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Frank Tashlin! If one spends too much time avoiding Jerry Lewis movies, director Frank Tashlin may not be a familiar name. But he's an important figure in 20th century comedy, spanning the full spectrum -- college yearbook cartoons, daily strips, Warner Bros. cartoons and finally feature films. Hw made a lot of pictures without Lewis as well, working with Bob Hope, Terry-Thomas, Tom Ewell, Tony Randall and Danny Kaye. The French critics adored Tashlin but over here his work was disparaged as low comedy, or he not distinguished from Lewis, who everyone assumed directed himself. In the early 1950s, when famed American critic James Agee wrote about silent comedy greats Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, he used Tashlin's Son of Paleface as an example of worthless contemporary laugh-getting.
Well good for Agee -- he helped re-ignite interest in those silent stars -- but he was actually criticizing Bob Hope and didn't realize what Tashlin was bringing to the screen -- movie comedy that made fun of movie conventions from the inside out. Tashlin may not build classic gags to a payoff like Keaton, but his comedy constructions have the precision of a mind that spent twenty years figuring out how to make a joke pay off in two or three cartoon panels, and then their filmic equivalent. His is the sensibility most driven to examine the big sub-cultural obsessions of the 1950s, most of which center on sex... with show business, garish consumerism and celebrity adoration as side courses. Tashlin films of this time are splashed with color and often designed like flashy magazine layouts. Do any of them claim to be about anything serious? Not really. But looking at them now, we can see that Tashlin was plugged directly into the themes and controversies that we consider to have defined the 1950s.
Most film fans know about The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Several films earlier, Tashlin launched his pop-art primary color comic book look with RKO's Susan Slept Here, and continued in the same style with 1955's Artists and Models, his first film with Jerry Lewis and his first of two with Dean Martin.
Suffering catfish, do you call this a Murdock Book for Kiddies with no stranglings, with no decapitations? Where are they?
The subject this time involves creative artists working on comic books. What with the entire movie industry now hijacked by superhero movies, Artists and Models has a renewed relevance. When it was made, the comic book industry had just been gutted and neutered by the Wicked Dr. Wertham and the Kefauver Commission. If comic books were mentioned in movies, it was usually to brand them as trash ruining the minds of youth with sex and violence. Tashlin's show addresses the phenomenon directly.
Commercial artist Rick Todd (Dean Martin) needs a decent job. His best buddy/roommate Eugene Fullstack (Jerry Lewis) creates chaos and disaster wherever he goes. By day Eugene invents books for little children, which is appropriate because he lives in an infantile world of his own. By night he conjures weird nightmares about a comic character called "Vincent the Vulture". Rick and Eugene meet a pair of female tenants upstairs. Classy artist Abigail Parker (Dorothy Malone) illustrates a comic book character called "The Bat Lady", but quits when her boss Mr. Murdock (Eddie Mayehoff) insists that she's not putting in enough violence and gore. Cute Bessie Sparrowbush (Shirley MacLaine in her second movie) models for Abby in the sexy Bat Lady costume. She's wearing it when Eugene meets her. A fervent Bat Lady fan, Eugene is love-struck but doesn't recognize Bessie in her street clothes. As she develops an instant crush on him, it's a frustrating situation. Meanwhile, Rick models for Abby for an advertising campaign, but keeps it secret that he's also taking over her work for Murdock, using Eugene's "Vincent the Vulture" nightmares for material. Eugene goes on TV, confessing that he's a 'typical young reader' warped and influenced by 'evil' comic books; he tells Abby his 'Goose and Mouse' stories, which she develops as children's book material. Some of the nonsense words in the Vulture comics are identical to parts of America's secret rocket formula. To aid the Feds, Rick volunteers to help round up foreign agents. He ducks the attempts at seduction offered by Agent Sonia (Eva Gabor), but the spies learn that Eugene is the key. They kidnap Eugene and Bessie on the night of the Artists and Models Ball!
Firstoff, Artists and Models has incredible visuals -- in the brand-new process VistaVision. Super-saturated colors pop off the screen. The lighting is super-bright, and as in a cartoon, people throw noticeable shadows only when there's a specific reason (well, almost). Ordinary settings look slightly stylized but several scenes use elaborate visual designs. Good examples include Murdock's office with its Bat Lady mural pictured, and the concluding masked ball, where reality and fantasy meet. The final musical number plays out on a giant artist's palette, with paint dripping down stairs and flashy models rising from pots of primary colors. It may not mean much to the casual audience just looking to be amused, but A&M's surface visuals and its underlying themes can't be separated. Scenes are artificial and sometimes silly, as when Eugene has a massage and his legs are bent and twisted like taffy. As in a cartoon, exaggerated gags can be simply impossible.
The main model Anita (Anita Ekberg) shows up throughout the film, looking splendid. She's a little less fleshy than in her later Federico Fellini movies. In the first scene Rick paints a billboard with a giant pair of lips that would seem to be Ekberg's; there's an instant connection to the Anita Ekberg billboard scene in, of all things, From Russia with Love. The movie scene is in Ian Fleming's 1957 book, with the giant lips on the poster belong to Marilyn Monroe. Was Fleming a Jerry Lewis fan?
At age 21 (!!) Shirley MacLaine is cuteness personified. In her bat costume, with the little helmet-mask, she's a perfect cartoon and a perfect sexual fantasy. We're told that MacLaine danced for an elaborate 'Bat Lady' musical number that was cut from the film before release.
Until the film slips into a spy parody for its last act, much of what we see is fairly fresh. Dorothy Malone and Dean Martin play it romantically straight; Malone is naturally sexy while Ekberg and to a lesser extent Eva Gabor provide the exotic appeal. Rick is a regular guy with the girls. The writers make it clear that he's avoiding the kisses of Sonia the spy for patriotic reasons, and I'd say they do so because Rick and Eugene are buddy-buddy to an almost uncomfortable extreme.
At the story's center is the infantile but fertile mind of Eugene Fullstack. Unable to function as an adult, Eugene's subconscious spews forth highly commercial fantasies both light and dark. The 'author's statement' is conservative but nimble: those wicked comic books are written by morons... but brilliant morons. Eugene's TV appearance was surely politically neutral in 1955, but now it plays like a little show trial, a public confessional of cultural sins. Are you, or have you ever been, a fan of degenerate comics?
This is still a Martin-Lewis vehicle. There's plenty of spastic schtick from Jerry and a few tiresome moments, as when he pads some slapstick comedy on the stair landing. Dean's singing is fine and the Jack Brooks-Harry Warren songs okay. "Innmorata" is catchy; it sounds like it belongs in Kiss Me, Stupid as one of the Italian songs that 'Dino' needs "like a hole in the head." At this time Jerry Lewis was already formulating his cast of regulars. The delightful Kathleen Freeman would figure in many Lewis movies to come; this may be her first.
Artists and Models is one of five films in the Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection II, presented on three discs: Pardners, Hollywood or Bust, Living it Up and You're Never Too Young are the others. Hollywood or Bust was the team's last pairing, and a Frank Tashlin picture as well. One reason I've avoided some of these titles is because most are remakes of movies I like -- by William Wellman and Billy Wilder, even.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of Artists and Models appears to be a reissue of an original Paramount collection disc from 2007, that now goes at Astronauti... Ask her nominal ... very high prices on Amazon. The transfer is great, so good that I wasn't asking, gee, why isn't this on Blu-ray? The title music cue swoops up behind the zooming VistaVision logo and the image is so sharp that we can easily imagine the spectacular level of detail on original Technicolor prints. Martin and Lewis were Paramount's biggest moneymakers for almost a decade, and they got only the best.
I was already a non-Lewis Tashlin fan, but I bit the bullet a couple of years ago with Olive Films' The Geisha Boy and was pleasantly surprised. I'll try Hollywood or Bust next -- it's directed by Tashlin as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Artists and Models DVD-R rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.