Entry #28: Hollywood or Bust
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
Jerry Lewis’ long, eventful, insanely dramatic life only recently ended at ninety-one but one of the most auspicious and important phases of his career ended over sixty years ago when the popular physical comedian and future auteur and his rakishly charming, seemingly perpetually inebriated partner Dean Martin conclusively split up after a string of hit movies, live performances and radio and nightclub appearances.
Between 1949’s My Friend Irma and 1956’s Hollywood or Bust, Martin and Lewis made seventeen movies together. That level of work would put a strain on any relationship, so perhaps it’s not surprising that after seven years of unrelenting onscreen labor they called it quits and went on to further glory individually. If Lewis had retired after Hollywood or Bust and gone into seclusion, his place in comedy and film history would be secure. But in many ways, Lewis’ career only really began after the partnership that initially brought him to fame and glory died acrimoniously.
Hollywood or Bust marked Martin & Lewis’ second film collaboration (after 1955’s equally delightful, sublime Artists & Models) in as many years with Frank Tashlin, the brilliant Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoon maven who brought the brazenly meta-textual, fourth-wall-breaking post-modernism of his animated work to live action satirical masterpieces of this era like The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
As a real-life cartoon character with rubber limbs and an impossibly expressive face, Jerry Lewis was the perfect live action star for Tashlin, who continued to work extensively with Lewis after he split with Martin on movies like Cinderfella and The Disorderly Orderly. In true Tashlin form, Hollywood or Bust wastes no time shattering the fourth wall with an introduction where Martin, as always the epitome of rakish charm, addresses the camera directly and declares that the movie they’re about to see is dedicated to the moviegoers of the world.
We’re then treated to Lewis, impersonating moviegoers of the world. Is his portrayal of what Martin refers to as the “Honorable Oriental” moviegoer what would now be deemed “culturally sensitive?” Oh sweet blessed Lord no, but this gag passes quickly, thank god, as Hollywood or Bust is in a furious hurry to get where it needs to go: Hollywood, baby!
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were a complementary set of opposites. Martin wasn’t just cool. He epitomized cool. He was cool personified. If he was any more laid-back onscreen, he’d be comatose. He was a charming rake perpetually on the make, and Hollywood or Bust smartly typecasts him as yet another degenerate gambler with a heart of at least fool’s gold who is perpetually in hot water with mobsters unamused by his antics or his outstanding debt.
While executing one of his not entirely legal schemes, Steve ends up somehow co-winning a snazzy new car with obsessive movie lover and contest enthusiast Malcolm Smith (played by Jerry). Lewis is similarly typecast brilliantly as an angel-headed man-child with cellulite coursing through his veins.
Hollywood or Bust casts Lewis as a lovable sprite as manic and child-like as his new partner is suave and adult (in a Playboy magazine kind of way). Malcolm knows just about everything about every movie ever made. He can rattle off the director, screenwriter and craft service department for every motion picture in existence, which used to be a neat party trick but now is something anyone with an iPhone and access to the Internet Movie Database can do.
Malcolm’s cinemania is played for laughs, of course, but because Lewis and Tashlin are such unabashed lovers of film, there’s a cockeyed sincerity to it as well. These two simpatico comic geniuses, each with a dazzlingly broad, overlapping skill set in writing and directing and crafting gags that would stand the test of time, each made movies that acknowledged at every turn that they were fictions created for the edification and enjoyment of dreamers in the dark by movie people in Hollywood and Jerry Lewis and/or Frank Tashlin in particular.
They made movie-movies that delighted in their own artifice and Hollywood or Bust is a sideways tribute both to movie-making and movie-going that depicts Malcolm’s compulsive blurting out of film facts as a Dustin Hoffman-in-Rain Man-like compulsion more than an expression of any deep knowledge or understanding of film as an art, but the film has enormous affection for the character’s pathological obsession with movies all the same. If the impending end of the Martin and Lewis partnership cast a shadow over the notoriously chilly filming, then the subject matter (movies, movie-lovers, and America as seen behind the wheel of a big American automobile with a dog and a pal and a gal by your side) at least gave these singular comic artists something to latch onto emotionally.
Steve tells the film-obsessed Malcolm that his all-time crush Anita Ekberg just so happens to be his next door neighbor so the easily duped man-child and his bonus-sized pooch Mr. Bascomb accompany the morally questionable rogue on a wild cross-country trip to Hollywood.
As one of the giants of classic Warner Brothers animation, few funnymen and gag-smiths have gotten bigger laughs out of funny animals than Tashlin. The animator-turned-live-action-maestro gets Great Dane-sized laughs out of his comically over-sized animal star here as well. The most charismatic Great Dane this side of that cowardly son-of-a-bitch Scooby Doo, Mr. Bascomb is an amusing sight gag whenever he’s in frame and downright hilarious when he’s the center of attention, like during a raucous set-piece where the horse-sized canine takes a turn behind the wheel of a car for a wild ride that seems to last several states at the least.
Tashlin loves to blur the line between real life and reel life, as in a throwaway shot during a predictably eventful Las Vegas stop where fictional characters played by Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis pass a casino marquee advertising the blockbuster comedy duo of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.
Hollywood or Bust is a road comedy and a buddy comedy about two wildly mismatched men who find something special and essential in each other. The film takes its tone both from Tashlin and the clashing but copacetic sensibilities of its two stars. Like Artists & Models, it’s the perfect combination of Lewis-fueled child-like sweetness and daft vulnerability and Martin-styled adult cynicism with a sentimental streak.
In both tone and plot, Hollywood or Bust sometimes feels like an early version of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. In the early, funny days, Tim Burton was Tashlin’s creative heir and both Hollywood or Bust and Burton’s justly beloved feature-length debut are about lovable, daffy children in the bodies of adults who set out on a road trip across God’s own United States to the devil’s own Hollywood on a madcap quest and both films feature a chase through a studio lot at the very end.
Behind the scenes, there were many tragic elements to Hollywood or Bust. According to cinema lore, Martin and Lewis’ relationship had degenerated by the time the movie was filmed that its stars did not talk to each other when the camera wasn’t rolling. But if their personal chemistry was at an all time low, and soon would be broken beyond repair, their chemistry onscreen was as potent and understatedly poignant and emotional and sad as ever. Lewis never came off as more lovable or ingratiatingly innocent then when juxtaposed alongside Martin’s charismatic, booze-sodden caddishness, a caddishness the formula of their films together guaranteed would dissipate gradually, if never disappear completely. Lewis softened Martin and Martin gave Lewis a naughty, adult edge. They needed each other until they didn’t anymore.
As men, and as partners, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ultimately couldn’t make it work despite the extraordinary artistic and commercial success they’d enjoyed as a team. But as far as film was concerned, they made beautiful music and hilarious comedy together until the very end. It might have been bitter in real life, but onscreen it couldn’t be sweeter.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.