Silly, gag-filled Lewis/Tashlin effort. Olive Films, having a lot of fun releasing all those great Paramount library titles, has another beloved Jerry Lewis title out, Who's Minding the Store?, the 1963 release co-starring Jill St. John, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Walston, John McGiver, Francesca Bellini, and a host of familiar, funny supporting players. A particular favorite with kids because of director Frank Tashlin's big, noisy, cartoony set pieces and gags, Who's Minding the Store? may not be fertile ground exactly for Tashlin lovers looking for his signature mise-en-scene―something he'd laugh at and dismiss, anyway―but who cares? It consistently delivers big belly laughs, and that's enough for Lewis' legion of fans (myself included). No extras for this so-so transfer.
Professional dog walker Norman Phiffier (Jerry Lewis) is in love with Barbara Tuttle (Jill St. John), an elevator operator at the massive Tuttle Department Store. What earnest, dopey Norman doesn't know is that Barbara has a secret: she's the heir to the Tuttle Department Store dynasty (26 operations all over the country). She doesn't want to tell traditional-minded Norman this because she knows he's proud (he wants to wait on their marriage until he's saved up the $800 dollars needed for the down payment on their Queens tract house), and because she's the first person Norman has ever felt he completely trusted. Barbara's controlling mother, Phoebe Tuttle (Agnes Moorehead), however, sees nothing good coming from her estranged daughter's marriage to a poor dolt, so she arranges to have Norman hired into the department store, where General Manager Mr. Quimby (Ray Walston) is to give Norman every dirty, impossible job imaginable, in the hopes that Norman will quit and disillusion Barbara right out of the engagement. Spineless jellyfish John P. Tuttle, the figurehead President of Tuttle Department Stores and the browbeaten husband of Phoebe, likes the dynamo Norman, though―as does Quimby's sexy secretary, Miss Lott (Francesca Bellini)―and does what he can to support the couple...which is difficult, considering the many disasters that hard-working-but-accident-prone Norman creates at the store.
Always a reliable, go-to Jerry Lewis movie whenever it popped up on afternoon and late show movie programs back in the 70s when I was growing up, Who's Minding the Store? may not feature very many of director Frank Tashlin's signature fetishes or obsessions within its surprisingly square, bland framing, but it does have lots and lots of "Tashlin-as-Looney Tunes-animator" moments where he places Jerry in one outrageous, outsized sight gag after another, giving this silly, fluffy outing a consistently high laugh quotient. Released five days after the JFK assassination in 1963 (I wonder if that affected the box office versus other Lewis releases at the time), Who's Minding the Store? was Jerry's next-to-last feature with Tashlin, who, after the uneven The Disorderly Orderly, went on with varying success to work with Tony Randall (the Hercules Poirot flop, The Alphabet Murders), Doris Day (the financially successful The Glass-Bottom Boat and the misfire Caprice), and Bob Hope (the dreadful The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell, Tashlin's last feature). Most admirers of Tashlin would probably agree that by Who's Minding the Store?'s debut, Tashlin had already peaked as a director, with efforts like the ones mentioned above certainly having their inspired moments...while failing to achieve a unified thematic or even visual comedic aesthetic (Who's Minding the Store?'s big, empty frames are surprising next to the crammed, dynamic ones of movies like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Girl Can't Help It, Artists and Models, Hollywood or Bust, and The Geisha Boy).
Lewis's great personal triumph from the same year, the genuine masterpiece, The Nutty Professor, completely overshadows Who's Minding the Store?'s impact today obviously, but there's still a lot to like here, chiefly Who's Minding the Store?'s willingness to be essentially nothing more than an extended 90-minute cartoon starring a live-action Jerry Lewis. Written by Tashlin and veteran Harry Tugend, from Tugend's story (Captain January, Little Miss Broadway, A Southern Yankee, Pocketful of Miracles), Who's Minding the Store? takes as its inspiration the funniest sections of the Marx Bros.' The Big Store and expands that narrow framework, using Jerry as a sort of a cross between eager, go-getting Horatio Alger-inspired Harold Lloyd and Looney Tunes' Sylvester, letting Jerry crash around the huge department store, destroying everything in sight in an effort to prove what a hard-working, dependable guy he is for his girl.
That subtext certainly wasn't new for Lewis by this point. The lovable schlub who, by virtue of not being able to do anything right but doing so at a breakneck pace, winning the girl in the process, was a tried-and-true Lewis motif that provided unlimited opportunities for visual sight gags. Here in Who's Minding the Store?, that's about it for story or character motivation, thin as it is, with the added notion that Jerry's soon-to-be-wife, St. John, is going to be "plain and poor," with her place at home, "having babies"―a sentiment agreed with by St. John's henpecked father. You could probably get some mileage out of a discussion of those gender and class stereotypes...if Tashlin or Lewis really cared about such things. However, in Who's Minding the Store?, it's obvious those are just convenient, easy pegs to hang the various sight gags on―sociology and psychology are utilized for jokes, not commentary.
And those jokes work here. For straight laughs, Who's Minding the Store? is one of Jerry's more consistent later efforts. From the opening, when Moorehead views the secret footage of Jerry taken by her private detectives, Tashlin makes it clear he's going for outsized, exaggerated, openly cartoony comedy, and it's delightful, both aurally and visually (the sound of Jerry slurping his soup is pricelessly matched to his mugging, while his being launched from a bent tree is classic toon humor). No Tashlin comedy would be complete without even a little eroticism thrown in there, this time supplied not by St. John as you might expect (or hope) but by the lush, lush Francesca Bellini, who loses her tight pencil skirt during the vacuum cleaner finale, revealing an amazing set of gams on the stacked Bellini (thank you, Frank Tashlin). However, for the most part, the humor is de-sexed by Tashlin's standards, with Tashlin making sure to place countless little bits of family-friendly business in-between the big set pieces to keep you laughing and giggling through the run of the picture.
Throwaways like Jerry watching himself on TV as Ben Casey (discovering too late he's operating without anesthesia), or struggling with Bosley the sheepdog (with Jerry looking worriedly off-camera when the huge hound snaps at him right as Tashlin cuts the scene), or unknowingly eating real fried ants with Fritz Feld (hilarious spooning them into Jerry's mouth), or the funny pile-up caused by Jerry blinding drivers with a huge mirror, are sprinkled throughout the film, keeping us amused as we enjoy the bigger-scaled comedy sequences. The runaway golf ball from the "Futurescope Fairway" machine is quite good, and I particularly like the woman's shoe department scene, where lady wrestler Peggy Mondo insanely jumps up and down on Jerry when he tries to put a size 3 shoe on her size 13 foot. I wish Jerry's trip in a rowboat, courtesy of a shotgun recoil, had been longer (or at least if Tashlin had shown us the resulting crash heard off screen), but Who's Minding the Store?'s finale, the vacuum cleaner sequence, is priceless, a beautifully-designed and executed bit of real special effects (no opticals I could detect) where a vacuum that Jerry tinkers with begins to suck up everything in the store, including the dishes off the shelves and the tiles off the floor. It's remarkably funny, the loud sound effects (like any good cartoon) providing half the laughs, with Tashlin stitching it together expertly; for Lewis fans like myself who grew up on his movies, it's one of our favorite moments from his big-screen features.
Who's Minding the Store?'s supporting cast is a treat, too...even if they have to vie with all that hardware flying around. Jill St. John, one of my all-time favorite Bond girls, is so sweet and light and pretty here you'll be surprised that Tashlin didn't take more advantage of her rather outrageous body and erotic allure. Agnes Morehead, just about to embark on her iconic role in TV's Bewitched, is perfectly bitchy and snappy as the class-conscious, controlling potential mother-in-law of Jerry's ("She can't be that ill!" when seeing footage of her daughter's boyfriend, is a classic), and portly, sweet John McGiver is equally funny as the dithering milquetoast who finally, but nicely, grows a spine. My Favorite Martian's Ray Walston (soon to see his big screen career take a serious hit with his starring role in Billy Wilder's ill-fated bomb, Kiss Me, Stupid) has a lot of fun with his spoof of the harried, dyspeptic Madison Avenue-type big businessman, who nervously puts bromo in his milk, and who's out of breath from his morning three Scotches and chasing his built secretary around the desk ("There's no place in business for a man of character!" he triumphantly announces). As for Jerry, if he looks a little puffy here, a little stiff at times in his Sy Devore-designed "everyman" wear, he more than makes up for it during the big action sequences, where his timing is impeccable as always. Along with the vacuum cleaner finale, fans of Lewis remember the "typewriter" bit from Who's Minding the Store? most readily, where Lewis types along on an imaginary machine while Leroy Anderson's ding-dingy music plays along. It's a typically hilarious, manic Lewis moment, spontaneous and not perfect; Jerry messes up a couple of times but importantly, he goes with it, adding more laughs with his ad-libbed mugging. Critics of Lewis (particularly at this time) pointed to moments like the "typewriter" bit as examples of Lewis' excesses, but for fans, those moments are precisely why he continues to make us laugh.
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.