My Friend Irma, though overlong, isn't all that bad, just hum-drum, with disparate elements that never really come together - the film is practically a New Faces of 1949 revue. Partly this was an obvious if shrewd move on the part of producer Hal Wallis: by throwing together such diverse talent popular in other media (radio stars, comic Lewis, singer Dean) into a modestly-budgeted feature he was gambling one or more would make it as film stars. History proved him right, though the general air is of Dean and Jerry usurping someone else's movie.
The film is mainly a vehicle for Diana Lynn (Betty Hutton's sister in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, later Ronald Reagan's co-star in Bedtime for Bonzo; she replaced Cathy Lewis from the radio show) as Irma's upwardly mobile roommate Jane Stacy. She has her eyes set on millionaire Richard Rhinelander III (Don DeFore) but instead falls for Steve Laird (Dean Martin), a orange juice soda jerk with a pleasant singing voice. Meanwhile, daffy dimwit Irma Petersen (Marie Wilson) mostly sits on the sidelines as her ne'er-do-well boyfriend Al (top-billed John Lund, adopting a Damon Runyon accent and a million miles from A Foreign Affair) tries to convert Steve's singing talent and Richard's dough into a personal fortune.
Amazingly, Jerry Lewis reportedly campaigned for the role of Al, a carry-over from the radio show, to the point of threatening to walk if he wasn't cast in that particular part. Probably the character should have been dropped altogether in as much as it's a tired cliche and generally grating, and its absence would have opened the door for a romance between the part Lewis does play in the picture, Steve's chimp-like pal Seymour, and intellectually compatible Irma. Instead Seymour, even more so than Irma, is shoved into little set pieces which are pretty funny (Seymour as a valet car parking attendant) but which have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story.
Martin, for his part, lands the romantic lead, and his natural screen presence and agreeably relaxed demeanor is apparent in this, his very first film. Both look impossibly young - this is maybe the only film in Lewis's long career in which he actually looks like his famous caricature: Dean was 32, and Jerry just 23. The film strains credibility with a nightclub sequence that briefly puts the pair together and approximates their wildly popular live act. The scene makes no sense at all, but it's also the funniest in the picture.
Marie Wilson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) is charming herself but pretty hard to take as Irma, a kind of sub-Gracie Allen. Cy Howard, creator of the radio show, writes occasionally funny dialogue, but it's material better suited to radio than film. Instead of klutzy and feather-brained, Irma comes off as mildly retarded. Diana Lynn, meanwhile, is adorable but stranded in a sea of disconnected characters and trite situations.
Directed with traffic cop efficiency by George Marshall, the film's most clever moment comes at the beginning, with its inspired introduction to radio characters heard but heretofore unseen. Against a sea of commuting New Yorkers, narrator Jane asks the audience to find Irma in the crowd. "See if you can pick her out," she says, as Irma falls through a manhole. (** 1/2)
My Friend Irma Goes West is a superior sequel, though if Martin and Lewis were guilty of hijacking the first film they positively dominate the second, so much so that Diana Lynn, who more or less played the leading role in the first picture, has been shoved down the end titles ladder to a rather appalling sixth billing.
Still the film, which cleverly reworks the opening/close of the first film and seems to have been shot on many of the same, still-standing sets, has more laughs and better songs all around (including one of Dean's standards, "I'll Always Love You"). This time the gang accepts an offer from Hollywood producer C.Y. Sanford (Charles Evans) to bring Steve to Hollywood, and so Irma, Jane, Al, and Seymour board the Super Chief bound for Los Angeles. Along the way, they learn that Sanford is not a producer but an escapee from an insane asylum, but are rescued when French sexpot Yvonne Yvonne (Corrine Calvert) offers Steve a part in her picture, much to jealous Jane's chagrin.
The main reason for My Friend Irma Goes West's slight superiority over its predecessor is that, this time at least, its varied characters move as a group toward a single goal, rather than the splintered antics of the first film. The picture also uses Jerry and Dean to greater advantage, especially Lewis, who's much more a part of the action this time, instead of someone to cut to for tangential asides.
Among the highlights is a long sequence, one certainly lifted from their nightclub act, where Seymour interrupts Steve's singing while conducting the band, and Seymour's interaction, some of it ad-libbed, with Calvert's pet chimpanzee (and, oddly, implied lover!), Pierre.
Lund, Wilson, and Lynn are still in the picture enough that it doesn't feel entirely stolen, but their material is weaker, with Wilson especially exasperating as dumb blonde Irma. Again, her dialogue (with all its malapropisms) is sometimes clever but mostly you'll want to knock Irma upside the head for all her stupidity.
One final note: cultural historians will want to look at the film for its attitude toward early television, which is surprisingly positive for a movie based on a radio show, and its glimpse of a downright folksy Las Vegas (parts of the film were shot at the Flamingo), which in 1950 was so primitive the strip is little more than a dirt road with a couple of hotels and, as the script would have you believe, criminals were hunted down with an old-fashioned posse, complete with cowboys on horseback. (***)
Video & Audio
Both films are presented on a single side of the DVD, in their original black and white, full frame format and both look and sound good for their age, with good grain and solid blacks and clear mono sound. Optional English subtitles are included, but that's it. There are no Extra Features.
My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West were shrewdly planned introductions to the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, even if the movies are something less than laff riots. The two films belong together, and at just $14.99 for both the DVD is something of a bargain, plain-wrap packaging not withstanding.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.