Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford: 60s Spy Hipsters, Baby


Today’s playground fight topic: Which is better, Richard Donner’s Salt and pepper (1968) or Jerry Lewis’ Once again (1970)? Some movie snobs surely think this question is like asking if you prefer a punch in the stomach or a punch in the eye. However, for those of us with a soft spot (somewhere around the medulla) for the supposedly wacky, hip comedies of the 1960s, this is hair worth cutting. Others can talk to each other.

Ideally, Kino Lorber released these long-lost or rather long-forgotten epics as a Blu-ray double feature, and that’s exactly what our genre wants. As for which film is “better”, the answer probably falls in the direction of the author: do you prefer the films of Donner or Blitzen? I mean Donner or Lewis?

The Salt and pepper and Once again conclusively demonstrate the importance of each principal, for otherwise they are the same. Both are British films written by English semi-legendary Michael Pertwee, who was also adept at comedy and spy tales, and both films belong to both genres. The same people are producing both films and, more importantly, both films are ramshackle vehicles for the chemistry of Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. They serve as executive producers on both. So the only thing to choose between them is the director, and that makes all the difference.

Salt and pepper is one of ten thousand James Bond parodies that flooded cinemas in the late 1960s. Once again is primarily a Jerry Lewis film.

In the first scene of Salt and pepper, Charles Salt (Davis) and Chris Pepper (Lawford) are billed as owning partners of Salt and Pepper’s super-chic, super-hip, ultra-mod Soho nightclub, where Salt puts on a floor show as garish and cool as what everyone wears. If only he sang more than the title track and a big rock tune, the music alone would be worth our time. I’m going to step out on a limb and declare Davis’ stunning parade of wardrobes the most entertaining element of the picture. I’ll gladly take some of these duds – maybe not the tight leathers.

The joke, as you may need to be rubbed on your face, is that the white type is Pepper, the black type Salt. Salt’s little deflating references in Sammy Davis’ patented way are scattered all over the place, much like a condiment. For example, a radio report will refer to him as being of African descent, causing him to sigh and lower his head and call himself “an unhappy African”. Or he’ll explain that he confused two Chinese women because he couldn’t tell them apart. We won’t repeat his question about dating Chinese women (something about “an hour later”). It’s about how hipness at the time embraced a conscious mockery of stereotypes so that viewers would have laughed at their stupidity (copyright pending) and thought, “we’re all sophisticated here”. Those were the jokes, guys.

Salt and pepper are toasted by jester Inspector Crabbe (Michael Bates), who accuses them of nefarious deeds and states, “I saw the body!” It does not refer to a murder but to a wardrobe malfunction of one of the club’s pretty dancers, one of those who closed the joint according to another hit comedy of the same year, William Friedkin . The night they raided Minsky’s. As a designated “square” authority figure in a nominally anti-authoritarian era, Crabbe can do a secular stagger like a schtick in shredded clothes after a bomb destroys his car. It’s that kind of humor.

The news item is that a phantom conspiracy of old fuddy-duddies is planning a revolution to replace the British government after they hijack a Polaris submarine and cause atomic mischief. Along the way we get parodies of James Bond like Sammy’s, I mean Salt’s goofy jeep equipped with a bulletproof shield, a machine gun and oil spouts to outsmart the bad guys at his pursuit. At the climax, the buddies must with both hands attack or kill a slew of (evil) uniformed soldiers to prevent the bombing affair as a grateful nation watches on TV.

Salt and pepper never makes much sense, but Donner takes the story just seriously enough to stick to the script. In the DVD’s only supplement besides the trailers, writer Larry Karaszewski talks about a trailer to categorize the film into two genres. The former is the hip ’60s movie for the squares, and the latter is the comedy-action buddy flick practically defined in the ’80s by Donner’s Lethal Weapon movies. He’s absolutely right, because all the elements are there: the team of black/white friends, the raucous action, the light tone, the scattering of dead characters. Then he goes overboard by calling the sequel a big disappointing mess in which Sammy Davis plays Jerry Lewis. Maybe no one will care, but I disagree. The sequel is an engaging and highly watchable mess in which Sammy Davis plays Jerry Lewis.

While most sequels follow a dictate of “the same, only more,” leaving the third film in the trilogies to go in bold new directions that aren’t generally appreciated by fans of the first two films, Once again is resolutely heading in its direction without waiting for the third film. That’s a good thing since a third movie never materialized.

It’s easy to believe that Lewis either heavily rewrote Pertwee’s script or threw it away, but it keeps one hell of a setup. Someone decided we didn’t need another Soho nightclub movie or Bondian antics, so Once again opens with their nightclub closed for various reasons and the buddies fined a thousand pounds. Never mind that they were ennobled as national heroes in the previous film, and never mind that a thousand pounds are a bargaining chip for successful club owners. The thing is, the club is out, right?

Get this. We now learn that Pepper has an identical twin brother who is a wealthy lord with a big honking castle. You can tell them apart because Lord Sydney has the mustache, the strong classy accent, and the height. He thinks his younger twin is a loser, a pitcher, and a shameful stain on the crest (look at him), so his will cuts Chris off from the castle and the money. When Chris finds his brother dead of an apparent heart attack, he impulsively decides to impersonate him, knowing little that Sydney was poisoned as a double agent who betrayed both Interpol and the diamond smugglers, and now everyone wants the diamonds.

The big swallow here isn’t the twin routine; it’s old hat, and it’s definitely a Jerry Lewis thing to impersonate multiple family members. No, viewers beg to get over Pepper not revealing the set-up to Salt, who is crushed by the thought that his best friend is dead. Pepper’s convenient excuse is that he didn’t want Salt to be in danger, which is why Pepper invites her to move into the castle with him. It won’t make sense the second time you read it either.

The surprisingly emotional, even sentimental, parts of Once again (because it’s a Lewis movie) involve Salt finding his character’s soulful center amidst all the voices, costumes, and schtick. He is devastated by the apparent death of his friend. When one of the club’s dancers calls him “a stone Uncle Tom”, he grumbles that he’s only accompanying “Lord Sydney” because if he finds out he murdered Chris, “I’ll kill him. “.

It’s the brief appearance of Jamaican actress Esther Anderson, an interesting figure in British pop culture. We can assume she’s playing Salt’s girlfriend, but we can’t be sure because that’s her only scene. Even though Davis sang in the credits of Salt and pepper that the next time he gets the girl, he still won’t get her, alas. Once again momentarily turns into a musical as Salt sings a song about his loneliness while descending the huge staircase. He’ll do another one of his tight leather or velvet rave-ups on the big stage at the party, and of course, he also sings the theme during the credits.

The emotional weight is all at the front of Once again. The final third is edited so randomly that characters and plot points move in and out at will as the film dissolves into surrealism (like a shootout in a bar where patrons pay no attention) and the fourth-wall meta-company, which was the only way to end this. I remember Norman Panama The Maltese Bippy (1969) with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, another film whose attraction can only be explained by childhood at the right time. Sorry if you missed it.

Yes, Davis does and says things that you easily imagine Jerry Lewis does and says, the difference being that Davis does them in a much less gritty way. Davis looks like he’s having fun with all his accents and wardrobes like he’s just improvised. The scene where he dresses up as Louis XIV “Chocolate Dandy” with a huge wig (of course, we get his “Behold the Judge” routine), where he takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes all over the company is , I declare without fear of reproach, funny.

To be sure, a few pieces in Once again work better than others. An elaborate dispatch of the Monolith in Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odysseyas marked with Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, is more conceptually interesting than funny. Again, it’s Lewis all over. Although Lewis does not appear, he doubles the voice of the former conductor, so he is a little in the Once again. I wish his staging and cut were sharper; it often seems to lack coverage – i.e. enough footage from enough angles to put the thing together properly.

So for the sheer Lewis-ness of this one, the flashes of emotion and the even more laissez-faire clutter of plot inconsistency, I find Once again less strenuous and wackier than Salt and Pepper’s relatively simple Donner party. As we like to say, your mileage may vary.

Both films are littered with familiar British characters. Salt and pepper features John Le Mesurier, Ilona Rodgers, Graham Stark, Jeremy Lloyd, Oliver MacGreevy, William Mervyn, Robertson Hare, Nicholas Smith and a small scene for Calvin Lockhart. Once again has Maggie Wright, Dudley Sutton, John Wood, Percy Herbert, Sydney Arnold, Cyril Luckham, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in a truly random and surreal cameo. So there is that too.

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