Dean Martin: King of Cool (2021)

24 Nov

“Dean Martin: King of Cool” is a new documentary about the celebrated actor, comedian, singer, movie/TV/recording star and member of the legendary Rat Pack. Directed by Tom Donahue, it offers a sympathetic and compelling 107-minute portrait of the entertainer that tries to find out what made the man tick and what he was guarding from the outside world. A “Rosebud” angle, drawing on CITIZEN KANE’s use of its subject’s deathbed utterance, is inserted tentatively at different points to try and find out what Dean’s “Rosebud” was and a plausible answer is provided late in the film by one of its main interviewees. The general consensus of the dozens of interviewees, some of whom knew and worked with him and many of whom didn’t, is that the façade he maintained was generally impenetrable. He did not want people to know him.

Dean seemed most at home and most comfortable in front of the TV camera, whether on stage or in the studio, in live shows and TV variety shows, including his own long-running series, “The Dean Martin Show (1965-74). The emphasis in the documentary is on his TV career, which is seen in dozens of clips, while his lengthy film career, which thrived in the 1950s and ’60s, gets somewhat short shrift. I’m guessing that the filmmakers got a great deal on the licensing of the TV clips while the movie clips, owned by different studios (Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM, etc.) might have been much more expensive to license.

As a fan of his movies and his acting, I wrote about them with affection on the occasion of his centennial four years ago:

Dean Martin Centennial

Because of this, I was disappointed by the way the documentary either glosses over or completely dismisses his film career after the late 1950s and his great “comeback” roles in THE YOUNG LIONS (1958) and RIO BRAVO (1959), both of which have ample excerpts, as do his earlier films with Jerry Lewis. His one surviving RIO BRAVO co-star, Angie Dickinson, is interviewed extensively. She’s also a co-star of OCEAN’S 11 (1960), but that film is mentioned only briefly.

SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), which marked Dean’s first teaming with Frank Sinatra, is glimpsed only in passing. I would like to have heard more about that historic pairing. (Shirley MacLaine, their co-star, would have had a lot to say about it had she been interviewed.)

I was glad to see that ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS (1964), an iconic Rat Pack film for me as a youth, is excerpted and that may partly be because his one surviving co-star from both that film and THE YOUNG LIONS, leading lady Barbara Rush, is also interviewed here.

However, except for Billy Wilder’s comic gem, KISS ME, STUPID (1964), little of Dean’s other film work is even hinted at. There’s no mention of his four hugely successful Matt Helm films, parodic takes on James Bond and the secret agent craze of the mid-60s, and few of his many other 1960s comedies are acknowledged. WHO’S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED is seen in a few clips, but only because his co-star in it, Carol Burnett, is interviewed for the program. I would have liked a lot more about KISS ME, STUPID, since it offers an acid send-up of Dean’s own public persona, something few celebrities of that time would have been bold enough to do. How did he come to agree to the role, which was written expressly for him? Did anyone try to dissuade him from it? These questions aren’t broached.

There are dozens of interviewees, some of whom worked for Dean or his frequent co-star and Rat Pack leader, Frank Sinatra. His former producer George Schlatter and musical director Lee Hale are interviewed. Norman Lear, who wrote for Martin & Lewis for their earliest TV appearances on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” is extensively interviewed. Schlatter and Lear below:

There are many people interviewed whose connection to Dean, if any, is unclear. Some are contemporary celebrities like Alex Baldwin, Jon Hamm, Barry Levinson and The RZA. Some are random fans, DJ’s, academics and authors. Normally, I’d object to so many disparate interviews, but at least here they all have interesting insights to share and I didn’t feel that any had been inserted for dubious reasons. They added to the portrait being created.

There are a few family members, including a sister-in-law from Dean’s first marriage, and, of course, Deana Martin, a daughter of Dean by his first wife, Betty McDonald. She speaks a lot and we learn from the end credits that she is also an executive producer. We hear audio interviews with a few other family members, including Jeanne Biegger, Dean’s second wife, and his grandson, Alexander Martin. Jerry Lewis is even heard from via audio. Why are so few other family members featured? Why is so much of the family history omitted? We see beautiful clips of a Christmas episode of “The Dean Martin Show” that featured Dean and Sinatra with all of their children. It’s one of the highlights of the documentary. So why is Deana the only one who speaks on camera? I’m sure there’s a good reason and they had no obligation to share it with the public, but I’d sure like to know.

The first wife disappears from the narrative rather unceremoniously. Whatever happened to her? In researching this piece, I learned that Jeanne, his second wife, died in 2016 not long after the death of her and Dean’s son, Ricci. Neither of these deaths is mentioned. Dean had a third wife, Cathy Hawn, mentioned only in a brief line of onscreen text but her name is never uttered. Why not? I suspect that Deana’s role as executive producer gave her the right to dictate who gets to speak and who doesn’t and which interview subjects were to be okayed. At least we get a lot about Dean’s parents, Gaetano and Angela, with whom he had a close relationship.

My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir by Shirley MacLaine

I was disappointed that Shirley MacLaine wasn’t interviewed. She appeared with Martin many times, including in the Martin & Lewis film, ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955), and later in SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), CAREER (1959) and WHAT A WAY TO GO! (1964). She also later participated in the Rat Pack comeback concert tour in the 1980s. She writes a whole chapter on Martin in her 1995 memoir, My Lucky Stars, and it’s quite a sensitive description and arguably the first attempt I came across to decipher Martin. I was very moved by it. Yet there’s no mention of her in this film. Was she vetoed by Deana for some reason?

There’s no mention of Nick Tosches, who wrote a celebrated biography of Dean called Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams in 1992. I read the book and only liked the early parts covering Dean’s youth and growing up in Steubenville, Ohio. After that, Tosches keeps insisting on inserting himself into Dean’s head, a futile effort fueled only by Tosches’ feverish imagination and not by any facts. Still, he might have been an interesting interview subject for this film.

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams: Tosches, Nick:  9780440214120: Amazon.com: Books

On IMDB, I found this image of Henry Silva, Dean’s co-star in OCEAN’S 11, being made up for an interview, but he’s nowhere to be found in the finished film. I would love to have seen Silva on camera.

One of the fascinating things I learned about Dean from this documentary is that he refused to attend John F. Kennedy’s inauguration when he learned that Sammy Davis Jr. hadn’t been invited. Sammy’s wife was white actress May Britt and the incoming administration feared that the sight of an interracial couple at the inauguration would anger southerners. Frank Sinatra went. Dean’s cynicism about politicians helped keep him out of the fray when Sinatra would have his own troubles with Kennedy.

One moving bit comes when Scotty Lewis, Jerry’s son, admits to feeling jealousy at seeing all the home movie footage of Dean playing so vigorously with his children, who all seemed to adore him. Scotty laments that his own father was never that available to him. We also learn that Jerry slipped quietly into the 1987 funeral of Dean’s son, Dean Paul Martin, who had died in a crash while piloting a plane for the Air National Guard.

I was also touched by the revelation that Dean took great care to befriend and comfort Montgomery Clift on the set of THE YOUNG LIONS, which followed Clift’s disastrous car crash during the making of RAINTREE COUNTY. We hear audio clips of Dean describing how no one on the set seemed to be paying attention to Clift’s condition and that he hadn’t fully healed from the accident yet, prompting Dean to administer to Clift. One would think that an actor making his first risky dramatic role after a decade as a musical and comedy star would be more concerned about succeeding in convincing his high-profile co-stars, including Marlon Brando, and director Edward Dmytryk of his legitimacy as a dramatic actor than in the needs of his fellow actors, but that wasn’t true of Dean. 

Another interesting thing I learned was that Dean spoke Italian at home and didn’t learn English until he was six years old, something that he felt always held him back at school, until eventually, as a teenager, he dropped out and pursued his singing career.

Despite my questions and criticisms, I very much enjoyed the piece and seeing all those great film and TV clips and hearing so many nice things about Martin, a performer I’ve always enjoyed. Granted, to get the cooperation of so many sources, the filmmakers had to agree to a certain amount of glossing over and legacy-polishing. Unlike so many of his famous contemporaries, Martin didn’t seem to have too many skeletons in his closet. While his Rat Pack compadres were drinking and carousing, Martin was perfectly happy to be left alone in his hotel room drinking milk and watching westerns on TV. I can relate to that.

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