Posted Monday morning, August 21, 2017.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the gray suits Lewis said made them look like what they were, “two stumblebums getting paid a load of cash.”
I have three personal letters from Jerry Lewis. I got them when I was a kid. Some cynics said they were form letters, but I knew better.
He sent one to me and each of my friends Phil, Janey, and Sandy every summer we held a carnival for Jerry's Kids.
Phil even got to meet him once. Phil was our leader the first year we held a carnival and he was invited to the local TV station when they hosted one of Jerry's telethons. The practice was for Jerry himself to host the national broadcast from L.A. or New York or Las Vegas, I forget which, and big name movie and TV stars would join Jerry to make appeals and take phone calls. Then at intervals they’d cut away to local stations and the locals would do their bits with local celebrities making appeals and taking calls. Some big name show business types would be sent out across the country to show up on the local station broadcasts. One year Bob Denver and Alan Hale---Gilligan and the Skipper---came to ours. But I didn’t know how it worked the first year we held our carnival. I thought the national telethon was broadcast by our local station, and Jerry was in town for it. So I believed Phil when he said he met him.
I forget why I didn’t see it or, rather, didn’t see it not happen. Our family might have been away on vacation. Maybe Phil said he was on late, after I’d have gone to bed. Whatever the reason, I believed Phil. But I wasn’t jealous.
I had my letter.
Below is a post I wrote in 2008 when I was reading Lewis’ memoir of his partnership with Dean Martin, Dean & Me: A Love Story. It really is a love story and Lewis tells it unironically---but honestly---as one. It’s actually one of the best show biz memoirs I’ve read. The post,consequently, is more about Martin and Lewis than it is about Lewis and in fact more about Martin than it is about Lewis. Tell you the truth, Lewis was never one of my favorites, even back when he was writing me letters. Nothing to that. Just one of those things. I just didn’t think he was as funny as Dick Van Dyke or Red Skelton when it came to physical comedy.
Weird thing to me, though, re-reading the post, is my claiming not to have seen The Nutty Professor. That’s nuts. Of course I’d seen it. Same with Cinderfella. Seems they were on TV all the time when I was young. Must have been a typo and I meant The Bellboy. Unless I meant I’d never seen it all the way through. Which is likely. There’s only so much Jerry Lewis I’ve ever been able to take. Anyway…
August 13, 2008. So I'm reading Dean & Me: A Love Story, Jerry Lewis' memoir of his ten year partnership with Dean Martin, at the part where they're just beginning to hit the big time, which they did pretty fast after they paired up, and I reach this passage and have to hold up. Lewis is recounting how he'd announced to Martin that they needed a change in the act:
"We've got to work in tuxes," I told my partner.
I might as well have told him we had to work naked. "Tuxes??" he said. "Why?"
Up to that point we'd been performing in gray street suits with matching four-in-hand ties. We could have been borrowed from Florsheim and no one would have noticed. "Because," I said, "If we don't, then we'll look like the act that opened in Atlantic City---two stumblebums getting paid a load of cash. We're getting a bundle, and we have to look like we deserve it. An audience can see anybody on the Bowery wearing a gray suit---and lying in the gutter, yet. But when a comic takes a fall in a thousand dollar tux...that's funny! Don't ask me why, but I know what I'm talking about."
I'd said the magic words: Dean knew I knew. When Mike Fritzel and Joey Jacobson, Chez Paree's owners and two great guys, heard what we planned, they called us into their office. Joey said, "I've just made arrangements for both of you to be fitted for high-class tuxes made by Pucci on Michigan Boulevard---only the top of the line tailor in the country!"
When the fittings were done, we were convinced that when these tuxes were finished, we were going to see work like we had never seen it before. And since we were booked into the Chez Paree for twelve weeks, it was certain the great Pucci would take his time getting the tuxes made. Meanwhile, Dean and I continued to work in our gray street suits, at the same time reporting back to Pucci every week for further fittings.
This went on for seven weeks, and---
Hold it right there, Jer.
These must have been some tuxes. I'm amazed and impressed when Irv at Men's Warehouse after just a flick or two with the chalk can hand me back a suit in a couple of days and the cuffs on the pants aren't so long I step on them.
Got me thinking.
I've confessed here before, I'm a fashion disaster waiting to happen. I save myself by having a look I adopted when I was in my twenties and sticking to it, and if I have to dress up, I'm usually saved from embarrassment by the fact that like most men over thirty-five I look better in a gray street suit and a tie than I do in anything else. But I could look better.
A lot better.
So I started wondering what it would be like to own a tailor-made suit.
What would it be like to own a tailor-made tux?
What would it be like to need a tailor-made tux?
What would it be like to live the kind of life Martin and Lewis were living when they needed their tailor-made tuxes?
What would it have been like to have been them?
Ok, Lewis I don't wonder about being so much. I can get by happily without the admiration of the French. But Martin...
What would it have been like to have been him in his prime? To have been that good looking, to have been able to sing like that. To have been able to sing like this.
I'm not envious. Just curious. Which is why I'm reading Lewis' book. Friend of mine at work got me thinking about this, because she was wondering the same thing. She started wondering about it after she found a clip from a movie Martin made with Tony Curtis in 1960 called Who Was That Lady?.
My friend was both appalled and entertained by the scene. She was appalled by the sexism, but she was caught up in how much fun everybody seemed to be having, even the Coogle Sisters, and especially Martin. "There's a ton of joy in that scene," and much of it is provided by Dino. He is so smooth, so at ease, that she wondered how much of his character was the real him. Must have been great to be him, if that's him, she said, to have had such a huge life like that.
Then she thought it over. On the other hand, she said, maybe it stunk to be him. What if he wasn't anything like the character he played in movies and in his nightclub act? How hard that would have been, having people thinking all the time you're someone you're not?
I said I didn't know much about Dean Martin's private life and self. I think that's odd too. I know an awful lot about performers and artists I don't like and admire nearly as much. Without having read much about them, their biographies have somehow gotten into my head. But with Martin it's as if he managed to hide himself from whatever imps and goblins pass along all the gossip and tittle-tattle we pick up about celebrities without trying or caring. I told my friend that I think I read once that Martin was the least like his Rat Pack persona of of any of them but I don't know in what ways or to what degree.
So that's why I'm reading Dean & Me. If anybody knows what it was like to have been Dean Martin in his prime, it's Jerry Lewis.
What was it like?
According to Lewis.
Sad in the end.
Dean Martin, according to Lewis, was a great comic and straight man because he never took himself seriously. But this quality wasn't modesty, not really, it was detachment, and it carried over from his private self to his movie and stage self. Dean Martin just wasn't all that interested in Dean Martin. This was a virtue and a curse. It allowed him to play the straight man to Lewis. He could give way to Lewis' antics without any hesitation or jealousy (although he did set limits), he could stand back a little and just love what his partner was doing and it was probably through Martin that audiences learned to appreciate what Lewis was up to. Without Martin there as a filter, Lewis would have been just a raving nut. This same detachment was Martin's strength as a serious actor when he and Lewis parted ways. In all his movies, Martin gives way to his co-stars. He's always the straight man. Even when he's the ostensible lead, he plays second fiddle.
The only movie of his I can think of in which another actor gives way to him is Rio Bravo. John Wayne was another generous performer. Whatever you think of him or his talent, you have to admire the way he was always willing to play straight man to his co-stars. Big as he was, he somehow always made a lot of room on the screen for everybody else. In Rio Bravo, he steps back in every scene he's in with Martin. Must have been an interesting challenge for the director, Howard Hawks, getting Martin over his instinct to defer to his co-star. How do you fill a screen with both your leading men doing their best to ease their way to the corners of a shot, each trying to make more room for the other?
In his private life, this detachment and his instinct for self-mockery as a method of self-effacement kept him from becoming too full of himself and turning into the kind of world class jerk Frank Sinatra became. It might have kept Sinatra from being an even bigger jerk, at least when Martin was around, because, according to Lewis, Martin was one of the few men Sinatra truly admired and deferred to and whose lead he would follow.
But it also created an emotional drift. Martin was never wholly committed to anything or anyone. If you're always standing apart from your self, you're also always standing apart from the people and the things you love. It's like distance in a mirror. A reflection in a mirror is always exactly as far away from the mirror's surface as the the actual object being reflected which means that if you stand next to the actual object the reflection will appear to be twice as far away from you as the mirror, the distance to the glass plus the distance "within" the glass. If you stand apart from your self the people you love are pushed exactly as far away from that self as you're standing. You create a distance that is a long way to go to cross. Too far to reach across, perhaps, and after a while even the people who most want to reach across it will have to give up and walk away.
I never realized how young Jerry Lewis was when he and Martin teamed up. In his early twenties. And, although, in their act and in their friendship, Martin took on the role of big brother, in matters of business and comedy he deferred to Lewis, trusting Lewis' judgment and Lewis' talents and brains to see them through.
Like with the tuxes, which they didn't like, by the way. They felt stiff in them. Cramped their style. They had new tuxes made in L.A. when they went out to Hollywood to start making movies.
Which brings me to something else I'm wondering about.
How good are any of those movies? I think I've seen only two of them and I saw both of them on TV when I was a kid. Scared Stiff and The Stooge. The Stooge is probably why I think I have any idea what their nightclub act was like. Did any of what made them such a great nightclub act carry over onto film? If I was going to start watching their movies to find out, which one should I start with? Which ones do I follow up with?
And Martin alone I know. I've seen most of his best movies and several of his less than great ones, although Who Was That Lady? was new to me, and I've always been a fan of Tony Curtis. Operation Petticoat made me a Curtis fan and a Cary Grant fan at one blow. Also gave me a bra, and a girl going braless under a man's denim shirt, fetish at a very early age. Nevermind. What I'm saying is that I would have thought I'd have heard of a movie starring Tony Curtis and Dean Martin. But I have seen I enough of Martin's other movies----Rio Bravo, of course. Some Came Running. Bells Are Ringing. Not to mention the Matt Helms---to know he made some good ones. But did Lewis? Hard to believe, but think I've only seen one of them, The Family Jewels, and I didn't see that one under the best of circumstances. It was at a birthday party for a kid I wasn't really friends with and I didn't know anyone else at the party. Also, his parents showed it as the second half of a double feature after a Tarzan movie in which the main female character got eaten by a lion. All Tarzan found of her when he arrived too late to save her was her shoe. Upset me. Made it hard to enjoy The Family Jewels. I kept worrying that a lion would come along and eat Donna Butterworth. Or Jerry Lewis would play yet another zany character.
At any rate, I've never seen The Nutty Professor. Or The Disorderly Orderly. Or Cinderfella. Or...you get the point.
Should I bother? Would I like them? Would I get them?
Or are they too French?