not Kelly) and the pleasure principle have never seemed so easy.

After five decades, this movie still has an amazing freshness, along with the plus of so many fifties bugaboos–breast fetishism, comic book hysteria, the space race, Latin lounge lizards, and perversely hued fashion statements–preserved in aspic.

HOLLYWOOD OR BUST
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Pat Crowley, Maxie Rosenbloom, Anita Ekberg. Tracey Roberts.
Credits: Directed By Frank Tashlin. Screenplay by Erna Lazarus. Songs by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. Photography by Daniel Fapp. Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Paramount 1956 94 minutes 1:85 aspect ratio widescreen 16:9 enhanced.

Tashlin’s tendency towards ironic self-promotion reaches an apotheosis in HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. In a prologue, Martin directly addresses the audience (a la Bugs Bunny) while we’re given sketches of Lewis imitating “typical” moviegoers. My favorites are a popcorn munching, chopstick wielding Chinaman and a compulsively amorous Frenchman smooching his sultry girlfriend, who, as Martin comments, “hasn’t seen a movie in years.”

The soundtrack undermines the action on screen to humorous affect. For instance, Martin is romancing a redhead while a radio announcer details a horse race. “Coming into the stretch, it’s Bachelor and She’s A Girl. Bachelor is making his move. Bachelor and She’s A Girl are neck and neck. And now moving up it’s Tiny Tim.” Then a bookie, played by Maxie Rosenbloom, enters wielding a revolver (introducing the main plot elements expressed by the Martin character–crime and sex).

Trying to describe this film, I am faced by a paradox. Tashlin seems to have set about not to tell a story, but to illustrate a series of themes dealing with movies and the tradition of comedy at Paramount (where the film was made) all reflected in the personas of Martin and Lewis. As in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, directed by Tashlin the same year (1956), there’s a constant interruption by gags that take the form of advertisements either for the movie studio or the film we’re already watching. (In fact, even the plot seems second hand, borrowed from previous films made by Paramount, and as such, able to be abandoned at will.)

Of course, the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies (also by Paramount), with talking camels and a jokey awareness of the actors playing themselves, can be seen as precursors. In HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, though, as scantily clad women sprawl across every hill and dale like an outbreak of measles, this over-baked, self-referential humor becomes, with a kind of leering profundity, Tashlin’s true subject matter. Before long, every shot is winking at you, with quotation marks around it.

For a movie so self-conscious, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST has a poignancy to its characters that’s surprisingly three-dimensional. The film begins with a typical Martin & Lewis conflict of innocence vs. experience. Steve Wiley (Martin) owing thousands in gambling debts, conspires to win through malfeasance a brand new car in a raffle. Unfortunately, Malcom Smith (Lewis) has the same ticket number and they form a tentative alliance, driving cross-country to LA. with Smith’s Great Dane, Mr. Bascom, in tow. Malcom has a crush on Anita Ekberg, the “bust” of the title, which necessitates the journey west. Mr. Bascom’s attempt to drive the car is one of the film’s highlights. The drooling pooch, photographed wide-angle so he seems to pop out of the frame, is garishly cartoonish and bigger than life.

Steve’s intention is to steal the car from Malcom. Initially stymied by Mr. Bascom, Steve becomes so touched by Malcom’s faith in him, that for the first time in his life, he’s conflicted. The addition of Las Vegas hit men half way through makes this decision a lot less abstract. Rather than being resolved, the plot gets sidetracked with a tour of the Paramount lot and a no-holds-barred canine romance. (Since Tashlin is directing, the dogs seem more individualized than the stars of the picture.) This does not come across as a flaw, but rather ends the film on a giddy high note. As Tashlin was forced to shoot the stars separately by the end (due to increasing acrimony) it’s possible they were not available for an emotionally satisfying climax. Still, one could make a case for HOLLYWOOD OR BUST being the best Martin and Lewis film, both in terms of a perfectly integrated comic style and also warm, sympathetic performances. (Which seems particularly amazing considering the conditions the film was made under.)

What’s most surprising is how good Dean Martin is, particularly his sense of timing, as he incorporates a serious dramatic characterization into his comic persona, and gets away with it, brilliantly. Martin’s tone of boozy conviviality hides an extraordinary range of emotions. Tashlin is right there with him, crafting an oddly successful amalgam of the free-wheeling Paramount comedy with the noirish sensibility of Billy Wilder’s LOST WEEKEND. Although many of the plot twists are dark, the film never loses its lightness of touch, nor does it stop being drop-dead funny.

Throughout, there’s a tension between Martin and Lewis as fictional characters and as professionals making a movie. In fact, their real personalities, which Tashlin allows us to see intermittently, comes across as another layer of fiction. Underneath the brashly orchestrated score, you can almost hear the whirr of film alongside your own heartbeat.

The only major problem is that the producers, in an act of apparent madness, allowed Jerry Lewis to share singing duties with Dean Martin. The squeak of chalk on a blackboard is more melodious.

This is the only transfer not taken from original elements. Although perfectly acceptable, the image is slightly soft and the color seems, by comparison with the other films, impoverished. As only a pink 16mm print with truncated compositions was available for a recent screening at NYC’s Film Forum, I’m assuming the original no longer exists. Although the box lists HOLLYWOOD OR BUST as full frame, the transfer is 16:9 enhanced, and plays beautifully on a widescreen tv, the compositions being just as funny (and also inspired) as everything else.

PARDNERS
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Lori Nelson, Jeff Morrow, Jackie Loughery, John Baragrey, Agnes Moorhead, Lon Chaney, Jr., Mickey Finn, Bob Steele, Lee van Cleef, Jack Elam.
Credits: Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon. Screen story by Jerry Davis based on a story by Mervin J. Houser. Songs by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. Photography by Daniel Fapp. Produced by Paul Jones.
Paramount 1956 88 minutes color 1:85 aspect ratio widescreen 16:9 enhanced.

As a child, I had trouble understanding PARDNERS, and I must confess the film makes even less sense now. It is handsomely produced, and about half as exciting as a congressional subcommittee hearing. Apparently, Wade Kingsley Jr. (Lewis) was spirited away back east by his mother Matilda (Agnes Moorhead) from a gunfight his father (also played by Lewis) was having with a Western badman. At least, I think that’s the case, but the proceedings are so slackly directed (by Norman Taurog, who also directed the original, 1938’s RHYTHM ON THE RANGE with Bing Crosby) it’s hard to tell.

Now fully grown, Wade returns to the same sagebrush-spotted terrain, guilt-ridden, I suppose (motivation is hard to come by in this film) to become its sheriff like his father before him. Of course, Wade’s not very good at being sheriff, so Slim Mosley (Dean Martin) helps him out. Why, I’m not sure, except this allows time for several Western themed songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, making the Sinatra anthem “High Hopes”, which I abhor and is also by the same team, a model of craftsmanship by comparison.

There’s a lot of tepid jokes having to do with horses and hoedowns, and poorly staged gunfights, with some authentic Western B actors, such as Lee van Cleef and Bob Steele, joining in, which for a moment gives one hope. Unfortunately, everyone seems to be impersonating beached whales, except for Agnes Moorhead, who rolls her eyes and glares robustly, as if she had half a mind to throttle all those involved.

LIVING IT UP
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Janet Leigh, Edward Arnold, Fred Clark, Sheree North, Sammy White, Sid Tomack, Sig Rumann, Richard Loo.
Credits: Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by Jack Rose & Melville Shavelson. Based on the musical comedy Hazel Flagg by Ben Hecht from a story by James Street. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Bob Hillard. Photography by Daniel Fapp. Produced by Paul Jones.
Paramount 1954 94 minutes color mono aspect ratio 1:33.

When I was five I so adored LIVING IT UP I can even remember where I sat at the long gone RKO Albee in downtown Brooklyn. (Sixth row center, on the aisle.) I’m happy as pie to have this disc with its almost flawless three-strip Technicolor transfer, as every image is suffused for me in a warm, nostalgic glow.

Based on 1936’s NOTHING SACRED (adapted second hand, really, from the musical HAZEL FLAGG by screenwriter Ben Hecht and composer Jule Styne) LIVING IT UP tells the same story, albeit with a gender transformation–Carole Lombard’s Hazel Flagg is renamed Homer and played by Jerry Lewis. Although not possessing Ms. Lombard’s allure, Lewis’ performance is surprisingly realistic and lacking in sentimentality, possibly his best work alongside Martin Scorsese’s KING OF COMEDY. (I may have loved LIVING IT UP as a child because I could identify with the character as someone forced to deal with the confusion created by the adults around him.)

Homer, the apprentice station-master at Desert Hole, New Mexico, drives a car contaminated by what he thinks is atomic waste. Homer goes to Steve Harris, the local doctor, who spends his time plucking guitar and singing (after all, he is played by Dean Martin). Ole Doc Steve scans Homer with a fluoroscope. Not noticing Homer has a watch with radium dials, Steve gives the kid three weeks to live. A few days later reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh) comes to town–originally cast with Frederic March in NOTHING SACRED, this is a gender switch of which I completely approve. (As to the significance of these gender transformations, I leave that to more rigorous minds, although there’s a strange moment when Steve sings Homer a love song, which is really directed at a picture of Audrey Hepburn.) Wally has convinced her editor (Fred Clark) it would boost circulation to bring Homer to New York for a big send off. Doc Steve has realized his mistake and told Homer he’s going to live, but seeing the trip has all expenses paid, they decide to play along. Pretty soon the boys are attending a special game at Yankee Stadium in Homer’s honor. (It’s the funniest scene in the film, and the only one that even attempts the satire of Hecht’s original.) When Homer doesn’t expire on schedule, however, their new “friends” become impatient.

Seen through the jaundiced eye of middle age, the situation is funny, but the movie isn’t. It may be somewhat unfair to attempt a comparison, but NOTHING SACRED, with its hyper-acerbic attitude, has a zinger every few seconds, while the laughs in LIVING IT UP are parceled out as if they were canned asparagus during the London Blitz. In its attempt to show how nice everybody really is, the later film’s funny bone has been anesthetized. The main New York street set looks so sanitary it’s got to have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Norman Taurog’s direction is genial but distracted. Though the movie is filled with pleasant personalities (particularly Janet Leigh, whose sense of timing here is infectious), the camera appears to be mired in concrete. Even the spectacle of Sheree North jitterbugging in a cocktail dress is anti-climatic. It’s also oddly anachronistic. Were there really jitterbug contests in Manhattan in the mid-fifties when Rock & Roll was sweeping the country? The film’s frame of reference seems stuck in the 1930’s, while its consciousness is strictly grey flannel.

Unlike other films on this set, the story wasn’t reworked for Martin and Lewis. Instead, they were simply plopped into pre-existing characters. Dean Martin, although given little to do, is his usual affable self, a sucker for a pretty girl or a martini, not necessarily in that order.

There’s been a mini controversy on the internet as to the original aspect ratio of LIVING IT UP. I recall it being projected in 1:33, as I had just seen WHITE CHRISTMAS (the first film in Vistavision) and noticed the difference in screen shape.

YOU’RE NEVER TOO YOUNG
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Diana Lynn, Nina Foch, Raymond Burr.
Credits: Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon. Suggested by a play by Edward Childs Carpenter from a story by Fannie Kilbourne. Music by Arthur Schwartz. Lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Photography by Daniel Fapp. Produced by Paul Jones.
Paramount 1955 102 minutes color mono aspect ration 1:85 widescreen 16:9 enhanced.

Once again Jerry Lewis is in a role originated by a woman, specifically Ginger Rogers from Billy Wilder’s first film THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. Although brought to you by the same folks who made the abysmal PARDNERS, this is an almost perfect example of the Hollywood assembly line comedy, what Walter Kerr once called “a watch that laughs.”

Kerr was talking about the 30’s, and it’s most surprising this renewal should suddenly appear at Paramount in the mid 1950’s. Yet along with crafting perfect parts for Martin and Lewis, who for once are truly presented as a team, this film, in spite of its machine-tooled origins, generates more than laughter, and has such perfection of form combined with a fleet, quicksilvery humor, it imbues everything with an elegant artfulness. Though not as zanily personal as the Tashlin directed comedies, in some ways this is even more to be cherished.

During a jewel robbery in a swank Beverly Hills hotel, Wilbur Hoolick (Jerry Lewis) accidentally comes into possession of the loot. He’s chased by Noonan (Raymond Burr), the jewel robber, who has already killed one man. Wilbur tries to escape by boarding a train but only has money enough for half fare. Disguising himself as a child, Wilbur chooses Bob Miles (Dean Martin) as his chaperone. Bob, who’s been making moves on fellow teacher Nancy Collins (Diana Lynn), is less than pleased. Meanwhile, Noonan is on the same train, and tries to pass himself off as Wilbur’s father.

This simple structure, character-based yet open-ended, allows Martin and Lewis to present, as in a nightclub act, their wildly improvised comedy of mutual antagonism and aggression. The scenes between Diana Lynn and Lewis skirt a fine line between the wholesome and subversive–she thinks he’s fifteen while his interest in her is purely sexual–although the comparable material in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is more sharply directed. A subplot with Nina Foch as a rival for Martin’s affections seems to make the film longer without adding anything, although this introduces a ripely surreal scene that almost enters Frank Tashlin territory, of Martin serenading a red haired Ms. Foch in a convertible, all the while seeing Diana Lynn’s sunset tinged image in the rear view mirror. The final chase on water skis matches razor sharp timing with comic personalities–Lewis resembles an inebriated frog experiencing zero gravity–and is as close as the Paramount comedy ever came to evoking the silent cinema of Harold Lloyd.

The sets and subtle color design give the impression of a high-toned amusement park–Disneyland crossed with the Ritz Carlton. Unlike the dismally directed PARDNERS, Norman Taurog’s pacing and compositional flair here are marvelous. The movie glows with a kind of gentle affluence. Even Raymond Burr’s villain (in stark contrast from his role in the previous year’s REAR WINDOW) seems cheerful and gregarious.

Paramount has released this set with no extras at all, not even a trailer. Considering both the historical and artistic importance of the films included, not to mention Martin and Lewis’ influence on improvisational comedy of the 60’s & 70’s, it’s unfortunate there’s not some kind of background information available. In my opinion, ARTISTS AND MODELS is an undiscovered classic, and YOU’RE NEVER TOO YOUNG is also a keeper, but as HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, although one of Tashlin’s best, does not have a transfer of optimal quality, and the other films are more problematic, you may want to rent a few first. Unless of course, you’re a Martin and Lewis fanatic, in which case you already have this set.

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