Mid-to-upper level collaboration for Lewis and his mentor, Tish-Tash, with lots of funny gags and bits. Olive Films continues its Paramount library releases with It'$ Only Money, Jerry's only release for 1962 (was he busy prepping his much-ballyhooed TV spectacular for Fall, 1963?), co-starring Joan O'Brien, Jesse White, Zachary Scott, Jack Weston, and the marvelous Mae Questel. Written by John Fenton Murray and helmed by Jerry's best director, Frank Tashlin (besides himself, we may argue?), It'$ Only Money feels a little too close to Bob Hope's My Favorite Brunette at times, and its much admired finale doesn't seem quite so frantic anymore...but Jerry is in top form here, and almost all of the bits work. And that's all you need in a Jerry Lewis comedy. No extras for this snappy transfer.
26-year-old TV repairman Lester March (Jerry Lewis) idolizes his customer Pete Flint (Jesse White) a private eye who talks tough and dresses like Bogie. Checking out his set at Lester's shop, he sees the evening news and discovers his latest case: he has to find the long-lost son of Charles B. Albright within one week, for a reward of $100,000. You see, Albright, an electronics genius who helped to invent among other things television, put his young baby up for adoption. 25 years later, the terms of his will demanded that either the son be found, or all the money would revert to his spinster sister, Cecilia (Mae Questel). Cecilia would dearly love to find her nephew, but her slimy fiance and lawyer, Gregory DeWitt (Zachary Scott), want the orphaned boy/man to stay lost, and he's willing to use giggling psychopath butler Leopold (Jack Weston)―who snuffed out the old man―to zap Lester when he figures out that the eager, accident-prone Lester really is Charles' son. Will Lester, with the help of Cecilia's sexy nurse, Wanda (Joan O'Brien), escape his assassins and become a millionaire?
I've always had this sort of blank spot for It'$ Only Money, never being quite sure which Jerry opus it is when I first hear or see the title...even though I've watched it numerous times since I was a kid (along with all his other movies). Watching it for the first time in its proper widescreen ratio with this good-looking disc, and anxious to see what visual goodies (and hopefully rampant sexual fetishes) frequent collaborator Frank Tashlin had in store for me, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad disappointed with the overall feel of the movie when it wrapped up, even though most of the individual scenes worked out just fine. It's consistently amusing (and many times hilarious); I just wished it was a little tighter overall.
Shot atypically for Tashlin at this point in his career in black and white (no doubt to heighten the private dick homages), It'$ Only Money opens literally with a bang when Jerry blows up his store, with Jerry then trying out some bits he'll expand upon for his own The Nutty Professor the following year (you can just hear Julius Kelp's voice as he explains what's wrong with White's TV, after he does the bit where's he's helped down off the light fixture). What follows in this first act seems to be a too-close approximation of Bob Hope's very funny outing, My Favorite Brunette (click here for my review of that entertaining Hope vehicle), with the old saw "lost heir must be found within a certain time-frame while greedy would-be heirs try to thwart him" thrown in for the middle and last acts. Luckily, Tashlin and screenwriter John Fenton Murray (lots of TV as well as Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport?, Pufnstuf, and the hopefully-released-soon-on-DVD Arnold...which I saw at a Jerry Lewis Cinemas!) come up with one inventive gag after another here, big and small. Outside of Lester's shop, posters for Jerry Lewis films are plastered. In a beautifully-built sequence, Jerry delivers White's TV to his office, beginning with Jerry pushing his van sideways into a cramped parking space. Almost dropping the TV on White's head, thanks to an insistent pigeon, Jerry almost falls out of the high-rise window when the pigeon delivers some kind of message to his rear end (Lewis' soft ad-lib, "Bye, bird..." as it flies away is a classic). And to top off the scene, Tashlin introduces some dangerous femme fatales, including Francine York who, thinking Jerry is White's detective, smothers him in kisses ("I'm so helpless!") before she slaps him ("Sex maniac!") as the water bottle Jerry holds boils and steams from the sexual heat.
By the end of this expertly-crafted sequence (punctuated in classic Tashlin style by busty, leggy Pat Dahl applying lipstick to those gorgeous pouty lips while Jerry ineffectually tries to kiss her), I thought It'$ Only Money was going to land in the upper echelons of Tashlin hierarchy, up with visually rich, gag-filled efforts like Hollywood or Bust or The Geisha Boy (read my reviews here and here for those amazing movies). Unfortunately, though...It'$ Only Money goes a tad soggy in the middle, with the viewer getting the feeling that important bits were chopped out of the story (It'$ Only Money was shot a full year before it was released in 1962―unusual for a Lewis effort at that time. Is that an indication that the film was tinkered with more than usual in post?). Importantly, once White and Scott discover that Lewis is the heir to the electronics fortune, Tashlin sets us up to expect an extended montage of assassination attempts by giggling psycho Weston, who has a funny scene where he can't control himself, delighting in a litany of killing methods he enjoys.
And sure enough, what follows is a typically outsized, cartoonish Tashlin sequence where Jerry tries to avoid getting run over by Weston as he repeatedly dives down a manhole, a la Bugs Bunny (Jerry's final scream, mixed with a woman's scream, may be the movie's funniest moment). But just when we expect more attempts like this...Tashlin backs off with exposition scenes of O'Brien overhearing Scott lying to Questel, and Questel singing to Scott. This stuff is funny, but it brings the movie's build to a standstill. And the next thing we know, O'Brien is stopping by Jerry's shop and he's telling her to get lost because he's a jinx and she could killed standing next to him (Weston is trying to shoot him at this moment, but Jerry doesn't know it). It's all too quick for him to say that to her; were other attempts filmed and then cut out of the movie, like the safe falling on his head that he references to O'Brien? Doesn't it seem like a natural for Tashlin to film a couple of these attempts, in his typically outlandish cartoon style, instead of just the one (the shooting bit has a funny visual of a gun sight trying to stay on a moving Jerry, but that's all)?
Not helping matters are other bits in this soft middle section that don't really come off, like the stereo LP of the train sounds (with Doodles Weaver popping up for an unconvincing gag within the gag), or Jerry helping O'Brien to undress (sex-crazed Tashlin could only come up with that boring lingerie for stacked O'Brien?), the flat electrified fence bit, or the uncharacteristically poorly staged pier sequence, inelegantly designed by the usually meticulous Tashlin (he even "cheats" Jerry falling into the improbably placed giant fish's head). And what happened to White in this section? He just disappears, taking with him the kernel of Jerry's motivation: to be like his idol, gumshoe Pete Flint. Tashlin still comes up with gems during this second and third act; Jerry declaring his emphatic love for the incomparable Barbara Pepper is remarkable ("Let me let her know I love her!" Jerry screams), while I loved the reference to Bugs Bunny's Baby Buggy Bunny's Baby Finster when Scott holds Weston up and shakes all his weapons out. But I seem to remember that final assault by the robot lawn mowers as coming off a lot funnier than it played now (my kids didn't mind), with the cramped studio sets and the horrible lighting working against the gags' physicality.
Some of this tentativeness is more than balanced out, though, by Lewis' performance here. Full of piss and vinegar, totally confident in his art (and I do consider what Lewis does as "art"...whatever that term means), Lewis is loose and screwy in every scene, with terrific nonsensical, non-sequitur patter and ad-libs that equal his best moments on screen. Whether primping himself in front of a security camera, or suddenly getting scared and saying, "What is that frighten?" when he hears his aunt screaming over the speaker, or giving a lecture on Albright's accomplishments with television ("He made the knob, so that you don't look, and you lay back and see."), or slathering his face―and eye―with shaving cream ("There...is a...eye...burning" had me on the floor), Lewis is in total control of his body and verbal timing here, and he's remarkable to watch (lucky, too, that Tashlin and Lewis avoid all schmaltz and sentimentality with Lester's orphan background; there's none of that cringe-worthy Rock-a-Bye Baby nonsense here). Regardless of the degree of how successful It'$ Only Money is in total―and it is successful overall―Lewis' comedic performance is vintage "Jerry Lewis." And to Lewis fans, that's more than enough to make It'$ Only Money must viewing.
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.