Judge Bill Gibron eulogizes the famous comedy duo.
Our review of Jerry Lewis: The Legendary Jerry Collection, published November 29th, 2005, is also available.
After years of doing a successful act with partner Ben Bailey, Bill Miller (Dean Martin) is all set to marry his longtime girlfriend, Broadway sensation Mary Turner (Polly Bergen, Kisses for My President, Cry-Baby). Bill sees the wedding as a new start, so he decides to leave Ben and go off on his own. He also makes Mary quit her career to focus full-time on him. Within a few weeks though, it's clear that Bill is a bust as a solo act. Hoping to turn around his fortunes, his agent Leo suggests he hire a stooge, a plant to sit in the audience that he can involve in some (hopefully) witty repartee. Calling up a local music publishing house, Leo gets bumbling idiot Ted Rogers (Jerry Lewis) to help out his struggling star. Ted is an immediate hit and soon Miller is making headlines around the country with his newfangled comedy routine. Naturally, he takes all the credit and gives none to Ted, which makes Leo and Mary very angry. After getting hired on by the most prestigious producer in New York, it appears Ted will finally get his due, but Bill still wants all the glory. It will take a last minute change of heart before he will ever acknowledge the fame he's gained at the hands of The Stooge.
It's a very unnerving experience watching The Stooge, especially if you know anything about the phenomenal success and messy break up of its starring duo, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. From 1946 to 1956 they were, without question, the most famous, triumphant, and beloved comedy team in the world. Throughout their decade together, they headlined nightclubs, appeared on radio, had their own variety show on NBC (The Colgate Comedy Hour), and made 16 feature films together. Martin was also a recording artist, and the multi-media approach to their career made them the biggest entertainment act in the history of performing, a label that would require a certain boy from Tupelo and four mop tops from Britain to challenge and reclaim.
The reasons for their breakup have always been suspect. Many claim it was out-of-control egos (Martin hated Lewis getting all the press, Lewis wanted more creative control over the duo's act and films) that doomed the pair. Others argue that after scaling such unimaginable heights together, there was a natural desire to see if each could do the same on their own. And to hear Lewis tell it, their partnership was just like a marriage, and after so many years together in a constant whirlwind of work, they simply needed a separation—which, naturally, turned into a divorce. No matter what version you buy in to, the truth is that Martin and Lewis achieved everything a club act could ever wish for, so with nothing left to conquer, the reasons to stay together were a lot less cogent than the one's beckoning them to spread their creative wings.
So with all this context in place, what are we to make of a movie, made five years before they would finally go their separate ways, that makes Dean look like a chump, Jerry a youthful genius, and their relationship a one way street with Martin hogging all the accolades and Jerry just wanting a morsel of respect? While this may seem like a gross over-exaggeration of The Stooge's plot, the opposite is actually true. Certainly it is not 100% autobiographical, but it is impossible to watch this film and not feel like you're smack dab in the middle of a romanticized look at the rift that broke up this entertainment empire. In scene after scene, we see the twinge of bitterness in Martin's eyes whenever anyone on screen belittles his influence in the Miller and Rodger's act. And who could mistake the shy smirk across Lewis's mug when Ted gets praise for being the magic that makes the pair so successful.
Trying to be a broad, behind the scenes showbiz farce, but feeling more manipulative and mean, every step of the way, The Stooge is an unfair film to both of its stars. Over and over again, Martin's character is referred to as a "ham," a thoughtless, arrogant egotist who only cares about himself and his own success. He is viewed as witless, without a lick of real stage presence and only capable of holding an audience when Lewis starts his glorified retard routine. In one of the film's oddest, most underdeveloped ideas, there are hints that Martin's Bill Miller is unreliable because of…a hidden drinking problem. He is a notoriously bad drunk in The Stooge, lashing out and hurting those around him. Sitting through this film is like watching a 100-minute montage of the reasons for the falling out that occurred between this crazy comedic concoction. It also does a devilishly deceptive job of making a monster out of Martin.
Lewis, on the other hand, is the kid, the monkey, the idiot savant without a single shred of self-centered desire throughout the running time of this film. It is practically a love letter to his slapstick saving of Dean's ass. Mind you, this is all done as "fiction," with several situations patently the device of a screenwriter (Lewis was always a full partner in the act with Martin, always received billing, and was never shortchanged by Dean when it came to credit or publicity). Yet one can't shake that disquieting, unnerving sensation of overhearing things we shouldn't be. It wouldn't matter so much had Martin and Lewis been playing against type, or actually crafting three-dimensional characters with very little resemblance or resonance to themselves. But just like Jailhouse Rock, or A Hard Day's Night, we are basically being given the performers we have come to know and love, with a little fictionalized fluff around the edges. And you can read a lot into the situations these stars are being filtered through during the strange, melodramatic mess of The Stooge.
It is also hard to imagine that anyone watching this film will come away thinking that Martin and Lewis were anything other than a polished, pleasant amusement. They do not come across as the high priests of hilarity in this film. Their staged routines are decent, but they tend to be toned down to stay within the tired singer/standards ideal. Lewis is still playing a complete and utter moron, doing derivative shtick like falling down and making faces to (supposedly) leave the audience in stitches. Martin is also hampered here, given several unpleasant tunes to croon (except for the decidedly weird "Who's Your Little Whozis?") that offer nothing of his dynamic range or bleary-eyed bravado. As the women in their life, Polly Bergen is more or less along for the ride, getting to suffer stoically as Mary until she just can't take it anymore. Far more impressive is Marion Marshall playing the oddly named "Frecklehead" Tait. As Lewis's lass, she gets the chance to match the maniac gesture for flail throughout the course of the narrative.
While it is entertaining, and just a little bit saccharine and sentimental, one can hardly consider The Stooge a success. Perhaps had the film not mimicked so many of what we've come to believe are flaws in the Martin and Lewis partnership, had it tried to deliver something other than their nightclub act crammed into a standard stage door diorama, it would be a better film. But we come to a Martin and Lewis title to laugh, to be whisked away on waves of unbridled humor that made this couplet a premier package during the '40s and '50s. The Stooge offers up none of their patented magic. Instead, it seems to be airing a lot of dull, dirty laundry that many will find far more uncomfortable than side splitting. It may be worth seeing once, but there is too much baggage bandied about to turn The Stooge into a cinematic classic.
Paramount's presentation of this title is pretty tentative, as if to test the waters before releasing other artifacts of the Martin and Lewis big screen teaming. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is very clean, with lots of depth and detail in the black and white imagery. There is a very claustrophobic feel to director Norman Taurog's framing—even in the long shots—and we get the impression of an image crammed with too much information, be it in human or art department form. Still, there are no real visible defects and a hint of the preservationist in Paramount's packaging.
Too bad the remainder of the technical specs are so unspectacular. The Dolby Digital Mono sounds as shrill and flat as you'd find in any late night UHF airing of this attraction, and Paramount barely opens up the contextual coffers, giving us a single, silly trailer as the sole bonus feature.
The myth of Martin and Lewis remains as intriguing today as it was fifty years ago. To imagine the incredible popularity, to understand what a post-War world saw in this swarthy Italian crooner and his made monkey man provides untold hours of intriguing consideration. The Stooge provides none of the necessary clues to show us why this act topped them all, but it does sort of divulge the hidden agendas that could have resulted in their less than amicable split. There are better movies by this amazing pair sitting in the vaults. Hopefully Paramount will hurry up and release them, before The Stooge remains the only cinematic artifact of their superstardom. And it's not a pretty picture for either man.
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