Le juge Erich Asperschlager refuse de faire l'amusement du Français dans sa revue.
"You and me, we're gonna be pardners / You and me, we're gonna be pals…"
The five films of the Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection: Volume 2 might not be essential viewing for non-fans, but they're a fun, often surreal, period snapshot of a legendary comedy duo in the final few years of their partnership.
Facts of the Case
Martin and Lewis were two of the biggest stars in America during the ten years they worked together. Though their bread-and-butter was a wildly popular nightclub act, they hit it big on radio, television, and in movies.
The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection: Volume 2 presents five of their final films:
Living It Up (1954): Homer Flagg (Lewis), a small-town railroad station attendant, is diagnosed with radiation poisoning and given three weeks to live. A big New York City newspaper hears about it and—figuring the sob story might give their circulation a boost—decides to give the dying man a chance to spend his final weeks, all expenses paid, in the Big Apple. When Homer finds out his doctor (Martin) misdiagnosed him, and he's not going to die, the two of them scheme to make the trip anyway, keeping his good health a secret from the beautiful reporter who broke the story (Janet Leigh, Psycho), her editor (Fred Clark, Sunset Boulevard), and the entire population of New York.
You're Never Too Young (1955): This remake of 1937's Nothing Sacred tells the story of aspiring barber Wilbur Hoolick (Lewis), who takes refuge in an all-girls-school, passing himself off as an 11-year-old boy to hide from the criminal (Raymond Burr) pursuing him. While there, he befriends a teacher (Diana Lynn, Bedtime for Bonzo), and her fiancé (Martin).
Artists and Models (1955): Rick (Martin), an artist, and Eugene (Lewis), a writer, find themselves out of work after Eugene's obsession with comic books gets them fired from the latest of a string of jobs. When Abby—the artist behind Eugene's favorite comic, The Bat Lady—moves into their building, they decide to try their hand at comic books. Abby's friend, Bessie (Shirley MacLaine, The Apartment)—part-time model and receptionist for Murdock publishing—falls for Eugene, who only has eyes for The Bat Lady. Rick, meanwhile, is trying to woo Abby and come up with the ultraviolent comic book Murdock believes modern kids want.
Pardners (1956): Wade (Lewis) and Slim (Martin) are the sons of two best friends and ranch partners. When Wade, a rich greenhorn, meets Slim, owner of the ranch their fathers died protecting, he begs the reluctant ranch-hand to take him back west—away from his domineering mother—and make him a real cowboy. Wade learns the west is more dangerous than he'd expected when he and Slim have to protect the ranch from the dreaded "Masked Raiders."
Hollywood or Bust (1956): Two men find themselves co-winners of a brand new car when con man Steve's (Martin) plan to fake the winning ticket is foiled by movie fan Malcolm (Lewis), who has the real winner. Planning to ditch his companion as soon as possible, Steve gives in to Malcolm's suggestion they drive the car to Hollywood (even promising the film buff an introduction to his favorite starlet). The scam artist finds it harder to get rid of his companion than he thought, however, thanks to Malcolm's travelling partner: a Great Dane named Mr. Bascom.
Full disclosure: I can't recall ever having seen a Jerry Lewis movie before. I did, however, just finish reading author Shawn Levy's engrossing biography, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. The Martin and Lewis story is fascinating, and it's a shame their contributions to comedy aren't better remembered. Thanks to Paramount's recent DVD releases, however, a new audience has the chance to see their feature films, with all they have to offer—good and bad.
If you polled a modern audience, I bet a good number of people would know that Dean Martin worked with Jerry Lewis, more would know him as a singer and member of Sinatra's "rat pack," and nearly all would associate him with the song "That's Amore" (though they likely wouldn't know the song appeared in the 1953 Martin and Lewis film The Caddy).
Jerry Lewis, on the other hand, is famous for the character he played opposite Dean Martin. Perhaps "infamous" is a better word. These days, Lewis is more a caricature than a character. Most people (myself included) know him best from impressions ("Hey laaaaady!"), references on shows like The Simpsons and Animaniacs, and, well, jokes about the French. Admittedly, when I first heard him do "the voice," I cringed a little, but after a while the years of prejudice—and countless imitators—peeled away, and I found myself appreciating (and enjoying) Lewis's comedic gifts. A brilliant mimic with impeccable timing, he has an amazing ability to control his body, face, and voice. Sure, he pushes it too far sometimes and the basic shtick doesn't change, but there's a reason later comics—from Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Robin Williams to Jim Carrey, Pee Wee Herman, and Adam Sandler—borrowed from his style.
As star vehicles, the films in this set feel formulaic (which isn't surprising, considering Martin and Lewis were in seventeen movies together over a period of eight years). Jerry chews the scenery as an energetic, emotionally vulnerable man-boy; while Dean always sings his songs and gets the girls (though he's got enough funny lines to keep him out of Zeppo Marx territory). There are flashes of brilliance, but they tended to make me wish I were watching the nightclub act that made them famous, instead.
Three of the films (Living It Up, You're Never Too Young, and Pardners) were directed by Hollywood workhorse Norman Taurog, who helmed five Martin and Lewis pictures in all. The other two (Artists and Models, and Hollywood or Bust) were directed by ex-Warner Bros. animator Frank Tashlin, whose films feel like cartoons come to life: there's a scene in Hollywood or Bust, for example, where Jerry's Great Dane, in the driver's seat of a runaway car, covers both eyes with his paws; and in Artists and Models, Jerry's imagination turns a drafting table into a working piano. It's a style Lewis would employ in his later work, and, in Artists at least, the surreality is fun.
The best and worst films in this set are also the two directed by Tashlin. Artists and Models stands out because it's funny and fascinating. The cartoon-inspired lunacy fits the duo's comedic style; Shirley Maclaine makes the perfect female counterpart to Jerry; and—though the story ties believability to an anvil and pushes it off a cliff—the film deals with socially relevant subject matter: the effect of comic book violence on the young, dreams and subconscious desire, the meaning of Art, and the Cold War.
Hollywood or Bust, on the other hand, has amusing moments but is mostly painful to watch. It was made during the worst of Dean and Jerry's fighting, and it shows. They appear together on screen, but the warmth and chemistry are gone. It doesn't help that Dean's character is the least likeable of the five films: The scene in which he forces himself on the female lead is creepy and uncomfortable (that she's magically in love with him two scenes later doesn't change things). The Great Dane that shares the screen with Dean and Jerry ends up being one of the best things in the movie—highlighting how weak the pair's relationship had become. Even years later, Lewis refused to watch the film, saying it brought back too many bad memories.
The Taurog-directed threesome are more consistent and relatable than Tashlin's absurdism. Still, they contain some pretty outlandish set-ups (Jerry passes himself off as an 11-year-old boy; the duo pretend Jerry is dying for a trip to the big city) and scenarios (an elaborate water-ski chase ends with the boat landing in a tree; Jerry wins a barroom brawl without really trying). Even though Living It Up, You're Never Too Young, and Pardners don't push the formula the way Artists and Models does, as light comedies they're fun to watch from beginning to end. (Of note is the hilarious Pardners title song production number, in which Dean attempts to teach Jerry how to use a gun, twirl a lasso, and ride a horse—the song also has the distinction of being the last song they sang together in their final on-stage performance.)
Four of the five films are presented in widescreen format; Only Living It Up (which wasn't filmed in Paramount's "VistaVision") is presented full frame. The transfers all look great, with bright colors and good picture quality. The packaging, with its die-cut slipcase and original art from the films, suggests care was taken in assembling this set, making the lack of any extras especially disappointing. All the films are presented in English, with the option for French-dubbed audio (and no, I won't make the obvious joke).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In many ways, these films are dated. Considering how quickly they were made, seeing so many of them in a row has the effect of making them feel like the formulaic money-grabs they were. Martin and Lewis have definite star quality, but by this point in their career the material can't have felt fresh to them either. The songs are fine, though few are memorable; and, though both actors share the screen (and the occasional duet), Dean's comedic talent is sometimes buried under Jerry's frantic physicality—a mark of how little the studio regarded Martin's many comedic gifts, forcing him instead into the one-dimensional role of the suave crooner.
Oh, and for some reason, no matter what part he's playing, Jerry Lewis wears his real-life wedding and pinky rings in every scene. Not a big deal, but still…
Fans of Martin and Lewis will want to pick up this collection, especially if they already own Volume One—I'd even recommend it to the curious. It's certainly worth seeing the real Jerry Lewis in action, if only to dispel the haze of imitation obscuring a real talent. For everyone else, there's not much reason to add this to your film comedy collection.
Not Guilty. Now stop making that face at me!
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