WEIRDLAND: Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, The Age of Anxiety

Monday, March 05, 2018

Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, The Age of Anxiety

Dorothy Dandridge has some fun with Jerry Lewis before she sings "Julie," at the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony. Ms. Dandridge, who was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones (1954) at the 1955 ceremony, had just presented the award for Special Effects with Mr. Lewis.

The idea that we are all roles played clumsily by our fantasies and desires is psychologically corrosive stuff, especially coming from a film as garishly colored as The Nutty Professor. The relationship between Lewis’ two performances—one an extreme version of a klutzy persona he’d been developing since the 1940s, the other an over-the-top self-parody—is open-ended. “You might as well like yourself,” murmurs Kelp in his climactic speech, the sweetest and most poignant moment in Lewis’ body of work. “Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you.” But which “you” is that exactly? One can debate The Nutty Professor’s merits as comedy (we here at The A.V. Club happen to think it’s pretty damn funny), but it’s definitely art. That’s more than you can say about most serious, Oscar-winning performances. Source:

The publication of Ethan de Seife’s lively study of Frank Tashlin in 2012 provides an opportunity to reconsider the work and legacy of one of the most inventive practitioners of American screen comedy. Tashlin gained experience as a director by working for several key animation studios through the 1930s and early 1940s – including Disney, Columbia’s Screen Gems and the Leon Schlesinger unit at Warner Brothers, purveyors of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies gagfests. Despite personal friction between them, Schlesinger clearly appreciated Tashlin's contribution to the stylized comic antics of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and company. As de Seife shows through his admirably detailed analysis, Tashlin brought a distinctive style to animated comedy. As cartoon historian Michael Barrier points out, Tashlin’s work for Warner Brothers was distinguished by an unusually ‘cinematic’ approach to animation, as he packed his 7-minute short films “with cartoon equivalents for claustrophobic closeups, deep focus, and oblique camera angles, in scenes that suggested F.W. Murnau more than Walt Disney”. In between engagements at the cartoon studios in the 1930s, Tashlin wrote material for comic performers at the Hal Roach lot, contributing to films featuring Laurel and Hardy. From the mid 1940s, he worked as a gagman-for-hire on films starring the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. His valuable input into the Hope vehicles Monsieur Beaucaire (1946) and The Paleface (1948) led to Tashlin being entrusted with directing retakes for The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) which was a box-office success and amply demonstrated Tashlin’s talent as a director of live-action comedy. He would helm 22 films over the next 17 years - ending his Hollywood career where he began, with Bob Hope (in the 1968 wartime farce The Private Navy of  Sgt. O’Farrell).

Serving frequently as both writer and director, and sometimes as producer, Tashlin specialized exclusively in comedy. While several of his films rely on narratively articulated comic scenarios – especially the sexual comedies Marry Me Again (1953), Susan Slept Here (1954) and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) – half of Tashlin’s feature output is built around comedians who were trained in the performance milieus of US variety entertainment (vaudeville, burlesque, Borscht Belt resort hotels, or nightclubs). After The Lemon Drop Kid, he made two further comedies with Bob Hope – Tashlin’s most sustained comic partnership, however, was with Jerry Lewis, whom he directed in two of the final Martin & Lewis screen vehicles, and then in six of Lewis’s subsequent solo ventures. As de Seife suggests, Lewis’s hugely contested status, as both comedian and filmmaker, has tended to overshadow Tashlin’s critical reputation, but their collaboration was clearly crucial to both men.

During his late 1950s heyday, Tashlin was championed by critics of the influential French screen journals Positif and Cahiers du Cinema. Jean Luc Godard coined the adjective ‘Tashlinesque‘, which de Seife borrows for his examination of Tashlin’s cinematic career from his early cartoon work through to his final, faltering films of the 1960s. Tashlinesque offers a deft combination of textual analysis and historical research. Tashlin’s approach to screen comedy was influenced not by the European wit and sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch but by the distinctively American tradition of popular humor that was nurtured in the performer-centered realm of variety entertainment. This vaudeville aesthetic, as Henry Jenkins (1992) terms it, provides the common ancestor of the Schlesinger unit’s gag-based cartoons, the slapstick comedy of the silent era, and the films of subsequent comedians such as Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis. For De Seife, Tashlin’s work “provides the most extensive, compelling case study of the deep generic connections between Hollywood animation and the American comic tradition”.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of critical interest in Lewis as a performer, a filmmaker and a hotly contested celebrity. For his part, Tashlin always referred to Lewis in friendly and respectful terms. In a recent interview with Fujiwara, Lewis distinguishes films such as Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), to which the two men contributed equally, from Cinderfella (1960), which was more a Lewisian project, whereas in Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964) Tashlin was the main creative force. By contrast, de Seife argues that Rock-a-Bye Baby, Who’s Minding the Store? and The Disorderly Orderly are all closer to the films Lewis directed than to Tashlin’s work, asserting that Lewis’s input serves to jam the transmission of Tashlin’s comic specialties. As he sees it, these are schizophrenic films that are torn between Lewis’s sentimentality and modularity and Tashlin’s interests in bawdy humor and the gag-narrative axis. 

As a director, de Seife comments, “Lewis pushed to extremes the use of a modular, gag-based narrative”. Instead of regarding this as a purely negative attribute, one could flip the valuation around to suggest that this approach liberated Lewis’s filmmaking from fictional constraints and allowed him to explore other structural possibilities. The Ladies Man (1961) and The Errand Boy (1962) are highly idiosyncratic and imaginative films that question orthodox understandings of comic practice and response, with Lewis refining Tashlin’s use of the non-gag and investing it with deconstructive purpose. It is simply not the case, as de Seife asserts, that Lewis jettisoned sex-oriented comedy to pursue a wholesome star image. Even a cursory glance at such Lewis-directed films as The Ladies Man or The Nutty Professor (1963) attests to the centrality of sexuality to his work, although he offers a far less conformist understanding of sexuality than is found in Tashlin’s films. 

Joanna Rapf argues, for example, that The Ladies Man delivers a critique of patriarchal assumptions. In this film the woman-shy Lewis figure Herbert H. Heebert enters a stylized world of aspiring female performers, where he is allowed to shake off the demands of patriarchal masculinity. De Seife’s blindness in this regard seems a product of his self-appointed mission to rescue Tashlin from Lewis’s shadow, and this does impair his otherwise valuable study. One could even argue that the sexual humor de Seife values so highly, and so unquestioningly, may actually be one of the most significant limitations of Tashlin’s comic art.  As Lewis’s directorial career flourished through the 1960s, Tashlin’s faltered. The book is rather tentative when it comes to identifying the causes of Tashlin’s decline, although de Seife does point to the presence of waning or unsuitable (Doris Day) stars. De Seife ends with two chapters that depart from the chronological structure that coordinates the rest of his monograph. Chapter 7 seeks to evaluate Tashlin’s contribution to US cinema by comparing him to auteur-directors such as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, who invested their films with their creative personalities and, on the other hand, to efficient technicians such as Norman Z. McLeod and Norman Taurog, who helmed more generic ‘program pictures’. He concludes that Tashlin was a director who blurred the line between the two groups, as “an auteur who directed program pictures.” —Spirited Vulgarity: Frank Tashlin as Comic (2013) by Frank Krutnik

The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993: Two new meta-analytic studies show that anxiety has increased substantially since the 1950's. In fact, anxiety has increased so much that typical schoolchildren during the 1980's reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950's. The findings appear in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. First, large panel studies have consistently found that younger cohorts show more, and longer, episodes of depression. Some psychologists have gone so far as to label this effect a modern epidemic of depression (Seligman, 1995) or age of melancholy (Hagnell, Lanke, Rorsman). Other authors have noted that lack of connection in a society may produce alienation and feelings of loneliness and despair. Western societies have experienced a noticeable decrease in "social capital" (broadly defined as social connectedness and a sense of community) since the 1960s (Putnam, 2000). 

"The results of the study suggest that cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades," says psychologist Jean M. Twenge, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University. The type of anxiety looked at in these studies is known as trait anxiety, the individual differences in anxiety-proneness, which is different than state anxiety, a temporary emotion experienced due to a particular situation. Why the increase in anxiety? In both studies, anxiety levels are associated with low social connectedness and high environmental threat. During the study period, social connectedness decreased because of higher divorce rates, more people living alone and a decline in trust in other people. "Our greater autonomy may lead to increased challenges and excitement, but it also leads to greater isolation from others, more threats to our bodies and minds, and thus higher levels of anxiety," said Dr. Twenge. The study also cites increased media coverage as a source of a greater perception of environmental threat since the 1950's. Social connectedness has not improved very much since the early 1990's. "Although divorce rates have decreased somewhat, the percentage of people living alone continues to increase, and levels of trust are still declining," said Dr. Twenge. "Until people feel both safe and connected to others, anxiety is likely to remain high." Source:

The film industry changed drastically during the mid-sixties involving a shift in the tastes of the audience, film techniques and also of the film production. During the fifties, each film studio would put out sixty films per year. In the late sixties and early seventies the entire industry put out roughly sixty films per year. Gloria Jean (born April 14, 1926) co-starred in 26 feature films between 1939 and 1959. Upon the (bad) advice of her agent, Gloria decided not to renew her contract at Universal in 1946, and when she returned to Hollywood, she found diminished interest in her career. Gloria began a second career with Redken, a national cosmetics firm, where she worked until 1993.

Jerry Lewis signed her for a singing role in The Ladies Man (1961), although Gloria appears only as an extra and has no dialogue. It was her last theatrical motion picture. "Jerry Lewis called me. When I walked into his office I saw him smiling. But the important thing is he wanted to help me, to give me a chance to get started on my career again. And as for Jerry's wife Patti, I am sure she realizes that he is one of the kindest, most unselfish men in the world. He's the only other man I've ever met I would compare to Dick [Powell]." Her authorized biography, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, was published in 2005. Gloria notes perspicaciously that there is a serious lack of original voices in today’s musical landscape. "When you hear somebody sing, they never carry the melody. I can’t believe that the singers today don’t really sing. To me, it isn’t music." 

Quinn O'Hara (1941–2017) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland as Alice Jones. She co-starred in low-budget productions as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Cry of the Banshee (1970). O'Hara's first official acting role that got her into the Screen Actors Guild was a commercial for Lifeogen, which was oxygen in a can in case of emergency. Her big screen debut was in an uncredited bit part in The Errand Boy (1961) directed by Jerry Lewis, where he plays a goofball· hired by the CEO of a movie studio, Paramutual Pictures, to spy on his employees. O'Hara would go on to work with Lewis again in The Patsy (1964), playing the minor role of a cigarette girl. "Jerry was fantastic to work with," exclaimed Quinn. "Of course he was a crazy man but also a real perfectionist. His office had clowns all around it. But Jerry is quite a deep person too and has a lot more depth than people think. He was quite different than he comes across on film." Lewis also hired O'Hara for a role in Who's Minding the Store? (1963), but her scenes were cut. Coincidentally, Lewis' costar in that movie is another fiery redhead, Jill St. John (whom O'Hara describes as a very cruel person).

Sue Casey began the '60's playing a party guest in the musical Bells Are Ringing (1960), starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin. ("In the musical number 'Drop That Name,' Judy's character looks in this window, and we are all standing around wearing these gorgeous sleek gowns. The dresses were, so tight that we couldn't sit down in them so they had to provide leaning chairs for us.") In 1961, Casey did a bit role in The Errand Boy, her fifth time working with Jerry Lewis. "He is a fascinating guy and way ahead of the times," comments Casey. "He was the first director to use a monitor while filming if he wanted to save the shot. He was always very nice to me. I had been working with a children's charity called The Footlighters for years and he was always very generous towards us." During the '60s, Casey continued playing bit roles in such major MGM and Paramount productions as Where Love Has Gone (1964), and The Carpetbaggers (1964), directed by Edward Dmytryk. —"Drive-In Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-Movie Starlets of the Sixties" (2012) by Tom Lisanti

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