Salt and Pepper (1968) | United Artists poster
Salt and Pepper (1968) | United Artists poster excerpt

Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford Play ’60s Spy Hipsters, Baby

Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford camp up their too cool for school ’60s spy hipsters personas for Richard Donner and Jerry Lewis comedies Salt and Pepper and One More Time.

Salt and Pepper / One More Time
Richard Donner / Jerry Lewis
Kino Lorber
19 July 2022

The subject of today’s playground fight: Which is better, Richard Donner’Salt and Pepper (1968) or Jerry Lewis‘ One More Time (1970)? Surely certain film snobs think that question is like asking whether you’d prefer a punch in the stomach or a poke in the eye. However, to those of us with a soft spot (somewhere around the medulla oblongata) for allegedly wacky and hip 1960s comedies, these are hairs worth splitting. The rest of you can talk amongst yourselves.

Conveniently, Kino Lorber has issued these long-lost or rather long-forgotten epics as a Blu-ray double feature, and that’s just how our sort wants them. As to which film is “better”, the answer probably falls along auteurist lines: Do you prefer films by Donner or Blitzen? I mean Donner or Lewis?

The Salt and Pepper and One More Time conclusively demonstrate the importance of each director, for otherwise, they’re the same. Both are British films written by England’s semi-legendary Michael Pertwee, who was equally adept at comedy and spy tales, and both films are of both genres. The same people produce both films, and most importantly, both films are ramshackle vehicles for the chemistry of Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. They serve as executive producers on both. So the only thing to choose between them is the director, and that makes all the difference.

Salt and Pepper is one of the ten thousand spoofs of James Bond that poured forth into cinemas of the late ’60s. That’s what it is first and foremost, while One More Time is first and foremost a Jerry Lewis film.

In the first scene of Salt and Pepper, Charles Salt (Davis) and Chris Pepper (Lawford) are introduced as partners who own the very chic, super-hip, ultra-mod Soho nightclub Salt and Pepper’s, where Salt provides a floor show as gaudy and cool as what everyone’s wearing. If only he sang more than the title song and one big rock number, the music alone would be worth our time. I’ll go out on a limb and declare that Davis’ astounding parade of wardrobes is the single most entertaining element in the picture. I’ll gladly take some of those duds – perhaps not the skin-tight leathers.

The joke, as you may need to be rubbed in your face, is that the white guy is Pepper, the black guy Salt. Salt’s little deflating references in the patented Sammy Davis manner are scattered throughout, much like a condiment. For example, a radio report will refer to him as of African descent, causing him to sigh and droop his head and call himself “one unhappy African”. Or he’ll explain that he confused two Chinese women because he couldn’t tell them apart. We’ll not repeat his query about dating Chinese women (something about “one hour later”). This is about how the era’s hipness adopted a knowing mockery of stereotypes so that viewers allegedly laughed at their dumbth (copyright pending) and thought, “we’re all sophisticated here”. These were the jokes, folks.

Salt and Pepper are grilled by buffoonish bulldog-ish Inspector Crabbe (Michael Bates), who accuses them of nefarious doings and declares, “I saw the body!” He’s not referring to murder but to a wardrobe malfunction by one of the club’s pretty dancers, one of the sorts that got the joint closed as per another hit comedy of the same year, William Friedkin’s The Night They Raided Minsky’s. As the designated “square” authority figure in a nominally anti-authoritarian era, Crabbe gets to do time-honored schtick-like stagger in shredded clothes after a bomb destroys his car. It’s that kind of humor.

The topical element is that a shadow conspiracy of elderly fuddy-duddies plans a revolution to replace the British government after hijacking a Polaris submarine and causing atomic mischief. Along the way, we get James Bond parodies like Sammy’s, I mean Salt’s wacky jeep equipped with a bullet-proof shield, machine gun, and oil spouts to foil the bad guys in pursuit. In the climax, the buddies must double-handedly waylay or slay a slew of (bad) uniformed soldiers to prevent the bomb-ish business as a grateful nation watches on telly.

Salt and Pepper never makes much sense, but Donner takes the story just seriously enough to stick to the script. In the DVDs’ only extra besides the trailers, writer Larry Karaszewski talks over a trailer to peg the film in two genres. The first is the hip ’60s film for squares, and the second is the comedy-action buddy movie virtually defined in the ’80s by Donner’s Lethal Weapon films. He’s perfectly correct, as all the elements are here: the black/white buddy team, the raucous action, the light tone, the scattering of dead characters. Then he goes too far in calling the sequel a big disappointing mess in which Sammy Davis plays Jerry Lewis. Maybe nobody will care, but I beg to differ. The sequel is an engaging and highly watchable mess in which Sammy Davis plays Jerry Lewis.

Whereas most sequels follow a dictate of “the same, only more so”, thus leaving the third film in trilogies to strike out in bold new directions that are usually disliked by fans of the first two films, One More Time goes resolutely in its direction without waiting for the third film. That’s a good thing since a third film never materialized.

It’s easy to believe that Lewis either heavily rewrote Pertwee’s script or tossed it out, but it keeps one hella doozy of a set-up. Somebody decided that we didn’t need another Soho nightclub film or more Bondian antics, so One More Time opens with their nightclub shut down for various reasons and the buddies sentenced with a thousand-pound fine. Never mind that they were knighted as national heroes in the previous film, and never mind that a thousand pounds should be chump change for successful club owners. The point is the club is out, right?

Get this. We now learn that Pepper has an identical twin brother who’s a wealthy lord with a big honking castle. You can tell them apart because Lord Sydney has the mustache, the heavy posh accent, and the superciliousness. He thinks his younger twin’s a loser, a tosser, and a disgraceful blot on the ‘scutcheon (look it up), so his will cuts Chris out of the castle and money. When Chris finds his brother dead from an apparent heart attack, he impulsively decides to impersonate him, little knowing that Sydney was poisoned as a double agent who betrayed both Interpol and diamond smugglers, and now everyone wants the diamonds.

The big swallow here isn’t the twin routine; that’s old hat, and it’s certainly a Jerry Lewis thing to impersonate multiple family members. No, viewers are asked to get over the fact that Pepper doesn’t reveal the put-on to Salt, who’s crushed by the thought that his best friend is dead. Pepper’s convenient excuse is that he didn’t want Salt in danger, which is why Pepper invites him to move into the castle with him. It won’t make sense the second time you read it either.

The surprisingly emotional, even sentimental parts in One More Time (for this is a Lewis film) involve Salt finding the melancholy center of his character amid all the voices and costumes and schtick. He’s upset by his friend’s apparent death. When one of the club’s dancers calls him “a stone Uncle Tom”, he snarls that he’s only going along with “Lord Sydney” because if he finds out he murdered Chris, “I’ll kill him”.

That’s the brief appearance of Jamaican actress Esther Anderson, an interesting figure in British pop culture. We might presume she plays Salt’s girlfriend, but we can’t be sure since it’s her only scene. Even though Davis sang in the credits of Salt and Pepper that next time he’s getting the girl, he still doesn’t, alas. One More Time turns momentarily into a musical as Salt belts out a song about his loneliness while descending the huge staircase. He’ll do another of his rave-ups wearing tight leather or velvet at the big party scene, and of course, he also sings the theme during the credits.

The emotional weight is all at the front of One More Time. The last third is edited so randomly that characters and plot points drop in and out at will as the film dissolves into surrealism (like a shoot-out in a bar where the patrons pay no attention) and fourth-wall meta-business, which was the only way to end it. I’m reminded of Norman Panama’s The Maltese Bippy (1969) with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, another film whose attraction can only be explained by childhood at the right swingin’ time. Sorry if you missed it.

Yes, Davis does and says things you easily imagine Jerry Lewis doing and saying, the difference being that Davis does them much less gratingly. Davis looks like he’s having a ball with all his accents and wardrobes like he just showed up to improvise. The scene where he dresses as a Louis XIV “Chocolate Dandy” complete with a huge wig (of course we get his “Here comes the judge” routine), where he takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes all over the company is, I state without fear of rebuke, funny.

To be sure, some bits in One More Time work better than others. An elaborate send-up of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as scored with Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, is more conceptually interesting than actually funny. Again, that’s Lewis all over. Although Lewis doesn’t appear, he dubs the voice of the ancient bandleader, so he’s kind of in the One More Time. I wish his staging and cutting were sharper; he often seems to lack coverage –that is, sufficient footage from enough angles to put the thing together properly.

So, for the sheer Lewis-ness of it, the flashes of emotion, and the even more laissez-faire clutter of plot incoherence, I find One More Time less plodding and wackier than the relatively straightforward Donner party of Salt and Pepper. As we like to say, your mileage may vary.

Both films are littered with familiar British characters. Salt and Pepper features John Le Mesurier, Ilona Rodgers, Graham Stark, Jeremy Lloyd, Oliver MacGreevy, William Mervyn, Robertson Hare, Nicholas Smith, and a small scene for Calvin Lockhart. One More Time has Maggie Wright, Dudley Sutton, John Wood, Percy Herbert, Sydney Arnold, Cyril Luckham, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee in a truly random and surreal cameo. So there’s also that.