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

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life


Life is a musical number when you're Carol Channing

Life is a musical number when you’re Carol Channing

(2012) Documentary (EntertainmentOne) Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, Bruce Vilanch, JoAnne Worley, Rich Little, Angela Lansbury, Bob Mackie, Tommy Tune, Tippi Hedren. Directed by Dori Berenstein

There are names and then there are Names. A lot of younger people aren’t that familiar with the name of Carol Channing but to those of my generation and before, she is virtually synonymous with Broadway. She originated the roles of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and more notably, Dolly Levi in “Hello, Devi.” In both cases her signature roles were handed off to other actresses for the film versions, Marilyn Monroe for the former, Barbra Streisand for the latter.

These days she is pretty much retired from the stage although she does make appearances from time to time; for example she does a show number at the Kennedy Center Honors with Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury (which begs the question why hasn’t she gotten one yet) and a number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for a benefit.

Still, she’s recognized as the Ambassador of the Great White Way; while she’s taking a stroll pointing out the various theaters she’s been onstage in, she is seen by members of the chorus line of “Next to Normal” out taking a break between performances and is shown the reverence and love that those who love Broadway understand that she deserves.

Channing (who was 90 when this was filmed – she’s 91 now) is an ebullient force of nature, one who tells stories with genuine wit and warmth and has lots of stories to tell (such as of her first screen kiss from none other than Clint Eastwood). She’s one of those people you can’t help but like after spending just five minutes with her, and that personality shows through here.

There was a lot about her I didn’t know – about her support for gay rights causes and for other liberal touchstone causes. She has been a tireless worker in helping young actors survive the often brutal financial realities of life as a struggling actor, and for the furtherance of theatrical preservation. The more you see here, the more you like and respect her.

She hasn’t always had it easy. Not much is said about her marriage to her third husband of 42 years other than that the marriage ended abruptly and but before the divorce could become final her ex passed away. There have been allegations that it was a loveless marriage in other sources, but none of that is discussed here. Instead, the focus is on her fourth marriage to Kullijian, whom she met at Aptos Middle School in the San Francisco Bay Area and who turned out to be the love of her life, although sadly he passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday in December 2011. However it’s obvious that they have an easy familiarity that comes from time and simpatico.

This is less of a documentary than a tribute; Berenstein really doesn’t linger too much on the unpleasant aspects of Channing’s life and rarely asks insightful questions. Not that a Mike Wallace-like approach would have been preferable but a look at the person behind the persona would have been welcome.

I still liked the movie a great deal however and wound up really falling in love with the subject a little. She may not be your cup of tea in terms of her life on Broadway, but nonetheless she’s great fun to spend an hour or so with. “Always leave ’em wanting more” is an old show business saying and it’s very true here – I wanted to spend more time with Carol Channing after the movie was done. I just wanted to get to know her better than the filmmakers allowed me to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gives you a glimpse into an amazing woman who’s had an incredible career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Focuses overly much on “Hello, Dolly” and not enough on maybe her thoughts about certain aspects of her life.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here your kids haven’t heard or seen before. There is some smoking and a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing appeared on Nixon’s enemies list, which she later claimed as “the highest honor of her career.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD is packed with ’em, including a Barbara Walters interview, a look at the opening night of “Hello Dolly” and much more.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,740 on an unknown production budget; probably lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ahead of Time

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Desert Flower