Sammy Davis Jr. & Peter Lawford, Baby. Man, These Rats Pack in the Laughs. Or try, Anyhow!
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 19, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Salt and Pepper
DIRECTED BY RICHARD DONNER/1968
One More Time
DIRECTED BY JERRY LEWIS/1970
Looking for a recipe that’s still kind of good even when it’s warmed over? Just throw together a generous dose of Austin Powers onto a fresh base of Lethal Weapon. Toss in some aging salt and pepper to flavor, and voila! You’ve got… Salt and Pepper?
Yes ladies and gentlemen, that’s all you need to (commence official tagline…) join the Salt & Pepper Club. No cover. No minimum. Initiation Fee: One plainly wrapped time bomb…One set of plans for overthrowing a small-but-nice country…An eye for topless croupiers and bottomless adventure!
Only in swingin’ London of 1968 could a movie brandishing that earned description arrive stateside with a G rating. For its worth, the stars aligned for this one. Well, at least two stars. Big ones, in their own right. Sammy Davis Jr., well into his hippie love beads phase, slicks back his hair to play entertainer Charles Salt. Fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford, too invested in his own Lawfordness to ever bat an eye at anything, plays businessman Chris Pepper. (Ya see that, cats? He’s Salt, and he’s Pepper! Didja think it’d be the other way around? Gotcha!!)
Together they own and run the happenin’ Salt and Pepper Club, a swanky go-to for hepcats and high-rollers alike. But when corpses start to appear (and disappear!) around the place, S & P get caught up in having to foil a villainous plot of far-reaching invasion and conquest. Per the Blu-ray packaging, that generous aforementioned G rating would at some later point be amended to a PG-13. Sure, we only ever see the bare backs of the comely female croupiers, and eventually our protagies get caught up a caper that requires some badguy killin’. It just goes to show how permissive things were in those days. These showbiz deities could not only write their own tickets, they were forever a-ticket personas.
Or were they? (No, they weren’t). In the late 1960s Sammy and Pete weren’t getting any younger. Times were changing fast around the Rat Pack, with their-once easy relevance slipping through their collective fingers. Could a young upstart director by the name of Richard Donner (Superman; the Lethal Weapon series) and a kooky and surprisingly violent 007 espionage plot be the youthful sparks of the fire they’re clearly hoping that this dopey movie endeavor will ignite?
Well, no. Salt and Pepper can at times be a whole lotta goofy fun, like when Sammy drives a boxy tricked-out bright yellow amphibious contraption as though he’s James Bond at the wheel of Goldfinger’s Aston Martin. Also, things are pretty groovy when Sammy throws on an electric guitar for a club performance of “I Like the Way You Dance”. And on the whole, the dynamic of Sammy’s shameless spaziness alongside his buddy Lawford’s sport coat & ascot ever-collectedness is a winner. But if it sounds like Sammy might be carrying the load here, you might just be on to something.
It worked well enough to sprinkle out a sequel. 1970’s wrong-headed One More Time brings the characters back together… before foolishly tearing them apart. Not physically, mind you; but emotionally, certainly. You see, when the Salt and Pepper Club is shut down and the carefree owners are slapped with fines they can’t pay, Pepper’s wealthy aristocratic twin brother, Lord Sydney Pepper (also played by Lawford, in a fake mustache and varied toupee) turns up to bail them out. But Sydney’s such an arrogant snob about it, Chris has zero qualms about taking on his identity when he is mysteriously murdered. Suddenly, Chris finds himself living the royal life- castle, manservants, the works.
This should be where One More Time really hits its stride. Instead, the film snuffs out any residual flame it might’ve had by having Chris opt to let Charlie believe he’s dead. Instead, he hires him as a staff member, just to have him around. That’s right- for most of the movie, Salt is mourning Pepper as Pepper knowingly looks on. It’s not played for laughs, or a practical joke, or for necessity, or for anything. Pepper, upon finding his brother’s body, shrugs and decides it’s his turn to be The Man. It’s the old switch-a-roo- and no one can know.
One would think that director Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis– briefly cameoing in voice only) would’ve seen the problems here, but if he did, he did nothing to amend them. The one main character deceiving the other for no reason simply plays as prolonged cruelty, no matter how many corny little afterthought gags Lewis tosses in. (Prolonged sequences like: Every time Sammy pours that quaint English teapot, the darn lid keeps falling off into his drink. Finally he gives up, and drinks straight from the spout! Hah!)
Despite Sammy and Peter’s out-of-character banter at the end about who is and who isn’t going to return for a third installment (the best part of the film), One More Time proved to live up to its title. That turgidly unfunny movie was it, baby. Zip! No more Salt and/or Pepper. Times were a’changing, and no amount of hip guitar and gunplay condimenting was probably going to spice up the careers of Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. For that, Sammy would take on The Candy Man. His hit novelty cover of the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory tune would somehow sit atop to Billboard Top 40 chart for three weeks in 1972. As for Lawford, his fate would be far less sweet, burning through multiple marriages and increased substance abuse.
Collectively, one of the best things about the Salt and Pepper films are their original poster art by Mad magazine legend Jack Davis. KL Studio Classics wisely utilized Davis’ artwork for the cover (and slipcover) of its new double feature disc release. The Blu-ray’s presentation of One More Time is derived from a brand new 2K master, though Salt and Pepper conspicuously lacks any such boast. In any case, both look reasonably decent, not unlike older DVD transfers given a quick HD upgrade. Salt and Pepper in particular is the more vibrant, what with Sammy’s Age of Aquarius wardrobe and the film’s Casino Royale ‘67 color scheme.
There’s only one notable bonus feature besides the usual KL trailer deluge, a short Trailers from Hell segment on Salt and Pepper with Man on the Moon screenwriter Larry Karaszewski. Karaszewski is something of an odd choice to break down the film, since he clearly doesn’t think much of it. Contrary to his nitpicks, I found Salt and Pepper to be a fun romp, if far from perfect. He’s correct though when he points out that Austin Powers might owe a lot more to it than even the James Bond series- an observation I’d already secured on my own prior to his featurette.
As for Richard Donner, it’s easy to peg Salt and Pepper as a proto-Lethal Weapon (as I’ve already done). It’s certainly got the tight-knit interracial buddy dynamic mixed with violent action and wit. The comparison, however, entirely stands. In terms of action film history and unpacking whatever racial aspects there are (or are not there- although the title all but invites black guy/white guy gags, the film thankfully sidesteps much of that), the first film must be sampled. But is this dish worthy of a second helping? Not even one more time. As they say in the movies (these movies!), it’s over!