Dean Martin: The King of Cool

October 18, 2021
Dean Martin: The King Of Cool

4 Movies, 1 Documentary | November 19 & 26, 8 p.m.

Steve McQueen might take exception to his title being hijacked, but if it had to be applied to anybody else, who better than this laidback singer, actor, TV star and integral member of the Rat Pack, those 60s paragons of ultra hip? TCM is showing four essential Dean Martin films in support of its premiere of King of Cool (2021), a documentary intended as “a nuanced portrait of a man that everyone love [sic] but no one ever really knew,” according to its producers, Creative Chaos. Directed by Tom Donahue (Guest of Cindy Sherman, 2008), the film claims to be inspired by Citizen Kane (1941) and seeks to challenge “the limits of what we can know about an iconic figure.”

Martin was certainly iconic, from his earliest days as the smooth-crooning stage and screen partner of Jerry Lewis, who appears in the documentary, to his first solo film appearances in the late 1950s to his, well, iconic roles (essentially versions of himself, or at least the public’s perception of him) with fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and their muse, Angie Dickinson, also interviewed in Donahue’s film.

Martin and Lewis started out in the mid-1940s as a nightclub act, whose patented mix of handsome straight man and manic comic (later copied by such teams as Rowan and Martin and Allen and Rossi) brought them early fame and popularity on TV and movies. The Caddy (1953) falls roughly in the middle of the 16 features they headlined between 1949 and 1956. It was directed, as many of the pair’s pictures were, by Norman Taurog, who later helmed nine Elvis Presley movies. This is the film where Martin introduced one of his most enduring signature tunes, “That’s Amore.”

After splitting with Lewis, Martin sought meatier roles and found them opposite Sinatra in Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958) and with John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). His sensitive performance in the latter, as a maligned drunk who proves himself when criminals threaten his town, received widespread critical praise and is often considered his finest film work.

Martin tended to walk through his Rat Pack pictures with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other and an unruffled demeanor, but audiences were no less enthralled by his presence. In Ocean’s 11 (1960), remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2001, he’s part of a team pulling off an intricate Las Vegas heist. In an even more lighthearted romp, Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), he’s part of a gang fighting rivals for control of the rackets in Prohibition-era Chicago. The film also stars Sinatra, Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby, so naturally there are plenty of songs for the cast to perform.

The King of Cool documentary will be screened on both nights of the special tribute programming.