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Hollywood or Bust





"The movie censors won't let us say damn / But we can say Boulder Dam!" --a song from Hollywood or Bust


Hollywood or Bust

1956. Paramount. Directed by Frank Tashlin; written by Erna Lazarus. With Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Pat Crowley, Anita Ekberg

This is my favorite Martin & Lewis movie; it's the most crass, the most self-conscious, and it has good songs. Apparently Martin and Lewis hated each other by the time this movie was made (they broke up the act soon after): there's a testy, ready-to-explode feeling, and those sentimental moments where Dean realizes how much he's come to care for Jerry are strictly pro forma here.

Hollywood or Bust offers some pretty overt self-commentary. It begins with a Martin & Lewis skit apparently unrelated to the movie that follows: Dean welcomes the audience as "refugees from TV," and introduces Jerry's impressions of the moviegoers of several nations (including his patented buck-toothed Asian, eating popcorn with chop sticks). The title credits follow: photos of various Hollywood sights with a pin-up posed in front of each one: Hollywood and busts, apparently.

Jerry's character, Malcolm Smith, is a movie fan who can rattle off the cast and credits for any film (some actual movies, some made up), and says things like, "You're as noble as Abraham Lincoln, or Raymond Massey." He's obsessed with getting to Hollywood to meet Anita Ekberg (maybe Malcolm had seen her in the earlier Martin & Lewis movie, Artists and Models). Of course, when he finally gets there, we get a tour of the usual Hollywood icons (the Hollywood Bowl, Graumann's Chinese Theater, the Paramount lot, etc.). Like many of these movies, Hollywood or Bust seems to have been partially financed by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (and they must have got a big discount on the VistaVision process in exchange for near-endless plugs).

But the subtler stuff is even more interesting. This is a road movie, another journey westward by a couple of east coast types (following the same itinerary--New York to Las Vegas to Hollywood--that Martin and Lewis had taken several years earlier).

Although there are shots of farm country, Chicago, the Mississippi, Santa Fe, and Hoover Dam, Dean and Jerry don't seem to really be any of those places. Seldom do those figures seen driving along Route 66 seem to be the same performers who appear in the close-ups, which are usually studio shots or back-projection shots. Then as soon as they roll into Las Vegas, driving by a casino marquee advertising Martin & Lewis, they become very present —indisputably there, in front of a real hotel, by a real swimming pool, at a real used car lot. It's no surprise that Martin and Lewis never actually travelled further east than Las Vegas during the shooting of this movie; second units are nothing new. But the result is provocative: Dean and Jerry by this time had become almost inseparable from the Vegas/LA scene. The movie only makes sense as a kind of inflated nightclub act, with Dean singing, Jerry cavorting, and showgirls in Americana theme costumes.

Frank Tashlin, the director (he also directed Son of Paleface, written up earlier), spent many years as an animator, and most of his movies are like cartoons peopled by real beings. There are sight gags that are physically impossible; for example, Steve Wylie (Dean) watches Malcolm and his dog disappear over a far hill, and then as he turns to drive away and leave them stranded, the same dog growls at him from the back seat. In another scene, Malcolm manages to run alongside a speeding car. There's no reason, Tashlin implies, that a filmed movie can't play with space and time as freely as a drawn one. Live-action movies seem to unfold before our eyes like real life, but this is an illusion; they are as "constructed" in their way as are cartoons.

At the very end of the movie, after the closing song, Dean and Jerry walk right up to the camera, bend down and mug into the lens. It's an acknolwedgement that this has been an "appearance" rather than a "performance." I wonder if it was the conviction that this would be their last movie together that emboldened them to address us (here and elsewhere in Hollywood or Bust) so what-the-hell directly.

(Is the 1988 film Rain Man a remake of Hollywood or Bust? The plot is almost identical. Jerry's idiot savant is more entertaining than Dustin Hoffman's, and certainly chattier.)




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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein