Dean Martin: King of Cool

Dino in his element.

(2021) Documentary (Creative Chaos) Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Jon Hamm, Dick Cavett, Barbara Rush, Deana Martin, RZA, Alec Baldwin, Frankie Avalon, Lanie Kazan, Norman Lear, Tommy Tune, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Tom Dreeson, James Woods, Scotty Lewis, George Schlatter, Ron Morasco, Josh Homme, Peter Bogdanovich, Tony Oppedisano, Anne Hayen. Directed by Tom Donahue

Everyone has their own idea as to what “cool” is. Maybe it’s someone who is up on all the latest fashions and trends. Maybe it’s someone who always seems calm in the face of difficulty. Maybe it’s just someone who runs with the cool kids. But there are those who all of us agree has that special something, that degree of cool that everyone instantly recognizes.

Dean Martin was one of those guys, although that wasn’t always the case. He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a Rust Belt town where his Italian immigrant parents (his birth name was Dino Paul Crocetti and he was often referred to affectionately as Dino throughout his life) had settled. He didn’t speak English until he was six, often being bullied in school for his accent. He dropped out of high school eventually and after trying his hand at several careers that didn’t pan out (including boxing and as a blackjack dealer) until he found one that stuck – as a singer.

Martin had a warm, inviting voice and his style was influenced by that of Bing Crosby and, in particular, the Mills Brothers (a clip from his TV program shows him performing with the Brothers and he looks absolutely tickled pink). He was a steady performer, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with up-and-coming wunderkind comic Jerry Lewis in 1946 that he found fame and fortune. Their partnership lasted ten years but ended acrimoniously. Lewis had always been assumed to be the genius of the duo, and many felt Martin would sink into obscurity, but that didn’t happen.

Instead he mounted a comeback, starring as a pretty fair dramatic actor in films like The Young Lions and Rio Bravo while his singing career continued to blossom, even though the age of the crooner was waning with the advent of rock and roll. He became close friends with fellow singer Frank Sinatra and became a member of the Rat Pack, a legendary group of performers who often dropped in unannounced at each other’s shows, and made a group of movies together, including the original Oceans 11 and Robin and the Seven Hoods. Martin also hosted a long-running TV variety show which cemented his image as not only a wonderful performer, but also a strong comedian, poking fun at his own drinking and smoking.

This documentary does a very thorough job in documenting Martin’s career, concentrating on everything from the Martin-Lewis years on. The interviews are with performers who knew him well (Angie Dickinson, Barbara Rush), family members (his daughter Deana who was also a producer on the film), and contemporary admirers like RZA, Alec Baldwin and Josh Homme. There are some audio interviews with Martin’s ex-wives but only one interview with Dino himself – taken shortly after the death of his son Dean Paul in a plane crash in 1987, an event which devastated him. He himself would pass away on Christmas Day, 1995 from complications from lung cancer, a legacy of a lifetime of being a heavy smoker.

One of the interesting takeaways from the documentary is that Martin was an intensely private individual. His second wife Jeanne, who probably knew him better than anyone, once remarked that despite being married to him for more than two decades, she didn’t really know him – nobody did. He was affable and genial in his public persona, and a loyal father who spent long stretches away from his family, but often seemed to be alone in a crowd.

For fans of Martin, this is definitely a must-see. It is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies (it’s second broadcast will be on November 26th as part of a celebration of Dino’s movies) and is likely to show up on HBO Max or TCM’s subscription streaming service afterwards. Otherwise, this is a pretty standard biography, although one should admire how well the life of the entertainer is covered.

REASONS TO SEE: A very thorough look at the life of an American icon.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole LOT of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a whole lot of smoking (and drinking).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 29, Martin was ten years older than Jerry Lewis when the two began their collaboration.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

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