We have a double-feature for you tonight. This weekend's Mark Steyn Show includes a video edition of Mark at the Movies with Steyn and Rick McGinnis discussing The Founder, Michael Keaton's biopic of the man behind McDonald's. If you prefer Mark at the Movies in print, we're in centenary mode:
Dean Martin was born one hundred years ago this week - June 7th 1917 - in Steubenville, Ohio and, if it's nowhere as big a deal as his pallie Frank's centenary, his reputation is in better shape than it was at the time of his death. On Christmas Day 1995, when Dino bought the big casino, the consensus was that he ended his days a pathetic, lonely anachronism - a drunk act in an age when the likes of Carly Simon declined to duet with Sinatra on "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)" because it encourages driving under the influence (and with newborns, too).
But then came the "lounge" revival, and a couple of cheesy Rat Pack TV movies, and a gazillion Rat Pack tribute acts, and the Ocean's 11 remake, and a Forever Cool CD with Kevin Spacey, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the like lining up to share posthumous duets with Dean. And, although much of this was said to be "ironic", and the style correspondents all but captioned their stills of Dean on stage with tumbler in hand and wreathed in smoke with the warning "Don't try this at home, boys and girls", one senses that the album title has come true: His image is "forever cool", and, for a guy who never took himself that seriously, he'd likely be content with that.
What of the oeuvre? We'll attend to the music tomorrow, but he was also an actor, with a 35-year Hollywood career stretching from My Friend Irma in 1949 to Cannonball Run II in the Eighties. I often quote what Sammy Cahn said to me over lunch, after marveling at a couple of Sinatra screen performances: "And that isn't even what he does!" When it came to the second string to his bow, Frank was not a natural actor. Dean was - and, because it came so easily, he never wanted to turn it into hard work, with a From Here to Eternity or Manchurian Candidate or Man with the Golden Arm. His first films were made as one-half of "Martin and Lewis": the straight man got top billing, the comic was a child-man a decade younger. But young Jerry Lewis was the act's strategist, the guy who worried about scripts and directors, while Dean was content to string along. Jerry always called him "Paul", which was his middle name - Dino Paul Crocetti - as if to remind him that both the Anglified Dean and the Italiano Dino were stage versions of a guy who'd otherwise be a Steubenville schlub. At MGM, Louis B Mayer passed on the act: ""The guinea's not bad, but what do I do with the monkey?"
Everyone else had the opposite problem. At Paramount, Jerry was Groucho, Chico and Harpo - and Dean was Zeppo. On stage, as Dean would later complain, the trouble with the act was that "I had nothing to do":
JERRY: I went to the pharmacy today.
DEAN: You went to the pharmacy?
JERRY: Yeah. I needed some aspirin.
DEAN: You needed some aspirin?
On-screen it was Jerry's character who motored the plots, generated the twists, led to the resolution - and Dean got fitted in between. The monkey began monkeying with the division of responsibilities, adding to the clowning pathos, emotion, romance. The guinea seemed barely there, and sometimes wasn't, literally. The final straw came when Look magazine decided to feature Martin and Lewis on the cover, and then cropped out Martin.
After being 50, 30, 12 per cent of a double-act, Dean had to figure out, to modify a Ronald Reagan line, where the rest of him was going to come from. He was mellifluous and good-looking and charming, and decided to play up the playboy side. There was a Nevada burg that was on the way up - Las Vegas - and he thought that could be part of the image, too. And he found a new partner to tag along with in the emblematic Fifties swinger Frank Sinatra. He was never a drunk, and, by comparison with Frank, not much of a playboy. In HBO's Rat Pack biopic a decade or so back, the best moment is when the camera pans across the upper-floor suites at the Sands, in which Sinatra, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr are bedding their one-night stands, before coming to rest in Dean's room, where he's contentedly alone on his king-size, sipping a glass of milk and watching TV. The scene evokes a real-life incident six decades back, when Frank gave some broad a thousand bucks to wait naked in Dean's bed. Dino came back to his room with other plans - milk and the late show - but told the girl she was welcome to stay and watch a little television with him. After a suitable interval, he gave her two grand to go back and breathlessly recount to Frank what a fabulous lover he was.
So the straight man who'd chafed under Jerry Lewis' control-freakery was content to play sidekick vice-president to Sinatra's Chairman of the Board. Frank had strict rules about style and wardrobe: he loathed brown, so, naturally, Dean made a point of wearing brown suits as often as possible, including in Ocean's 11, Robin and the 7 Hoods, and almost every other joint venture. Sinatra was still the guy the studios wanted for Hollywood versions of Broadway hits - for Guys And Dolls, Pal Joey, Can-Can... The only equivalent in Martin's oeuvre is the 1960 film of Bells Are Ringing, with Judy Holliday reprising her stage performance and Dino in a bulked-up Sydney Chaplin part. They're not the most obvious pairing, and Miss Holliday was already sick with the cancer that would kill her, but Dean fit himself in as he did with Jerry and Frank, and they're very likeable together. It was the last film ever produced by MGM's famous Freed Unit and, although it's not up there with Singin' in the Rain, it shows off Martin's bleary ease very well. You see a preview of the Dean TV viewers would get to know a few years later - the guy who could work with anybody and occasionally, if it was someone he especially respected (a category that spanned the Mills Brothers to Petula Clark), produce a little bit of magic. But, for a famously relaxed guy, carrying a picture singlehanded sounded like way too much effort.
So, for a while, he made Rat Pack capers. The original Ocean's 11 (1960) is, in any objective sense, a very lousy movie, a prime example, for those whose idea of cinematic improvisation is Mike Leigh Brit kitchen-sinkery or a Christopher Guest mockumentary, of what happens when a film is really improvised, stumbling from take to take according to who's shown up on the set that morning. But, beyond that, why would anyone expect anything of it anyway? Acting isn't even what Frank, Dean and Sam did. They were singers, shoehorning in a little movie making between the nightclub act and the recreational cocktail waitresses. Critics are all but universally agreed that the George Clooney/Brad Pitt Ocean's 11 is a far superior film: it's the sort of thing that the original might have been if Frank and his pallies could have been bothered getting up before lunch. It's better written, better directed, better acted; it has everything - except a reason to be. The only reason to re-make it is because once, long ago, Frank and Dean made it.
It was film-making by numbers: Ocean's 11, Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, and finally Robin and the 7 Hoods – as in Robin Hood updated to Chicago in the Prohibition era. The difference was that this one was to be a full-blown musical. For the score, Sinatra turned to Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, his more or less in-house writing team and the fellows who, in Ocean's 11, gave Dean one of his great songs - "Ain't That A Kick In The Head". This could have been the Rat Pack's Guys and Dolls, if anyone had been interested in putting in a full day's work. So instead Cahn & Van Heusen turned in a better score than most movie musicals could boast back then, and left it at that. Frank played Robbo, who returns to the Windy City to find that Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) has taken over from longtime underworld boss Big Jim (Edward G Robinson). Robbo doesn't like it, and starts recruiting his own gang – pool shark Little John (Dean Martin), quick-draw Will (Sammy Davis Jr), and a useful front man from the local orphanage, Alan A Dale. There was also a girl, Marian, played rather blandly by Barbara Rush. Alan A Dale was supposed to be Peter Lawford, but Lawford and Sinatra were on the outs ever since John F Kennedy nixed his stay at the Sinatra compound in Palm Springs after Frank had gone to the trouble of putting in not only guest quarters but also a presidential helipad. Lawford, JFK's brother-in-law, declined to intervene on Sinatra's behalf, and that was that. So instead the role of Alan A Dale went to Bing Crosby, who wound up getting more of the musical action than anybody else. He has some deftly delivered advice for the orphanage kids, "Don't Be A Do-Badder", plus the lead role as a temperance preacher in the big production number "Mister Booze", and one-third of "(You've either got or you haven't got) Style", as Frank and Dean endeavor to give the genial old duffer a lesson in snappy dressing. Frank got "My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is)". Sammy pranced around to a piece of rat-a-tat-tat quick-draw exhibitionism, "Bang! Bang!", and Dino got, of all things, a pastiche mother song, "Any Man Who Loves His Mother (is man enough for me)".
So, like its predecessors, Robin and the 7 Hoods wound up thrown together – a journeyman director, too short a shoot, and Sammy Cahn still fixing lyrics when they were recording the songs. But the good moments are awfully good – like "Style", with Martin and Sinatra shoving Crosby back into the closet until he emerges suitably tailored. In later years, I used to suggest to Sammy Cahn that Robin and the 7 Hoods would make a great Broadway musical, and he would respond that they were working on it and that soon all those songs would, as he put it, "take stage". Looking back, I can't think what I was thinking: I mean, once you take Frank, Dean, Sam and Bing out, what's left? A few summers back, with Cahn & Van Heusen long dead, a stage version of Robin and the 7 Hoods opened at the Old Globe in San Diego, with a book by Rupert Holmes, the guy who wrote "The Pina Colada Song". They dropped every number from the film except "My Kind Of Town" and stuck in "Come Fly With Me" and a dozen-and-a-half other Cahn & Van Heusen songs. Don't ask me why.
Dean moved on to a trio of Matt Helm films - a parody of James Bond that suffers, as noted a couple of weeks back, from the disadvantage that James Bond is also his own best parody. For his last big leading role, the opposite happened: He took his part as the pilot in Airport (1970) more seriously than anything in years, including the big abortion talk with the stewardess he's knocked up - Dean sensitively tells her that the hospitals they have now in Sweden are really hygienic. Very thoughtful of him. Shortly thereafter she decides to keep the baby. Excepting that he wanted Pet Clark rather than Jacqueline Bisset as his love interest, Martin reckoned it his meatiest drama in years - only to have it completely buried now and forever by the parody thereof, Airplane!
Ah, well. He's good with John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder, and then there's always his 1964 star turn, Kiss Me Stupid, with Dean playing "Dino", a boozy Vegas crooner who breaks down in a Vegas hick town to the delight of a would-be local songwriter. The film never quite holds together: a very sour script by Billy Wilder, punctuated by the very last songs of George and Ira Gershwin - that's to say, Ira put words to a few unfinished tunes his late brother had left lying around, thus ensuring that the final entry in the great composer's songbook is something called "I'm A Poached Egg". It was an early example of a celebrity playing a more obnoxious version of his real self: in this case, the plot hinges on the fact that "Dino" needs to have sex every night or he wakes up with a terrible headache in the morning. A glass of milk won't cut it. As Wilder acknowledged until his death, for all the film's flaws, Martin is awfully good. The affable easygoing real Dean makes a superb repellent Dean.
But perhaps even that was too much hard work. The following year he moved to TV and finally found the perfect role, as the charmingly shambolic, tipsy, under-rehearsed, cue-card-misreading host of The Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin's best role, on-screen and off-, was his own invention.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to let him know. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, but one thing it does give you is access to our comments section. So, if you take issue with him on Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis or anything else, then feel free to have at it as viciously as Dean and Jerry did. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.
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