Two Dissolve writers keep the Artists And Models conversation going...
Scott: Tasha, Artists And Models kicks off a (five-week!) month of buddy comedies here at The Dissolve, so perhaps the best place to start with our discussion is the Martin and Lewis team. As a baseline, a buddy team has a gag man and a straight man, and those boundaries are plainly delineated: I love Jerry Lewis, but there only needs to be one of him. (Though perhaps we can talk later about the marvels of Shirley MacLaine’s comic performance, which is both complementary to Lewis and strikingly Lewis-like in its goofy physicality.) Dean Martin is a funny man, too, and proves it in the scenes when he’s on his own, but both men know how to sustain a balanced comic tension—that give-and-take that makes them function as a team. And I think Artists And Models offers the fullest possible vehicle for their talents together and apart, with lots of comic interplay, musical numbers both intimate and splashy, and expressions of friendship between partners who know each other really well.
In Artists And Models, Martin and Lewis also get the privilege of playing fantasists in a world of pretend, which has the effect of justifying their whimsical antics as far as they—and director Frank Tashlin, a master fantasist—want to take it. As with most buddy comedies, it’s the straight man who serves as audience surrogate, and Martin’s Rick Todd has to convince us that Lewis’ Eugene Fullstack (one of the great funny movie-names) is someone which whom a hip guy like himself would want to spend time. After all, Eugene loses Rick every job he gets, screams in his sleep, and has done nothing to realize his already far-fetched dream of turning “Goosey-Goose” and “Freddie The Field Mouse” into viable characters for children. But between Eugene’s hangdog neediness—the look he gives Rick when Rick tries to leave is puppy-dog pitiful—and the adventure and fun that he brings to everyday life, the relationship makes sense. And once we get to elaborate secret handshakes and that joyous closing musical number, the chemistry has been strongly reinforced. What do you make of the Martin and Lewis team, Tasha?
Tasha: Why do I feel like my response should be delivered entirely in the medium of flailing, thrashing around on the floor, crossing my eyes, and making wooba-wooba noises? This is my first time watching a Jerry Lewis movie (not counting The King Of Comedy, which is a fish of a different flavor), and I’ve been putting this experience off most of my life, out of a fundamental feeling that Lewis’ rubber-man antics—which I’ve seen plenty of, but only out of context until now—are more embarrassing than funny. And nothing about Artists And Models changed my mind about that: There’s a lot about this film that’s pretty embarrassing, starting with Lewis’ character. I just can’t care whether he gets the girl in the end—or to put it another way, whether he makes an honest woman out of poor humiliated Bessie (MacLaine’s character)—when he spends more than half the movie playing like a particularly hyper 6-year-old boy afraid of getting cooties by touching girl-lips.
But what I really did enjoy about the film is the buddy-comedy aspect, the way Rick feels protective of his dim-witted, spastic childhood pal, but still isn’t above making a fast buck off his wacky dreams, or peddling his unwilling body to Bessie as a distraction during some chicanery in her boss’ office. They’re such perfect complements to each other: one suave and competent, but skeevy and perpetually on the make; the other childish, naïve, and innocent, but so lucky that steaks fall out of the sky when he wishes for them, and government formulas and bestselling comic-book plots fall into his head when he dreams. Initially, Martin reminded me of Zeppo Marx, the straight man who mostly hung around on the fringes of the wacky comedy to throw in a romance angle. But it quickly became clear that the two of them have a more complicated interdependence, and while Martin is the clear straight man, neither one of them has a monopoly on being funny, or on bad behavior, or on being the hero. Lewis even gets to be the action hero in the end! All the little wrinkles in the relationship were what redeemed this story for me, where a lot of the comedy fell flat.
Another thing that worked for me was the sense of watching a live-action cartoon. Director Frank Tashlin had a long history in animation—Noel’s going to dig into that on Thursday, so I won’t steal his thunder here—and Artists And Models has plenty of gags that feel like they were ported over from a Warner Bros. cartoon, like the water cooler that boils over when Bessie pushes Eugene into it and smooches him, or the dickie yanking Eugene’s boxer shorts out of his pants, or even the Rear Window reference joke. Lewis seems to be trying to be a Tex Avery cartoon character—I get the impression that he was probably sometimes disappointed that he couldn’t pop his eyes out six inches from his face, or dangle a drooling tongue out at Eva Gabor, then speed-scroll it up and spin it like a snapping window blind. I already know you’re more of a fan of Lewis’ physical comedy than I am—did any of the live-action cartoon business here particularly hit for you?
Scott: You mention a lot of the good ones, Tasha. Tashlin establishes the cartoon universe of Artists And Models from the jump, just through Rick and Eugene’s occupation: Making sure the smoke comes through the billboard. (And that, too, introduces another key Tashlin obsession: Advertising and commercial entertainment, and how they fuel business and popular culture. Tashlin foregrounded the theme in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, my favorite of the films of his I’ve seen, but it’s strongly present here as well.) It’s just such an absurd—and absurdly American—job, and it leads to some good physical business, like Eugene and his Bat Lady comics getting sucked into and out of the vacuum (having separate switches to suck and blow is a very Looney Tunes touch), and the bright splashes of paint that fall on the executives peering up from below. You could also point to the look of the film as very cartoon or comic-book like: It was shot in VistaVision, a high-resolution stock that brings out the sharpness and brightness of the colors, and the film is very pleasing to look at in every respect, with a commercial attractiveness that’s both a feature of the film and the subject of Tashlin’s commentary.
Other cartoon business I love? This will require me to explain why something is funny to someone who I know does not think it’s funny, which is a fool’s business, but I’ll proceed. Tashlin and company turn the three-story apartment building where Rick and Eugene live into the site of two great comic setpieces for Lewis, who breathlessly climbs up and down the stairs, huffing all the way: There’s the “Fat Lady/Bat Lady” bit, where Eugene goes one floor too far to express his excitement over his encounter with the sexy comic-book character of his dreams. But my favorite is the sequence where Rick gets a phone call from Mr. Murdock, the publisher, and Eugene goes back and forth from the phone (on the first floor) to the apartment (on the top floor, where Rick is bathing) to relay the seemingly simple message that Murdock wants to have a lunch meeting with Rick. There’s an escalating absurdity to it that’s a credit to Lewis’ gifts as a physical comedian and to Tashlin’s use of space. Combined, they get to a place where poor Eugene is so out of breath that he has to mime the entire message to Rick. (“Stork Club” is particularly inspired.) The energy needed to mime all these things may be far greater than the energy needed simply to get the words of his mouth, but within the cartoon universe of Artists And Models—which, like him or not, suits Lewis’ brand of comedy perfectly—I accept the giddy ridiculousness of it.
Which brings me to perhaps the film’s biggest theme—or at least the one most explicitly stated: playing pretend. One of the reasons why Rick remains buddies with a nutjob like Eugene is that he embodies the dream of being in New York and making it in careers as impractical as art and authoring children’s books. Eugene can imagine that a single bean is a big piece of steak, and he can pretend that a slab of plywood is a piano; he makes the world this elastic place that can expand through the force of his imagination. That’s a powerful thought for the creatively minded, and it’s one Artists And Models continues to reinforce right up until the closing tune. So, Tasha, even if you weren’t able to get into Lewis’ comic business, did you like playing pretend with this movie? Were you engaged by its whimsy?
Tasha: Sometimes! The actual song “When You Pretend” is pretty hummable, and it does a nice job of highlighting how this buddy pair works: Lewis starts it off in his squawk of a voice and uses it for comic effect, playing his imaginary piano, then Dean takes it up in a serious (and oddly shirtless) way, and turns it into the kind of warm but wistful anthem to imagination that wouldn’t have been out of place in a classic Disney movie. (Ditto the comedy bit where Eugene assiduously cuts up their single bean like it’s a meal—which I remember from 1947’s “Mickey And The Beanstalk” short, eight years earlier.) The theory runs that Martin and Lewis were stars because between them, they appealed to a wide variety of demographics—Dean’s romantic croon for women and older people, Lewis’ antics for men and kids—and songs like this show how the two of them tag-teamed in and out to cover the same bit of business in different ways.
Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Jack Brooks—best known for writing “That’s Amore,” which Martin turned into an immense hit—gave Artists And Models its songs, and while the tunes aren’t enduring masterpieces, they’re at least fun and catchy in the moment. I particularly liked the staging of the number where Martin and Lewis wander the giant paint palette onstage, with Lewis grabbing handfuls of tulle which always turn out to be empty, whereas the piles of fabric Martin chooses always contain a lovely woman in a revealing dress. It’s creative staging that sticks with the story’s major themes while injecting some fantasy, but it’s also physical comedy understated in a way that’s rare for the film. Compare that to Bessie throwing herself around the set like a gymnast while bellowing “Innamorata,” and it seems particularly restrained. Part of the conceit of this buddy team-up is that the film can have it both ways—big flailing lowbrow humor and more dignified, gentle humor, often around the same scene. As Monty Python put it, for those of you who don't like variety, there’s variety.
You’d hoped we’d get to MacLaine, so let’s talk about “Innamorata” and her performance in general, because it’s a wide-open door into the things that predictably bothered me most about the film. MacLaine is such a bright, perky, game presence here that she really helps sell some weak material, as when she’s trying to push her assets at Eugene, who’s clueless because they aren’t encased in a Bat Lady costume. (Remind me again why she’s chasing this dim schmuck?) I got pretty weary of the tone here, which plays Rick’s ultra-creepy behavior as charming, but Bessie’s as ludicrous. He’s made to look like a cad in love for engaging in some behavior that looks really alarming today, like refusing to leave Abby’s apartment when asked, shutting them in together when she tries to eject him, scheming to get his hands all over her without her knowing (she thinks she’s getting a suntan-lotion rubdown from Bessie), and generally chasing her around and ignoring every “no,” “stop,” “don’t,” “I’m not interested,” and “go away” on the “no means keep going, baby” plan. There’s some balance in the way Bessie also seizes on the dude she wants in her life, to the point of physically cornering and assaulting him while he tries to get away, but the staging and casting says this is romantic behavior when a fellow does it, and uproarious if some boy-crazy lady does it. And frankly, I could do without the whole conceit. And even all that aside, just from a technical standpoint, I think the staging of “Innamorata” is pretty funny at first, but between Martin’s take and MacLaine’s, it drags on forever. You’re apparently a big fan of stair-based humor, did any of this business get to you at all?
Scott: I love MacLaine’s “Innamorata” scene on the staircase. My initial thought was that the song is way too swooningly romantic to describe the relationship between Bessie and Eugene as we know it, especially given how utterly oblivious Eugene is about her odd desire for him. Then I realized that’s entirely the point, fitting in with the film’s primary theme of “pretend”: She’s filling in the rather large gap between them with her imagination. Just as Eugene can turn a single bean into a juicy steak, Bessie can turn the world’s biggest doofus into a lothario worth swooning over. And that informs the comedy when Eugene finally enters the picture and Bessie does everything she can to make herself attractive to him… to absolutely zero effect. I enjoyed the commitment of both actors to making this disparity between the characters the stuff of broad physical comedy. (Though again, if you’re not feeling it, I doubt my explanation of what makes it funny will turn you around. Bad comedy can feel like it “drags on forever.”)
But I’m stuck on this piece of phrasing about Martin: “He’s made to look like a cad in love for engaging in some behavior that looks really alarming today…” The operative word being “today,” no? We’re 60 years away from 1955—my favorite movie year, incidentally—and I have trouble rendering judgment on behavior (or depictions of behavior) then that we’d (rightfully) object to now. Maybe some viewers at the time did find Rick’s relentless pursuit of Abby creepy; doing something so intimate as applying suntan lotion to a woman’s back without her knowledge or permission is definitely shiver-inducing in 2015. And we may feel acutely embarrassed for Bessie in her desperate pursuit of an oblivious man-child like Eugene. I can’t speak definitively for how such things went over with audiences at the time, but my instinct as a viewer is to chalk it up to a sign of the times and try to enjoy it in that context.
And because I’m able to enjoy it in context, I can tell you that I also adore the scene where Bessie reacts to Eugene’s description of the Bat-Lady. Sitting across from Lewis, MacLaine is giving as good as she gets in that scene, and I like the back-and-forth between her goofy gestures and Lewis’ perplexed/oblivious reaction to them. The longevity of MacLaine’s career makes me forget what a great physical comedian she was in the early part of it; she later graduated into more cantankerous roles, but in a less sexist society, there are scenes in Artists And Models that suggest she could have been Lewis’ female equivalent—silly, clumsy, self-deprecating, and utterly charming.
While we’re on favorite scenes, I’d also like to throw some praise over to the “Lucky Song” number, in which Tashlin opens up the choreography for a more buoyant Martin tune and scores a delightful standalone sequence. After being a starving artist, Rick finally has some real money, and the world opens up to his profligate expenditures of cash. Champagne, a jazz band, singing nonsense phrases and dancing with a girl in a pink polka-dot dress—the whole thing put me right on cloud nine with him. Any transcendent moments for you, Tasha? Or were you stuck in the bog?
Tasha: I’m going to stick with my guns on finding the “Innamorata” scene to be a bog, because it becomes so repetitive; it feels like we get every word in that song three times over, first through Martin, then through MacLaine. It’s so easy to imagine a version of this performance where her big comic take on it is more a coda to Martin’s, and has more punch and less repetition. I have no problem with pratfalls, but by the third time Lewis drops all his gear and takes a dive down those stairs… well, we get the point, okay?
As to judging a 60-year-old movie by today’s standards, I get what you’re saying, and really getting into this should be a much larger conversation for down the line, but I can sum it up by saying that I don’t judge Martin, Lewis, Tashlin, MacLaine, and everyone else involved as horrible people for adhering to the humor of their time—but that doesn’t mean I have to embrace a love story that just isn’t romantic to me, because it’s so based in dismissing what the female lead says she wants as negligible and negotiable. There are endless earlier comedies before this where the women are as smart, sharp, and funny as Abby is here, without getting locked into their own apartments by mashers who know what they want better than they do.
But let’s get on to transcendence. I loved “Lucky Song,” a number that feels like it’s meant to merge the feelings of two hit songs from Singin’ In The Rain three years earlier: The title song and “Good Morning.” There’s the goofing around happily on a city street and just enjoying the rhythm of dance, but also the more upbeat evocation of big, broad, happy feelings coming out of a long, dark night of the soul. The way Rick throws money around, and instantly acquires an enthusiastic following, is such a happy fantasy to balance the earlier scenes of starvation and limitation of poverty.
And while his central tap-dance ditty with a randomly encountered little girl has that Shirley Temple movie feeling of “Here’s a star of the day, let’s whisk her in for a cameo,” it’s still an awfully upbeat, friendly bit of celebratory business. Bit of trivia for you: That little girl, uncredited in the film, is Sharon Baird, one of the first Mousketeers from The Mickey Mouse Show’s launch—the same year Artists And Models came out. After her stint on the show, she fell in with Sid and Marty Krofft, and was a major featured player in shows like H.R. Pufnstuff—and the live-action model for Frodo in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings and the star of Ratboy. We’re seeing a star being born in the middle of that tappa-tappa-tappa number. Though what struck me even more the first time I watched the scene through was the prominent placement of a number of black kids, which seemed progressive to the point of aggressive for 1955. The Mickey Mouse Club, for instance, didn’t get around to that for another 22 years.
There are other delights in Artists, like Eva Gabor’s purring role as a spy trying to pry secrets out of Eugene (so reminiscent of Lyda Roberti’s Mata Hari role in the 1940 W.C. Fields comedy Million Dollar Legs), and the enjoyable comic-book ridiculousness of the “space-station formula” that’s apparently a random string of numbers that makes space stations float. So much of Artists And Models is playing with the anti-comic-book hysteria of the time, and the way comics clearly turned kids into Jerry Lewis-punching hooligans, and grown-ups into dim-witted Jerry Lewises. But the “space-station formula” just feels like the work of someone who enjoyed the comic-book nonsense of the time, and wanted to play within the genre. And the idea of smuggling state secrets in a comic reminds me an awful lot of how the Superman radio show smuggled the KKK’s secrets out to the American public. I just don’t find Jerry Lewis’ eye-crossing skinny-fall-down-go-boom antics particularly funny. But there’s still plenty of fun in Artists And Models. That’s the strength of a good buddy comedy: Plenty of options for everyone.
Don’t miss Nathan Rabin’s Keynote essay on the chemistry between director and performers that made Artists And Models one of Martin and Lewis’ best efforts. And on Thursday, Noel Murray offers up a look at Frank Tashlin’s years as an animator, with visual gags aplenty.