Thursday, December 14, 2006

Answered DVD Prayers: That's My Boy and Scared Stiff

The 1950's most iconic screen team finally get their due on DVD, with Paramount's recently-released Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Collection: Volume One box set encompassing eight of the sixteen films the remarkably successful comedy team made from 1949-1956. Although the madcap hi-jinks of the duo (and Lewis in particular) have always been an acquired taste, onscreen Martin & Lewis definitely have amazing chemistry and a style all their own and, if not outright comedy classics, several of their cinematic outings still offer enough fun, charm, and entertainment to make a screening worthwhile.

Having viewed most of the Martin & Lewis film catalog years ago, the two titles I was most anxious to revisit on DVD were 1951's That's My Boy and 1953's Scared Stiff, the team's reworking of Bob Hope's earlier hit, The Ghost Breakers. Both of these movies provide more coherent story lines than those found in most of the Martin & Lewis films, while still allowing room for the duo to partake of their familiar antics with aplomb.

One of the team’s biggest hits, That's My Boy provides Lewis with a good role as Junior Jackson, the anemic teenage son of "Jarrin'" Jack Jackson, a former college football great. Paring down his overt wackiness for a change, Lewis manages to give a restrained performance, keeping it real as he stays in character (well, for the most part, although when Lewis cuts loose for a wild, impromptu dance at the High School gym, it sure resembles vintage Lewis clowning, more than anything the weak, mild-mannered Junior would attempt). As his overbearing father, the domineering Eddie Mayehoff combines his booming voice with a machine-gun vocal delivery style to deftly convey the havoc an aging sports-obsessed jock mired in past glories can inflict on his son (the film’s a bit more serious in tone than most of the Martin & Lewis films, excepting The Stooge, which also effectively plays the comedy/drama card). Dean Martin shows up as Bill Baker, the high school All Star who ends up rooming in college with Junior, and tries to groom the athletically inept for football success; the thirty-something Martin vies with Stockard Channing in Grease for the title of "Oldest Teenager in Film History” (although his age is never actually referred to; perhaps he was held back, oh, fifteen years or so). Will Jerry come through in the Big Game, justifying Bill's faith in him and making papa Jack proud at last? If you've never seen a film before, the answer may be in doubt. However, others (and Martin & Lewis fans in particular), will still find plenty to keep them interested and amused.

The lively Scared Stiff is in the vein of the more flamboyant Martin & Lewis offerings; however, aided by the proven “haunted house” plot line and some lovely, energetic female costars, Stiff holds up better than most of the Martin & Lewis comedies. Jerry is in full-throttle bouncing-off-the-walls mode here and, regardless of how one feels about his bombastic style, one has to give Lewis credit for never slacking off on the job- the film’s a fairly long 108 minutes, but with Lewis on screen Stiff does not have time to ever get boring. In contrast to his partner’s extravagant work, Dean, as usual, adopts his patented laid-back, bemused demeanor, and beautifully offsets Lewis’ high voltage clowning. Supporting the duo is Elizabeth Scott as the damsel in distress the boys help out, and the gorgeous Dorothy Malone, who briefly shows up as a showgirl who has designs on Martin, and any other man who catches her fancy. The film really kicks into high gear when a welcome Carmen Miranda (in her final film) shows up to join the boys for a couple of frenetic numbers (with Carmen and Jerry sharing the screen, anything goes, people). Of course, Lewis gets around to doing an impersonation of the "Brazilian Bombshell"; Jerry manages to be almost, but not quite, as colorful as the lady herself.

For Martin and Lewis at their best, check them out during their early 1950’s appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour (I found a few of these shows on DVD while rummaging through the bargain bin’s $1.00 DVDs). I never completely understood the overwhelming public favor the team gained during their heyday until I caught them live on these shows (Colgate was one of the top shows on television during the time, and the terrific ad-libbing of Martin and Lewis created some of the most incredible, hilarious moments found in the Golden Age of Television). They’re fantastic in front of a live audience, displaying their talents to better advantage than in the team’s work in the funny, but not as spontaneous, film comedies found in this fine Paramount set. Can’t wait for Volume 2, which should include all the 1954-56 Martin & Lewis films, including the best in the series, both directed by the marvelously inventive Frank Tashlin: Artists and Models (with a young and wonderfully game and eccentric Shirley MacLaine making a perfect foil for Jerry) and the team’s final paring, Hollywood or Bust (Martin & Lewis were defintely not getting along by the time of shooting, but Bust remains one of their most upbeat, joyful film offerings).