Dean Martin's recent passing got me to thinking of the mixed bag that was his film career. His acting abilities garnered praise from some unlikely circles but he seemed as intent upon not exerting himself as an actor as in his singing and comedic efforts. I decided to take a look at some of the more prominent films in his catalog. What follows are scatter shot reactions to this Martin Marathon...

I started with what is either Dino's zenith or his nadir, depending on one's viewpoint. Nick Tosches puts forth, in his fine biography of Martin, the notion that, while America lapped up Dino's lecherous lush routine with a spoon, most folks viewed the whole thing as an act, believing Martin to be a good, wholesome family man when not onstage or in front of a camera.

If one buys that theory (and it has the ring of truth for me), then the release of Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) must have sorely tested the faith all those trusting Americans had in him, for here is Dino at his most lecherous and utterly unapologetic about it, too. Kiss Me, Stupid (the brainchild of Billy Wilder, believe it or not) was the first film in some eight years, at that time, to have been ruled indecent by the Catholic Legion of Decency and I have to say that I agree with them. I craved a shower by the time the credits rolled, I felt so...dirty.

Martin plays an entertainer named Dino (there's a fact, the wisecracks - and - song routine he performs over the movie's opening credits was an actual performance filmed at the Copa Room at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas) who is traveling from Vegas to Los Angeles. He meets up with a couple of amateur songwriters, while stranded by car trouble in Climax (!), Nevada, one of whom decides to hire a local bar tramp to impersonate his wife and seduce Dino (who has already gleaned something of the wife's charms when he discovers, and lusts after, her dress form!). The thinking is, Dino will be so grateful, he'll record one of the songs these two have written, giving them their big break. I'm giving you a big break by warning you away from this film, it couldn't be seamier and there is not one laugh in it.

Next up was Some Came Running (1958), based on James Jones's semi-followup to From Here To Eternity. Frank Sinatra stars as an embittered ex-soldier/author with a major case of writer's block, who returns to his Peyton Place of a hometown and hooks up with Martin's drunk, diabetic and doomed gambler. It's a soap opera, and a bit obvious at times, but enjoyable for all that and Martin excels in his role, with the very effortlessness that was his trademark.

The Young Lions (1958) was Martin's first shot at serious drama. In this adaptation of Irwin Shaw's novel, Martin played a cowardly New York playboy who, in spite of his fear, ends up a war hero. Marlin Brando as an ambivalent Nazi and Montgomery Clift as a shy Jewish young man who falls for a WASP-y New Englander round out the fine cast. Martin surprised many by turning in a fine performance, and in rather intimidating company, too. This one comes highly recommended.

I had high hopes for Bells Are Ringing (1960). I'm a big Judy Holliday fan but she didn't bring her typical magic to this rather old-fashioned and trite musical. And not for a moment did I buy Dean as a successful New York playwright who is stymied by the fact that he and his partner are no more and he'll be forced to write on his own. There are moments of humor in the film (Frank Gorshin shines as a Brando-esque mush-mouthed method actor) but they are, alas, few and far between.

Ocean's Eleven (1960) is the ultimate Rat Pack movie...Dino, Frank, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, even Joey friggin' Bishop! These five and a handful of others are World War II buddies who conspire to pull a big heist on five of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas. Not much happens, truth be told, but just soaking up all that retro macho attitude makes for a fine couple of hours. And one scene must be seen to be believed. One character learns he's dying (it's the only reason he agrees to go in on the heist...he's just gotten out of prison and has no desire to return but he's got his son's education to think about) and in revealing it to a buddy later, he doesn't say "I've got cancer" or "I've got the big C." No, he says, and with a straight face, "It's the Big Casino." The Big Casino! Rent this.

Not as much fun is the other Rat Pack offering, Robin And The Seven Hoods (1964), in which Sinatra plays a Robin Hood-esque gangster in Prohibition-era Chicago and Martin plays his Little John. Peter Lawford shows in this one, too, as does Bing Crosby. It's a musical and most of the Sammy Kahn/Jimmy Van Heusen tunes are surprisingly lame, the one delightful exception being "My Kind Of Town".

The final installment in the Dino-thon was Airport (1970), in which Martin assays the role of a philandering pilot who proves to be a standup guy in the end (surprise, surprise). What a cheezefest this one is but, in the end, quite entertaining.

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