Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"What about Junior?"

Inspired by the ilovedinomartin blog's wonderful reception to my past looks at the Dean Martin filmography, I decided to rewind the tape even further back to Dean's early forays into cinema as half of the comedy team Martin & Lewis. I knew Martin & Lewis as one of comedy's most famous duos and perhaps as comedy's most infamous feud.  What started as a nightclub act, pairing Dean Martin's music with Jerry Lewis comedy, soon led to television appearances and then onto the silver screen with My Friend Irma (1949).  I sat down with That's My Boy (1951),  their fourth film together, and I can't  help but wonder if the couple of "Best of..." lists I looked at hadn't led me wrong.

Unfortunately NOT the exploitation movie about Siamese twin graduates...
The story concerns an overbearing tycoon and former college football star who lords over his son, Junior (Jerry Lewis) to the extent that he saddles him with all manner of psychosomatic illnesses and allergies. In a mutually beneficial deal, the tycoon pays for Bill Baker (Martin), a poor but rising football star, to pal up with Junior at his alma mater and help him to be a success on the field. Unfortunately, though Junior's got heart, he's no great athlete, and matters are further complicated by the formation of a love triangle between Bill, Junior and the lovely Terry Howard (Marion Marshall).

Jerry does a spot on imitation of me watching this movie...
The plot's essentially sitcom nature would be forgivable if not for the fact that it seems like the comedy duo has little to do. Lewis fares better than Martin in that he gets a bigger character and more face-time, but the movie suffers from long unfunny jags where neither performer is to be seen. Following the opening credits, twenty minutes pass before Jerry shows up for the first time, and almost that much more before we see Dino. The relationship between Junior and his father has more to do with Sissy Spacek's relationship with Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976) than it does with comedy. I realize that a good part of this is the difference in attitude between then and now, but Junior's dad is so loud, brutish, and relentlessly domineering that there's no surprise that any kid would turn out as nebbish as Junior. In comedy, even the bad guy still has to have some kind of relatable soft spot.

Dino thinks romance, movies...and whether he should start drinking...
The romance angle seems wedged in just to give Dino something to do, and it was this kind of thinly developed romantic lead that would eventually sour Dino on doing these pictures.  So when Dino puts in his best turn in a scene where he drunkenly expresses his regret at having taken this deal for his future, the acting is spot on and shows where Dino would eventually get dramatically, but is robbed of any resonance by the weak storytelling.  Luckily, early on, Dino gets a fun song-and-dance number with co-star Polly Bergen at a graduation dance while Jerry hams it up by himself in the corner.  (Full marks to Jerry managing to kick his own shoe into his face, which was probably my only laugh out loud moment during this viewing.) The film's initial football training sequence was also quite enjoyable, but has been done and redone in far too many sports comedy films since.

Jerry demonstrates a 50's craze: Chin Woogies...
If anything, from what I've learned of Martin & Lewis's time on-screen, it's that few things have changed in the past 50-60 years when Hollywood tries to figure out how to turn showbiz success offscreen into even bigger success onscreen. The formula's pretty simple: cook up a simple if inane plot idea, plug in hot commodity, let the chips fall where they may quality-wise, and rely on an adoring public to pay to see whatever comes out. I'm at a loss to think of one where this actually generated true movie gold, and am instead reminded of the spectacularly goofy nonsense that was KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978).

In the end, I can't really recommend That's My Boy, which is sad since I can certainly admire the talents of both performers, both together and apart. What I can instead recommend was the Marx Brothers' collegiate football romp Horse Feathers (1932).  I kept thinking of it all during the runtime of this movie. It too had a story thinner than a sheet of tracing paper, but that was more because it gave the Marx's free reign to do their brand of comedic insanity.  That's exactly what I feel like was missing here: the room to let Martin & Lewis do what Martin & Lewis could do.

1 comment:

dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie, likes Ry man, you are simply the best in mour Dino-book dude! We are so so sorry to have missed this Dino-devotion, but are thrilled this very very Dino-day to share it with all the pallies gathered 'round ilovedinomartin.

Thanks ever so much for the kindest of kind nods given to our humble little Dino-devotional blog and for such a well scribed and well thought out reflection on the Martin and Lewis classic, "That's My Boy."

Might I say that we at ilovedinomartin have found that these comedy capers become what we would call an acquired taste....more and more enjoyable as you view 'em more often. Also, we have found that readin' Mr. Lewis's book of Dino-devotion, "Dean and Me: A Love Story" has also helped us to frame the films by viewin' 'em from the close relationship that Dino and Jerry had as partners.

Our favorite Martin and Lewis big screen effort is "Artist and Models" and if you ever gets the op to see it, we would be most interested in your thoughts on it.

Likes 'gain Ry, thanks ever ever so much for keepin' the Dino-light glowin' Dino-bright at your beau-ti-ful blog! Dino-always, ever and only, Dino Martin Peters