If the story holds, Jerry Lewis named The Stooge among his favorites of the work he did during his famed partnership with Dean Martin. This was the sole reason for watching it and this is probably the most effective lens in considering what to make of it.
The plot itself follows a show business narrative and draws up a fictitious story about how they needed each other or how they managed to perfectly complement one another’s talents. Except that’s not entirely right because it’s really about how Bill Miller (Martin) is a bit of an arrogant control freak, using someone else’s talents to bolster his own career. He somehow carries this dissonant belief Ted Rogers (Lewis) is the secret weapon of his act and still of secondary importance. He, Bill Miller, is the real draw.
To provide some context, Miller has recently wed his best girl (Polly Bergen), who foregoes her own career as a performer to sit in the cheering section of her husband, so he can make a go at the big time. It’s the all-absorbing preoccupation of his entire life as he works with his agent (Leo Lyman) to become a star. Despite others giving him advice to the contrary, he wants to be a single. And even when he finds his missing piece, he still considers himself a solo act.
Lewis gets his opening in a hash house giving the man behind the counter real grief. Then, he pays off a cynical cabby with crumpled up bills hidden all across his person. It only gets more outrageous.
Obviously, it’s toying with the dynamic integral to the Lewis & Martin formula with Lewis making a racket from the balcony in his attempt at song, only to start up the patter between Dean down on the stage with his skimmer and accordion. It feels like they were meant to do together. The perfect counterpoints to each other’s images and strengths.
However, there are all these perfectly manufactured moments and thus nothing feels truly spontaneous, like catching lightning in the bottle. With the gags being set up, we have a sense of what is going to happen before they actually occur. One exception and somehow an immaculately hilarious image (not that it was ad-libbed,) is Martin bouncing Lewis continuously on the bedspread like a human pogo stick. The mental picture it conjures up is enough.
It’s true Dino does feel like a bit of a tyrant. One can only surmise the picture was held out of circulation for a time so he could build an initial rapport with the audience. They released two other features before sending The Stooge off the assembly line.
All told, the most gratifying moment might be right at the end for the simple reason the picture no longer has to make a pretense of the drama because it’s just been resolved. The one zany off-the-wall man-child runs his crazy interference while Martin looks on with mild befuddlement, and they find some wry equilibrium in there somewhere. There’s no element of Miller’s colossal ego getting in the way so we go to straight to the heart of what made Martin and Lewis a lasting comedy team.
It’s a shame the film was plagued by a plot gumming up their routines. Not only was Dean Martin intermittently unlikable, it really dices up the film. The saccharine moments of applied drama are mostly throwaway. The comedy works slightly better. Though I must admit my personal preference for Dean over Jerry.
As a very subjective observer, I am drawn to consider The Caddy instead. Not only does the premise feel more conducive to gags, but the chemistry also allowed for our stars, as characters, to feel richer. They are part of a close-knit community and when their world includes Donna Reed and a snappy rendition of “That’s Amore,” it’s hard to ask for much more with already meager expectations in place. It’s the simple pleasures and, for me, The Caddy offers more of them.
In hindsight, The Stooge feels harrowingly close to loose biography. This is not to suggest the two men were their characters, but we have Dean’s drunkenness and Lewis’s own persona upstaging any and every bit of Martin’s talent. We could even wager a guess these are portentous moments, given their own eventual breakup. Certainly being the insane energizer bunny bouncing all over the stage has its drawbacks, but you do get a great deal of attention.
Most of the other Martin and Lewis pictures during their prolific run brought genre and camaraderie together. This was their charm bottled up so easily and then delivered to the masses. The Stooge doesn’t always employ the same brand of simplistic comedic commoditization, probably to its detriment.
In truth, it suggests my own reluctance to parse through the reality of the men behind the characterizations. A typical Paramount vehicle for the pair might be the perfect portrait of 1950s idyllic America on the outside and yet underneath there were festering issues. The country’s most beloved comedy duo was plagued by discord just like everyone else. No fabricated sitcom setup can completely smooth over reality.