Martin & Lewis
on the Colgate Comedy Hour
One of the most successful comedy teams ever, Martin & Lewis broke up before many of my generation were even born. Most got to know their work as solo entertainers long before discovering they were once partners. Their sixteen films together showcased, sometimes diluted, their lively interplay in series of off-the-rack Hollywood remakes and retreads. In these movies, Jerry was nearly always showcased at his best, with Martin's singing included as an afterthought or romantic diversion. As a result, modern audiences don't understand why their 1956 break-up was such a big deal.
A clearer perception of what made these two men such an international phenomenon can be gathered from their work on live, early television. None of Martin & Lewis' pre-1951 TV appearances on the likes of Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater or Ed Sullivan's Toast Of The Town have been found or compiled on video. It's lucky then that through the miracle of the cheap, public domain video, we can view a generous sampling of their remarkable chemistry on the Colgate Comedy Hour, which ran on NBC from 1950 through 1955.
The Colgate Comedy Hour was a media animal totally foreign to contemporary audiences. A weekly variety show with lengthy sketches, florid dance numbers, and lush musical interludes, its tab was completely covered by the sponsor. Back then, companies insisted on their corporate names being included in the show's title much the same way conglomerates today demand that Major League teams use their monikers on new ballparks. During television's infancy, the individual sponsor had much more power than they do today; they often had full approval over a show's contents, and it they liked the results, could demand the show be kept on the air despite weak ratings. It wasn't until the mid-to-late 50s that such visionaries as NBC's Pat Weaver (father of Sigourney, brother of Doodles) enacted a system where the networks or production companies owned the shows and sponsors bid for ad time.
Martin & Lewis were among several revolving hosts of the Comedy Hour (later renamed the Colgate Variety Hour), but at the start they were not the series' biggest stars. Such famous holdovers from radio as Abbott & Costello, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Spike Jones, and Jimmy Durante did their best televised work for Colgate. Indeed, Abbott & Costello's version of the show was as consistently funny and has held up as well as Martin & Lewis'. However, Dean & Jerry had distinct advantages over Bud & Lou, they were younger, better looking (especially in the harsh light of early black & white TV), and came to prominence during television's first Golden Age when audiences were hungry for fresh stars better suited to the medium.
The five-tape set from the Diamond Entertainment Corporation titled The Martin And Lewis Collection, costs $15.35 through Amazon.com or you can find single tapes for $2.99 to $3.99 at places with video bargain bins. Diamond's labels are prematurely faded and their tapes are recorded at the EP speed, but the video resolution is surprisingly good, and they've left in all the vintage commercials, which adds to the nostalgic fun. What follows is a tape by tape analysis of each show.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Featuring Rosemary Clooney (Tape # 42029)
Opening: One of the show's best running gags had Martin & Lewis starting episodes at some gig from hell -- places where no comedy team could score laughs no matter how good they were. This time the boys are at a gathering of somber, high-minded psychiatrists. The doctors try to dissect Lewis' spasmodic personality, but instead end up imitating and enjoying, his quirky physical behavior. Martin pulls his frightened partner out of the crowd and launches into the opening bits in front of the stage curtain.
Guest Star: Martin introduces Rosemary Clooney. One of the biggest stars of the early 50s, Clooney sings her hit version of Hank Williams' classic "Half As Much," bleeding every single bit of country soul from the song, and looking like a melancholy prom date in the process. She quickly follows with her cutie-pie Italiano ditty "Botch-A-Me," which basically portrays a woman playfully begging for a kiss in language that sounds coy and vaguely dirty. Watching Clooney makes one realize why the encroaching rock'n'roll movement was absolutely necessary.
Jerry: Another running bit has Lewis talking to the folks at home while Martin gets ready to do his song. Though the young comic frequently slips out of vocal character, these spots are consistently funny because they open up opportunities for him to antagonize the camera crew, goof up announcements with silly syntax, and slip in some plugs. This time he announces that his father Danny Lewis will be appearing at the Paramount Theater. Lewis introduces a small stone-faced boy as his nephew the kid doesn't crack a grin no matter what the comic does. Finally, Lewis introduces his partner singing his current hit record form the alleged motion picture Tom Swift and His Electric Bird.
Dean: Martin, looking debonair in a quilted, silver smoking jacket on a set not unlike that of his '60s variety show, croons his 1952 Top Ten hit "You Belong To Me." Cover versions ran amok during this era and Martin's was just one of many waxings of this song that charted. His voice is rich and expressive and the segment ends with Martin gazing lovingly on an envelope he has addressed to "Mrs. Dean Martin." One can just imagine housewives all over America sighing in unison. Later, in front of the bandstand, Martin testifies about the merits of "Hominy Grits," a song better suited to southern-fried bandleader/singer Phil Harris (from whom Martin drew much of his persona) than Dino.
Sketches: A vacation in Italy sketch doesn't give Martin much to do, though Lewis provokes a few grotesque yuks by stomping grapes with his socks on and fracturing the names of Italian food. Aided by "Dean's uncle," the duo gets a few laughs by trying to eat a huge sub sandwich at the same time. The bit is taken from the Ritz Brothers, though Lewis gets some laughs when he starts doing chin-ups with the seemingly rock hard Italian bread. Later, Lewis plays a bumbling detective hired to guard valuable presents at Martin's wedding. The skit stiffs on its own merits, but garners hearty laughs when Jerry grabs the cue cards and brings them on-camera after Martin forgets a line. A pocket-sized fan that blows the guests around the set with hurricane force brings the labored bit to a conclusion. The writers let the team down in this department.
Together: There is an indescribable hum that occurs when Martin & Lewis are in front of the bandstand together. No matter how badly the sketches play, all is forgiven when "the boys" do their nightclub act. Lewis hits the stage talking like a hipster; Martin's droll Crosbyish reactions are very funny, which provokes his partner to take it up a notch. Finally, M&L pick up instruments and play horribly with Dick Stabile's Orchestra proving their inverse hipitude, before dancing vaudeville through the finale. There are plenty of competent dancers on the program who can execute fancier steps, but for some unexplained reason, whenever Martin & Lewis cut a simple in-tandem time-step, the audience explodes with appreciation.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Featuring Polly Bergen Bob Fosse
(Tape # 42030)
Opening: In a show not written by Lear or Simmons, M&L disrupt the wedding of Martin's "high school sweetheart." Lewis soul-kisses the bride, causing an uproar which results in them fleeing the reception to the sanctity to the curtain where they do their opening routine. During exchanges littered with Italian hand-gestures, the guys refer to each other as "Ethel" and "Shirley."
Guest Stars: Frequent M&L movie co-star Polly Bergen is introduced as appearing in their new picture That's My Boy, which would but the year of this show at 1951. Bergen is pretty and displays a serviceable contralto on the standard "But Not For Me." She is far more interesting dueting with Martin on their song form At War With The Army, "You and Your Beautiful Eyes," which swings. Modern audiences know Bob Fosse as the famous Broadway director and choreographer responsible for Cabaret. Early in his career, he and Mary Ann Niles were a nightclub dance team. After complaining about the tab at the hotel where he and Dean saw them, the comic exorbitantly praises the young hoofers in his introduction. Unfortunately, Fosse and Niles can't perform to the level of Lewis' buildup they are stunningly average dancers even by TV standards.
Jerry: In one of the most self-serving plugs this writer has ever witnessed, Lewis eats up his sponsor's time half-comically thanking a wide variety of benefactors Bucknell shirts, Collier's Magazine, Hadacol tonic, tire stores, personal friends, and producer Hall Wallis included. When the stage director tries to speed him up, Lewis chews out the crew in his "kid" voice provoking great hilarity. Which just demonstrates what you can get away with when you've got a hot act.
Dean: Terribly off-mike, Martin croons the Crosby knock-off "Tonda Wonda Hoy," from At War With The Army to a line of uncoordinated hula girls. It doesn't really matter though; he forgets most of the words anyway.
Sketches: In a badly miked, poorly blocked drive-in movie bit, Lewis plays the attendant who disrupts Martin and his date by trying to sell snacks, service his car, and leering at the woman. Martin's funny lines get no reaction from the audience, though Lewis' miming to the movie dialogue is amusing. Later, another running feature of M&L's radio, TV, and movie work crops up a comic bio of their early days. In this one, the team is staying in a cheap hotel with paper-thin walls. A nice bit of misdirection leads the viewer to believe Martin has smuggled his partner into the hotel inside a large string bass case. However, the singer pulls Lewis out of a thin suitcase on the dresser, causing him to quip, "Boy, it's a good thing we fired the other two guys from the act." M&L try to sleep, but their noisy neighbors, particularly a practicing trumpet player cause Lewis to panic and jerk about convulsively. Eventually swayed by the music, he leads Dino in a crazed, crowd-pleasing version of "The Mexican Hat Dance." The bit ends better than it started with the guys making the bed in time to the "Blue Danube Waltz" and rhythmically spazzing to "Flight Of The Bumblebee."
Together: Magic time. In a trademark bit, Martin powerfully emotes "It's Magic" while Lewis leads the band, shoots in zingers, mugs behind his partner's back, and the kisses him! With the show running short, Lewis once again gets applause chewing out the TV authority figures. Finally, they settle in to a tried and true routine their impersonations of famous stars. When Martin introduces Lewis' impression of "that great actor James Cagney," the comic scores a major laugh asking, "James Cagney's a great actor?" Martin does his ever-reliable Cary Grant before they both dance to great applause at show's end.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Featuring Burt Lancaster
(Tape # 42031)
Opening: In a very polished production number, Martin & Lewis celebrate their return from their vaunted overseas tour. I'm sure this number was viewed as a true accomplishment at the time, but it doesn't stand the test of time well. The squabbles the duo had with the foreign press were far more interesting, funnier too.
Guest Stars: Burt Lancaster steals the show in a parody of his hit movie Come Back, Little Sheba. Wildly overacting, Lancaster plays an escaped drunk who invades Martin & Lewis' hotel room (as always, they're sleeping in the same bed which Lucy & Ricky weren't allowed to do at the time) in search of his imaginary dog, Sheba. Both comics get some good laughs acting scared, but not as many as Lancaster who really throws himself into the part.
Jerry: Besides plugging a story about MDA in LOOK Magazine, Lewis takes a very impressive turn demonstrating the popular dance steps of the "last thirty years." After a graceful foxtrot and wildly executed jitterbug, the comic and his partner dance like stormtroopers to Walter Scharf's Dragnet Theme. As evidenced by these videos, Lewis was one skilled dancer.
Dean: Martin romances a gooey-eyed starlet while burbling "You're The Right One," from The Caddy. Which puts the date for this show at 1953. Dino's dapper but the song's no capper. Far better is his turn on "That's Amore," which Martin omits the choral opening and swings the ending. The tune is from the pair's most interesting film, The Stooge, which had been filmed in 1951, but not released until two years later. Martin is clearly proud of having a true smash hit, and many people feel this gratifying taste of solo success signaled the end of the team.
Sketches: In a multimedia bit which foreshadowed the work of Ernie Kovacs, Martin plays a TV sports addict trying to watch a fight that is repeatedly interrupted by commercials. Lewis plays all the characters; first an obnoxious pitchman for a TV "defuzzer," a dance instructor with the voice of a punch-drunk prize-fighter, etc. The scene is badly blocked resulting in Martin's funniest lines and pieces of business getting buried. Lewis' TV parodies, seen on the screen Martin in watching, are hilarious, but when his characters come into Martin's onstage home, the bit gets messy. There's funny stuff here, but the sketch is three times longer than the average Saturday Night Live piece, as were most sketches from TV's early days.
Together: Lewis zanily conducts while Martin sings "Innamorata (There's No Tomorrow)," and a good time is had by all. During the verse sung in Italian, Lewis looks on admiringly before zinging "Get your pizzas here!" Then he mimes to the audience that the handsome singer has had a nose job just before falling into the bandstand a creating delirious pandemonium. At the bit's conclusion, Martin offers his partner a behind-the-back handshake. When these men were working together at the bandstand, it is clear they really did like one another.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Featuring Jimmy Durante - George Raft - Tony Curtis (Tape # 42032)
Opening: In a lengthy hilarious sequence, Martin & Lewis do a take-off on Ed Sullivan's Talk Of The Town. Lewis' greased-haired oversized teeth impression of Sullivan is brilliant and surreal, bumping Will Jordan's bizarre take up several notches. "Ed Solomon" introduces Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, and Clark Gable from the audience, all of whom are imitated with surprising competency by Martin. The capper? After Martin resumes his seat we discover he has been sitting next to such real life stars as Jimmy Durante, George Raft, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh. (This is the only appearance these stars make on the show.) Lewis seems to crack himself up when he announces that "Next week, right here on this stage. We'll have five thousand penguins smoking Kools!" (Penquins were a prominent part of Kool cigarette ad campaigns.) Finally, Martin as golf champion Ben Hogan offers to hit a golf ball using Solomon's lips as the tee. Lewis/Solomon lies on the floor and teases Martin/Hogan sucking the ball into his mouth before he can swing the club. Hogan eventually swings and knocks Solomon cold. Funny Mad Magazine styled material.
Jerry: In what had to amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity, Lewis has chorus girls carry signs onstage with dates and places of the team's upcoming tour. He spritzes a few jokes but mostly plugs the gigs and even says to the people at Eastman-Kodak "maybe you'll sent me a camera."
Dean: Sometimes we forget that most scared of popular song traditions, singing to one's mother as if she were a girlfriend to be wooed. Martin sings a rich, heartfelt version of "For You," to an actress playing his mother. Later, he is nearly drowned out by the band on a Phil Harris-styled rendition of "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?"
Sketches: Two older actresses play the duo's mothers being treated to a train trip for Mother's day. Repeatedly, the actresses and the conductor (played by the actor who was Otis on Andy Of Mayberry) continually harp on "what good sons" Martin & Lewis are like that was ever in question. The train sequences seta up another fantasy bio of Dean & Jerry's early years together, namely that Lewis babysat Martin's first-born child. Martin, living in an apartment that suspiciously resembles Ralph Kramden's, walks the newborn baby while his battle-axe wife hollers at him. It's interesting to note that all of Martin's punchlines with the actress get big laughs, whereas his lines with Lewis get a much lesser response. Lewis is deep into his "kid" persona here. Scared of being left alone, he whines piteously. Given instructions, he takes them too literally, and when Martin employs various ruses to get out of the apartment he thwarts him by mysteriously reappearing as deliverymen until the singer is sure he's going crazy. Sharp work and it's still funny.
Together: At the bandstand Lewis attempts a highbrow tone while Martin smartly underplays his comic responses. Lewis maniacally conducts while Martin plays trombone badly, on a blasting Dick Stabile instrumental. Lewis calls for a wild and crazy finish from the Ray Malone dancers, who are skilled, but ultimately not one iota as interesting as Martin & Lewis when they join in. Once again, Lewis proves to be a fine dancer, Martin keeps up but with much less flair. The best overall show in the package.
Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Featuring Marilyn Maxwell (Tape # 42033)
Opening: In a poorly miked, unfocused bit, Martin & Lewis disrupt a formal event. Lewis' clumsiness with a fountain pen results in a wild fistfight among the caviar and champagne set. In front of the curtain the duo launch into a routine where both are speaking in German accents it gets polite laughter.
Guest Stars: Platinum blonde bombshell Marilyn Maxwell, whose appearance in Bob Hope's movie The Lemon Drop Kid is touted (which means this show aired in 1951), sings an unrecognizable torchy ballad in a gown that reveals a pleasing amount of cleavage. Later, she performs in the overlong Frankie & Johnny dance number to little effect. Martin sings most of the tune dressed like an 1890's policeman, while Lewis is confined in his role as Johnny. The eccentric dance team of Barr and Estes is announced, but only Martin's uncle Leonard Barr performs. He does crazy leg steps to a Big Band standard, but even his most inventive contortions aren't as amusing as Lewis' average kneejerk reaction. Barr eventually because a fairly decent comic with a cynical edge ala Don Rickles and Henny Youngman. In later years, he made many appearances on Martin's hit variety series.
Jerry: Arguably Lewis' finest solo moment. While preparing to introduce Martin's song, Lewis gets mixed up about which camera he's supposed to look into and the director keeps switching trying to get the shot. Striking back, Lewis shouts, "OK, you try and follow me for a while." Then he ducks in and out of shot of all three cameras before screaming with delight, "I've just made everybody crazy!" Then, he talks about how director Kingman Moore must feel about "Martin & Lewis day," cleverly using intonation and mugging to milk every line for all it's worth. If these bits were scripted, this is the best writing ever done for this comic. If Lewis ad-libbed, than we have to concede that he was a genius in his time.
Dean: Martin quite frankly blows the first lines of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter." When he jokes about it later, the audience is ominously silent. The camera work on this show is unusually tight and Martin's hair appears to be melting in the hot lights. His second number, "La Vien and Rose," is sung with deep vibrato and gushy sentiments.
Sketches: In yet another fantasy moment of their careers, we are taken backstage to see the dressing rooms of the famous partners. Martin's room is lavish and comfortable, while Lewis' area appear to an unfinished backstage closet. At times, the staged argument between the two over the unequal conditions sound real. Lewis gets some good laughs with a phone that keeps ringing when he picks up the receiver, and stops when he hangs up. A claustrophobic crowd is cleared away by a repeat of the small fane with hurricane power bit from an earlier show. Later, Martin plays the owner of a movie theater rendered empty by the rise of television. Lewis is "Melvin," a beany-wearing, basketball-dribbling kid whose arm has to be twisted to make him buy a ticket to the movies. There is some Lewis-styled satire here. Indeed, his favorite phrase to mock, "Movies Are Better Than Ever," first pops up here. Sadly, the bit just drags, especially when Martin agrees to accompany Melvin in to the theater (Melvin's scared of the dark). Their joint pantomime to the old-time movie music simply dies on the vine.
Together: Early in the show, Martin sings "Talk Of The Town," while Lewis plays his wife and shoots in yenta-like zingers. It's a classic bit brilliantly executed and yes, Jerry kisses Dean.