Another batch of films featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis has been released by Paramount Home Video, and it can be argued that this second set is superior to the first. While the initial set offered the very first Martin and Lewis features, including such vital and vibrant works as "Sailor Beware" and "That’s My Boy," it was heavy with films already released, including "The Stooge" and the "My Friend Irma" sequels that introduced the duo to moviegoers.
Despite the glaring omission of the 3-D curio "Money From Home" (1954) and the offbeat "Three Ring Circus," (1954) volume two presents Martin and Lewis at the height of their powers ("Living it Up" (1954), "Artists and Models" (1955) ) as well as during the tension-filled period heading toward their bitter breakup ("Pardners," "Hollywood or Bust" (both 1956) ). It is these latter two films that spark most of the critical commentary nowadays, as "Pardners" ends with Dean and Jerry addressing the audience with thanks for supporting their movies, and hopes to do many more (ironically, the film was released on the very day they officially broke up), and "Hollywood or Bust" being their last film together, and one on which they were not speaking to each other when the cameras weren’t rolling. Jerry Lewis himself has stated he has never seen the film, and refuses to do so (even when yours truly attempted to arrange a screening).
"Hollywood or Bust" enjoys praise in some quarters as the best Martin and Lewis film, when in fact it may be among their weakest. Its popularity rests almost solely on its having been directed by Cahiers du Cinema champion Frank Tashlin, whose own filmography consists of a far better showbiz satire in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter" (1957). In fact, "Hollywood or Bust" is filled with unmemorable songs, and a series of comedy bits that generally fall flat (nothing like two comedians who aren’t speaking trying to engage the audience with their camaraderie). Lewis himself agrees, telling this writer, "an audience can sense when something is phony. Dean and I weren’t speaking and the tension must have been obvious. It still is, over fifty years later."
Tashlin fares better in this same set with "Artists and Models," which features Dean as a struggling comic book artists who finds inspiration in Jerry’s fantasy-induced nightmares. It is a wonderful sendup of then-current fears that comics were the bane of adolescent angst, the very foundation of delinquency (even James Dean alludes to this in Nicholas Ray’s "Rebel Without a Cause," made that same year). Of course by the following year rock and roll music would replace comics as the culprit, but "Artists and Models" embraces the culture’s unfounded fears with a delightful performance by a hammy Eddie Mayhoff as a comic book publisher, "You call this a comic for children? Where’s the blood??"
The best films in the set may be two of the three remakes. "Living it Up" is a wildly funny reworking of the old Carole Lombard effort "Nothing Sacred" (1937) with Jerry believing he is dying of radiation poisoning, and being feted as a cause celebre in cynical New York City. Dean plays his suave-yet-wary doctor with an appealing Janet Leigh as the reporter who champions Jerry’s tragedy for newspaper copy. Solid character actors like Fred Clark and Edward Arnold are always welcome, while Jerry’s dance with a wildly gyrating Sheree North is indeed a sight to behold. Perhaps the second best musical number in a Martin and Lewis picture (after "That’s Amore" from volume one’s "The Caddy"), is "Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York" from "Living it Up."
The other noted remake in this series (not counting the only partially successful "Pardners," which is a remake of "Rhythm on the Range" (1936) ), "You’re Never Too Young," (1955) reworks Billy Wilder’s "The Major and the Minor" (1944) with wildly funny results. Jerry poses effectively as a pesky twelve year old in an all-girls school (where Dean is a teacher) because he is on the run from gangster Raymond Burr, who has planted a valuable stolen diamond on the unsuspecting Lewis. Burr recalled in an interview with this writer that Dean and Jerry were already fairly tentative with one another by the time they filmed this picture. None of this tension is evident on the screen, as it remains one of their best films.
Unlike volume one, these films are all in color. Also unlike the first volume, most were made after Paramount incorporated their VistaVision widescreen process. The films have rarely been seen in widescreen since their initial release, while the color restoration is nothing short of breathtaking.
Jerry Lewis certainly emerged as a superior comedian and filmmaker once the Martin and Lewis act broke up, and his solo films with Frank Tashlin are superior to those Mr. Tashlin helmed for Martin and Lewis. Dean Martin became a fine, versatile screen actor in such heady features as "Career" (1958) and "Rio Bravo" (1959) while still maintaining his jovial personality for nightclubs and television, as well as a series of hit records. But together they were among the strongest comedy teams in entertainment’s history. Their films are fascinating looks at the type of shameless, courageous comedy that wowed audiences during the immediate post-war era, when war weary moviegoers just needed some laughs and excitement. Their iron clad on-screen relationship mirrored their deep friendship off screen, even to the point where it was evident by their films when tension existed. Of course it is now well known that Martin and Lewis patched things up completely and were back to a warm friendship before Dean’s passing in 1995. But the films they left behind are a real testament to popular comedy styles from the 1950s when cinema
was flexing its post-war muscle. This volume (as well as its predecessor) is most highly recommended.