A chance commingling, the kinetic duo exploded into fame, upping the ante on the term "overnight sensations." They were the Beatles AND Elvis of comedy, conquering stage, TV, and movies with ease and electricity, but friendship turned to feud, then the split. While the 16 films (in seven years) failed to fully harvest the team's manic, improvisational frenzy, they remain funny, breezy, and iconic.
The buddy formula gels nicely in their fifth feature. The gobs set sail in a submarine -- the one on which dingy Jerry is outside deck-swabbing when it dives. He's gonna need a bigger mop. The service comedy streams melodies, girls, and shtick, including an insane boxing sequence. James Dean and Betty Hutton appear briefly in this remake of "The Fleet's In" (1942), the movie that made her a star.
Glossy reworking of classic screwball movie "Nothing Sacred" (1937) and Broadway musical-comedy, "Hazel Flagg" (1953). Dr. Dean and reporter Janet Leigh hustle snively, dying Jerry to New York on a big publicity tour, but there's a catch. He's not ill. Wacky mix-ups and fix-ups with Martin & Lewis performing "Every Street's a Boulevard," one of their signature pieces. Dig the hyper-Jitterbug, too.
Grown-up Jerry poses as an 11-year-old lad in Dean Dean's girl school for this energetic remake of Billy Wilder's "The Major and the Minor" (1942) -- an irony and a consolation of sorts because Lewis would pass on another Wilder cross-dressing comedy, "Some Like It Hot" (1959). A memorable, wild-stepping production number on the tennis court, plus some swift shenanigans with villain Raymond Burr.
The last Martin and Lewis picture show. The comedians' feud was raging at full tilt during the production. So bitter, they would only speak to each other on camera. At one point, frustrated director Frank Tashlin fired Jerry off the film! Ironically, this cross-country road trip is one of their best packages, a pleasing, underappreciated musical -- which Lewis claims to never have seen.
Former Warner Bros. animator Frank Tashlin helms the first of eight couplings with Lewis and it shows. As co-writer and director of this splashy musical-comedy, his cartoon-like gags begin in the opening scene, extra appropriate since the boys are propelled into the world of comic book publishing. Warm and giggly, with strong support from Eddie Mayehoff and Shirley MacLaine in her second film.
The pals play through a golf romp with divots on and off the green, eventually tossing the clubs to become club entertainers. That's Donna Reed as Dean's love and "That's Amore," the Oscar-nominated tune. The bookended song-and-dance scenes capture the live Martin and Lewis experience better than their other films. Shots of crowds overflowing into the street are from actual hysteria for the team.
Clumsy cut-ups snoop through a weird haunted mansion with plenty o' laughs and laaaadies in hand. In a remake of Bob Hope's "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), Martin and Lewis meet Carmen Miranda and get eerie for Lizabeth Scott. Dean and Jerry reprise the crooner and bumbling busboy bit from their concert act, believed to have been hatched during their first professional performance together.
The remaining films on and off this list are roughly equivalent in comedic content. ("The Stooge" (1953) is a dramatic exception, laced with disturbing parallels to the real life Martin and Lewis.) "At War" contains the movies' first quintessential Jerry sketch: a battle with an ornery soda pop machine. The infectious rap "The Navy Gets the Gravy, but the Army Gets the Beans" originates here, too.
OK western hijinks, an update of Bing Crosby's "Rhythm on the Range" (1936), in the penultimate Martin and Lewis picture, produced at the height of their personal conflict and the public's fear of a divorce. Damage control for the franchise was important, because the stars interrupt the film's climatic moment to address the camera, promising fans they'll be partners for a long time to come.
The popular network radio sitcom jumped to the screen, but along the way producer Hal Wallis devised a detour to introduce his newly-contracted comedy franchise to movie audiences. Martin and Lewis stole the film in their relatively short appearance. By the next year, a sequel and a better movie, "My Friend Irma Goes West," would reverse the equation. Irma and pals are barely along for the ride.