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Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “Salt” meets Peter Lawford’s “Pepper”

Salt and Pepper and One More Time

Salt and Pepper and One More Time: Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford add flavor, artist Jack Davis kicks up a notch.
Salt and Pepper and One More Time: Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford add flavor, artist Jack Davis kicks up a notch.

Democrats in Washington could stand to take a lesson from Hollywood’s demise in the late ‘60s. Voters’ cries for something new, something different, something progressive in a president were answered with a pair of starchy career politicians. Similarly, with the studio system in a shambles, tinsel town execs reasoned the best way to keep hippies from dangling off Paramount’s Bronson Gate or scaling the Warner Bros. water tower was to offer up a pair of middle-aged entertainers.

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

At first glance, a film starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford, their careers in mid-flux, may have looked to have the makings of an ultra-mod, au courant comedy that borrowed heavily from the What’s New Pussycat? school of sex comedies and TV’s Laugh-In. Unlike Trump, Richard Donner’s Salt and Pepper garnered enough public favor to warrant a sequel, One More Time, directed by none other than Jerry Lewis! (This was the one time in his career that Lewis signed a picture in which he did not appear.) It was only his second feature, but I’d argue the Donner cut — a comedy thriller about a pair of newly-teamed cops, one black, one white, who go undercover to thwart a murderous plot to overthrow the government — spawned four additional sequels that all had the words “lethal” and “weapon” in their titles.

How’s this for a springboard to laughter? The black guy is named Charlie Salt (Sammy!) and the white dude goes by the name Chris Pepper (Lawford). Inspector Crabbe (Michael Bates) is the first to make the predictable mixup while questioning the pair over a recent string of murders, one of which occured at their bar: The Salt & Pepper club, a terminally swinging watering hole along the lines of Hefner’s Playboy Club that Crabbe calls a “haven for half nude harpies.” Pepper is a descendant of royalty, known by all as the black sheep of the family, with Salt his faithful companion and Man Friday. The Inspector sizes up Salt’s “worn down hair” (Sammy appears to use an upright floor waxer as a comb) and “funny dress” (he models a line of custom tailored, multicolored Nehru vines). He also reveals a racist streak when questioning aloud why Salt isn’t at home in the United States starting a riot.

Why would these two easily recognizable raconteurs agree to go undercover to save the nation? Because Dean Martin’s series of Matt Helm spy spoofs performed well, as did Frank Sinatra’s so-called Tony Rome trilogy. Why not a detective franchise offshoot for Rat Packers Sammy and Lawford? Frank had no gripes against Sammy, but Lawford presented a different problem. The Kennedy kerfuffle that arose between Sinatra and Lawford found the latter externally excommunicated from the Rat Pack. With a co-production deal and vacations to England to consider, the ink was barely dry on the contract when the film went into production.

The plot is outlandish, but rather than using it as an excuse for schtick as Jerry does in the follow up, Donner does his best to follow Michael Pertwee’s logic-challenged screenplay. Mai Ling (Jeanne Roland), an Asian agent working undercover for the British government, is killed for knowing too much. Assumed to be a prostitute, Ling leaves behind what is thought to be her little black book. But instead of being a client list, it’s a death list, containing the names of government officials to be killed, and in numerical order. Salt and Pepper take it upon themselves to track down the killer. Ling dies, but not before taking out one of her assailants and hanging the body in Salt’s closet. Donner had yet to discover the art of milking a gag, as evidenced by Salt’s delayed reaction to the corpse. The body is on a hanger when he opens the door. A jump cut to Salt onstage followed by a hurried zip-zoom flattens what gag potential there might have been by reducing it to a knee-jerk reaction shot of a screaming Salt, instead of a well-timed payoff. Compare this to the leisurely-paced “too soft mattress” scene in One More Time, and you’ll see what I mean.

Both Lawford and Davis became fixtures on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. From “sock it to me,” to blackout gags, to Sammy’s riff on Shorty Long’s riff on Pigmeat Markham’s immortal “Here comes the judge!” the impact the landmark comedy series had on the duo’s performances is incalculable. (Future denizen of the Laugh-In “joke wall” Jeremy Lloyd has a bit part as Lord Ponsonby.) The same can be said for the detrimental impact television was having on movies in this time of transition.

Other than the casting and the whiplash including zooms, the film is best remembered for the trademarked frantic poster art drawn, by MAD Magazine regular Jack Davis, and the duo’s custom made wheels, an Amphicar cross between an Aston Martin and the Beatles Yellow Submarine. The “now you see it, now you don’t” string of murders as plot inducer soon wears thin. And much of the humor stems from stereotyping: Salt is continually mistaken for African or Nigerian. A prefect at Pepper’s alma mater launches a slew of snickers when he calls his underling “fags.” Also: Blacks can’t swim, and as Salt points out when mistaking one dead Asian for another, “They all look alike.” So much for peace, love, and brotherhood (clench fist), man!

Very little has been written about Jerry’s participation in One More Time. When I asked him about the picture, he said, “It was made to my financial satisfaction.” Two years earlier, Jerry had pulled a Woody Allen by acting in his first film in London, Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, directed by Jerry Paris. He returned to the States as an actor for hire in George Marshall’s hopelessly routine Hook, Line and Sinker that co-starred Lawford. The two were soon friends, and Sammy made three. Davis stood in awe of Lewis. His early nightclub routine consisted of a string of celebrity impressions that climaxed with a dead-on simulation of Lewis’ fumfering gibberish. Lewis didn’t have to inform Davis’ performance with instructions to “Watch me and do exactly as I do.” There was so much of Jerry in Sammy, he didn’t have to.

With films like The Nutty Professor and the 7-times nuttier performance in The Family Jewels, Lewis had become a master of dissociative identity disorder decades before the term first became a mainstay in psychiatric manuals. Here, Lawford is called upon to play a dual role: Chris, the swinging Salt, and his snooty, disapproving brother, Sylvester. How do we tell the difference? Jerry loaned Lawford a gallon of slickem to lube his locks. But the greasy kid look is soon dropped when Sylvester is murdered and Chris is forced to take his place. Seeing as how Sylvester was felled by an African blow dart, Salt is initially a person of interest. In order to protect Salt’s feelings in case things go wrong, Pepper continues to play Sylvester. No one turned on the mawkish maudlinism with such a heavy hand as Jerry’s. News of his partner’s death causes Salt to go full Cinderfella. “He liked me,” Salt mutters in misty-eyed remembrance. It all gets a bit more forced than usual, but isn’t that what Lewis does best?

No. What Lewis does best is make people laugh, and those in search of his impeccably timed gag choreography won’t leave dissatisfied. When Pepper is out of the picture, Sammy is given double-duty as his mentor’s alter ego. Sammy stands in traffic, directing two cars that lurch dangerously close. (He doesn’t appear to be doubled in the long shot.) The lid of a little teapot landing in the cup before its contents is sheer poetry. A slow pan-up to reveal bedroom doors four times the height of Davis redefines marvelous. (With a production design built with laughter in mind, lhe garish, psychedelic design of Sidney’s bedroom bears more than a passing resemblance to Everett Sloane's mid-century pad in The Patsy.) It peaks with a snuff-fueled Salt sneezing out birthday candles from across the room, followed by an ancient waiter who moves so slowly that diners are literally in need of a shave after dinner. On the down side, there are more zooms in this film than in all the other Lewis features combined. And the least riveting moment arrives in the form of Sammy’s pathos-laden solo number on the staircase, in which he asks the musical question, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (On a sandwich run, if you’re smart.)

With his glory days at Paramount moving further in the rearview and a percodan addiction beginning to wreak havoc on his creative process, Lewis’ days behind the camera were numbered. It had been decades since my one and only viewing, and with anything but fond memories, my purchase of the Kino Lorber blu-ray hinged on my natural inclination to be a Lewis completist. For years I grumbled that this was Lewis’ directorial nadir. I was wrong. Seeing it again proves there is no such thing. And a pox on all who send negative vibes my way concerning Hardly Working!

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Salt and Pepper and One More Time: Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford add flavor, artist Jack Davis kicks up a notch.
Salt and Pepper and One More Time: Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford add flavor, artist Jack Davis kicks up a notch.

Democrats in Washington could stand to take a lesson from Hollywood’s demise in the late ‘60s. Voters’ cries for something new, something different, something progressive in a president were answered with a pair of starchy career politicians. Similarly, with the studio system in a shambles, tinsel town execs reasoned the best way to keep hippies from dangling off Paramount’s Bronson Gate or scaling the Warner Bros. water tower was to offer up a pair of middle-aged entertainers.

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

At first glance, a film starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford, their careers in mid-flux, may have looked to have the makings of an ultra-mod, au courant comedy that borrowed heavily from the What’s New Pussycat? school of sex comedies and TV’s Laugh-In. Unlike Trump, Richard Donner’s Salt and Pepper garnered enough public favor to warrant a sequel, One More Time, directed by none other than Jerry Lewis! (This was the one time in his career that Lewis signed a picture in which he did not appear.) It was only his second feature, but I’d argue the Donner cut — a comedy thriller about a pair of newly-teamed cops, one black, one white, who go undercover to thwart a murderous plot to overthrow the government — spawned four additional sequels that all had the words “lethal” and “weapon” in their titles.

How’s this for a springboard to laughter? The black guy is named Charlie Salt (Sammy!) and the white dude goes by the name Chris Pepper (Lawford). Inspector Crabbe (Michael Bates) is the first to make the predictable mixup while questioning the pair over a recent string of murders, one of which occured at their bar: The Salt & Pepper club, a terminally swinging watering hole along the lines of Hefner’s Playboy Club that Crabbe calls a “haven for half nude harpies.” Pepper is a descendant of royalty, known by all as the black sheep of the family, with Salt his faithful companion and Man Friday. The Inspector sizes up Salt’s “worn down hair” (Sammy appears to use an upright floor waxer as a comb) and “funny dress” (he models a line of custom tailored, multicolored Nehru vines). He also reveals a racist streak when questioning aloud why Salt isn’t at home in the United States starting a riot.

Why would these two easily recognizable raconteurs agree to go undercover to save the nation? Because Dean Martin’s series of Matt Helm spy spoofs performed well, as did Frank Sinatra’s so-called Tony Rome trilogy. Why not a detective franchise offshoot for Rat Packers Sammy and Lawford? Frank had no gripes against Sammy, but Lawford presented a different problem. The Kennedy kerfuffle that arose between Sinatra and Lawford found the latter externally excommunicated from the Rat Pack. With a co-production deal and vacations to England to consider, the ink was barely dry on the contract when the film went into production.

The plot is outlandish, but rather than using it as an excuse for schtick as Jerry does in the follow up, Donner does his best to follow Michael Pertwee’s logic-challenged screenplay. Mai Ling (Jeanne Roland), an Asian agent working undercover for the British government, is killed for knowing too much. Assumed to be a prostitute, Ling leaves behind what is thought to be her little black book. But instead of being a client list, it’s a death list, containing the names of government officials to be killed, and in numerical order. Salt and Pepper take it upon themselves to track down the killer. Ling dies, but not before taking out one of her assailants and hanging the body in Salt’s closet. Donner had yet to discover the art of milking a gag, as evidenced by Salt’s delayed reaction to the corpse. The body is on a hanger when he opens the door. A jump cut to Salt onstage followed by a hurried zip-zoom flattens what gag potential there might have been by reducing it to a knee-jerk reaction shot of a screaming Salt, instead of a well-timed payoff. Compare this to the leisurely-paced “too soft mattress” scene in One More Time, and you’ll see what I mean.

Both Lawford and Davis became fixtures on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. From “sock it to me,” to blackout gags, to Sammy’s riff on Shorty Long’s riff on Pigmeat Markham’s immortal “Here comes the judge!” the impact the landmark comedy series had on the duo’s performances is incalculable. (Future denizen of the Laugh-In “joke wall” Jeremy Lloyd has a bit part as Lord Ponsonby.) The same can be said for the detrimental impact television was having on movies in this time of transition.

Other than the casting and the whiplash including zooms, the film is best remembered for the trademarked frantic poster art drawn, by MAD Magazine regular Jack Davis, and the duo’s custom made wheels, an Amphicar cross between an Aston Martin and the Beatles Yellow Submarine. The “now you see it, now you don’t” string of murders as plot inducer soon wears thin. And much of the humor stems from stereotyping: Salt is continually mistaken for African or Nigerian. A prefect at Pepper’s alma mater launches a slew of snickers when he calls his underling “fags.” Also: Blacks can’t swim, and as Salt points out when mistaking one dead Asian for another, “They all look alike.” So much for peace, love, and brotherhood (clench fist), man!

Very little has been written about Jerry’s participation in One More Time. When I asked him about the picture, he said, “It was made to my financial satisfaction.” Two years earlier, Jerry had pulled a Woody Allen by acting in his first film in London, Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, directed by Jerry Paris. He returned to the States as an actor for hire in George Marshall’s hopelessly routine Hook, Line and Sinker that co-starred Lawford. The two were soon friends, and Sammy made three. Davis stood in awe of Lewis. His early nightclub routine consisted of a string of celebrity impressions that climaxed with a dead-on simulation of Lewis’ fumfering gibberish. Lewis didn’t have to inform Davis’ performance with instructions to “Watch me and do exactly as I do.” There was so much of Jerry in Sammy, he didn’t have to.

With films like The Nutty Professor and the 7-times nuttier performance in The Family Jewels, Lewis had become a master of dissociative identity disorder decades before the term first became a mainstay in psychiatric manuals. Here, Lawford is called upon to play a dual role: Chris, the swinging Salt, and his snooty, disapproving brother, Sylvester. How do we tell the difference? Jerry loaned Lawford a gallon of slickem to lube his locks. But the greasy kid look is soon dropped when Sylvester is murdered and Chris is forced to take his place. Seeing as how Sylvester was felled by an African blow dart, Salt is initially a person of interest. In order to protect Salt’s feelings in case things go wrong, Pepper continues to play Sylvester. No one turned on the mawkish maudlinism with such a heavy hand as Jerry’s. News of his partner’s death causes Salt to go full Cinderfella. “He liked me,” Salt mutters in misty-eyed remembrance. It all gets a bit more forced than usual, but isn’t that what Lewis does best?

No. What Lewis does best is make people laugh, and those in search of his impeccably timed gag choreography won’t leave dissatisfied. When Pepper is out of the picture, Sammy is given double-duty as his mentor’s alter ego. Sammy stands in traffic, directing two cars that lurch dangerously close. (He doesn’t appear to be doubled in the long shot.) The lid of a little teapot landing in the cup before its contents is sheer poetry. A slow pan-up to reveal bedroom doors four times the height of Davis redefines marvelous. (With a production design built with laughter in mind, lhe garish, psychedelic design of Sidney’s bedroom bears more than a passing resemblance to Everett Sloane's mid-century pad in The Patsy.) It peaks with a snuff-fueled Salt sneezing out birthday candles from across the room, followed by an ancient waiter who moves so slowly that diners are literally in need of a shave after dinner. On the down side, there are more zooms in this film than in all the other Lewis features combined. And the least riveting moment arrives in the form of Sammy’s pathos-laden solo number on the staircase, in which he asks the musical question, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (On a sandwich run, if you’re smart.)

With his glory days at Paramount moving further in the rearview and a percodan addiction beginning to wreak havoc on his creative process, Lewis’ days behind the camera were numbered. It had been decades since my one and only viewing, and with anything but fond memories, my purchase of the Kino Lorber blu-ray hinged on my natural inclination to be a Lewis completist. For years I grumbled that this was Lewis’ directorial nadir. I was wrong. Seeing it again proves there is no such thing. And a pox on all who send negative vibes my way concerning Hardly Working!

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