NOTE: Our screening of Artists and Models on May 19 was our second-lowest turnout of the season (just above the Wheeler & Woolsey film) with an attendance of only 56. Admittedly, with a Technicolor film like this, the impact is lessened if shown digitally. Had this been a 35mm IB Technicolor print, screened in a theatre, the experience would’ve been out-of-this-world. Regardless of the format, though, we should’ve had a larger turnout for this one. It’s a film about super-hero comic books, but we didn’t have one young adult in attendance.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the biggest comedy act of the 1950s. They surpassed the popularity of Abbott & Costello, who had been box office champions throughout most of the 1940s. Martin and Lewis first met in 1945 and debuted as a team in 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Dean Martin, a former boxer who hailed from Ohio, was the nightclub singer, and Jerry Lewis, a New Jersey kid who made an act out of lip-synching to records, was the comic. Unlike the earlier comedy teams, their background was not in vaudeville or Broadway. They emerged from the East Coast nightclubs. It was here where audiences first experienced the energy, spontaneity, and improvisation of Martin & Lewis. Theirs was a more unhinged style of comedy, and it skyrocketed them to fame in venues like New York’s Copacabana Club.
By the late 1940s, Martin & Lewis had made it into radio and television. In 1949, Paramount signed them to a contract and they provided the comedy support in My Friend Irma. They were the featured stars in 1950’s At War With the Army. Throughout the decade, they starred in several films such as Sailor Beware and Living It Up. Dino always played the romantic lead who’d sing a few songs. Jerry would be his charge, the little brother-type who’d always be messing things up. The films had a formula that succeeded at the box office. They even had a cameo in a Hope/Crosby “Road” movie, The Road to Bali. But Artists and Models, released in the middle of the decade, was a notch above the others as a result of the exceptional direction by Frank Tashlin.
Tashlin had been a wandering animator who bounced around town at various studios in the early 1930s. His best work in this field, though, was done at Warner Brothers where he directed many of their best cartoons including those featuring Porky Pig. Tashlin brought a flair for visual gags to his live-action movies. Artists and Models, which is about the love of comic books, is in some ways a cartoon come to life. Tashlin would direct their next film as well, Hollywood or Bust, which was their last film as a team. In addition to films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Tashlin directed many of Jerry Lewis’ solo efforts like Cinderfella. But Artists and Models remains a career high for Tashlin and Lewis.
The film has Dean and Jerry as a couple starving artists in Greenwich Village. Jerry, as Eugene, likes a little ketchup on his one bean. Dean, as Rick, aspires to be a painter while his roommate Eugene wants to write children’s books—when he doesn’t have his nose in a “Bat Lady” comic book. In his sleep, Eugene has nightmares about “Vincent the Vulture,” which keeps Rick up at night. These dreams pay off when Rick uses them to start his own comic series. Dorothy Malone is the artist behind the Bat Lady comic and Shirley MacLaine is the Bat Lady model– both of whom conveniently live in the upstairs apartment. Trouble ensues when it’s revealed that Eugene’s dreams contain half of a secret power formula sought after by foreign agents. Top secrets are being sold at the corner newsstand! The terrific supporting cast includes Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, and Eddie Mayehoff as the comic book publisher, Mr. Murdock. This was only Shirley MacLaine’s second film but the first of many she would make opposite Dean Martin. One of the most memorable at this time was Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running.
Artists and Models is essentailly a time capsule of ‘50s pop culture, from the debate over the harmful effects of “horror literature” like comic books to the science fiction craze popular at the time. As a bit of trivia, the spaceship model seen in the laboratory was actually a miniature used in Paramount’s Conquest of Space. In 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die, critic Adrian Martin writes of the film’s relevance, “Like Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Frank Tashlin’s crazy comedies exaggerate to the point of subversion the popular values of the American 1950s. Tashlin’s terrain was the media-sphere of advertising, TV, movies, and showbiz. By gleefully embracing and slyly satirizing this ‘plastic’ arena of clichés and stereotypes, he anticipated Pop Art.”
Artists and Models is a film I saw for the first time in a History of Cinema course taught by an avid Jerry Lewis fan. Though not a Martin & Lewis fan myself, I could see that the film had a lot going for it, including some terrific songs such as “Innamorata,” which was specifically written for the film and performed by Dean Martin. Additionally, Artists and Models features gorgeous Technicolor which adds to the comic book dimension of the story. And most importantly there was the visual comedy of Tashlin, who brought his animator’s sense of the absurd to the production. When Eugene plays on an empty board as though it were a piano, to the tune of “When You Pretend,” it recalls some of the surreal touches of Stan Laurel, whom Lewis greatly admired. Tashlin’s sight gags, including the opening in which Jerry gets sucked though an air tube, is like something out of one of Tashlin’s old cartoons. In these moments, Jerry is a comic book character brought to life.
There would only be one more Martin & Lewis film after this. The team would break up and go on to have successful solo careers. Jerry Lewis became “The Nutty Professor” and a cultural icon while Dean Martin became part of the legendary Rat Pack. The two would reconcile twenty years after their last movie. By then, the bitterness of the split had receded. But for ten years, the two were inseparable. They were a team like no other. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that they made an indelible mark on American pop culture. All these years later, only Jerry Lewis remains of the golden age comedy teams. Films like Artists and Models best showcase what made them comedy legends.