Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and Edward Small

Rock-a-Bye Lewis

Three With (But Not Directed By) Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis cited director Frank Tashlin as his mentor when he finally stepped behind the camera. You can see what he brought to the Lewis persona in Rock-a-Bye Baby (Olive), Tashlin’s third film with Lewis, but his first with Lewis as a solo act.

Ostensibly a reworking of Preston Sturges’ great 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, writer/director Tashlin spins an entirely new story from the premise. Lewis is likable small town goof Clayton Poole, whose unrequited love for local girl turned Hollywood superstar Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) makes him the perfect secret babysitter when she discovers that she’s pregnant just before taking her role in a Hollywood costume epic. Like its inspiration, the film insists that she’s married (she just can’t prove it), but then it exiles her to focus on Lewis as a doting guardian of three orphaned girls, with a little help from the babies’ grandfather (Salvatore Baccaloni, playing the hot-tempered yet sentimental Italian immigrant father of two independent daughters) and young aunt Sandra (Connie Stevens in her first major role), a lively all-American girl with a hopeless crush on Lewis’ goofy child-man.

Tashlin, an animator before he turned to live action filmmaking, was all about the gag and helped define Lewis as a walking cartoon, the rubberface spastic adolescent in a grown-up body. And yes, he is a walking disaster, but here he’s also oddly sweet as he watches over triplets. Sure, they’re mostly props, but they also become a kind of audience for performances he plays directly to them, child-man to infant, and in these sequences Lewis starts to take over. Where Tashlin tends to unleash a succession of one-off gags, Lewis riffs and builds on them, such as a scene of Clayton in a cloud of baby powder. The jokes themselves aren’t always as funny as Tashlin’s sight gags, but they follow one from another more organically and Lewis plays them like a sustained series of variations that build to an actual narrative conclusion. Tashlin’s hand is more evident in his pop-culture lampoons: Lewis as an wild-eyed rock and roll singer with no actual talent beyond energetic shouting and gesticulating, Marilyn Maxwell’s Egyptian costume epic transformed into a silly musical with a cheesy nightclub number. (For a film not considered a musical, there are plenty of musical numbers sprinkled through the film, some serious, some straight-out spoofs.)

Style and subject aside, the defining difference between Tashlin and Lewis can be found in Sandra. This teenager is much more of a Tashlin girl than a Lewis girl, feisty and forward and, for being something of a bobby-soxer, quite sexually aggressive. In Lewis’ own films, such women are terrors. In Tashlin’s world, they are the kinds of women who get their way. This splits the difference.

Jerry Lewis: All worked up and ready to burst

The romantic dynamic, however, is a cartoon cobbled together from both sensibilities. In flashback, Clayton (played by Lewis’ son Gary Lewis) and Carla are schoolkids the same age, but back in the present Marilyn Maxwell looks a decade older than Lewis as his most mature. Lewis could drop ten years just by planting a child-like grin on his boyish mug and letting his posture go all fidgety and loose-limbed, yet even at his most regressed he looks a good decade older than Connie Stevens’ all-American modern teenage girl, the kid sister to Clayton’s crush who could be her daughter. No wonder papa is so set against this romance! And it just gets more queasy when (spoiler alert, sort of…), in the film’s coda, Sandra reminds Clayton that they are now married and able to start a family of their own and Clayton, with a grin and a jump in his step right out of a Tex Avery cartoon, rushes off to share the marital bed with what seems to be a teen bride. Lewis’ repression and denied desire meets Tashlin’s release, and they live physically ever after.

Also released this week is their next collaboration The Geisha Boy (Olive), with Lewis as a second-rate magician who bonds with an orphaned Japanese boy while on a USO tour of the far East, and a film with Lewis in a much different key.

Lewis is altogether more adult as a woman-hungry journalist competing with swinging bachelor Tony Curtis in Boeing Boeing (Olive), a door-slamming sixties sex farce set in the City of Lights where the two stars share top billing (in a revolving credit that favors neither one of them). Though based on the French stage comedy, the winking smart-alecky cynicism and mercenary scheming has as decidedly American feel in its attitudes toward American anti-heroes in love and war. Mostly love. Or at the very least sex on tap. The continental dishes are all fantasy stereotypes of an American imagination, walking cultural clichés of European sexual invitations, and their measurements (possibly exaggerated, but certainly enticing) are listed along with their names in the opening credits. John Rich hasn’t the visual imagination of either Tashlin or Lewis and this unfolds like a filmed stage play. It’s mostly notable for Lewis discarding the child-man flailing and mugging to play straight man, romantic rival and sexual saboteur in the revolving door of stewardesses who think they are the only woman in Curtis’s life.

All three films on Blu-ray and DVD in movie-only editions (no supplements).

The Big Ambitions of Edward Small

Independent producer Edward Small thought big even when his budgets were small.

His 1934 production of The Count of Monte Cristo (Hen’s Tooth), starring British import Robert Donat as Edmund Dantes and produced outside of the major studios (without the great resources available to most Hollywood films as a matter of course) is a perfect example. The sweeping tale that winds through the halls of power, the homes of the aristocracy, and Napoleon’s march to reclaim France, ends up driven largely through scenes of characters in small rooms conversing, plotting, and proclaiming, with the budget saved for a few impressive set pieces. While those scenes—including a duel with swords in a drawing room, a grand display of aristocrats arriving for a ball (without ever showing the ballroom itself), and a handsome courtroom set with a moving witness stand that gets pushed around the floor like a prop in a dance-off—enliven the story, the rest of the film is slow and static and creaky, stopping dead for monologues and exposition to explain what the film can’t afford to show. Director Rowland V. Lee, a silent movie veteran who settled into second-tier sound productions, is given an impossible task of making a small, underfunded costume adventure look like a studio production, but his almost reverent treatment of every scene merely slows the film down and reveals its threadbare origins.

Donat, almost fatally passive as the stalwart and idealistic Edmund, becomes commanding when he remakes himself as the aristocratic Count, conniving his way into friendships and social connections while he plots his righteous vengeance, and whatever life the film has is owed to him. Louis Calhern stands out as the lead villain. Otherwise this is a weak version of the story that rewrites Dumas to give it a happy ending: instead of being destroyed by his obsessive revenge, he is cheered on by the widow and the son of his first victim and rewarded for his efforts with redemption and restoration of his dreams. Though the DVD boasts a “new digital transfer from a 35mm Fine Grain,” it is a weak, grainy image from a print that shows signs of degradation.

Louis Hayward confronts himself

The Man in the Iron Mask (Hen’s Tooth), released just five years later in 1939, is significant step up in every way. Not only has the budget and scope been expanded, creating a much more lavish and sweeping canvas, but director James Whale (coming to the end of his Hollywood career) energizes the production. The action is more lively, to be sure, with smartly-designed crowd scenes and a big clash between the Musketeers and the king’s soldiers that suggest a bigger scope than it actually shows, but Whale turns the dialogue into a duel in its own right, with the advisors currying favor with the corrupt King Louis XIV and the Musketeers jabbing away with witty comments.

I’ve never been a fan of Louis Hayward, whose primary talent seemed to me an ability to play vanity and insincerity with complete conviction, but he’s perfectly cast as the lascivious and tyrannical King Louis XIV, a sadist who smiles at the sound off the executioner and practically glows as he plots the tortures of his enemies (he even scares his self-serving advisor Fouquet, played with sinister graced by Joseph Schildkraut), as well as the chivalrous (but still somewhat cocky) Philippe of Gascony, who in this free adaptation has been secretly raised by D’Artagnan (Warren William) and the Musketeers as heir to their dashing legacy. But I have long been a fan of Warren William, once the charming but predatory wolf of pre-code cinema (see Skyscraper Souls, Employees Entrance and Golddiggers of 1933, just to name a few) and by 1939 a just-as-charming anti-hero in the Lone Wolf mysteries. There’s a twinkle in his eye as the aging D’Artagnan, always ready for a scrap (generally with a smile), always prepared to sacrifice himself for justice, honor and friendship. And while Joan Bennett has not the strength of presence that she will later bring to Man Hunt and Scarlett Street in just a few years, she is up to the role of Princess Maria Theresa, Louis’ betrothed.

Like The Count of Monte Cristo, this is independently produced by Edward Small, but this time he lavishes studio-quality resources on the film, and Whale, a director whose creativity, wicked sense of humor, and sophisticated sensibility elevated productions as wide-ranging as Waterloo Bridge, Bride of Frankenstein, and Showboat, fills the screen with physical action and dramatic crackle. The disc looks better too, mastered from a nice 35mm fine grain print. There’s a little damage in some frames, but the image itself is stronger and sharper, with good detail and contrast.

Both films are DVD only, no supplements.

Available from Amazon:
Rock-A-Bye Baby [Blu-ray]
Rock-A-Bye Baby [DVD]
The Geisha Boy [Blu-ray]
The Geisha Boy [DVD]
Boeing Boeing [Blu-ray]
Boeing Boeing [DVD]
Count of Monte Cristo (1934)
Man in the Iron Mask (1939)