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Best of The Dean Martin Variety Show: Collector’s Edition, The (DVD Review)

11 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Time Life
$59.95 six-DVD set
Not rated

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon . . .”
“. . . I Found My Way to the Nearest Saloon.”

Or to put it another way: When NBC was envisioning its 1965 network schedule, some programmer of apparent genius brainstormed the idea of having the undisputed royalty of show biz indolence — the roving-eyed crooner who claimed on Vegas stages that his cuff links were actually “curb feelers” — host a Thursday night variety show that, despites its wallowing in the risqué, would be more family-oriented than not.

Though there was an element of risk, the idea wasn’t totally out of left field — or, for that matter, even shortstop distance. Dean Martin had been a network superstar a decade earlier when he and then partner Jerry Lewis headlined 28 ratings bonanzas over six seasons on Sunday night’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” opposite Ed Sullivan. More recently, he had successfully guest-hosted ABC’s “Hollywood Palace” while Lewis’s own 1963 show on that network had flopped on an almost Biblical level. Martin’s “Palace” tenure included his historically ill-advised but cross-generationally uproarious diss of the Rolling Stones during their 1964 U.S. television debut — a Saturday night primetime putdown that got him chided by Bob himself in the verse/liner notes for the Another Side of Bob Dylan LP. “I’ve been rolled when I was stoned before” is one of the milder things Martin had said or gestured on the show. But later in ‘64, his last-laugh recording of “Everybody Loves Somebody” (which later became his show’s theme song) knocked the Beatles out of what had come to seem like their permanent home on No. 1 Billboard Chart Avenue.

This last certainly contributed to Martin’s currency as a possible TV-host natural. And yet, the same kiddingly debauched persona had also just been the literal centerpiece of Billy Wilder’s then reviled Kiss Me, Stupid — which, despite its current-day ‘PG’ rating and wide admiration from many revisionist critics, was considered to be such a cesspool of smut that this December 1964 release by one of Hollywood’s foremost filmmakers couldn’t even land an opening engagement in my fairly sizable hometown until June 1965. Basically, the movie was a 126-minute variation on its star’s booze-‘n’-broads Vegas nightclub act — and truth tell, the TV show wasn’t all that far from a watered-down version of the same from a host who never gave water much consideration.

So guess what? The 1965-72 show worked for eight seasons, though it got a little shaky toward the end. Credit infectiously good on-the-set tidings, Martin’s ability to play off almost any guest and his utter lack of pretension (who else began his show by sliding down a fire pole in a tux?). Unlike the old Gunthy-Renker infomercial/mail order/DVDs that utilized a kind of “snippet” format to present the Martin shows, this six-disc set (smaller and cheaper variations are available as well) consists of 20 individual programs with certain segments and a lot of Martin solos from each edited out. The purist in me balks at this, and I am among the online chorus who would have preferred complete programs. But beyond allowing disc space for a larger show sampling, it’s possible some of the edits were judicious: the shows move speedily, and even some of the obscure guest stand-up comics (who would have been potentially removable) remain and are funnier than expected. In any case, the set makes it clear that Martin was a — and maybe the — transitional figure for changing television times.

Pre-dating CBS’s incomparably more provocative “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by a year-and-a-half and NBC’s “Laugh-In” by another year beyond that, the show definitely had one foot in the creaky past with its wife jokes, mother-in-law jokes, Phyllis Diller jokes, the general absence of rock-oriented guest stars and, in fact, a graying demographic all around. On the other hand — and, over such a long run, the show did have to adapt (a little) to turbulently liberated times — it joked so voluminously about infidelity that even Florence Henderson figures in one adultery skit here. And a show that mom, dad and the grand-folks liked to watch even tiptoed into racial/political humor (I was surprised to see Woody Allen, in a stand-up monologue here, joke that’s he’s been working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Commission Report). We also get the obligatory old-school swish humor, but when Paul Lynde was a guest, it was possible to have it both ways because Lynde was always in on the subtext. One skit here casts him as a dance instructor who says he teaches the mambo “for his craft” and the ballet “to avoid the Draft.”

Then, of course, there are the famous booze jokes that consumed more trees than Tolstoi, all of them purloined in spirit from the Phil Harris Playbook. My favorite here is the one where Martin says his doctor told him to increase the “greens” in his diet — so he has elected to use more olives. (A close second goes to the throwaway where he announces that “The Dave Clark Fifth” will be among the following week’s guests.) For all his lascivious jokes about shapely women (many of them part of the show), Martin was, along with the equally incomparable Perry Como and the not displeasingly dull Andy Williams, the least threatening of weekly TV hosts. In contrast, Frank Sinatra — who did often click big-time in individual specials — flopped in two separate shots in the ‘50s with the weekly variety format. Viewers seemed to take a “lock up your daughters” approach when he was beamed into living rooms spouting uncomfortable patter that always made him look a little shifty.

Martin, though, turned cue card fumbling into an art form, and when James Stewart takes over for his host on one episode here, he can’t manage to ape his host’s singular style. And what was Stewart doing on the show in the first place? While the supposedly lazy Martin was doing a weekly show and churning out albums for Reprise, he was also making movies. So recent co-stars Stewart (Bandolero!), John Wayne (The Sons of Katie Elder) and, in a walk-on cameo, Robert Mitchum (Five Card Stud) did guest shots. Even Orson Welles showed up on one of the episodes with Stewart and was creatively employed.

"The Dean Martin Show" got off to a rocky start in season one with critics and in the ratings but everything meshed during the second, third and fourth (in later years, we can see that the hair is a lot grayer, the sideburns somewhat coarsely fuller and the Dino skin tones more medium-rare as relative fatigue sets in). On the set’s bonus extras, several interview subjects are in unison about how much fun their host made it to make an appearance on the show: Henderson, Diller, Jonathan Winters, his former Rio Bravo co-star Angie Dickinson, Lainie Kazan and Martin’s personable daughter Gail.

Speaking of family, the one poignant moment on the collection is a duet of "Small Fry" between Martin and son Dino, whose 1987 pilot death in a National Guard jet precipitated Dean Sr.’s permanent decline. The rest is a breeze, whether it’s Martin singing “Paper Doll” with The Mills Brothers (he always credited Harry Mills as a major influence) or Rodney Dangerfield (ubiquitous here) claiming that his neighborhood is so tough that the other night, hoods raffled off a police car — with the cops still in it. Even the famously temperamental Peter Sellers, seen late in the run, seems to be having a good time being all over the place.

An eclectic guest mix, of course, is another thing the show had. There was probably some other variety show where you could see Sammy Davis Jr. (in Mod-mode duds) singing Wichita Lineman, but where else could you get Duke Ellington at the piano surrounded by Martin, Kazan, The Andrews Sisters, Frank Gorshin and Tim Conway? Or Martin and David Janssen as travelling salesmen inside the farm house where farmer’s daughter Elke Sommer lives — with father played by Charles Nelson Reilly? The green room “action” here must have been something, as in what the hell did they talk about? On that count, I think my No. 1 curiosity must be the set inclusion that had Woody Allen, Kate Smith and Arthur Godfrey.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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