"Here come da judge!" Here comes Judge George Hatch (not a Laugh-In character), with some "bottled dynamite." But is it a blast or a backfire?
"I would describe Sammy Davis, Jr. in two words: Bottled Dynamite."—Joe Varsalona, music historian
"Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to get insulted."—Sammy Davis, Jr.
The promo on the back of the keepcase describes Sammy Davis, Jr.—One Cool Cat as "a fascinating and affectionate look at the life and career of an entertainment legend." For anyone who wants a 60-minute Cliff Notes video digest of Sammy, that's exactly what you'll get. "There is a lot of archival footage and rarely seen photos, performance clips—" Aye, and here's the rub! These "clips" give you but a mere glimpse of what a powerhouse entertainer this man was. Director Marino Amoruso fails to adhere to the basic principle of "Show. Don't Tell."
Facts of the Case
About a half-dozen music historians and scholars relate the usual clichéd show-biz facts: "Born in Harlem in 1925, Sammy was raised in the true vaudeville style. He was the complete package.and was on stage at three years of age. By the time he was five, he was part of The Will Mastin Trio with his father and 'Uncle Will.' In a short time, the trio included the subtitle, "Starring Sammy Davis, Jr."
It's very frustrating to listen to these talking heads and watch photo montages that are interspersed with all-too-brief snippets of the boy and young man in action, and, ultimately, realizing his potential.
Only Ted Levy—who like Sammy Davis, Jr., is a tap dancer and entertainer—offers any insight into what fueled the man's ambition. Sammy soaked up the vaudeville atmosphere and routines just as that venue was fading out. But he saw the grip these performers had on their audiences. He mimicked dancers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; and then improvised his own variations. Levy says, "Davis was taught early to be a hard-working performer. And his Uncle Will told him, 'Whether there's one person or a thousand, you never take your audience for granted.' "
In 1933, at age 8, Sammy made his film debut in a short called "Rufus Jones for President." Again, it would have been great to see the entire short, but all we get are a few seconds, with the overlapping discourse of narrator Warren Schaeffer drowning out the boy's delivery.
The most interesting sections of One Cool Cat deal with Sammy's encounters with racial prejudice. His father and Uncle had kept Sammy protected from segregated situations, but in 1944, he was drafted into the Army and "came face to face with unbridled racism. He had no idea that when he went out to fight, his enemy would be his fellow soldiers." Author and historian Christopher Moore points out that, "You have almost a century of stereotypical images—Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Rastus, Buckwheat, Farina—that translated into a sort of 'government policy.' They were practically training films for the average white American who never had contact with black Americans, and thought, 'this must be what they're really like.'"
As his star continued to rise, Sammy flaunted his African-American heritage, demanding interracial acknowledgement and support. He converted to Judaism because he felt blacks and Jews had a similar history of oppression. He was notorious for dating white women, and when rumors spread that he seeing Kim Novak (Vertigo) on the sly, Harry Cohn stepped in and broke it off. Columbia was grooming Novak to be the next Marilyn Monroe, and an affair with Davis would "blacken" her image. A few years later, he married Swedish actress May Britt (The Young Lions), and outraged blacks, whites and Jews alike. Historian Howard Dodson notes that, "Integrated marriages were frowned upon. People didn't criticize, they dehumanized, thus liquidating all of a person's life and achievements."
Sammy's reputation was re-established with his membership in The Rat Pack. He had been a close friend with his singing idol, Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity), since the late 1940s, and Sinatra wanted to form a variety group to play Las Vegas. He signed up Sammy, Dean Martin (Rio Bravo), Peter Lawford (Dead Ringer), and Joey Bishop (Valley of the Dolls). They became "a symbol of life being one, long party." More white people accepted Sammy, but black people considered him an "Uncle Tom" sellout. He was the butt of many jokes during the group's on-stage shenanigans, but took it in stride because they were all friends. At one point, Dean Martin tells the audience that Sammy is going to do some impressions, and introduces him with, "Come up here, little colored folk." Sammy thought that was a genuine knee-slapper, and doubled over with laughter.
In the 1998 HBO film, The Rat Pack, however, Sammy (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda, in an outstanding performance) comes off as being secretly humiliated by these antics, and he has a more tortured behind-the-scenes relationship with the group. Perhaps this was artistic license because in One Cool Cat, The Pack supported his marriage to May Britt, and, after a car accident that cost him an eye, Sammy was invited to spend a long recuperation period at Sinatra's Palm Springs hideaway.
Perhaps the only genuine bright spot on One Cool Cat is Sammy singing "There's a Boat that's Leavin' Soon for New York," from the 1959 film version of George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess. Davis fought tooth and nail for this role of the drug-dealing con man, Sportin' Life, and convinced both Columbia Pictures and director Otto Preminger that he was the only one who could make the role believable. In this DVD's highlight, we get to see and hear the whole song and Davis is absolutely sensational. The DVD would be worth a rental just to hear his interpretation.
There's also some good footage of Davis's dancing. He does a nifty tap-and-soft-shoe of "Shall We Dance?" with Peter Lawford, but Davis was always best on his own because nobody could keep up with him. Ted Levy reminds us that Davis's style influenced entertainers from Bobby Darin (Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song) to Savion Glover (Bamboozled). And when he does a 30-foot slide across the stage, you can almost see it as an early version of Michael Jackson's "moonwalk."
The mix of freshly filmed talking heads and archival footage renders Kultur's transfer is less than satisfying. Most of the interesting and relevant black-and-white material, both cinematic and photographic, is blurry, highly contrasted, and loses too much detail. (There's one dance number in which Davis's two-piece jacket and pants blend into a one-piece jumpsuit. Even the spectacularly staged Porgy and Bess number is in washed-out Technicolor. Being a New Yorker, I loved the evocative period stills of Harlem's Cotton Club and other locations. Having worked for a collector of rare photographs, I'm probably more intrigued by this kind of material than the average viewer; but I found that too many of these images tested even my patience.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is excellent and the commentators' voices are crisp and clear. But it's wasted on songs that are only given a few seconds of Davis's inspired and heartfelt delivery. It really leaves you wanting to hear more.
I don't think there is much of an audience for Sammy Davis, Jr.—One Cool Cat. Those, like myself, who have seen and heard him perform, will be disappointed by the lack of complete, or at least longer, musical numbers. Younger people will surely get enough biographical information, but they may wonder, "Just what made him so unique?"
Kultur appears to be taking Passport Video's approach to resurrecting historic performance footage: "Get what you can, slap it on a DVD and hope for the best." Well, it not only doesn't work here, it undermines their whole project.
Case dismissed pending further evidence of this multi-talented icon's contribution to all aspects of entertainment.
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