Times may have changed, but for years conversationalists who knew nothing about France except that french fries came from there always had a great fall back position: "You know, they worship Jerry Lewis movies." Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope analyzes the urban legend, while passing on some of his own notions regarding "highbrow critics (the only kind France has)".

When I was Paris once, I can remember reading the newspaper Le Figaro's review of "Allo Maman, C'est Moi Encore" (Hi Mom, It's Me Again better known as Look Who's Talking Too). The review began, as I recall, "What's more droll than a talking baby? Two of them!" Sheesh, that's more highbrow than Richard Roeper even! The Lewis libel is what is the novelist Gustave Flaubert called "a received idea," a bit of folk wisdom passed down uncritically from one ignoramus to another.

Now in Flaubert's never-finished novel "Bouvard et Pechuchet" a pair of questing intellectuals hit one dead end after another, before giving up on the life of the mind. It's believed that the second and more readable part of the book is supposed to be the two main characters' handiwork before quitting. And that book within a book is Flaubert's hilarious Dictionary of Received Ideas. (Note Flaubert's definition of "Disgusting": it's the proper word to use for a work of art which Le Figaro will not let you admire. Unlike Look Who's Talking Too.)

I mention all this because of a Jean Luc Godard quote in the PFA calendar describing Frank Tashlin's 1955 Artists and Models as "an acme of stupidity, but an acme in the same way Bouvard and Pechuchet was." There's the smoking gun evidence of French praise of Le Jerry, though it seems Godard is praising a particular Lewis film as an acme (n., a height, the tip-top). Artists and Models must be the acme of the team of Martin and Lewis, anyway. Here the super-suave Dean romances a Greenwich Village comics artist, whilst his roommate Jerry plays an idiot out of his mind with superherophilia. It's Frank Tashlin's boisterous, rainbow-colored satire of the comic-book wars, the Cold War, and the confusion of the real with the ideal. If worshipping this musical makes me French, just call me Pierre.

On a billboard scaffold, Rick (Dean Martin) is practicing the artist's trade, painting lips on a lady's face for a cigarette advertisement. Inside, his roommate and helper Eugene Fullstack (Jerry Lewis) is drugging himself with a pile of The Bat Lady comics. They try to engage the machinery that will make the billboard puff out smoke (like this real life Times Square landmark). Following some Three Stooges level slapstick that it would be better to watch than describe, the two join the ranks of the unemployed. The days are bad; they're broke. Dinner is one lone bean on a plate. The nights are worse, since all of Eugene's comic book reading has not only simplified his brain but they giving him screaming nightmares that wake up the entire building.

In the middle of a toddler-style night panic, Eugene ascends the stairs and bursts in on a new tenant ... who happens to be Abby (Dorothy Malone) the artist responsible for The Bat Lady comics. She is currently posing her regular model Bessie Sparrowbrush (Shirley MacLaine); she stands on a pedestal, caped, cowled and posing for the next issue. Accustomed as Rick is to his roommate's idiocy, he refuses to believe Eugene's claim that he saw the Bat Lady in person. During the daylight hours, the pair remeet their neighbors upstairs. Dean is more interested in the artist, while the unmasked Bessie has a thing for Jerry, although she refuses to use her secret identity to seduce him.

All is not well in the Bat Lady publishing empire. Abby's publisher (Eddie Mayeoff) is panicky at the drop in sales, which he sees as due to the lack of violence in the comic. To prove his point, he brings in a desensitized maniac child (George "Foghorn" Winslow) who throws knives and growls for "more blood!". Nobly, Abby quits and decides to collaborate on an insipid kid's book Eugene is writing about the adventures of Goosey Goose. But when Rick meets the publisher, he pitches a comic based on one of Eugene's serial nightmares, about the Hawkman-like Vincent the Vulture.

So far so good; Rick transcribes on a note pad as Eugene rants in his sleep: "The gore is oozing from his tail!" But trying to win Abby, Rick has to hide his violent handiwork. Meanwhile, a version of the Dr. Wertham's crusade against comic books has been launched, as described in David Hadju's current book The Ten Cent Plague, with Eugene on the witness stand, repenting his funny-book habit: "because of reading comic books I am a little retarded." Then a pack of Communist spies enter the picture. One (Zsa Zsa Gabor) steals the Bat Lady suit while trying to lift a rocket fuel formula; the government orders Rick to romance her, to Abby's great suspicion; ultimately the day is saved, and Eugene's Bat Lady fetish is cured.

Tashlin's brand of comedy spins off his time of working with Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson and the other luminaries of the Termite Terrace. He was the only one who graduated to live action feature films, and part of this must be due to his invention and sense of story structure. There's as much of Freud and Die Fliedermaus in this comedy as there is in ordinary slapstick and innuendo. Tashlin had a finely-tuned sense of the comic and the importance of building a gag. The already solid story is livened with sketches, like Lewis's scene at a massage parlor: the scene becomes a horizontal game of Twister and very nearly an orgy. Tashlin's films deserve study from anyone else trying to crack the barrier between live action and animation.

Like all great showbiz teams, Martin and Lewis gave each other qualities each one lacked. Lewis jolted Martin out of his impassiveness, which could get chilly. And as straight man Martin kept the plot moving, turned a damper on Lewis when he was riffing too long, and brought music to the story. (There's a really triumphant musical number, where Dean leads a pack of street urchins around to celebrate his payoff for polluting the world with Vincent the Vulture comics.)

In the days of the Hollywood studios, there was always extra room allowed for craziness in a musical. Even so, Tashlin's subversion of the traditions are remarkable. Something you always see in old musicals are glamor girls in gowns, standing stock still and looking decorative. Note that the ladies in Artists and Models' title sequence are trying not to crack up laughing, as if the director had been joking with them while the camera is running. The glamor sequence in the finale of Artists and Models Ball is particularly crazy: painter's pallette in which showgirls emerge from piles of mauve, periwinkle and shocking pink crinoline: a riot of pop art before pop art even began.

There is also a lot of flesh in this movie, but to be fair Tashlin also gets Dean Martin's clothes off. The gratuitous shower scene of today anticipated by the gratuitous Dean Martin bathtub scene of yesterday. I was a lot more interested in Shirley MacLaine in a tiny goldenrod-colored sunsuit, chasing Lewis up and down the stairs, and pirouetting off the rails to corner him: a veritable ballet of lust. Remember that the many-times reincarnated formidable star of today once was this tiny and very chemical redhead with a body meant for the comic books.

Some people wonder why comic books persist in an age of widespread electronic media; the upcoming Free Comic Book Day is trying to get readers back to the comics shops. Still, the cross-pollination between cinema and comics continues like never before. Slur them as snooty foreign gesticulators...but the French were the first to realize this was the wave of cinema's future.

categories Features, Cinematical