Friday, March 13, 2015

Recommended!: Artists and Models (1955)

In a time long before Jerry Lewis was making asinine, out of touch comments on the abilities of women to be funny, he enjoyed a partnership with singer/actor Dean Martin that propelled both of them into fame. With the manic, slapstick Lewis playing off the smooth urbane Martin, the pair leaped from success to success, on stage, radio, television, and finally feature films. Before their tempestuous split in 1956 they made over a dozen motion pictures, of which Artists and Models was one of the last. Directed by Frank Tashlin, a free-spirited storyteller with a background in animation, the movie was something of a fulcrum upon which Lewis transitioned from his partnership with Martin toward becoming a solo phenomenon and filmmaker in his own right, his style largely springing from the cartoonish, satirical style of Tashlin.

Its aspects of historical interest aside, Artists and Models is simply a great mid-50s Hollywood comedy, both expertly balanced and completely off the rails. The Martin and Lewis chemistry is in full effect with the two playing combat buddies hustling for work in New York, eventually winding up (through some insane story mechanics I won't spoil here - I doubt you'd believe me anyway) in the comic book industry. The story acts across a number of axes: Martin/Lewis crosses Dorothy Malone and Shirley MacLaine (both more than game as the artist and model upstairs), high art crosses low, reality crosses fantasy. Released in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent, Frederick Wertham's frothy and overwrought tract delineating the comic book industry's blitzkrieg on the morals and mental health of our youth, the movie fires off salvos on all sides of that conflict, juicing both the violent and colorful insanity of the comics and the addled, moralistic hand-wringing of those who would ban them.

If Tashlin's trademark satire isn't quite as well-formed as it would be in later movies, his command of Technicolor is in full display here, with much of the movie looking like its comic books come to life. It's insane from first frame to last, the weird gentleness of its satire and the warmth of its humanity offset by the bombast of its visual gags. Many of the references will sail right over the heads of younger viewers, who'll nevertheless feel like Lewis (and, in a lovely streetside musical number, Martin) are performing just for them. Not quite a heralded comic classic, and ripe for your (re-)discovery. Let it happen to you.

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