He played drums, dropped out in tenth grade, bootlegged liquor, dealt blackjack in a speakeasy and boxed at welterweight level
When Gaetano Crocetti, a barber from the Abruzzo, Italy, and his wife Angela had a baby boy in 1917, whom they christened Dino Paul Crocetti, they probably didn’t know that he would become one of the best-loved entertainers in America in the 1950s and 60s, the living embodiment of the word simpatico.
Or that he would appear in eleven feature Westerns and an episode of Rawhide.
Dino’s first language was Italian and he did not speak English until he started school in Ohio at the age of five, where he was teased and bullied for his accent. He played drums, dropped out in tenth grade, bootlegged liquor, dealt blackjack in a speakeasy and boxed at welterweight level (of his 12 bouts, he said that he “won all but eleven”). He sang with local bands, calling himself Dino Martini. By 1940 he was Dean Martin. By 1946 he had teamed with comic Jerry Lewis, a program of slapstick, old vaudeville jokes and songs.
And it was this partnership that led to Martin’s first Western movie – or semi-Western anyway, their twelfth picture together, Paramount’s comedy Pardners, released in 1956. It was directed by Norman Taurog who had helmed the Bing Crosby similar vehicle Rhythm of the Range. I don’t think it’s very funny but that’s just personal taste. The New York Times said “Western satire plods along” and agreed with me: “It just isn’t very funny.” At the conclusion of the picture Martin and Lewis shoot up the letters of ‘The End’, then step out of character to thank the audience for attending the picture, saying how much they enjoyed making it and that they hope the audience will come to their next film.
Of Martin’s eleven features in the genre, five would be ‘comedy’ Westerns, of varying degrees of funniness.
But his second, which came out in March 1959, was perhaps his most famous Western role. He played John Wayne’s alcoholic deputy Dude in Warners’ Rio Bravo, directed by Howard Hawks. Click the link for our review. Though really a big, brash, commercial picture rather than an art film (it was no Red River) it must be said that Martin showed real acting ability in it. And its considerable critical and box-office success elevated Dino to Western stardom. Arguably, in fact, he would never again do anything as good.
Certainly the next two Westerns, made with (and pretty well for) Martin’s buddy Frank Sinatra, weren’t of that quality. In fact they were dreadful. Fine actor that he could be, Sinatra was just too lazy and slapdash to bother with these pictures, refusing to rehearse, insisting on only one take of each scene and reducing the directors to ciphers or yes-men. Sergeants 3 in 1962 was helmed by John Sturges and 4 for Texas in ’63 by Robert Aldrich, but you wouldn’t know it. The movies were pretty well drivel.
They fell flat on their face between the two stools of comedy and action. Martin went through the motions – and was in fact the best actor on the sets of both – but cannot have been proud of the results. Oh well, another day, another dollar.
In 1965 Dino would try to repeat the success of Rio Bravo with another Wayne collaboration when he played Duke’s brother (slightly unbelievably) in The Sons of Katie Elder, but before then his Western career progressed with an appearance in a 1964 episode of the popular TV show Rawhide. It was perhaps his finest Western performance, and in it he showed real acting talent. He played a gunfighter with doubts, and one beginning to lose his nerve. And he did it with great sensitivity and you might even say better than a one-hour TV show really deserved. Canliss (available on YouTube) is well worth a watch if you want to see Dean Martin really acting well, and the episode is well written and well directed. Only the support acting slightly lets it down.
Katie Elder was indeed a success, commercially anyway. The public was curious to see Wayne back after quite drastic cancer surgery, and flocked to theaters to see the picture, which sold 13.2m tickets and grossed nearly $14m. It wasn’t a ‘great’ Western along the lines of some of Wayne’s earlier epics and it didn’t get anywhere near the Oscars or anything but it was directed by Henry Hathaway, one of the greats, and it was an enjoyable oater. And Martin was now appearing relaxed and confident.
Actually, as time wore on he became perhaps too relaxed. In 1966 he starred in Texas Across the River, an 1845 Texas story in which a Southern belle (Rosemary Forsyth) is courted by a wanted Spanish nobleman (Alain Delon) and a brawling gunrunner (Martin) but the suitors’ conflict is interrupted by a Comanche attack. It was directed by Michael Gordon (Cyrano de Bergerac, Pillow Talk but this and The Secret of Convict Lake his only Westerns). It got nowhere at the box office and was slammed by the critics. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it “a dreary little frolic”, and indeed, it’s pretty bad.
So far, therefore, Dean Martin’s Western career was, let us say, mixed.
But the 1967 Western he did, Rough Night in Jericho, was also one of his very best. In it for the first time he played an out-and-out bad guy, and he did it really well. He’s the ruthless bos of a town, Jericho, who owns most of it but wants it all, and Jean Simmons, the stage line owner, allies with George Peppard and John McIntire to thwart him. For me, this was possibly Dino’s best ever Western. He was really strong as the villain.
For the next three, though, he was back on autopilot. 5 Card Stud, Bandolero! (both 1968) and Something Big (1971) were vin ordinaire, at best. The first paired him with another sleepwalker going through the motions, Robert Mitchum, and because they both looked bored, much of the picture was boring. It was again directed by Hathaway but he too seemed to have lost interest.
The next two, though, had the misfortune to be helmed by AV McLaglen, a second-rate director of feature Westerns (though competent at the many TV shows he did). Both pictures tried again for the comedy/action mix, and both once again failed. Co-star James Stewart on Bandolero! at least tried to do something with the dire screenplay but on Something Big he was paired with Brian Keith, who was yet another who would accept any script going and just go through the motions to get to the end of it and go home. All three pictures were disappointing, and illustrative of Dean Martin’s capacity for wasting his undoubted talent on junk. It’s true that by the late 60s and early 70s, good big-screen Westerns were thin on the ground, and it wasn’t easy at all to even find a good script, but he could have said no – or acted better.
Dean Martin’s last Western, Showdown in 1973, was a bit better than the previous three, but not by very much. This time he was paired with Rock Hudson, who did make an effort. It was Rock’s last oater too. Martin looked plain tired for most of it.
Dino did Mr Ricco and two Cannonball Run pictures afterwards and that was that. In 1993 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died at home, aged 78. Dean Martin was quite clearly a lovely man, and he had the voice of an angel gargling honey. He was also, very occasionally, a fine actor. Every now and then (I am thinking of Rio Bravo, Canliss and Rough Night in Jericho) he sparked in the Western genre, and when he did he was top class. But it’s also true that he wasted much of his talent before the cameras. He just didn’t seem to care enough. Perhaps he thought Westerns beneath his interest, I don’t know. Or maybe he was just unlucky with the scripts he got.
Anyway, I’ll still watch Dean Martin in a Western, even if it’s a dud.