As you may recall from our previous posting, the stage was set for a little film called Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. It was a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy that had the strange distinction of not starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
I know, right?
Naturally, this did not go over well with Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis, or their studio, Paramount Pictures, which had invested quite a sum of money in their two new stars.
Movies are a product, aimed at consumers, just like detergent. If you have just patented, say, Tide laundry detergent, what you don’t want right next to it on the shelf is a crappier detergent in an identical box called Tiide. And if some company tried that, you could sue them for copyright infringement.
It’s a little trickier when the box of Tide is a comedy team, but, according to legend, as far as the film’s producer, Maurice Duke, was concerned, it was worth a try. Interviewed on the podcast The Projection Booth, during an extended (and hilarious) discussion of the film, writer Jamie Klein, a friend of Duke’s later in his life, said, “He said, the goal was, to him, billboards and posters outside the theater without their names, so that people would think they were actually paying to see Dean and Jerry.”
Yeah. Um, that’s exactly the kind of thing Paramount Pictures probably didn’t want. But maybe, just maybe, that was the plan all along? The Projection Booth’s host, Mike White (not the creator of White Lotus, a different Mike White. Dopplegangers being our theme, apparently), added, “They put these guys in this movie with the sole purpose of making the movie and selling it to Paramount to keep them from distributing the movie.”
“They” would be producer Maurice Davis and Realart Pictures chief Jack Broder. The story may be apocryphal, but if it isn’t, it puts Broder and Davis years ahead if Biyalistock and Bloom. According to the story, and there are, admittedly, several versions of it, Paramount did make an offer but, as White relates, “The other producer (Broder) turned it down, and Maurice went, you’ll pardon the expression, apeshit.”
He wasn’t alone. Cases of the apeshits were going around. Writing in the Aug., 24, 2009 New York Times, Dennis Hevesi tells of a phone conversation with Lewis’ son Gary. “When Sammy and the other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my Dad and Dean saying, ‘We got to sue these guys. This is no good.’” Lewis went on to add, regarding his famous father, “Whenever there was any mention of Sammy Petrillo, it was a tense moment.”
Oddly, according to the legend, it was Mr. Lewis himself who finally allowed the film to be released. Maurice Duke’s daughter Fredde made a documentary of her famously colorful father, famously and colorfully titled, “F*&% ‘Em!” in which the story is told of Jerry Lewis and director Hal Wallis sitting down to screen the movie. This was after Jack Broder turned down Paramount’s initial offer to buy and lock up the film.
After seeing the movie, Lewis, realizing that he and Martin had nothing to fear, told Realart to go ahead and release it. “Good luck!”
Broder should have taken the money. Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla opened to terrible box office but also terrible reviews, immediately putting the kibosh on any and all future Mitchell-Petrillo films. They continued as a nightclub act, up through 1956. Petrillo continued to work on the periphery of show business, his last film being a Doris Wishman nudie spectacular called Keyholes Are For Peeping. We’ll definitely be covering Doris Wishman in the near future. Now there's a story!
Dean and Jerry went on to make show biz history, although tensions between the two started to escalate. Their last performance was at The Copacabana Club on July 25, 1956. As a comedy team, they lasted ten years to the day.