After television became a viable medium, big-time entertainment changed. Whether because of the intimacy of the box or the general wisenheimer-y of the times, superstars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin began integrating a greater sense of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness into their acts. They still delivered their big ballads with practiced sincerity, but on the poppier numbers, the singers would riff, joke, and wink at the audience, reminding everyone at regular intervals that it was all just a show.
One of the originators of that don’t-take-it-so-seriously attitude was Louis Prima, a big-band leader who stripped down his act when he took up residency in a small lounge in the Sahara in 1954. Prima quickly became one of the hottest tickets in Las Vegas, and a late-night favorite of headliners like Sinatra. The DVD Louis Prima: In Person! brings together four decades of Prima TV performances and movie excerpts, compiled by Don McGlynn and Joe Lauro, who made the excellent 1999 documentary Louis Prima: The Wildest! The footage spans from the mid-’30s, when Prima was a spry young trumpeter, to the ’70s, when he was one of the grand old men of show business. The choicest material comes from the ’50s, when Prima was partnered with his stone-faced, Virginia-accented wife Keely Smith and saxy proto-rock band Sam Butera & The Witnesses. Roughly a third of the hour-plus worth of performances on In Person! exemplifies the sound that Prima, Smith, and Butera forged in ’54: a mix of pop standards, clownish Italian novelty songs, and roadhouse boogie, delivered with high energy and giddy irreverence.
Also in 1954, Frank Sinatra joined Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr for a one-hour television production of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. The broadcast was hailed at the time as a breakthrough in bringing Broadway-scale entertainment to the small screen, though today, it isn’t so impressive. The TV version offers a weak rewrite of Porter’s original, with Sinatra playing a theatrical agent who’s over the moon for the singing chops and romantic charms of top banana Merman, while Lahr plays a two-bit hood desperate to move up the “public enemy” list. Merman first starred as Reno Sweeney in the original 1934 Anything Goes, in a legendarily socko run, but while she was still formidable 20 years later, she looked a little weathered as a romantic lead opposite Sinatra. The show’s witty repartee didn’t always land with the live studio audience either, though Porter hits like “You’re The Top” and “Just One Of Those Things” still work like gangbusters. Still, it’s fun to watch Sinatra sneak some of the puckish side of his personality around the edges, whether he’s smirking at the camera in an aside, or doing a few seconds of his Bert Lahr impression.
Of course, few performers of the post-World War II era were as adept at treating showbiz with an almost contemptuous shrug as Sinatra’s pal Dean Martin. According to legend, Martin’s NBC variety show—which ran from 1965 to 1974, and was a Top 10 hit in its heyday—was put together with minimal input from Martin himself. Part of Martin’s deal with the network was that he didn’t have to rehearse or reshoot; he’d just show up on taping day and read his lines directly from cue cards, with no second takes if he screwed up. The Best Of The Dean Martin Variety Show is available in multiple configurations—single-disc, double-disc, and a six-DVD set—and each features heavily abridged episodes, with Martin and Hollywood pals like John Wayne and Orson Welles trading quips and singing songs. The highlight of any of these segments comes when Martin gets confused about what’s happening, and starts faux-berating the orchestra leader or the cue-card guy, before finding his place in the act and jumping straight into a song, with a voice so blessedly rich that it’s clear why he feels no obligation to try particularly hard.
Key features: A rambling 30-minute interview with the musical director on the Anything Goes DVD; bonus performances on the Prima disc; bonus interviews on the Martin set.