Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Patron Saint of France

Films: Artists and Models, The Ladies Man, The Nutty Professor
Format: DVD from Graves-Hume Public Library through interlibrary loan (Artists) and DVDs from personal collection (Ladies, Professor) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Just like Germany loves David Hasselhoff, France is constantly enamored of Jerry Lewis. There’s nothing especially French about Lewis; in fact he frequently seems to espouse all of the worst elements of the American idiot. On second thought, perhaps that’s precisely why the French love him so much. He’s a caricature of someone who has only a couple of functioning brain cells and is unable to get those poor, benighted cells to synchronize.

Whatever the reason for Jerry Lewis’s canonization in the salons of Paris, his wacky persona appears at least a trio of times on The List, once with his pre-Rat Pack partner Dean Martin and twice post-break up. Artists and Models may well be the prime example of the pair, and they function like a pretty standard comedy team. Like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy before them, we have a straight man and a goof. Dean is our straight man—he’s far too suave and good looking to be comic relief. Jerry is the screw-up, unable to keep his eyes from crossing for more than a few seconds at a time. One way to look at the duo is to consider Jerry as Gilligan and Dean as pretty much everybody else on the island.

In Artists and Models, we find the pair in a Greenwich Village apartment desperately trying to make ends meet. Rick (Martin) is a struggling artist who wants to be hung in galleries and art museums. Eugene (Lewis) has aspirations of being a writer of children’s books, but continually gets sidetracked by his love of comic books, especially The Bat Lady.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as your opinion holds, the artist of The Bat Lady, Abigail Parker (Dorothy Malone) moves into the apartment above Rick’s and Eugene’s with her friend, Bessie Sparrowbrush (Shirley MacLaine), who is the model for The Bat Lady and the receptionist at the publisher’s office. So this sets up the classic romantic comedy pitch—two men and two women living in close proximity, with one of each being perfect for each other.

What follows is a lot of misunderstanding, goofing around, and bizarre occurrences all circling around that wicked comic book market, much of it centered in the office of the comic book publisher, Mr. Murdock (Eddie Mayehoff). Abigail quits her job and Rick takes it, writing and drawing a new comic book based on Eugene’s vivid (and loud) dreams. However, Eugene now believes that comic books are evil and need to be stopped, which means Rick can’t admit that he’s drawing one. Plus, he needs to get Abigail to fall for him, and Bessie is trying desperately to get Eugene to notice her.

The problem with Artists and Models is that it has no idea what it wants to be. It starts as a wacky romantic comedy with these two made-for-each-other pairs and then spins off into a number of directions by the end. The whole plot of Rick drawing a comic book without Abigail and Eugene finding out is never resolved—it’s completely dropped for much of the last part of the film because the last half hour or so starts an entirely new story in an entirely new genre.

Essentially, Rick’s comic is published, and one of Eugene’s ravings happens to be the exact chemical formula for part of the United States’ rocket fuels, which brings both the Feds and the Russians into the mix. This means that instead of hiding his comic book drawing from Abigail, Rick now needs to hide a Russian spy who is trying to seduce him. All of this somehow culminates in a musical number with Rick and Eugene at a pageant, a kidnapping, a rescue, and a final song and dance number.

In short, I don’t get it. There are certainly some good bits. Dean Martin is hard not to like, even when his character is essentially a sexist wolf, and the numbers he sings are pretty good even if they don’t really fit. The “Innamorata” number is quite good with some excellent choreography toward the end. There are also a couple of nice gags. Once, as Dino sings to an unknowing Abigail, she comments that his voice is familiar. Bessie replies that it’s the same singer who had a hit with “That’s Amore.” Later, a guy with a camera says in Jimmy Stewart’s voice that he can’t get a good view out of his rear window. That’s cute.

But too much is either completely random or simply defies belief. Eugene is completely inept in everything he does and can barely communicate at even a rudimentary level. When confronted by Rick about why he came to New York, Eugene can’t answer. Instead, he has to mug for the camera for thirty seconds and then mime typing so that Rick can essentially pat him on the head for being a good boy and remembering something. So with that as part of the film’s reality, who in their right minds would put him on stage for a revue at a banquet? And why really were either of them performing? And what’s up with the shoehorned spy thing?

And then there’s the predictability. It’s obvious who will end up with whom. The two normal ones (Rick Todd and Abigail Parker) with normal names will wind up together just as the two kooks (Eugene Fullstack and Bessie Sparrowbrush) with the wacky names will end up together.

As a whole, some parts hit, but most of it’s a miss. Dean’s heart didn’t seem to be in it, and it shows.


The Ladies Man is Jerry solo, without Dean to buffer him or act as his straight man. In this film he again plays a guy with a goofy name—Herbert H. Heebert (the “H” stands for “Herbert”) who swears off women on the day of his graduation because he sees his childhood sweetheart in the arms of another guy. This takes him to Hollywood where he lands a job as (wait for it) the housekeeper and superintendent of an all-girls boarding house.

Naturally, this environment is a problem for Herbert, and we discover that it’s been a problem for a number of other men, too. Evidently, no maintenance guy has lasted more than three days at the boarding house, so the two women in charge, Katie the Cook (the immediately recognizable Kathleen Freeman) and Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel) tell the girls that they should treat Herbert with a lot of kindness and shower him praise to keep him around. Fay (Pat Stanley) takes on Herbert as a special case and helps him overcome his fear of women.

Throughout, a couple of Hollywood big shots show up as themselves, most notably George Raft, who pulls a tango with Herbert around the middle of the film. Others appearing as themselves include Jack LaLanne, Harry James, and Marty Ingels.

All this is well and good, but there isn’t a lot of plot going on here. Most of the film is really nothing more than a platform for Jerry Lewis to be himself. Half the time, he is his cross-eye, screaming persona. The other half of the time, he’s sharing an aside with the camera and the people in the audience.

While there’s really not much more going on here than a series of sight gags, I enjoyed this film more. I’m not exactly sure why, and I won’t say that I loved it. But I liked it more than I liked Artists and Models.

A few last notes—the set for this film is huge. Essentially, Lewis built half of a four-story house on a sound stage so that he could show all of the girls in the boarding house in their rooms at the same time. It’s pretty impressive. However, during the sequence in which Miss Wellenmellon is interviewed, it’s really evident that it’s a soundstage for them, too. It’s one of those moments where the verisimilitude vanishes and reminds me that the actors know it’s fake, too. Also, don’t get this confused with the Tim Meadows film of the same name. Really. It’s also worth noting that this film, for all its nuttiness, has a tremendous pedigree: Bobby Van choreographed all of the musical numbers and dances, and the costumes were done by Edith Head.

The quintessential Jerry Lewis film is The Nutty Professor, and it’s the film he’s still best known for despite the Eddie Murphy remake of a decade and a half ago. Chemistry professor Dr. Julius Kelp (Lewis) is also the perfect distillation of a Jerry Lewis character—the buck teeth, the glasses, the annoying voice, the little bow ties, the ankle-length pants, etc. He’s also a klutz frequently does things like cause his lab to explode, and he’s frequently the target for some of his larger, more football-oriented students. When an attempt to buff up at a gym fails miserably after six months, he looks instead to science.

What he creates is a Jekyll and Hyde potion that turns him into Buddy Love, and it’s this creation that makes The Nutty Professor almost a collaboration between Lewis and Martin again. Buddy Love is a smarmy bastard, a slick operator, and a complete (pardon the term) ladies’ man. Everything that Julius Kelp is not, Buddy Love is.

The appearance of Buddy Love causes no end of problems for Professor Kelp. The first reason is that the potion has a tendency to wear off, often at precisely the plot-appointed worst time. The second is that Buddy Love becomes Julius Kelp’s greatest rival for the affections of attractive and perky student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens).

In terms of character, Julius Kelp is an interesting one based on what Lewis typically played. While socially inept and bumbling, Kelp is at least an intelligent scientist—he does, after all, create the formula that turns him into Buddy Love. The typical Lewis character is inept on all fronts, so this is a step forward for him. Buddy Love is an equally unique Lewis character, although he really does appear to be based in a large part on Dean Martin. It’s either homage or sly dig—take your pick, but this film comes a half dozen years after that pair split and the blood between them was pretty bad.

The Nutty Professor is perhaps too predictable, and where it really fails for me is in its level of appropriateness. After all, Julius Kelp is a college professor and is pursuing a student romantically. As a college teacher, I find this a little difficult to swallow, although it’s certainly not unheard of. One school at which I taught for a short while (not my current employer) had no standing policy against teachers dating their students, a fact that at least one co-worker contemplated with considerable relish. Still, it’s not the healthiest relationship to promote, is it?

This film is unquestionably dated, not the least in its treatment of Stella Stevens as more of an object than as a person. It’s a harder sell today than many comedies of the same era, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t possess a particular charm. The main problem it has is that it no longer has a real market. It’s too much for kids and not enough for adults. Maybe it can still find an audience in France.

Why to watch Artists and Models: Dino is one smooth operator.
Why not to watch: Two hours of Jerry Lewis’s “hijinks” requires ibuprofen.

Why to watch The Ladies Man: It’s the best movie ever made with that name.
Why not to watch: It frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Why to watch The Nutty Professor: It’s Jerry Lewis at his most Jerry Lewis-y.
Why not to watch: It’s Jerry Lewis at his most Jerry Lewis-y.

5 comments:

  1. Artists and Models (which I just saw today) is on the list but The Bellboy isn't.

    That makes no sense. That's even stupider than excluding Safety Last and including any of Lloyd's other movies.

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    1. Every Christmas I put up a list of 10 movies I think should be added. Safety Last has absolutely appeared on one of those lists.

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  2. TCM and the MOVIES! channel are both having Jerry Lewis marathons today, so I DVRed The Ladies' Man, The Nutty Professor and Boeing Boeing to satisfy my Jerry Lewis addiction for a while.

    I watched The Ladies' Man already and, yup, it's a Jerry Lewis movie! Lots of funny stuff, some gags that are really dated, and some gags that I can scarcely believe were funny even in 1961. But there was nothing in it that annoyed me like the last half hour of Artists and Models.

    It made me very happy to be sitting here and watching it with the dogs.

    I especially liked Kathleen Freeman, George Raft's bizarre cameo and the musical sequences, especially the very strange number with the all-white room and the spider-woman. My brother walked in and said "What's going on?" and I said "I don't know."

    I'll probably be commenting on The Nutty Professor within the next few days. I've seen it before but it was when I was a kid, more than 40 years ago. Maybe I'll devote a few sentences to my Jerry Lewis fascination.

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  3. So I made it a Jerry Lewis double feature and watched The Nutty Professor last night.

    I might prefer The Bellboy a smidge, but one can't deny that The Nutty Professor has a lot more heart than the usual Jerry Lewis film.

    I had heard very recently that Buddy Love was Jerry Lewis's parody of his old partner Dean Martin, so I was watching closely, and I think it might be true. But I think it's more likely a more general parody of the suave rogue exemplified by Martin's persona, and it might be a little more targeted at Frank Sinatra. He sings "That Old Black Magic" several times. And then there's the way that the "kids" swoon all over him when he's singing, it reminds me of a 1940s Sinatra parody in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

    Of course, one of my favorite things about The Nutty Professor is staring at Stella Stevens.

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    1. Of all of these, The Nutty Professor is the one I'd watch again. I found The Ladies Man interesting only because of the way the film was staged. Other than that, there's not a lot here for me.

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