Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Colgate Variety Hour with Martin and Lewis (TV, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a TV show we had recently (not that recently; last August, actually) downloaded from archive.org: a Colgate Variety Hour starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who usually had co-stars and guests but not this time: it was a series of brilliantly funny sketches showing that when he wasn’t being too obnoxiously infantile Jerry Lewis was actually a quite good slapstick comedian (though how those French critics could put him on the same level as Chaplin still baffles me). It starts with the most hilarious show on the program, featuring Dean Martin as the host of “Mighty Martin’s Midnight Matinee Movie,” showing a Tokyo Films production called Egg Roll is a Many-Splendored Dish. The movie proper (if such a term is appropriate here) starts with the Tokyo Films logo, which is a ripoff of the J. Arthur Rank logo, only instead of one muscular man striking a gong with a hammer, there are two — and they’re close enough together that they end up striking each other instead of the gong. Then the movie turns out to be one of those silly Japanese things with a geisha girl doing teasing motions with a fan, and Jerry Lewis in Asian drag plays her lover — and there are dialogue exchanges between the two in which a long speech Lewis rattles off in pidgin-Japanese gets translated in the subtitles with just two words: “Oh, yeah?”

The scene then fades to Lewis as the great Japanese actor, Tab Yattaguchi, coming in for an interview with host Martin and announcing that they’re going to do a staged version of a scene from Tab’s latest film, Rice Cake Jungle, which features Martin as an accused spy being threatened with torture for having stolen a government secret (an interesting anticipation of the Matt Helm movies — essentially James Bond knock-offs — he’d make over a decade later) and Lewis as the Japanese police chief who offers him his choice of one torture from column A and two from column B. Later there’s a sequence with Martin as a man who has managed to get a rich fiancée to accept his proposal, and is now the guest of honor at a party being thrown by her mother to introduce him to the family — and the scruffily dressed Lewis is Martin’s old friend from the neighborhood, who crashes the party and sandbags the engagement. This one is a lot more predictable and less fun, but it’s still nice to watch Lewis actually managing the basics of physical comedy. Like the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis is a comedian I found uproariously funny when my age was still in single digits; later I grew up, watched his movies and wondered what on earth I’d ever seen in him — but here he seemed genuinely amusing and I had a good time watching him.

The episode was also welcome in that it contained Dean Martin doing what’s one of my two or three all-time favorite songs of his, “Memories Are Made of This,” and doing it (blessedly) “straight” (earlier in the show he’d also covered the song “It Must Be True,” which Bing Crosby had recorded in 1930 with far more power, emotion and drive, but Martin’s version was certainly pleasant enough and did the song justice), and after the performance of “Memories” Lewis tells Martin he has a singing group of his own, which turns out to be the entire Norman Luboff Choir (I kid you not!), which when Martin tries to sing “Sometimes I’m Happy,” comes in on him and won’t let him get out more than one line without going into a plethora of loud, obnoxious backing-vocal bits — at one point, after Martin gets through enough of the song to sing “Sometimes I hate you, sometimes I love you,” the chorus goes back and forth chanting “Hate! Love! Hate! Love!” as if they were scoring Robert Mitchum’s famous role in the film The Night of the Hunter. “The first punks,” I joked — and later, when Dean Martin was literally pushed to the ground by the Luboff choristers, he said, “You may be right. We’ve just seen Dean Martin go down in a mosh pit.” There’s also a good bit in which Lewis’s supposedly “spontaneous” song is interrupted so often by the director and his two assistants telling him where to go that he runs out of time to sing it at all.

The show was 52 minutes long (most “hour-long” shows on TV today are 43 minutes, the difference being taken up by — you guessed it — more commercials), and while this one eliminated the original commercials (which are sometimes incredibly interesting bits of cultural history) and had a few ripping and synchronization glitches, it was still remarkably entertaining and pushes my opinion of Jerry Lewis several notches upward again. In his book Movie Comedy Teams, Leonard Maltin quotes auteur critic Andrew Sarris as saying, “Martin and Lewis at their best — and that means not in any of their movies — had a marvelous tension between them,” and bits of that tension are readily discernible here as the mock antagonism between the characters threatens to reveal real antagonism between the performers. Even if you didn’t know it already, you’d probably be able to guess from watching this movie that the Martin and Lewis collaboration was on its last legs — they broke up in 1956 and didn’t get together again in public until 1975, when Frank Sinatra clandestinely arranged for Dean Martin to appear on one of Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy telethons and they were good enough professionals that they actually managed to survive on the same stage at the same time without killing each other.