Partners, Buddies, Pals… at least, onscreen.
Jerry and Dean in the Wild West!
PARDNERS, the penultimate musical comedy from Martin and Lewis opens with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as two aged cowboys named Slim Mosely and Wade Kingsley, in a shootout to retain their property against the marauding Dan Hollis gang, who want to take it by force. Their wives escape with their baby sons, their namesakes. Slim and Wade are killed in the shootout, and as they lie dying they vow that their sons will avenge them…
(Since there was no one around to witness their deaths or their vows, we can’t quite figure how their sons would get the message to avenge them, especially since their wives were against the cowboy life, and would have raised Slim Jr. and Wade Jr. as city folk with no inkling of their fathers’ wishes…)
Years Pass… We meet Wade Jr. (now young Lewis, 30 at the time), a coddled rich mama’s boy in a mansion, who dresses in splashy cowboy duds and rides a mechanical horse, fantasizing about riding high in a saddle that would probably give him vertigo, while his butler looks on; who accedes wimpishly to the wishes of his overbearing mother (Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Kingsley) to marry a wealthy girl that terrifies him.
Enter Slim Jr. (young Martin, 39), a strapping cowpuncher with Lori Nelson as his token girlfriend (equals masculinity), beseeching Mrs. Kingsley for a loan to save a ranch out west – the very ranch that Slim (his father) and Wade (Mrs. Kingsley’s dead husband) defended years ago. Mrs. Kingsley now owns shipyards and steel companies – how she made her fortune is not shown – yet turns Slim down, not wanting any connection to her western past.
However, Wade, enamored with Slim’s rugged cowboy ethos, secretly withdraws his savings and runs away to help Slim, partnering with him to save the ranch of their fathers. And who is trying to run them out? The son of the original raider – Sam Hollis (John Baragrey, who also played his father Dan in the opening scene), but – much like the writers of Superman discovered that Lex Luthor could do more damage as a CEO than a generic crook – Sam is not a bandit, he is the town’s bank manager!
To disguise the fact that Wade is the heir of the Kingsley ranch, Slim dubs him “Killer Jones” (which also disguises the fact Wade is a city slicker with no horse, rope or gun skills). Through Hollis’s machinations, the town makes Wade the sheriff, so that Hollis and his gang (featuring Jeff Morrow as Rio, and Lee Van Cleef and Lon Chaney Jr. in the deep background!) can run roughshod through the county without being bothered by anyone competent.
We gotta admit that though Jerry was the better gun handler, Dean looked mighty comfortable in that cowboy getup. That western swagger would serve him well in his upcoming solo career (RIO BRAVO, 4 FOR TEXAS, et al). In a blue outfit that almost looked like a onesie, Jerry was looking kinda portly – not fat, but definitely eating well, compared to his boney carriage from the early films. Dean’s girl, fragile-petite Lori Nelson, was not helping, standing next to Jerry with her frame so slight you could wrap your palms around her waist.
Jerry is paired up with a smashing pumpkin himself – the new woman in town whom he rescues when her horses run wild (Jackie Loughery, also stunningly slight) – credited as a “showgirl,” looking suspiciously like a “hooker.” As always, Jerry is only allowed access to the girl at the culmination of his ascension to manhood, making this yet another film where his character arcs from child to man, and Dean’s character once again only arcs from intolerance to acceptance of a little buddy. Did we care? Nope. As long as Jerry made those faces and yawped, we were happy…
In the film, their camaraderie seems as strong as ever (which once again proves incontrovertibly what good actors both were), yet the production was plagued by rumors of the breakup of “Martin and Lewis,” an entity which had become more than just a comedy team – they were an entertainment monolith, from stage to radio, from TV to magazines and motion pictures. Thus Dean and Jerry include a lively disclaimer in the film’s coda: As they sing the final chorus of the title song, “You an’ me / Will be the greatest / Partners, buddies and pals!” (looking for all the world like they mean it) THE END title fades onscreen. They break the fourth wall to first shoot down the title, then speak to us, the audience, “We’re not ready for the end yet!… We want you folks to know we sure enjoyed workin’ for you and we hope you enjoyed the picture… and we hope you’ll keep coming to see US because we like seeing YOU.”
Maybe it quelled the breakup rumors for the innocent, breezy public of the era (who did not yet have access to that virulent, seething wreckage of society called social media), but looking back on that message now, we have to wonder what was in both their heads at the time. Surely at this point there was some inkling of their termination date, or at the very least, Dean planning his exit strategy? These guys were THE kings of the entertainment circuit, and an army of personnel were about to be either out of work or transferring their energies to other clients.
Or maybe the message WAS a harbinger of their dissolution, if you read between the lines: “We hope you’ll keep coming to see us,” could very well mean “Even though we’re gone, keep patronizing our films and other products.”
There would come one last film, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (wrapping in June 1956, released in December 1956), but by that time, the world would be a sadder place… In a cruel irony, on the very day that PARDNERS was released – July 25, 1956 – and the public was hearing “We’re not ready for the end yet!” Martin and Lewis would perform for the very last time as a team at the Copacabana in New York…
And we thought they’d always be our partners, buddies and pals…