Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Martin vs. Lewis, T.K.O. (June-July 1956)

November 13, 1955: The day after Jerry Lewis unexpectedly played a benefit performance as a solo – one specially requested of the team by Paramount’s chief, Y. Frank Freeman (the man who’d rescued the pair from the ire of the IRS), and despite Dean Martin’s verbal assurances that he’d be there – Martin & Lewis made their final starring appearance on the Colgate Variety Hour. Again the pair trotted out a specialized tune meant to reassure viewers, this one based on “Two Lost Souls” from Damn Yankees:

Dean: It’s Jerry and Dean, and no one in between,
Jerry: Like let’s say Gallagher and let’s say Shean.
Dean: Of course we complain; we fuss and strain,
Jerry: But after the fussin’ there’s always us’n.

Dean: Ah, we’re two lost souls, each wedded to each,
Jerry: We go hand in hand, in all kinds of weather.
Dean: On the bottom or top,
Jerry: A hit or a flop,
Both: It’s both together.

But not for much longer. Eighteen months after Lewis had proclaimed “never in a million years” would the team split up, the only goal they shared was in desiring the swiftest, surest way to do just that.

The obstacles, however, were formidable. First, they owed producer Hal Wallis four more pictures, and after the Three-Ring Circus debacle, Wallis had a stipulation included in their contract: Martin and Lewis could only appear in films as a team, no matter who produced them. Second, the pair would net $4 million in 1955 (grosses were in the neighborhood of $20 million), and that kind of money was awfully hard to walk away from. Third, and most especially, neither man was 100% confident of his ability to go it alone.

Certainly Dean, if he’d put any stock into what critics had to say about his talents as an actor (“a competent straight man”) or singer (“he shouldn’t oughtta listen to any more Bing Crosby records”), would never have risked working outside the profitable confines of Martin & Lewis. But he’d just scored his second big smash, “Memories are Made of This,” which would sit comfortably at number one on the Hit Parade at the start of 1956. More importantly, he was being openly courted by two studios for solo roles: Warner Brothers offered him The Pajama Game with Doris Day, while MGM wanted him for an original story, Ten Thousand Bedrooms. With all this looming, the thought of cavorting alongside the human monkey was becoming unbearable.

For his part, Jerry shrewdly recognized how important their personal relationship was to their success. Without that undercurrent of love and admiration supporting their antics, it was only a matter of time until, as he put it, “we’d get knocked through the ropes like Joe Louis.” Believing the relationship could be salvaged, Jerry conceived the idea of doing a contemporary take on the Damon and Pythias story: two men whose friendship is tested when one lays his life on the line for the other. To drive the point home, Dean would play Mike Damon, sympathetic policeman and Jerry would be Sidney Pythias, juvenile delinquent. This would be their next York picture, after finishing their current assignment for Wallis, Hollywood or Bust.

Unfortunately, Lewis assigned the writing of “Damon and Pythias” to his pal Don McGuire, the man who wrote Three-Ring Circus. McGuire’s opinion of Martin didn’t bode well for the project: “Dean was a terrible actor. He could barely talk. Jerry was the guy who made him a hit, made him funny.” Still, McGuire strove to create a story that gave both men “a close relationship;” meanwhile, Lewis campaigned with Freeman for the opportunity to direct the film.

If Jerry harbored any hope that the script would touch Dean’s heart and possibly rekindle their friendship, it was dashed almost as soon as Martin got hold of his copy. The next day, he let his partner know that he would in no way play a uniformed cop, claiming it was “low class.” Realizing that Martin didn’t read the script beyond his costume requirement, Lewis blew his stack: “Then we’ll have to get somebody else.” “Start looking, boy,” Martin retorted and stormed off.

Not too long after this, the pair reported to work on Hollywood or Bust, only speaking to each other when cameras rolled. For the first few weeks, Lewis sabotaged the production, intentionally blowing lines and breaking character; partly to retaliate against Martin, but mostly with the intent to force Hal Wallis to renegotiate – or release them from – his restrictive contract. The gambit failed; director Frank Tashlin, no doubt with Wallis’ blessing, simply threw Lewis off the picture, forcing the comic’s hand.

Chastened, Lewis returned to Hollywood or Bust and, in his words, “tried for the miracle.” “You know, it’s a hell of a thing,” he suddenly said to Martin during a break. “All I can think of is that what we do is not very important. Any two guys could have done it. But even the best of them wouldn’t have had what made us as big as we are.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Well, I think it’s the love that we had – that we still have – for each other.”

Martin thought long and hard about what he had to say, then said it. “You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothin’ but a (bleep)in’ dollar sign.”

And that was it. Both men knew: it was over. Jerry went straight to Y. Frank Freeman for permission to make “Damon and Pythias” (which would eventually be titled The Delicate Delinquent) with another costar. The news broke on June 18.

Still, Dean and Jerry faced a month of confirmed personal appearances, which they met through sheer force of will. There were some rough patches, one of them being a Today Show appearance on June 26 (“Dean and I [could] hardly bear to look at each other,” remembered Lewis fifty years later; the kinescope bears him out). Serendipitously, their nightclub engagements were due to conclude on July 24 – exactly one day shy of ten years since their official teaming at Atlantic City’s 500 Club.

Those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of Dean and Jerry Incorporated – Hal Wallis, NBC – were forcibly persuaded to renegotiate contracts. At the insistence of Freeman, Wallis permitted them one solo film each. Not until 1957 did he agree to let them meet the balance of their contract individually, thus getting six pictures for the price of three. NBC considered suing to keep the pair together, then discovered to their chagrin that their five-year deal was contractually with York Productions, with no stipulation that the company deliver Martin and Lewis as a team. The following year, Dean negotiated his own NBC deal and sold his share of York to Jerry, who in turn sold the company and their piece of the York films to Paramount.

Over the years, each man would take credit for initiating the split, which was in essence the truth: Dean’s refusal to do The Delicate Delinquent would spark Jerry’s behind-the-scenes machinations to get them released from Wallis’ iron grip. Each man reached his individual goals: Dean became “a real actor” in such fine films as The Young Lions, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo, while Jerry made so much money for Paramount that owner Barney Balaban famously said, “If he wants to burn down the studio, I’ll hand him the match.”

But it was live television that made Martin & Lewis superstars, so it was entirely fitting that their estrangement came to an end on live TV; in September 1976 during Lewis’ annual telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. The reunion, like the split, made headlines, and raised hopes that Dean and Jerry would again entertain together. It was not to be; Martin and Lewis would publicly reunite only once more, briefly on a Las Vegas stage in 1989 for Dean’s 72nd birthday. By then, life’s ebb and flow had washed away the pain and bitterness for both men, to where Dean could publicly assure Jerry, “I love you and I mean it.” Martin retired in 1991 and died four years later; Lewis continues to do what he loves: make others laugh, cry and cheer.
More than a half-century after their parting, how to sum up the appeal of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis? Perhaps we should let them do it. Jerry: “Two guys who had more fun than the audience.” Dean: “With Jerry and me, it was mostly just doin’ what we felt. Those were great times.” Indeed they were.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Martin vs. Lewis, Round Two (June-August 1955)

June of 1955 was shaping up as a banner month for the money-making juggernaut that was Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. On the 5th, they hosted the final Colgate Comedy Hour. Henceforth, the program would be known as the Colgate Variety Hour, and would be co-owned by NBC and the team’s own company, York Productions. Six days later, their newest film, "You’re Never Too Young" (co-owned by York Productions and Paramount Pictures), would have its gala premiere at Brown’s Hotel in the Catskills, where Lewis made his professional debut as a mere teen.

Since the accord reached in the spring of 1954, interaction between Martin and Lewis had been harmonious, if never quite as cozy as before. Arthur Penn, technical director for the latest season of Comedy Hours, could tell at least one of them was losing interest: "The only discomfort that was ever in evidence was when I would go into the dressing room, and I would see (Dean) drinking." Martin was nursing resentment along with libations, and it wasn’t long before all hell broke loose.

The team’s second, far more damaging feud began literally 48 hours after the completion of their Colgate segment, when Jerry, about to board a train that would take them to New York, was told by their press agent Jack Keller, "Your partner isn’t making the trip." There had been warning signs. When the Brown’s idea was first proposed, Martin rejected it on the grounds that the site played no part in his career. Keller recalled, "He didn't care if he owned a piece of the picture or not. He was being used, he felt, as the tail to wag the kite... being dragged in on Jerry's party." Since he wasn’t interested in suggesting an alternate venue, eventually Martin told his partner, "I don’t give a ---- where we hold it," and Lewis took this as a default approval to open the film at Brown’s.

Arriving in New York, Lewis (accompanied by his wife) rode by car to the hotel, brooding and weeping as he passed billboard after billboard advertising the team’s presence for the June 11 premiere. Meanwhile, Martin was talking to his agent about lining up a solo TV show “where I can sing more than two songs in an hour.” Then, after detailing the dispute with Jerry – along with his individual aspirations – to the press, Dean took off with his wife for a Hawaii vacation.

Lewis managed to get through the premiere, surrounded by over 100 newspaper reporters, with little more than a tearful "No comment" concerning his partner’s absence, and even narrated a Paramount newsreel of the event; but once home, he spent the next several days trying to get out of every contract to which Martin & Lewis were committed, tersely repeating "No comment" to any reporter that asked what was going on.

When Dean returned from his respite, and found that not only were there no offers for his own show but also Jerry was angling for the dissolution of the team, he went into damage control mode. First, he had his attorney fire off a letter to MCA, Hal Wallis, Paramount and NBC that categorized his earlier comments as hearsay: "Gentlemen: Notwithstanding any statements or rumors which you may have heard to the contrary, please be advised that I recognize the existence of an employment contract with you dated September 1, 1954, and that I am and will continue to be and hold myself ready, willing and able to render and perform my services pursuant thereto."

Then, every reporter to which Jerry refused to comment found Dean more than willing to talk: "I don’t want to break up the team. It’s a damn fine living and I want to hold on to it." Or, "What’s the difference if we don’t chum around? To me, this isn’t a love affair; this is big business." And in every case, Martin referred to his partner as "the kid" or "the boy," never failing to point out that he was "ten years older" (actually nine). What had once been a term of endearment from his “older brother” now sounded condescending… and Lewis fumed. Their previous feud had lasted eight days. This one would exceed eight weeks.

At the beginning of August, Lloyd Shearer called on Jerry on behalf of Parade magazine, and caught him at the right – or wrong - moment. After assuring Shearer that a split was "inevitable," the cork flew out of Lewis’ bottle: "Dean was the guy who told the newspapers he was ready to do a single. Don’t forget that. I didn’t open my mouth. Now I will, and I want you should know the truth. This mess is my fault…. I made the mistake of worshipping this man. I thought more of Dean than my own wife, my own family. I accepted everything we did on his terms, his standards, his values. Now I’ve grown up. I (sic) got values of my own.

"A theatre-owner in Detroit, a guy who took care of us when we were struggling – he calls up. Business is lousy. He’s going broke. For old time’s sake, won’t we play his house? I’m ready to fly to Detroit in the morning. But I gotta turn the guy down. Why? Can I tell him my partner wants to play golf? It’s the same way with benefits. Hospitals, orphanages, worthwhile charities. They phone; will we give them a few minutes, a few hours? I’m dying to say ‘Yes’ – but I can’t unless I show up without my partner."

By now, Lewis was thoroughly lathered up: "I can’t tell you how deeply I feel about these things. Twenty-eight years old, and I’ve got ulcers and I spit blood and I can’t sleep and I lose weight. Who needs this? I don’t care if Patti and me (sic) gotta go back to a one-room apartment in Newark. I gotta live with my conscience. You can’t run a partnership, you can’t run your life without principles. And if the only principle in this setup is to make money and to hell with everything else, I’m not buying it."

Needless to say, Shearer found Martin just as eager to talk, particularly about money. "I think the kid’s bein’ silly. We gotta company together (with) one of the greatest deals of all time. Each of us gets $4,000 a week from TV. Then after five years, or six pictures, Paramount gives us five or six million bucks to split. Jer is willin’ to throw this out the window because I don’t love him. Who says I gotta love him? Business is business. Does Abbott love Costello? Why can’t we have a business-like partnership?"

With that question, Dean had effectively thrown down a gauntlet toward his sentimental partner, before letting his own cork fly: "To hear some of the gossip you’d think I was a criminal ‘cause I don’t wanna work 365 days a year. I can’t help it if I’m not built like the kid. Jer’ll work 24 hours a day if you let him. He’ll put on a benefit for the kid who sells papers on the corner. I admire, respect him for it. But Jeez! He’s ten years younger’n me. I can’t take that routine. End of the day this guy jumpin’ up and down my back, I’m tired. I’m beat. I like to go home. I gotta wife, six kids. They’re entitled to my time, my companionship. I didn’t get married so that I could spend my life on the stage doin’ benefits for the campfire boys.

"I can’t change the way I’m built to suit Jerry. They talk about my golf and all that. I never missed a show or rehearsal yet. Work is work an’ play is play, an’ a man’s gotta have time for both… for his family, his kids. A guy should be allowed to step into a church for a few minutes without playin’ a benefit."

It was a blockbuster story, but before it saw print the situation had changed. Within days of Shearer’s questioning, Jerry contacted Paramount and NBC with assurances of fulfilling his end of the deal. This sudden reconciliation was driven by an urgent need – the team had an outstanding tax debt of $650,000 that had come due. Lewis borrowed the money from the head of Paramount studios, Y. Frank Freeman, fully aware he’d need to continue working with Martin in order to pay it back. The official announcement came from Paramount on August 9 – unlike their first reconciliation, neither Dean nor Jerry was present at the press conference – and questions about the personal relationship between the two principles were answered, once again, with "No comment."

Indeed, observers recognized that nothing much had been resolved between them. Preparing for the first Colgate Variety Hour of the season, Jerry continued to involve himself in every aspect of production, spending as little time rehearsing with Dean as he could get away with. At one point, Lewis ducked into the soundproof booth used in a sketch parodying CBS’s smash $64,000 Question to check the wiring on the floor. Martin was overheard muttering, "Maybe we’ll get a break; he’ll electrocute himself down there."

The sketch opened the show on September 18, their first appearance together since June’s Colgate program. Martin played the host of "The $64 Million Dollar Question," and Lewis the contestant, who correctly answers the 7-part, $32 million question about tobacco (in the booth that Martin fills with the smoke from six different cigarettes) by guessing. For the big money question, Lewis is forced into a huge tank of water, where he’s expected to remain submerged until ready to answer the question, which is on a scroll of paper about a half-mile long.

The sketch was well-written enough that the pair followed it almost to the letter... until Jerry got into the tank, and Dean proceeded to push him beneath the water while reading the question. After the third dunking, Martin attempts to force his partner under again, but Lewis grasps the side of the tank. "Let me catch a breath here," he calls out. Pushed down again, Lewis returns with the old code phrase, "You’re overacting!" Down he goes again, and re-emerges with, "A joke’s a joke, but I’m drowning!" Now laughing along with the audience, Dean sends him under again. Jerry immediately pops up: "READ A LITTLE FASTER, WILL YA?" After one more submerging, Lewis grabs the tank and eyes Martin with suspicion: "Haven’t you heard? The feud is over!" The line stopped the show.

Lewis’s ad-lib wasn’t the only comment on the recent situation. Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics for a special rendition of “Side By Side” performed after the second sketch; lyrics that completely trivialized the cause and scope of the event:

Dean: Oh, the road gets a little bit bumpy.
Jerry: And our nerves get a little bit jumpy.
Dean: We beef and complain!
Jerry: But we remain...

Jerry: There are times when his smile ain’t so sunny.
Dean: Times when his fun isn’t funny.
Jerry: So we fuss and we pout,
Dean: But still we come out...

Dean: Life can be demandin’.
Jerry: Life isn’t always play.
Dean: We reached an understandin’:
Jerry: It’s gotta be HIS way!

Dean: There are some who had parted us neatly.
Jerry: But we have fooled them completely.
Dean: Had us both on the shelf!
Jerry: Look for yourself:

Dean: Like Topsy and like Eva, we’ll always roll along!
Jerry: We had our own Geneva: He admitted that I was wrong!

Dean: So, please allow us to sum up:
Jerry: If ever a problem should come up...
Dean: We’ll fight like before,
Jerry: But after the war,

The show received near-rave reviews, typical of which was Variety’s: "Except for the numerous commercials and one rock-n-roll number," wrote ‘Herm,’ "Martin & Lewis were on camera for the full hour and were socko all the way." All the critics made mention of the feud references and the special “Side by Side,” with TV Radio-Life’s noting, "As a matter of fact, the boys made it clear to viewers that their feud was a thing of the past." ‘Herm,’ on the other hand, hedged his bets on that score: "Whatever the realities in the case, the boys worked together with as much rapport as ever."

From the start of the team’s career, Lewis had touted the strength of their relationship as the key to their mass adulation. The undercurrent of mutual affection that drove their antics was such a keystone of the act, the public had no trouble carrying it over to their private lives. Seeing them on television making light of their "misunderstanding" with a special song convinced the audience that all was well again. But in truth the love affair had ended and "a business-like partnership" was exactly what Martin & Lewis would have for the next eleven months, until neither man could bear it any longer.