Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had been the number one comedy duo in movies throughout the 1940s. But as the new decade began, the duo’s comedy – which had perfectly fitted the war years – now seemed dated. Exactly as A&C had taken over the top comedy movie spot from Laurel and Hardy, there was now a new partnership in Hollywood that would take over from them. By 1952, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were moviegoers’ favourite big screen comedy duo.
Much like A&C, who had begun their show business careers in vaudeville, Martin and Lewis started out separately on the American nightclub scene. The handsome Dino Crocetti had one legitimate talent – he could sing. Adopting the stage name of Dean Martin and copying the style of Bing Crosby, he sang in various clubs accompanied by the resident band. Jerry Lewis’ (real name Joseph Levitch) comedy act often played the same East Coast nightclub circuit as Martin, and over time they became firm friends.
One night in late 1946, Lewis’s monologist act was a total disaster; continually heckled by a tough audience, he left the stage almost in tears. Martin was due to start the second act when Lewis asked him if he could fool around with him after Dean had finished his full act, to which the vocalist agreed. During Dean’s last number, Jerry appeared as a waiter precariously balancing a large tray of dishes on one hand raised over his head. As he wove through the audience’s tables, the whole tray went crashing to the floor. “Oh! Sorry, Mr. Martin, I hope I didn’t interrupt anything?“ apologised Jerry, as Dean stopped his song mid-lyric. “No, I was getting pretty tired of that song, anyway“, responded the quick-thinking singer. The audience now roared with laughter as Jerry got down on his knees muttering and picking up the crockery pieces, whilst Dean came down to help him. All the while, the two of them continued to hilariously ad-lib. Martin’s smooth nonchalance in the presence of chaos made him a perfect foil for Lewis. That night their two-star act was born.
By 1948 the duo’s singing and zany slapstick comedy act was packing them in at New York’s top nightclub, the Copacabana, earning each of them an astonishing $10,000 a week (which equates to $110,000 today).
Despite the enormity of their nightclub success, the pair might never have signed on for movie careers if they hadn’t been given a chance to showcase their talented act at Maxie Rosenbloom’s famous nightclub in Los Angeles. Amongst the packed audience that night were all of the Hollywood studio moguls who had been told they were going to see another Hope and Crosby. By the time Martin and Lewis had taken their final bows they had been offered a movie contract from Hal Wallis, who was releasing his films through Paramount Studios.
All of Martin and Lewis’s movie themes were simply based on Jerry’s nutty idiot and Dean as the handsome singer who gets the girl. But the combination worked as proved with their early films My Friend Irma Goes West (1950) and The Stooge (1951), which caused the public to flock to the box-office in such droves that American movie exhibitors voted them the most popular two-man comedy movie act of all time.
Over the next five years their popularity continued in such movies as The Caddy, Money from Home and Artists and Models – each and every one of them a massive box-office hit. However, by the time of their final movie together, Hollywood or Bust (1956) – ironically one of their best – their relationship had soured and off-camera the two men were not speaking to each other. Martin had gradually come to resent playing stooge to Lewis, who with his enormous ego had now taken total control of their movie productions. When Martin refused to appear in their next proposed production, The Delicate Delinquent, their ten-year partnership came to an abrupt end.
Hollywood predicted that Martin working alone was doomed to oblivion as a saloon crooner. But Martin proved to be an extremely competent actor and his solo film career rocketed. Lewis, too, reinvented himself as a successful solo star and went on to direct himself in various popular comedy films. In 1963, Lewis wrote and directed The Nutty Professor, in which his character Prof. Julius Kelp invents a potion that transforms him into Buddy Love – a suave crooning lounge lizard. Everyone in Tinseltown recognised this as a satirical swipe at his ex-partner, Dean Martin.