Dean Martin (1917-1991) began his career as a crooner, racking up a number of hits including “Memories Are Made of This,” “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” and let’s hear it for my mom’s personal favorite, “That’s Amore.” He went on to star with Jerry Lewis in a string of blockbuster comedic film roles and was later a member of The Rat Pack, led by his buddy Frank Sinatra. In a 51-year career, he ran the gamut of the entertainment business. A consummate professional, even when he was pretending (or was he) to fall down drunk.
Some of his biggest hits and most enduring classics are his Westerns. On what would have been his 100th birthday, here’s to a few of his best.
Rio Bravo (1959)
When an actor finds himself in a John “The Duke” Wayne movie, he’s slated for second banana stature at best. But then to mix in teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson, beautiful Angie Dickinson, and scene stealer Walter Brennan, it could be next to impossible to gain any traction. Not so for Dean, who easily blows them all away as Dude, the drunk deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne).
In a memorable scene, he chases a killer into a saloon with Chance, but the thug has seemingly vanished, and none of the patrons are talking. Dude didn’t see the man’s face, but he is pretty sure he plugged him with a slug and the man has muddy boots. But all the men at the bar have clean footwear, and one even mocks Dude, suggesting he needs a drink and tossing a silver dollar into the spittoon to pay for it. The bartender places the beverage on the counter, and Dude almost goes for it when he notices blood dripping from the ceiling. He spins and triggers a round, shooting down the man they are looking for from a hiding spot above—and saving face.
Trivia: Director Howard Hawks was impressed with Dean having performed a show in Las Vegas into the early morning hours on the day he was to audition for the part of Dude. Dean charted a plane to meet Hawks early that morning. Taken in by the dedication, Hawks immediately hired the singer. [source: IMDb]
Raquel Welch is widowed Maria Stoner, who is being lustfully eyed by a gang of outlaws when one hard case drools the obvious, “She sure is pretty.” To which Dean Martin, playing the part of Dee Bishop, replies, “She’s not pretty. She’s beautiful. Beautiful as something real fine. Something you can’t never have, no matter how bad you want it.”
Welch holds her own against James Stewart as Bishop’s older brother and has a rich chemistry with Dean. In a pivotal scene, Bishop and his gang are about to cross into dangerous territory when Maria says matter-of-factly, “Bandit country. They kill every gringo they can find.” Dee, noticing her relaxed poise, says, “You don’t look too worried.” Maria smiles, “I’m not a gringo.”
An excellent scene—though what’s not so great, with corrective hindsight, is the portrayal of the bandits. Not one Mexican character has a speaking part, and their motives are bewildering (i.e., the scene in which the leader in the middle of a major shootout stops to rape Maria is simply gratuitous).
Trivia: Does the town in Bandolero look familiar? It should; it’s the Alamo Village that was constructed for John Wayne’s 1960 film, The Alamo. Numerous movies have been made there ever since. [source: Wikipedia]
A straightforward Western of a well-worn tale: two friends find themselves on the opposite sides of the law when Billy Massey (Dean Martin) robs a train in Sheriff Chuck Jarvis’s (Rock Hudson) jurisdiction. Billy double crosses his fellow accomplices and has them chasing him to boot. Showdown looks authentic thanks, in part, to Edith Head’s period costumes and solid, suspenseful direction from George Seaton (Airport). Seaton interweaves a series of flashbacks of Dean and Chuck from the time they were kids, used to pull at the emotional heartstrings. Also caught up in the cat and mouse is Chuck’s wife, Kate (Susan Clarke):
Billy: Do you like sheriffing?
Chuck: It’s a job.
Billy: What kind of salary do you get?
Chuck: No salary, I…
Kate: Oh, he gets two dollars for serving a warrant, three dollars for arresting anybody…
Chuck: And thirty cents a mile for chasing idiots…
Kate: Like you.
Billy: Well then, you ought to thank me for doubling back. I let you make a few extra bucks.
Trivia: This was the final Western movie for Dean Martin.
Having built a film career primarily on comedy, Dean tapped into comedy Westerns, including Pardners (1956), 4 For Texas (1963), and Something Big (1971). Now, if the Rat Pack is more your flavor, he starred with Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford in Sergeants 3 (1963), a remake of Gunga Din (1939).
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.