Saturday, November 05, 2005

There's No Bat Lady, There's No Fat Lady

Via Mark Evanier, I only just found out that Jerry Lewis has published a book about his partnership with Dean Martin. (I've really got to stop following political crap and start keeping up to speed on the stuff that matters.)

Martin and Lewis, as a team, are still fascinating, perhaps more fascinating than funny. The continued fascination with them is pretty clear from books and movies like "Where the Truth Lies," or the many parodies of their 1976 Sinatra-hosted reunion. But they never left much of a comedy legacy, as a team, because the quality that made them famous -- unpredictability -- couldn't be carried over into their movies.

The critic Andrew Sarris wrote that while Martin and Lewis weren't at their best in any of their movies, when they were at their best -- in some of their live stage appearances -- they had "a marvelous tension about them." That "tension," I think, derived from the thing that made their partnership unique, and the thing that ultimately drove them apart: they were a rare case of two complete talents working as a comedy team. (You could make a case for Crosby and Hope, but they weren't really a team outside of the relatively few "Road" movies; they were occasional co-stars, not a comedy team.) Comedy teams, especially two-man comedy teams, are usually made up of complementary talents: two guys who are not necessarily star material on their own, but who gain star quality by the way they combine, the way each supplies qualities the other doesn't have.

Martin and Lewis weren't like that: they clearly had what it took to be stars on their own, as in fact they did become stars on their own. Each one had the kind of diverse talents, not to mention the desire to be the center of attention, that one associates with solo stars, yet they were working as a team. And a Martin and Lewis routine wasn't really teamwork, but competition: instead of working in synch they seemed to be trying to upstage each other, jockeying for the audience's attention. Their trademark routine had Martin trying to do a solo song and Lewis interrupting him with what amounts to a solo comedy act: they're not working together but working against each other. The fascination of Martin and Lewis, really, was wondering how these two massive talents and massive egos could possibly share the stage.

Most of their films were either remakes of earlier comedy films (The Ghost Breakers remade as Scared Stiff; Nothing Sacred remade as Living It Up with Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) or films that might just as well have been remakes. They all have their moments, as any movie would have with two gifted entertainers in their prime, but the only Martin/Lewis movies I'm a big fan of are their two with Frank Tashlin, Artists and Models and Hollywood Or Bust. Yet Martin and Lewis were already on the outs when they made these films, and they're not really at their best; they're great Tashlin films, not great Martin/Lewis films.

Most people who've seen Artists and Models remember a couple of Martin and Lewis routines -- mainly the "bat lady, fat lady" scene that is almost impossible to transcribe. But mostly they remember the comic book publisher's rant about the necessity of blood in comic books, or George "Foghorn" Winslow as the child corrupted by comic books, or Shirley MacLaine practically beating up Jerry as she reprises Dean's "Innamorata" song, or Tashlin's satire of American popular culture, or Tashlin's longstanding obsession with putting his female characters into fetishistic costumes. The final scene, with Martin, Lewis, MacLaine and Dorothy Malone, makes it pretty clear where Tashlin's interests lie, and it ain't with Martin and Lewis:

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And so even though Martin and Lewis were huge talents, their most interesting movies, as a team, are only tangentially about them. It's hard to imagine what kind of movie could have made really good use of their qualities as a team. But it might have helped them to do a movie like Crosby and Hope's "Road" pictures where they were actually competing with each other -- incorporate some of their trademark competitiveness into the movie, instead of always having Jerry be Dean's loyal friend.

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