Dean & Me, by Jerry Lewis & James Kaplan

Upstaged by a gold-plated Zippo
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The Independent Culture

Their partnership was based on the organ grinder and the monkey, the crooner and the clown or, as a columnist put it, "Adonis and Stupidus out on the town." In America, from the mid-Forties and up until the late Fifties, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the most successful double act, on stage, TV, film and radio. Curiously, though, Jerry Lewis (the idiot part of the act) has never had much appeal in this country. So maybe it's fortunate that, though this book is written by Jerry Lewis, most of its pages are devoted to Martin. Because, sentimental as it might seem, Lewis really does demonstrate an affection in these pages for his partner. Certainly, the best parts of the book are when Lewis lets his admiration take flight and we hear once more the eternally cool Dino ride his songs with the air of a summer breeze. With hindsight, though, the nature of the partnership's appeal is difficult to understand. There are no films or tapes of their nightclub act. Some idea of their popularity can be intimated from TV shows recorded live in front of clamorous audiences during the early Fifties. But Lewis's own memory of how their act broke through confirms the belief that their humour would now be greeted by silence: "I lifted the [piano] lid, then dropped it with a huge bang. I then proceeded to half-undress the piano player." After one such "explosion of pandemonium", Lewis claims, "Dean and I were not only the most successful act in show business history - we were history."

Despite the hyperbole, it is irrefutable that in 1947 Martin and Lewis were an instantsensation. Stars of the magnitude of Bogart, Gable, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper fought each other for ringside tables to see Dino wink at women and "Jer" tip over waiters' trays. But why?

Somewhat vaguely, Lewis ascribes their success to the "X factor", that they had a "deep feeling" for each other and that "deep down" their audiences understood this. But the reticent author is probably closer to the truth when he points to America's post-war paranoia during the red scares that consumed the country throughout the Fifties. The sight of two men squirting water at each other and making silly jokes released the tension, and no doubt was welcome for that reason.

Where the book reaches beyond conventional Hollywood sentimentality is in Lewis's astute reading of his partner and of how his comic craft played across the stage to ensure that audiences stayed enthralled. Martin invariably appeared to be a drunk or a buffoon, especially later on in his career when he joined Sinatra's Rat Pack, but Lewis insists that in fact his partner "was as sharp as a shit-house rat". To become impeccable in his timing, Dean always watched Lewis's breathing and never once in 10 years did he step on a Lewis line or spoil a joke. Today we think of Dean Martin as a style, the template for how "playboys" were supposed to behave in the Fifties, and Lewis provides amusing glimpses of Dino's Samurai-like insistence on keeping his cool. "You only have to tell me once" was his favourite saying to film directors, while his favoured method of learning lines was to have his caddie cue him on the golf course. Women, of course, fell for a master of the "swoon-croon school" of singing, but Martin took that for granted. He knew that in nightclubs it was the men at the tables who were paying the checks so he directed his voice at them, and, according to Lewis, men responded with the thought, "Maybe some of that'll rub off on me."

As the surviving member of the team - Martin died in 1995 - Lewis tends to rewrite history in his favour. Mostly this is petty stuff: supposedly, for example, Lewis invented their act, when, in fact, it was based on a combination of past comedians; or he saved his partner from being being beaten up by a Mafia hoodlum when other sources tell us that it was the other way round. More seriously, Lewis soft-pedals their dealings with the Mob - and for a more thorough as well as entertaining account of that connection no one has surpassed Nick Tosches' biography, Dino. For fans of Lewis and Martin, however, this is an adequate side dish, a lively memoir from an author who in the end has to reconcile himself to being effortlessly upstaged by his partner. In a last homage to his sidekick Lewis admits as much, back-tracking to 1947 when they started out, Lewis had one of his "zany" ideas. Suddenly, in the middle of Dean's rendition of "Pennies from Heaven", the lights at the Havana-Madrid night club go out. Dino doesn't stop, however. He isn't fazed because he's already figured out how to be seen as well as heard. He takes out his gold-plated Zippo, flips the lid and holds the flame under his face. As Lewis would discover, Dean Martin didn't need anybody else to create his spotlight.

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