[26 February 2007]
We now know, of course, that Dean Martin was not really a drunk. He only played one on TV. And in the nightclubs. And in the movies. And on the golf course. Which brings us to an interesting dilemma: If you are playing the role of a drunk in almost every facet of your public life, does it really matter if it’s apple juice and not whiskey in that glass?
U2’s Bono spent the better part of the ‘90s playing a meta-rock game with the persona of the ego driven front man. This was merely a parody of what Bono would’ve become had he not parodied himself first. Satire aside, if you are pretending to be a self-important, self-loving rockstar, isn’t that what much of the public will believe you to be?
In Dino’s case, we have a situation that probably says more about the culture of his time than Martin himself. This charming and talented gentleman felt that he had to appear to be a womanizing drunk in order to keep up with the Joneses or, more likely, the Sinatra. But who really likes a misogynist drunk? It’s quite possible that the unwashed masses deserve more credit than they were normally given. Somehow they must’ve seen through the sly and boozy charade and found the warm hearted man hiding there all along.
Nothing else would explain Dean Martin’s long and beloved career which lasted until well into his old age. The only thing more distasteful than a misogynist drunk is an elderly misogynist drunk, better known as the “dirty old man”. No one saw Martin this way, and this two movie set from Fox is an example of just why this was true. These are far from Martin’s best work, but they serve as documents to his likability.
The two films in this release were produced about a decade apart, but not much seems to change in the Dino-world. Let’s start with ‘60’s Who Was That Lady? Here we have one of those plots which Hollywood writers seemed to have burned into their typewriters: the self serving lie that snowballs into a major problem. This lie revolves around Columbia University Professor David Wilson (played by Tony Curtis) having to explain to his wife, Ann (Janet Leigh) just why she witnessed one of his students kissing him in the classroom. To save his marriage, Wilson is counseled by the key figure in these comedies: the mischievous friend with bad advice.
This is Dean Martin’s specialty and in this film his advice as Michael Haney is spectacularly bad. He convinces Wilson to tell Ann that he is actually an undercover FBI agent and to sell it to her using a prop gun and fake badge he gets from the prop department at CBS where he works. Hijinx and mayhem ensue as someone in the prop department thinks some kind of larceny is afoot and decides to call in the real FBI. This is how the plot creaks and from here on in, you can probably fill in the scenes where the pair get mixed up with the real g-men and real foreign spies who all apparently live in a world where Haney is not a media superstar or Matt Helm.
The real problems arise, however, when Haney organizes a boy’s night out with a pair of pretty young starlets, creating a new lie that Wilson is a top CBS executive. When Ann discovers that Professor Wilson of the FBI has forgotten his gun, she decides to bring it to him. Much contrived comedy ensues. Norman Krasna adapted his stage play for the film and the movie possesses the stylization and machine gun pitter patter of a good theatrical farce. There’s nothing special about George Sidney’s solid direction but that’s par for the course. Sidney was an old pro like Krasna himself; a craftsman with no pretensions. This is an enjoyable time passer if you’re not expecting the extra bite you would get from someone like Billy Wilder or even the morbid slapstick of Blake Edwards.
Who Was That Lady? is the template for the kind of film Hugh Grant knocks off every other year. With equally unmemorable titles and contrived plots, these films are formula vehicles designed around the star’s persona. Your mileage may vary depending on whether or not you like the particular star. I’ve always liked Dean Martin, so Who Was That Lady? made for a diverting 114 minutes. The cast is up to the shenanigans, with both Tony Curtis and his then actual wife Janet Leigh providing Martin with excellent support.
The second feature is 1968’s How To Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life). Not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, this film is really a late ‘60s pre MPAA sex romp with the moral codes and values from the late ‘50s. Boys will be boys here and the girls are merely conquests and trophies to male vanity. It would be funnier were it not so empty.
Once again, Martin (as David Sloane) is the friend trying to help his pal, Department Store owner Eli Wallach. When Martin discovers that straight arrow Wallach is cheating on his wife, he decides that he is ruining the best thing in his life and steps in to save his friend’s marriage by trying to seduce Wallach’s mistress himself. The trouble is that he mistakes secretary Carol Corman (Stella Stevens) for Wallach’s mistress and attempts to use all of his romantic charms on her. The charms work, and Carol quits her job and is content to be set up in a nice apartment by Sloane. Wallach does have an actual mistress, but this is Muriel Laszlo (Anne Jackson) who lives nearby. When Sloane breaks the news that he’s stolen his mistress, Wallach is confused but runs back to his wife (Katharine Bard) in fear of losing everything and attempts to mend fences at home. Trouble ensues when the two mistresses get together for some payback.
The cast is too good for this material and they seem to know that it’s below them. Just like Curtis and Leigh, Wallach and his real life wife, Anne Jackson, are great in their supporting roles. Stella Stevens gives another performance that could’ve made her a star were it a few years earlier or a few years later. Earlier, she would’ve been in the line of blonde bombshells like Monroe and Mansfield and later, her onscreen sexuality could’ve given power to more sophisticated fare like Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. As it was, too much too soon or too little too late.
The oddest thing about this very late ‘60s sex comedy is how reactionary and chaste it is. The same year Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were cruising the Free Love Freeway in Easy Rider, Columbia released this comedy featuring women who want nothing more than to be “put up” by a man and even the men defend the sanctity of marriage. It’s a film that would fit better among today’s safe PG-13 romcoms than it did in ‘68.
In many of his films, Martin appeared to be just showing up for the paycheck. These two are no exception. The funny thing is, like many brilliant performers, Martin could really phone it in with style. But if he was challenged, as he was in Howard Hawks’ brilliant Rio Bravo, the results could be fantastic. Just watch any scene in Rio Bravo and you’ll see what kind of actor Dean could be if he tried. John Wayne stars in the picture, but it’s Dean who steals it with his character; the drunken deputy who sobers up and reclaims his pride and respect.
Sony has released both films on a single DVD with no extras. But with the retail price being $19.95, I guess you’re getting about two films for the price of one. These films are perfect for a rainy weekend at home; almost four hours of light nonsense you won’t have to think about at all. You might want to mix some drinks with them to get the full Dean Martin effect, however.