The King of Cool ditches The Kid and gets a new pallie for a black and white Cold War sex-capade!
By Paul Mavis
Mill Creek Entertainment has packaged together three separate releases into the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Collection boxed set. It’s a 6-disc gathering of 5 movies (where Martin and Lewis star…but not together), including Dino’s 1960 Who Was That Lady? and 1968’s How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life), and Jerry’s (“Oh, Dean!”) 1966 Three on a Couch, 1968’s Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, and 1969’s Hook, Line, and Sinker, along with over 20 hours (28 episodes) of footage from the duo’s 1950s Colgate Comedy Hour TV hosting duties (the movie discs are also sold separately). Here at Movies and Drinks (‘ol Dino woulda loved us…), we already reviewed 1968’s How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) (and 1966’s Three on a Couch,) so let’s slip back a few years (and two liver transplants) and look at Dino’s Who Was That Lady?
Columbia University Student Admissions officer and Assistant Professor of Chemistry David Wilson (Tony Curtis. Yes. A chemistry professor. That’s right. You read that correctly, yes.) is “innocently” kissed by an unseen p.o.a. foreign exchange student and guess who comes waltzing in where she’s not wanted? That’s right: his “over-emotional, over-impulsive stupid wife,” Ann (Janet Leigh). Now…that description comes not from loving husband David, but from his friend, CBS television writer and full-time letch, Michael Haney (El Dino, or the Latin: HomoErectus Constantly). Michael has a plan to keep Ann from running off to Reno…which is just what she intends to do after catching David in that compromising position: Michael will tell Ann that David is, like him, an undercover FBI agent, and that David was kissing that foreign babe for the benefit of Uncle Sam. It’s an elaborate ruse, but with the aid of some phony props, like a gun and a faked FBI I.D. card (and Mike’s enthusiastic prompting), David successfully lies to his wife. Hooray! All is well, again…in fact, it’s better than all well, because Ann likes–really likes–that David is now a tough guy who knows how to handle guns and jujitsu and women.
Well…that’s all very well, but farce needs obstacles and misunderstandings and slapstick to be funny, so of course, David’s domestic tranquility is soon shattered. First, the FBI doesn’t like it when you pretend to be one of their agents, as Agent Harry Powell (James Whitmore) will attest. However, despite his boss Bob Doyle’s (John McIntire) instructions to shut down David’s ruse, Harry feels sorry for sweet, understanding Ann, so he doesn’t blow David’s cover…yet. He should have, though, because soon David and Michael, through their own fumblings, become involved with real Commie spies, and it’s all because Michael wants to have his old horndog wingman David back on the job with him.
The first of those similarly titled Dino sex farces of the 1960s, Who Was That Lady? was based on producer/writer Norman Krasna’s 1958 stage comedy, Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?. For whatever reasons, Krasna’s storyline–despite a middling Broadway run of just over 200 performances–generated A-level interest in Hollywood. At one point, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were attached to the project (hate to say it…but I would have preferred them here), as was Debbie Reynolds and then Shirley MacLaine. Eventually, top-billed Tony Curtis was signed, which Columbia Pictures later considered quite a coup; during Who Was That Lady?‘s production in 1959, Curtis starred in two Top Fifteen hits at the box office: Some Like it Hot (4th most popular movie of 1959), and Operation: Petticoat (13th).
Second-billed Dean Martin’s participation was more problematic for Columbia. Unlike Curtis, who had a steady string of box office successes (Trapeze, The Vikings), crooner Martin’s big-screen resume was more hit-and-miss if you factored out his ex-comedy partner, Jerry “The Kid” Lewis. For every winner like The Young Lions or Rio Bravo (both with bigger co-stars than Dean), there were fair performers (Some Came Running) or outright flops (Ten Thousand Bedrooms and Career). As for Janet Leigh’s participation, the suits at Columbia no doubt considered publicity purposes first when signing her on, since she was married to Tony Curtis at the time (for the previous eight years, her biggest hits were those featuring Curtis).
With playwright Norman Krasna’s extensive movie credentials (Bachelor Mother, White Christmas, Let’s Make Love) reassuring Columbia, he was allowed to produce and write Who Was That Lady?‘s screenplay, while heavy-hitter George Sidney (Anchors Away,Show Boat, The Eddy Duchin Story) was signed as helmer. Released in February, 1960, Who Was That Lady? was a middle-of-the-road performer (it returned a little over $3 million in rentals to Columbia) that then frequently showed up on television in the 1960s and 1970s (TV sales probably put it into the black).
In a societal atmosphere where a little has-been like Molly Ringwald gets some phony #MeToo gumption and attacks the long-deceased guy who single-handedly made her pathetically brief career, you’re going to face some stiff (sorry) headwind finding anything funny about a leering Hollywood sex farce made back in the day…a worry to which I give a resounding Bronx cheer. I mean…how dare a movie like Who Was That Lady? be of its time?! Can you imagine? And the nerve of it, exploiting ages-old proven comedic stereotypes about men and women that go back to Restoration comedy and before, all the way to the Greeks…and some of which are still true today, like it or not (hate to break it to you, millennial cramps, but some women do find their men more exciting if they think they’re “dangerous;” some single men still want to sleep around with women and not marry…and so do a lot of women, too, thank god).
Just switch things around to see the hypocrisy of such “sexist” criticism towards a piffle like Who Was That Lady?: if Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig did a role-reversal remake of Who Was That Lady [Man]? today, the lefty “film critics” (blech) would delightfully scream in chorus, “Empowerment!” before uncontrollably wetting their didies. If you’re worried about Who Was That Lady?‘s politics still being part of a corrosive patriarchal system that poisons young minds (oh my god…), you need to 1) relax and cheat on your partner, and 2) remember that the opposite isn’t any more true, either (if it was, all movies, especially popular ones, would be an influence, good and bad, to ponder, To Kill a Mockingbird would have eliminated all human racial prejudice. Or…we’d all be Italian mafia like The Godfather. Or…hungry sharks like Jaws Or god forbid Vin Diesel in one of those silly car movies…).
“Finis. Applause,” as Michael would say. Now that I’ve killed political correctness for all time (see? doesn’t work with the written word, either), I can say what I did and didn’t like about Who Was That Lady?. Most successful in its first half, Who Was That Lady? works best when Dean Martin is juicing the proceedings.
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Krasna’s coincidence-loaded script is clever by half (maybe too clever–too many loose ends have to be tied up at the end, slowing down the comedy), with plenty of throwaway funny lines for the expert farceurs here to toss off. Krasna gets some zingers in on Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy of the 50s and 60s–television–my favorite being his defense of the average CBS audience: “You know we get thousands of letters from moralists, people in jail, dope addicts–it’s a real cross-section of American life.” I cracked up out loud (hard to do when you’re watching a comedy, alone, at 9 in the morning) when Dino ordered four “Missionary Downfalls” at the restaurant bar. And those gorgeous, hilarious scene-stealers, Barbara Nichols and Joi Lansing as extras that Ted Mack rejects because “he didn’t think we looked like amateurs,” make a stunning impression in the movie’s best sequence: the restaurant rendezvous, where in classic farce tradition, everyone misunderstands what the other person is doing there (when Nichols–a national treasure–squeaks, “I have to be careful what I swallow today,” it’s a filthy joke worthy of the master, Billy Wilder).
Of course, as with any good farce, the situations are ridiculous if looked at logically. We need gifted performers to make us suspend disbelief, and Dino takes center stage here. Extremely loose and even a bit goofy at times (quite different from his later laid-back–or somnambulant–work), Martin’s high octane performance at the beginning of Who Was That Lady? sells the premise. He’s remarkable switching moods during his pitch to Curtis, lying about being an undercover agent (his face turns mean and dark, and his tone abrupt and nasty–you have no trouble being put right in worried Curtis’ place). And then, just as easily, he’s back to mugging (that pistol-tossing is classic) and laying out one beautiful reaction shot after another, goading Curtis along into ever-more ridiculous scenarios. It’s his most un-straight man role. This was a critical stage at Martin’s career; he had and would later prove that he could essay a wide variety of roles. As the 60s wore on, though, his choice to largely abandon dramatic movies for increasingly flabby comedic outings may have made economic sense (based on his TV brand)…but it was a loss for the actor’s career, on the whole.
Lithe and gracefully comedic, Curtis’ on-screen time is taken up with Who Was That Lady?‘s romantic comedy elements, and he’s, as always, charming and effortlessly adept. According to some sources, the Curtis/Leigh marriage was already on the rocks by this point…but you’d never know it watching these two beautiful performers playing so well against each other (they’re adorable when doing jujitsu together). All Curtis has to do here is feel guilty about his wife, and then terrified at what Dean has gotten him into, and he does that just fine. Curtis, like Dean, would also go almost exclusively into comedy as the sixties wore on…but he didn’t have a successful TV show like Martin to bolster sagging movie receipts. Within a matter of years, Curtis, a fine dramatic actor, as well, would be seen almost exclusively as a “fluff” performer, sadly (even a late career “hail Mary”–his brilliant turn in The Boston Strangler–couldn’t rescue his tattered reputation). Leigh, bright and sexy and funny here, with just the barest to work with, is letter-perfect as Curtis sweet, naive…then wised-up wife (despite being in one of the most famous movies of all time that same year–Hitchcock’s Psycho–Leigh put her career on the back burner to spend more time with her family…minus Curtis).
If there’s any serious criticism to be leveled at Who Was That Lady?, it’s quite simply that it’s too, too long. Every single scene plays just a bit past its comedic payoff–it all needs to be tightened up (particularly that draggy second section, after the restaurant sequence). If I’ve written it once in my reviews, I’ve written it a thousand times: there are damn few comedies–particularly lightweight affairs such as Who Was That Lady?–that can survive a viewer’s rapidly diminishing interest past 90 minutes.
You can’t keep your audience involved and happy for Who Was That Lady?‘s 116 minutes, if the underlying premise is thin, and the rhythm is slowing down when it should be speeding up. Worse, the big slapstick finale, where Curtis and Martin “sink” the basement of the Empire State Building, is tortured out way past forgiveness; when, out of desperation to keep the scene going, they started singing America, I threw my pen down (it’s surprisingly unimaginative staging, given Sidney’s usual visual panache…and a sloppy one, too: a crew member’s foot is clearly seen upcamera when the water starts to blow). Give me the right to edit this baby down to 90 minutes on YouTube, and Who Was That Lady? might come off as one of Martin’s and Curtis’ best 60s comedies.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.