Jerry Lewis’ early success came at a cost
By Don Stradley
It looked cheap. The jokes were corny. Most reviewers hated it.
Yet, At War With The Army (1950) provided stars Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis with a massive box office hit. It was one of the highest grossing titles of the year and showed the duo was a legitimate motion picture phenomenon. Having already invaded the nightclub circuit, radio, and television, they were now a quadruple threat.
It easily earned more than some Hollywood classics made the same year, including The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, Harvey, and Sunset Boulevard. Adjusted for inflation, the low budget military farce made near $180 million in today’s money. Premiering on December 31st of 1950, it did its damage in the early months of 1951. Combined with their two other smashes of that particular year, That’s My Boy and The Stooge, and again adjusted for today, we can say that Martin and Lewis drew nearly $600 million in a 12-month span. As Lewis wrote in his 1982 memoir, Jerry Lewis: In Person, “Martin and Lewis was a money machine that seemed never to break down.”
Despite its staggering achievement, At War With The Army nearly stopped the comedy juggernaut just as it was beginning to roll.
At War With The Army began life as a somewhat successful stage play by James Allerdice. Martin and Lewis bought the play as a film property in December of 1949. Their plan was to star in it and produce it independently. The pair had only recently made their movie debut in My Friend Irma (1949), a hit for Paramount Pictures and producer Hal Wallis, but 23 year - old Lewis already yearned to be his own boss and less bound to Paramount. Abner Greshler, who had managed Martin and Lewis since their earliest days, raised a small budget with help from Ray Ryan, a Texas oilman with supposed mob connections. Greshler, Martin, and Lewis formed York Pictures Corporation to produce their own movies, while Ryan established Screen Associates Inc. to bankroll – and profit from – these future projects. While Paramount would distribute At War With The Army, the production was in the hands of starry-eyed beginners. Dean and Jerry worked for a token salary, but were guaranteed a back-end cut rumored to be 97 percent of the movie’s gross. This was all viewed at the time as a risk, and a sign that the Hollywood studio system was beginning to buckle.
Unexpectedly, Martin and Lewis complicated things by firing Greshler. Lewis believed their manager was crooked and felt a drastic move was needed. The twosome opted to sign with MCA, one of the most powerful management groups in the business. Breaking with Greshler, though, resulted in a prolonged legal process that left the two stars distracted throughout the making of At War With The Army. The gossip in Hollywood was that Martin and Lewis were overwhelmed. Their new venture appeared doomed to fail.
A major problem was that the movie’s production values were far below the usual Paramount fare. Most of the filming took place on a small, rented Hollywood lot rather than the sprawling Paramount facility. Compared to Lewis and Martin’s gorgeous color films of just a few years later, At War With The Army looked like the work of amateurs. Lewis was so embarrassed by the finished product that he refused to preview the movie for anyone. When Hal Wallis demanded a screening, Lewis stalled until he and Martin had already started work for Wallis on That’s My Boy. Lewis figured they’d be safe that way even if Wallis hated their independent project.
Another issue was America’s recent involvement in the Korean War. Some felt the timing was wrong for a military comedy. Paramount’s hope was that the inclusion of Martin and Lewis would assure audiences that the movie was all in fun and certainly not a political statement. Whether the public still accepted the pair as wholesome entertainers was another question. The embittered Greshler was telling the press that Martin and Lewis were degenerate gamblers in deep debt. This was his first strike in what would be a relentless smear campaign.
Also in the way of Martin and Lewis was, well, Martin and Lewis. My Friend Irma had inspired a sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West, which was doing strong business. Paramount wanted the second Irma movie to finish its run before releasing At War With The Army. This meant the first official Martin-Lewis film stayed “in the can” for months. Unfortunately, the incubation period didn’t improve the movie’s cut-rate appearance. It looked, as one reviewer noted, like it was “put together with string and cardboard.”
The customers, of course, were unconcerned with esthetics. They were simply starved for anything involving Martin and Lewis. At War With The Army blew through American theaters like a hurricane, immediately setting non-holiday box office records and demolishing the competition.
Columnists struggled to explain the popularity of Martin and Lewis, offering bland theories about the public’s need for light entertainment. When proven comedians such as Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope failed to match them as far as ticket sales, it was clear that a new force in comedy had arrived. If My Friend Irma hinted at the potential of this energetic young team, At War With The Army was the colossus on its feet and in full strut.
The movie’s skyrocketing success made Martin and Lewis the new kings of Paramount. Sadly, the triumphant moment was marred by one of the nastiest Hollywood legal battles of the time. Screen Associates Inc. had funded At War With The Army on the belief that it would produce future Martin and Lewis comedies. Now the group uncorked a storm of lawsuits against Martin, Lewis, York, Paramount, and Wallis. The complaint was that the agreement drawn for At War With The Army was being ignored. Lewis and Martin were still muscling it out with Greshler, and now they were in the sights of an angry Texas millionaire.
Suits and counter suits flew back and forth like daggers. Martin and Lewis sued Greshler for fraud; he sued them for breach of contract. As the court dates mounted, Lewis griped to columnist Louella Parsons, “The only way we can get any money is to sue ourselves.”
Ultimately, the duo’s new agent at MCA, Herman Citron, encouraged them to simply waive their majority interests in At War With The Army and move on. Martin and Lewis did just that, chalking up their first independent film as an astronomically pricey lesson in business. Weary of the fight, they settled with Screen Associates for nearly $1 million, and slipped back under the safe and comfortable Paramount banner.
The big winner was Greshler. He’d hammered at his former clients until he was granted an alleged $2 million cash payout and, among other perks, 10 percent of all Martin-Lewis earnings for the next three years. He’d never again have such a high-powered act, but was rich enough to not care.
There’s no telling how much money Lewis and Martin actually handed over from At War With The Army. Shawn Levy’s 1996 biography of Lewis claimed the duo “would never see a dime” from their hit movie, while Lewis described the loss in his autobiography as “a sizable chunk of dough.” The exact amount was never made public.
To face such a financial and legal debacle so early in his career may have contributed to the evolution of Lewis. In the coming years he would morph into a paranoid control freak, a suspicious and angry man who was often difficult to be around. In time, though, he looked back on the fallout from At War With The Army as necessary, if only to get rid of Greshler. When enough years had passed, Lewis deflected questions about his former manager; to Lewis, this was old news not worth rehashing. In 1951, however, when the wounds were still raw, Lewis had toilet rolls printed up with an image of Greshler’s face on each sheet. He handed the rolls out as gifts, creating his own sort of smear campaign.