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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (10) - Some Notes on Jerry Lewis

ARTISTS AND MODELS is a very funny, wacky Frank Tashlin film which owes much to his earlier career as a cartoonist. Among other things, he contributed his skills to quite a range of 1940s Looney Tunes including some memorable Porky Pig and Daffy Duck items (Plane Daffy, Porky’s Railroad, Puss N’ Booty, I got Plenty of Mutton and The Stupid Cupid, all late 30s-early 40s classics). During the 1950s, Tashlin was central to the evolution of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis during the latter stages of their comic partnership. The best of the Tashlin/Martin/Lewis films was Artists and Models (1955), a sometimes hilarious, wacky comedy and one of the definitive colour films of its era. This was clearly a strong influence on Jerry Lewis’ imaginative and expressive colour schemes in his own films, most notably in The Ladies’ Man (1961) and ultimately in his masterpiece The Nutty Professor (1963).

Artists and Models explodes immediately into evidence of this rich, cartoon background: the publisher’s office is dominated by an enormous image of The Bat Lady; Eugene Fullstack (Jerry Lewis) appears on stage in costume as a field mouse that could have strayed out of a Disney cartoon and his Vinnie the Vulture nightmares are parodies of DC comics characters and situations. Artists and Models in addition contains many set-pieces that extend the kind of gag structures common in the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. Among the most effective here include: the opening sequence with Lewis’ comic books being sucked into a giant mouth on an advertising billboard and blown out of this orifice into the street, a gag compounded by tins of paint being clumsily knocked several stories onto hapless passers-by; the sequence where Martin and Lewis push suits of armour down the staircase of an imposing mansion,  headquarters of a spy ring, causing the armour to take on a life of its own; surreally, the business of Lewis’ imagined steaks which suddenly materialise as a half-asleep Martin rolls over in disbelief; Lewis’ first meeting with comic-book publisher Mr Murdock (Eddie Mayehoff) with each distorted to the other through a water-cooler; and especially, the hilariously grotesque “love duet” between Lewis and new girlfriend Bessie Sparrowbrush (Shirley MacLaine) on a staircase where they immortalize a clash of awkward and exaggerated movement of limbs to the incongruous lyrics of “Inamorata”.

Artists and Models parodies violence in comic books and its effect on the brain, with Lewis demonstrating, in an hilarious television interview, how such material may affect an avid aficionado. The blood curdling screams that provide the sound effects in Lewis’ Vinnie narratives along with George Winslow’s reaction to the Bat Lady - “She stinks. No Blood. I like blood” are symptomatic of the film’s perfectly pitched overall tone.

Shirley MacLaine romances Jerry Lewis on the staircase
The support from publisher Eddie Mayehoff, toting a steady stream of voluptuous women half his age (“this is my cousin”) and delivering lines that put the emphases in all the wrong places adds to the sparkling set pieces. And finally, there’s a quartet of extremely attractive female leads (Dorothy Malone, and Shirley MacLaine as the boys’ romantic interests, Eva Gabor as a sexy femme fatale/spy, and a voluptuous Anita Ekberg in a lively cameo). They are all appropriately decorative in a cartoon-like way.

In The Nutty Professor, Lewis plays Julius Kelp, a myopic (in many senses), buck-toothed chemistry professor whose accident-prone personality and experiments threaten campus life and limb. In love with student dream girl Stella (Stella Stevens, looking both beautiful and intelligent), he is unable to overcome his introverted clumsiness until he invents a formula which turns him - in fits and starts - into Buddy Love, a repulsively flashy, narcissistic parody figure thought by some to be modelled on ex-screen partner Dean Martin. The swirling, rich Technicolor metamorphosis scenes are a marvel of cinematic flamboyance, full of stylistic flourish and bold visual strokes, with an obnoxious parrot called Jennifer thrown in for good measure. It is unquestionably Lewis’ most inventive, audacious and successful film, full of inspired visual set-pieces, with great detail in the inevitable extended gags, brilliant comic timing, and a toe-tapping score by Les Brown (I love the rendition of “Stella by Starlight” that accompanies the credits and the entry of Stella Stevens).

Stella Stevens, The Nutty Professor
Lewis displayed perfect timing of his sight gags, often via pantomime (like the immersion of his fob watch into a water bowl watched by a disbelieving Del Moore). He was clearly following in the footsteps of his great mentor Frank Tashlin who also  used the soundtrack for surrealistic effects in this manner. The Purple Pit, a popular student hangout where Lewis as Buddy Love enters flamboyantly and struts his stuff, is a set designer’s dream.  The first reveal on Kelp as Buddy Love is electrifying and established Lewis as a major director.


Regrettably, his best work as Actor/Director only extended to a handful of films (The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, The Ladies’ Man -another personal favourite, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, The Family Jewels, Three on a Couch, The Big Mouth, One More Time, Which Way to the Front? The Day the Clown Cried (still unreleased), Hardly Working, and Smorgasbord aka Cracking Up.

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