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Dean Martin

How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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Talking and Doing in “Rio Bravo”

[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]

John Wayne as Chance, Angie Dickinson as Feathers

I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959.  I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time.  Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play.  Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers.  And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)

Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently.  I’m for Rio Bravo today, to put it mild­ly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings.  Both pictures embody the essen­tial Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon.  If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early peri­od, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.

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