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Artists and Models

Artists and Models(1956)

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teaser Artists and Models (1956)

Between their debut in 1946 and their rancorous breakup in 1956, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis shot to the top of American show business. Their nightclub act, featuring Dean Martin as the crooner and straight man and Jerry Lewis mugging as the spastic child-man comic, made them stars. They appeared on TV, made their big screen debut as comic relief in My Friend Irma in 1949, hosted their own radio series from 1949 to 1953 and conquered television as hosts of their own hit variety show from 1950 to 1955, all while releasing anywhere between two and four films a year.

Artists and Models (1955), based on the unproduced play Rockabye Baby, was a comedy inspired by the comic book craze and the censorship battle over increasingly violent and suggestive content in the horror and crime comics of the fifties. Producer Hal Wallis, who has Lewis and Martin under contract, was impressed with the rewrite by Frank Tashlin and handed him the directorial reigns. Tashlin was an animator at Disney and directed dozens of Looney Tunes cartoons for Warner Bros. before leaping to feature filmmaking as a screenwriter and, later, a director in his own right, and his knack wild gags and cartoonish comedy made him a good fit for Lewis's manic style. The subject was also a natural for Tashlin, who wove gags spoofing popular culture all through his films and went on to satirize rock and roll in The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and advertising and television in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).

Martin plays an out-of-work artist and Lewis a would-be author of children's books, best friends and roommates who are constantly losing jobs thanks to Lewis's knack for comic disasters. Their break comes about thanks to Lewis's obsession with the lurid "Bat Lady" comic book, which gives him such vivid nightmares that Martin starts writing down the wild stories he dreams up at night and sells them to the comic book company. The plot goes on to include foreign spies and femme fatales, and Martin sings five original songs (one of them a duet with Lewis) including "Innamorata," which hit number 27 on the hit parade and become one of his signature tunes.

Dorothy Malone was cast as Martin's love interest, a comic book illustrator who draws the "Bat Lady" series, and Shirley Maclaine plays Malone's young friend and model, who falls for Lewis. It was only the second feature for the young actress, following her screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1950), and the first that showcased her talents as a singer and dancer in a comic duet with Lewis. Eva Gabor plays the Hungarian spy who believes that Lewis has top secret government information and Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, at the time under contract to John Wayne's company Batjac, was cast in a supporting role. She returned for the final Martin and Lewis film, Hollywood or Bust (1956), essentially playing herself.

Lewis hit it off with Tashlin immediately and Tashlin become something of a mentor to Lewis. Tashlin consulted with Lewis on the staging and filming of his comedy scenes and showed him the ropes of film directing. "Frank's my teacher," Lewis told Peter Bogdanovich in 1962, and Tashlin returned the compliment: "Jerry is my best friend: I know if ever I were in need, all I'd have to do is make a phone call."

By the time Lewis and Martin started shooting Artists and Models (1955) the partnership was unraveling. The pace of their work schedule was grueling and Martin was frustrated as Lewis was increasingly given bigger roles in their films and he was relegated to colorless supporting parts, a formula that producer Wallis perfectly happy with as long as the films made money. But Martin was a professional and they had a contract to fulfill. Lewis, however, was itching for more control over his films and fought with Wallis throughout the shoot, arguing on the set and halting production while the cast and crew waited for him to arrive on set. The film went over schedule and over budget, which resulted in cutting a musical production number from the schedule. Wallis blamed Lewis for the overruns.

The critics were unkind, finding the film silly and Wallis formula far too familiar, but audiences made it a hit and in subsequent years it has been hailed as one of the best, if not the best, screen pairing of the comedy team. Tashlin channels Lewis's manic energy into inventive gags--as described by Lewis biographer Shawn Levy, the director "used Jerry's physicality--the gangly limbs, the elastic face, the sound-effects voice--to wring out the sort of gags he could have constructed previously only with animation cels"--and provides space for Martin to have some fun of his own on screen. As a cartoonist and illustrator in his own right, Tashlin sketched many of the sequences (including the opening credits) and filled the screen with a riot of primary colors.

Martin and Lewis only made two more films together as a team--Tashlin, in fact, directed their final pairing, Hollywood or Bust (1956)--before Martin split with his longtime partner to concentrate on his own singing career and expand his acting career beyond straight man to Lewis. Tashlin went on to direct Jerry Lewis in six solo films and inspire Lewis to become a director in his own right. Both of them did pretty good for themselves as solo acts.

By Sean Axmaker

Who The Devil Made It?, Peter Bogdanovich. Knopf, 1997
Who The Hell's In It?, Peter Bogdanovich. Knopf, 2004
Frank Tashlin, ed. Roger Garcia. Editions du Festival international du film Locarno, 1994.
King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, Shawn Levy. St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.
Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Nick Tosches. Doubleday, 1992.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films

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