The film begins with Dean’s laidback childhood in an Italian immigrant community in Steubenville, Ohio, where he enjoyed a warm family life and didn’t learn to speak English until he was 6-years-old. He gave up early on school and instead dove into youth boxing, though he quickly transitioned to singing. He sang as much as possible and his natural charm propelled him to the top and kept him there for the rest of his life. Martin excelled at everything he did: nightclubs, films, and television, with a seemingly effortless ability as a singer, actor, and comedian.
Among the interviewees there are the obvious subjects: Martin’s daughter Deana and his former sister-in-law Anne Haren and people he worked with like Angie Dickenson, Florence Henderson, Norman Lear, and Barbara Rush. What’s fascinating is the inclusion of a younger generation of entertainers, like RZA, who aside from his deep pop culture knowledge, has an acute understanding of the Rat Pack camaraderie as the Wu-Tang Clan shared much of that kinship.
There is a general consensus among those who knew him that there was a part of Dean he kept shut away from the world. He had a lot of love around him, but he also needed solitude and was known for being quiet and reserved. There are many who were hurt by that impulse and the film acknowledges that, though it doesn’t dwell much on the fallout.
Martin’s public persona was unique in its off-kilter carelessness. It looks a little sloppy, but he has control. This approach was endlessly adaptable; it worked in his legendary chaotic partnership with comedian Jerry Lewis, in his association with the Rat Pack, and on his long-running television program. It takes intelligence to appear that carefree. The film captures the way he developed that instinct and how it blossomed in various mediums.
There are haunting elements to the story. Dean’s first wife Betty McDonald was essential to his success, molding his manners and look in an indispensable way, but she suffered when his career took off. Her descent into alcoholism and depression is mentioned, but not explored, and then she disappears. Of course, the entertainment industry is full of disappearing, defeated wives.
Overall, Dean Martin: King of Cool works because it floats on the fascination Martin inspired in all he encountered. That allure is at the core of this mysterious, genuine, and timelessly entertaining artist.
Dean Martin: King of Cool will have its broadcast debut on TCM, November 19.
Many thanks to TCM for providing access to the film for review.