Lots of funny moments in this sometimes too-saccharine reworking of Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek...and Jerry invents punk rock. Olive Films has released Rock-A-Bye Baby, the 1958 comedy from Paramount that's almost a musical, directed by Frank Tashlin and starring Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Maxwell, Reginald Gardiner, Salvatore Baccalone, and Connie Stevens in her feature-film debut. More successful than not, Rock-A-Bye Baby doesn't hold a candle to its inspiration, but some very funny Jerry moments are on display here, and director Tashlin gets to work out a couple of inventive gags. No extras for this colorful transfer.
Hard-working schnook Clayton Poole (Jerry Lewis) still carries an unrequited torch for childhood sweetheart Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell), who left smalltown Midvale, Indiana for the bright lights of Hollywood (after winning the Miss Butterfat pageant of 1955). With Carla now a huge sex symbol star, her manager, Harold Hermann (Reginald Gardiner), has secured for her a prized package, indeed: a big-budget epic called The White Virgin of the Nile. There's only one problem: unmarried Carla is four months pregnant. Well, technically, she's unmarried now, but on the night of her forthcoming baby's conception, she was newly (and drunkenly) married that very day to a Mexican bullfighter who was killed in the ring the following afternoon. What can she do now to protect her reputation? Harold comes up with a plan: pass the baby off to Clayton and let him raise the child (since Carla's father is mad at her for leaving Midvale, and her kid sister is too young), which Clayton agrees to immediately when a tearful Carla comes to call. What Clayton didn't know when he agreed to this idea was that Carla had triplets―three girls, and they all look suspiciously like Carla's father, Pappa Naples (Salvatore Baccaloni), a fact that doesn't go by Carla's younger sister (and would-be girlfriend to Clayton), Sandy (Connie Stevens), either.
The first film director Frank Tashlin made with solo star Jerry Lewis after two superior Martin and Lewis efforts: Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust), and Tashlin's first film after his big, iconic hit, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Rock-A-Bye Baby doesn't come close to those three titles in terms of overall aesthetic and visual cohesion or structure (an assessment I'm sure the famously pragmatic Tashlin would blow a raspberry at). Nor does it make a dent in its host movie's reputation, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, either (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is always referenced as the inspiration of Rock-A-Bye Baby...but I never see Rock-A-Bye Baby mentioned as a remake when The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is discussed). It does, however, have many funny moments that work well on their own...it's just the movie as a whole that doesn't quite jell.
Focusing on some positives first, all of the Maxwell and Gardiner scenes dealing with Tashlin's spoofing of Hollywood and its obsession with epic filmmaking, is quite amusing. When screenwriter Tashlin has agent Gardiner bragging that of the six screenwriters working on Maxwell's latest epic, one has actually read the novel upon which the script is based...and that he's only changed the last 200 pages, you know Tashlin is speaking from experience there. Maxwell is Tashlin's only chance in this family-friendly movie to indulge his pronounced proclivity to show some skin (except for a brief shot of pert Connie Stevens' nice legs), so he makes the most of it, giving her a chance to flash her gorgeous pins before getting her up for the hilarious White Virgin of the Nile production number, complete with Betty Boop voice and anachronistic hubba-hubba dance moves. When Maxwell flashes her silly smile during the production number and goes all goofy with the purposefully outrageous choreography, it makes you wish Tashlin could have directed a full-length epic spoof (I also love pissed-off Gardiner whacking an patently phony advancing crocodile with a stick, snarling, "Don't bother me now!" as it immediately retreats back into the bulrushes).
And of course with Tashlin directing, there are going to be some inventive, funny set pieces, such as Jerry's intro scene where he's working on adjusting a TV antenna for wealthy Mrs. Van Cleeve (Lewis regular Isobel Elsom). As Elsom calls up the high, high chimney to Jerry, telling him, "It's still snowing all over Art Linklater!", Jerry loses his footing (when Sandy tells him Carla wrote to him), and he starts swinging wildly around, kicking off bricks, one of which bonks the town's milkman on the head. Tashlin then has Jerry battle a runaway phallic high-pressure hose (he "waters" a woman's potted flowers, smashing them to bits, and knocks down a sunbathing neighbor, to big, cruel laughs), before he sends him up top to cap off the joke: falling into the chimney, with Tashlin showing a huge cloud of soot blowing out from the lower floor (Tashlin's cartoon sense of the absurd goes the extra mile when he shows Mrs. Van Cleeve's white fish turned sooty black). Jerry gets a good workout during the "busted television" scene, where he acts out various TV personalities, including another Eddie Mayhoff impersonation ("Vote 'Yes' on Proposition 'No'!"), a riff on Kovacs' Percy Dovetonsils, and a cigarette spokesman ("Superb-O! All filter, no tobacco!"). Tashlin's delight in poking fun at the cinema-killing medium of television continues with my favorite character in Rock-A-Bye Baby, Miss Bessie Polk (the delightful Ida Moore), Clayton's completely insane landlady who religiously does everything her beloved TV commercials tell her to do...immediately. The sight of Moore spraying her white marcelled hair Day-GloŽ red, her intent little face inches away from her TV set, is the epitome of Tashlin's beautifully bizarre sensibilities, both visually and thematically, as we contemplate this poor woman voluntarily locked away in her house, happily "eating ravioli and chewing gum at the same time," as Howard recounts to Carla (when he called for directions to the house).
The comedy is never in doubt with Tashlin at the helm, especially when he's able to collaborate with Lewis to achieve gags that reveal the remarkable explosive energy Lewis was capable of―it's the music and the sentimentality that continually veers Rock-A-Bye Baby off course. Anytime the movie moves to that cramped little pond mock-up (where Clayton goes to remember his old times with Carla), the movie falls flat because invariably, Lewis is going to either start warbling or crying. It should have been a warning when Lewis as Lewis opens the picture, singing a song to us. This was during Lewis' so-called "singing career" (when Dean Martin reportedly threw a radio at the wall when he heard Lewis had a hit single), and to put it simply...he's not very good (don't email, either―I'm a huge fan of Jerry the comic, Jerry the actor, Jerry the philanthropist...just not Jerry the singer). But when he really turns on the sentimentality here, singing garbage like The Land of La-La-La (in a duet with his son, Gary, that reminded me of the severely misguided paternal instincts John Wayne displayed in The Alamo when he included a birthday party for his real-life daughter into the film) or Love is a Lonely Thing (hitting the right note is a lonely thing with Lewis, too...), it shuts down the picture pronto.
I don't want the syrupy, sappy, soft Jerry who's passive-aggressively begging us to love him for being a loser...and love him for being a man of character (Gardiner states Clayton has "character" about five times in the movie, in case we missed the point). I don't want a sticky-sweet Jerry mooning over babies as he sings the truly wretched Dormi, Dormi, Dormi (admittedly, great opera bass Baccalone saves it when he grabs a few bars). I want the convulsive, insane Jerry (or the insufferably smug, "evil Buddy Love" Jerry) who exists in a cartoonish world of no gravitational limits where real emotions―especially grotesquely overplayed ones―have no place. Tashlin and Lewis give us moments like that with Jerry and the babies that kill, like a baby belching up a big burp, or the rather aggressive sucking sounds of the babies feeding off a giant rubber glove udder, or Jerry lighting his finger on fire as the babies scream, or one of the film's best moments, when the babies (off-camera) rip a teddy bear to shreds as a horrified Jerry looks on (a crystalline visualization of the 1950s "sick joke" ethos if I ever saw one). That Jerry, put through Tashlin's perverted gag machine, slays. The other Jerry, the "sincerely" singing, weepy Jerry, embarrasses. If only Jerry had ditched that particular approach to the songs here, and instead embraced for them his treatment of I'm Gonna Rock You, Baby!, where Jerry, performing on a televised talent contest, parodies Elvis (can't play the gee-tar), screaming his incoherent lyrics, before he ditches the joke and does some hep-cat steps and bangs on the drums. Then songs like Dormi, Dormi, Dormi might have stood a chance. This scene may be the best distillation of mid-career Jerry Lewis' comedy you're likely to see, a brilliantly funny two or three minutes that leaves you on the floor. It alone is worth the price of admission, as they say, for Rock-A-Bye Baby...it's just a shame forced sappiness had to slow down all the other good bits here.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.