WEIRDLAND: Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, Frank Fenton

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, Frank Fenton

Why Jerry Lewis, the preeminent actor of the 1950s was so enormously popular at the time and was violently rejected later? Probably because he represented a blend of satire and celebration of the old Hollywood system. An effective reason for Frank Tashlin's limited reputation is his association with Jerry Lewis, with whom subsequent generations of Americans have had big problems. Frank Tashlin's extremist humor parallels the rise of rock and roll in its abrassive and loud obsession with sex during the fifties. The idea of affirmative sexuality seems to be in conflict dramatically with critical preconceptions about film comedy of the 1950s. To admit Tashlin is admit popular culture at its most radical. And that just wouldn't seem like the fifties. As Gore Vidal observed: "Although the United States is the best and most perfect of earth's societies, we have yet to create a civilization, as opposed to a way of life." Lewis's loony male neurotic—who inhabitabed a space of imminence— was hatched by American culture in the Fifties. 

Jerry Lewis is the embodiment of the Fifties hysteria in its most clinical form. His grotesque tics may be seen as powerful expressions of an underlying social insanity. Scott Bukatman describes how Lewis's whole career had been largely involved with acting out his own warped masculinity. The very explicitness of Jerry Lewis's movement toward delirium and lunacy, as well as obsessive male paranoia, legitimated him to the rank of genius by French critics. The theme of the Double in Jerry Lewis's films had even converted Truffaut from stern critic to admirer. Robert Benayoun noticed the consistency with which Lewis's characters "fragment into doubles or distorted aspects of themselves." Tashlin's fusion of surrealist outrage and Hollywood cinema attracted the attention of the militant surrealists of Positif magazine and Cahiers du Cinéma in France, who saw his comedies with Lewis as bearding the legacy of surrealism. —"Laughing hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s" (1996) by Ed Sikov

"Jerry Lewis represents the sole unconcerned, unworried individual in today’s terrifying world," wrote Robert Kass in his article about Lewis in 1952.  Dean Martin was the suave crooner who got the girl, and Jerry Lewis was his manic, apelike sidekick who caused problems. After his split with Martin, Lewis altered his persona radically, bringing to the fore a latent sentimentality and combining it, occasionally awkwardly, with his trademark nutty behavior. This important change crystallized in Lewis’s first solo film, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). The film’s romantic subplot, in which Sidney falls for Patricia (Mary Webster), is handled with none of the flailing immaturity that typically marks Lewis’s characters’ infatuations with women.

If on-set reports are accurate, Lewis appears to have had more creative control over Cinderfella (1960) than over any of his other Tashlin pictures; the film’s heavy sentimentality is generally seen as evidence of this new Lewis persona. Howard Prouty writes that Lewis “appears to have cut about nine minutes” from the film; Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen assert that Lewis “drastically altered the structure of Tashlin’s script by cutting most of Tashlin’s gags.” In this way, the film might perhaps better be regarded as belonging to the Jerry Lewis oeuvre than to Tashlin’s. David Ehrenstein makes a similar claim, adding that Lewis made the changes against Tashlin’s wishes, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that Lewis used Cinderfella as a dry run for his directorial début (The Bellboy) in 1960. 

The last scene in Cinderfella, in which Fella and the princess (Anna Maria Alberghetti) finally fall for each other, contains no elements of comedy. Rather, both Lewis and Alberghetti play the scene with misty eyes and forlorn expressions. The next pairing of Tashlin/Lewis It’s Only Money (1962), was one of their zaniest. The final two collaborations with Jerry Lewis that followed: Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964). Like the cartoons, most of Tashlin’s live-action features are frontally composed; many are shot in so staid a fashion as to appear stage-bound. This frontality is partly a function of Tashlin’s reliance on performative comedy, a tendency that in itself evokes vaudevillestyle comedy. Tashlin admitted to letting Lewis’s performance determine the placement of his camera. That he allowed Lewis to play a part in dictating his camera placement reveals the general frontality of Tashlin’s features is an adaptation to the fact that a highly controlled mise-en-scène is far less easily achieved in live-action film than in animation. Frontal camera placement is, for Tashlin, the best way to allow performative comedy to unfold. 

Comedians who had worked the Borscht circuit had to be, like vaudeavillians, well-versed not only in joke-telling, but in singing, dancing, mimicry, and juggling. The Borscht Belt comedians relied on spontaneity and extemporaneousness. The summer resorts in the Catskills Mountains is where Jerry Lewis obtained his impressive improvisatory skills. Lewis’s uncommon gift for verbal comedy was not lost on Tashlin. More than any other director Tashlin understood Lewis’s mastery of these dimensions of performance. Tashlin uses Lewis’s penchant for disruption to engage one of his own preferred comic modes: diegetic rupture. Indeed, of all Hollywood genres, comedy is the one that most readily lends itself to such techniques as diegetic rupture and (self) reflexivity, techniques also frequently found not just in Godard films, nor just in the films of the French Nouvelle Vague, but in art cinema films in general. —"Tashlinesque: The Hollywood comedies of Frank Tashlin" (2012) by Ethan de Seife

“Every so often in the annals of Hollywood critiques, there appears a fulsome treatise executed by some literary figure of the hour who has gone to Movieland to do a writing chore; and invariably he writes a memoir.” Frank Fenton never got around to writing a memoir. With a resume of over 60 feature films and television shows over a 40-year career, he was too busy for self-reflection. Fenton was establishing himself as a proficient scenarist of B-films when the above-quoted lines appeared in the November 1938 issue of The American Mercury. He would pen several other fictional short stories about the Hollywood movie scene whose posturing he mocked. Another Fenton piece, “Boy Meets Gorilla,” was published in Collier’s the following month. His story of a Hamilton, Ohio, hick who is transformed into an acclaimed Hollywood writer-producer after saving a movie star from a gorilla on the set of a South Seas potboiler was a spot-on satire of Tinseltown pretentiousness. Fenton the man is nearly as elusive as his first novel “A Place in the Sun,” 1942. The respected California writer-historian Carey McWilliams believed A Place in the Sun was one of only four novels (including Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, John Fante’s Ask the Dust and The Boosters by Mark Lee Luther) “that suggest what Southern California is really like.” Frank Fenton’s description of pre-war Los Angeles in A Place in the Sun:

“Down the foothills into the city the air changed. The lingering mist of morning fog was rising and in the fog there was the salt flavor of the sea. Then the shreds of fog melted and the great yellow and white city lay at the mercy of the sun. It was all beautiful. A million bungalows and mansions of all conceivable architectures; flowers he could not name, and trees he had never seen before. A strange and wonderful city. It was not like some Middle-Western city that sinks down roots into some strategic area of earth and goes to work there. This was a lovely makeshift city. Even the trees and plants, he knew, did not belong there. They came, like the people, from far places, some familiar, some exotic, all wanderers of one sort or another, seeking peace or fortune or the last frontier, or a thousand dreams of escape.

And all these malcontents had joined in a dreamy effort to create a city of their dreams… A themeless city with every theme. Chicago, St. Louis and Denver had each been different; each had its own sordidness and strength and fury. Each was lusty and titanic in its own way, joyful and somber in its own way, and each was indubitably American. But not this Los Angeles. It had the air of not belonging to America, though all its motley ways were American. It was a city of refugees from America; it was purely itself in a banishment partly dreamed and partly real. It rested on a crust of earth at the edge of a sea that ended a world.”

A Place in the Sun would be eclipsed in the public's mind by the 1951 Academy Award-winning movie of the same title directed by George Stevens, adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Despite his essential contributions, Frank Fenton’s name was omitted from the credits of Out of the Past (1947) in favor of Daniel Mainwaring, who added a final polish to Fenton’s rewrite and got sole screen credit with his Geoffrey Homes pseudonym. —"Frank Fenton’s Hollywood Nocturne" by Alan K. Rode (Noir City #22, 2017)

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