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My Friend Irma Goes West

My Friend Irma Goes West(1950)


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The team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were an explosion, coming out of nowhere and leaving an impression that's lasted half a century since their last performance. Together only ten years from the day they first shared a stage in 1946 until the exact same date in 1956 when their relationship finally crumbled, Martin & Lewis started in nightclubs and blasted through radio, television and of course the movies. There were comedy duos before and have been afterwards but Martin and Lewis were nearly a perfect match. One an unflappable ladies man who could croon and swing his way through life, the other a cascade of gags, sentiment, impressions, off-key singing and any other bits of chaos that seemed inappropriate. Theirs was a go-for-broke attitude that was as likely to use dusty vaudeville bits or skip the planning and improvise for a bit.

Though TV may have preserved Martin & Lewis' act in its purest form, their film career was in many ways the most spectacular. With 16 films in seven years their schedule would have overcome many other performers, especially with the constant stream of other appearances. Even more impressive is that they were able to stay reliably solid, something you can witness on the Martin & Lewis Collection: Volume 1 (Paramount) which has eight of their first nine films and a nice Al Hirschfeld caricature on the cover. Missing is 1950's At War with the Army, produced by the duo's own York Productions; possibly the rights weren't available but you can find the film from several companies that specialize in budget public-domain films. In any case the collection is a great opportunity to follow the first half of Martin & Lewis' career and see some nice films as well. It's interesting that their path roughly paralleled Abbott and Costello's: initial tryouts in supporting roles then a trio of service comedies before moving along to genre parodies. But it's only a superficial resemblence since Abbott and Costello made films that are interesting only in bits while Martin and Lewis' films work more consistently and with greater range--perhaps driven by Jerry's infamous perfectionism or maybe it was just a studio willing to spend a bit more money.

Martin and Lewis' initial films tested the waters. Their debut was 1949's My Friend Irma, based on a popular radio show that followed the misadventures of Irma (Marie Wilson), a ditzy blonde given to malapropisms and general kookiness. Of course that's a little hard to maintain next to Jerry Lewis even when he's a bit subdued. Wilson and a few supporting players were brought over from the radio show for a story about trying to make a fortune off Dino's singing ability. The result is a pretty standard comedy for that time so it's really only Martin & Lewis' appearance that this is even remembered today. They couldn't have spent much time working on it since sections are clearly pulled directly from their nightclub act. Also of note is John Lund playing Irma's scheming lowlife boyfriend Al to the hilt. My Friend Irma Goes West (not an actual Western, fans would have to wait a few years until Pardners) appeared just eight months after the first film but oddly ignores the plot of the entire last half hour of the previous film. This time Martin & Lewis have larger roles and it doesn't hurt that Corinne Calvet was tossed in as a sexpot film star but the result is all too obviously rushed. All the outdoor Southwestern scenes are done in front of projection screens and again chunks come from Martin & Lewis' act, including a great bit where Lewis tries to conduct Martin's backing orchestra. Boyfriend Lund is toned down and Lewis does a dubious Indian impersonation but at least the film shows Martin & Lewis weren't just a one-time hit.

At War with the Army followed (missing from the set as described above) and then in 1951 That's My Boy, one of the low points of either performer's career. They're no longer supporting players but now up front and center though unfortunately trapped in a story about Lewis trying to please his football hero father with the help of quarterback Martin. A kind of Harold Lloyd retread, That's My Boy is painfully heavyhanded while rarely working as comedy and never as drama. It's the kind of film where a psychiatrist appears just long enough to explain the blatantly obvious father-son friction then promptly disappears. Some viewers might get a kick out of seeing Martin (age 34) and Lewis (25) play teenagers and others can't help but wonder whether in 1951 quarterbacks also returned punts and kicked the extra point or the studio just wanted to give Martin more screen time. The film has the look of a cheap television production with everything lit in full glare, clumsy camera movements and sets that feel like they'll tumble apart if an actor turns too suddenly. Inexplicably it was nominated for a Writer's Guild Award as best-written comedy and inspired a one-season TV show.

But put all that behind you. Martin & Lewis hit the proverbial pay dirt with Sailor Beware (1952) where the fellows somewhat unintentionally end up in the Navy and then try to win a silly bet. It was based on a play previously filmed three times but now adapted by Three Stooges scripter Elwood Ullman with additional dialogue by Abbott & Costello's regular gag writer John Grant. There's nothing tired about the resulting film because it shows Martin & Lewis to full effect in a nice mix of both verbal and physical humor. There are some nightclub bits again but also routines built out of the circumstances, one of the most memorable being Lewis' attempts to swab the deck of a submarine while unaware it's submerging. The plot itself is pretty much irrelevant but allows a wide variety of situations: a physical exam, a kissing contest, cramped ship's quarters, a Hawaiian luau. Martin sings at his most Bing Crosby-like and even makes an explicit reference to it. Add a cameo by Betty Hutton (who starred in a previous version of the film, 1942's The Fleet's In) and an early appearance by James Dean who has one line of dialogue and it's easy to see how Martin & Lewis earned so many fans.

The duo followed this success with a couple of slightly more routine but still entertaining films. Jumping Jacks (1952) places them in the paratroopers and features more military hijinks. Imagine Jerry Lewis dealing with a rough drill sergeant or trying to pack a parachute and you've got the general idea. Note that Dino's character is named Chick just as Bud Abbott was in a couple of films. The Stooge (1952) had been filmed two years earlier but withheld from release, perhaps because producer Hal Wallis reportedly didn't much like it. The film isn't in the usual Martin & Lewis mold since it's mostly a drama with comic bits and curiously the story reflects the duo themselves though it's not clear how much of that was deliberate. Martin plays a singer/performer during the 1930s who decides he should be a solo star instead. When his act bombs, Lewis helps out as an enlisted stooge and they're immediately popular but Martin still considers this a solo act and pushes Lewis' character into the background. The film captures show business self-obsession and drive clearly without becoming cliched. Both main characters are believable: Martin arrogant and star-addled, Lewis charmingly loyal and unconcerned about money. Most of the comedy is performed within the storyline, usually in wonderful routines the two do on Broadway stages, and for a touch of period authenticity all the songs but one are actually from the period. (Originally issued as Martin's first 10" album but interested fans can find them on a CD called Dean Martin Sings.) The Stooge isn't All About Eve or A Star is Born but it's certainly been unfairly dismissed over the years.

The more humorous Scared Stiff (1953) is the collection's other standout. A remake of Bob Hope's 1940 The Ghost Breaker (itself based on a play filmed twice in the silent era), this is easily the set's best-looking film due to director George Marshall and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (Inherit the Wind among seven Oscar nominations and one win). They seem to have decided to work as if this was a straight-forward mystery with a touch of noir (most of the ghost story parody is wisely kept towards the end) so there's a visual richness to the rainy streets, foggy ship decks and moist tropical jungle that recalls classic Hollywood. Just as important Martin & Lewis are given a strong supporting cast with Lizabeth Scott as the woman in distress, Dorothy Malone as a loose showgirl, George Dolenz as an unreliable lawyer and Carmen Miranda as ship-board entertainment (her last film appearance). The songs are some of the best in the series, even novelty numbers like "Enchiladas" and "Bongo Bingo," and Dean gets one top-notch romantic ballad. Martin even opens the film with a performance of his earlier hit "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" which was recorded the following year by a young Mississippi guy named Elvis Presley. The song was originally intended for Cinderella but never made the cut and while Martin and Patti Page both had hits with it in 1950, Elvis based his version on what he saw in Scared Stiff.

The Caddy (1953) also boasts strong songs, this time from the great Harry Warren and lyricist Jack Brooks. Martin's signature "That's Amore" was introduced in this film but "What Wouldcha Do Without Me?" and "The Gay Continental" (the latter performed by Lewis alone) are just as memorable. There's the usual comedy setup; this time Lewis as a superb golfer with such stage fright that he can't play in tournaments so he pairs with the untutored talent of Martin so they can win enough money to save the fishing business of Martin's family. Oh, don't worry whether that makes much sense because again the story isn't quite the point. There are echoes of The Stooge in the way that Martin's character heads for the high life to romance Donna Reed and pushes Lewis away as merely his caddy but it never overpowers the film. After all there's an extended sequence of pure slapstick at the opening where Lewis accidentally demolishes much of a department store and he's given other comic routines to avoid growling watchdogs, deal with the low ceiling of his bedroom or simply follow his fiance home. Martin & Lewis may have been coasting through The Caddy (and their personal relations were really starting to fray at this time) but not many people could coast this productively.

The Martin & Lewis Collection features the films in the solid transfers we've come to expect. The one exception being That's My Boy which is a bit soft though since the original film wasn't very nice looking it might not much matter. There are no extras except for an occasional trailer and while nobody expects full audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries a set like this definitely deserves at least a written overview of the team's history. Let's hope that Volume 2 follows soon since it should include Martin & Lewis' masterpiece Artists and Models as well as such strong contenders as Hollywood or Bust and Living It Up.

For more information about Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection: Volume 1, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection: Volume 1, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson