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There’s Soul in Late Jerry Lewis Films — and Some Laughs

If the mid-career of Jerry Lewis — the post–Dean Martin era, the years of films like The Nutty Professor, The Disorderly Orderly, and The Errand Boy — is often treated as a joke, the actor-director’s late career may as well be a bitter punch line. To get a really derisive snort, just mention The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis’s 1972 film about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, which has never seen the light of day. Lewis himself has said, “You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”

You won’t see The Day the Clown Cried when Anthology Film Archives presents “Jerry Lewis: The Completed Retrospective,” a gathering of three films directed by Lewis in 1970 and 1980, pictures that were unavailable when Anthology organized its 2009 retrospective of Lewis-directed films. Be forewarned: This trio of little-seen movies — Which Way to the Front (1970), One More Time (1970), and Hardly Working (1980) — aren’t for Lewis neophytes, or for detractors who are thinking it might be time to rethink their dismissal of Lewis’s gifts. The humor of late Lewis is broader and more desperate than the stealthily cerebral sight gags and rubber-legged pratfalls you see in movies like The Bellboy, from 1960, or the googly-eyed genius of the pictures he made with Martin in the 1950s, like the Frank Tashlin–directed Hollywood or Bust. In Lewis’s later films, you can practically see him digging in harder to re-hook the audience he’d lost. But that in itself is compelling, and these movies come to mean more when you know something about the circumstances under which they were made.

Lewis was coming off a magnificent 10-year filmmaking high when he directed Which Way to the Front? (in which he plays a rich American playboy who, after being classified as 4F, wangles his way to war-torn Europe and impersonates a Nazi general) and One More Time (which Lewis directed but doesn’t appear in — it’s a vehicle for his friends Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and a sequel to the 1968 Richard Donner–directed comedy crime-caper Salt and Pepper). Lewis made 16 movies in the 1960s; 10 of those he either produced, directed, or wrote (or some combination of the three). Maybe just as significantly, he had never really gotten over the 1956 bust-up of his enormously successful 10-year comedy partnership with Martin — the duo were as popular in their day as the Beatles were in theirs, and like the Fab Four, the dissolution of this close friendship and collaboration was deeply personal as well as professional. As Lewis would explain in his extraordinary, heartbreaking 2005 memoir, Dean & Me, he and Martin played their last show on Tuesday, July 24, 1956: “When I awoke on Wednesday afternoon,” Lewis wrote, “I understood how an amputee must feel.”

What’s more, by the mid-1960s Lewis had been pulling off astounding physical stunts for years — he was injured more times than probably even he could count, and more often than not he got right back up and kept working. That pattern of neglected injuries caught up with him by the mid-1960s, when an allegedly helpful doctor finally prescribed Percodan. By 1978, Lewis writes in Dean & Me, he was taking up to 13 tablets a day.

If Lewis’s brand of genius is a little off the rails in his ’70s movies, you can understand why. But those movies deserve a more careful look than they’ve been given. You’ll find stray moments of brilliance, like the bit in Which Way to the Front? in which Lewis’s faux-Nazi general tries to talk his way past a checkpoint. “I must have the password!” roars the official in charge, to which Lewis responds, in a radiantly phony German accent, “Well, if you have it, then protect it, stay with it, don’t lose it, keep it forever!” In Hardly Working, Lewis plays an out-of-work clown who tries, with virtually zero success, to hold down a real job. He finally lands one at the post office, where he dons a zippered cardigan and an inherently foolish-looking shorts-and-kneesocks combo. When his new boss sits him down in front of a carton of Dunkin’ Donuts, he eyes them longingly, surreptitiously caressing the edge of the box, until the boss man asks if he’d like one. He eagerly accepts, taking a bite out of one, returning it to the box, and selecting another — and another. The gag is pure late Lewis; he’s a demonic kiddie and a full-grown egomaniac rolled into one.

But it’s One More Time that drops the most tender clue into the trials and travails of Lewis’s life. Lawford and Davis play business partners and best mates in London when it was still swinging — they run a successful nightclub, but need to scrounge up a wad of dough after a run-in with the law. Lawford’s Christopher Pepper turns to his identical twin (played, of course, by Lawford himself) for help and is rebuffed. When the twin is murdered, Chris takes his place, but doesn’t clue in his closest pal, Davis’s Charlie Salt, who thinks his best friend is dead.

One More Time is intermittently enjoyable for lots of reasons, not least of which is Davis’s parade of amazing, groovy threads. (He never met a brocade Nehru jacket he didn’t like, which is just one of the many reasons to love him.) The movie also often lets him show off his singing and dancing chops, and one of these moments is strangely poignant: Believing his best friend to be dead, Charlie lopes his way down the long, winding staircase of a British castle, crooning the kind of ballad you’d sing for a lost lover. You could paste readings of vague or outright homoeroticism on this sequence, but that would be a simplification. The scene is notable in the context of what it might have meant to Lewis personally, even some 15 years after losing the friendship of Martin, the man he has always referred to as “my partner.” Lewis and Martin did reconcile, tentatively, toward the end of Martin’s life (he died in 1995). Regardless of sexual orientation, friendships between men are delicate things, and Davis’s ballad in One More Time touches on some of the things that men who love each other can never bring themselves to say. Sure, love hurts. But not nearly as much as comedy.

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Karen Wyman

A 16-year-old sensation back in the Dean Martin television series day, she’s singing again after a long hiatus. Is she belting even better now than she did then? One thing for sure is that she’s acquired the emotional depth she’ll tell you she didn’t possess as a teenager. Calling the stint “The Second Time Around,” she’s supported by no less than John Oddo at the piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, and longtime associate Eddie Caccavale on drums. No, folks, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Starts: Feb. 5. Continues through Feb. 27, 2014

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Yukking in the 70s: Dean Martin Roasted Celebrities as He Got Fried

While guest-hosting a TV variety show in 1964, Dean Martin ridiculed a hot new rock ’n’ roll act with his trademark blend of cocksure innuendo, aw-shucks buffoonery, and inebriated syntax: “Now, something for the youngsters — five singing boys from England. . . . They’re called the Rollin’ Stones. I been rolled while I was stoned myself, so [pause, audience laughter] I don’t know what they’re singing about, but here they are at.” After the lads performed Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Dino ushered them offstage, quipping, “They’re gonna leave right after the show for London — they’re challenging the Beatles to a hair-pullin’ contest.” Years later, bassist Bill Wyman, still miffed, recalled another zinger from that day, when Martin described a trampoline acrobat as “the father of the Rolling Stones. He’s been trying to kill himself ever since.”

Imagine: A band that made its bones by being offensive taking offense at a disrespectful elder. Perhaps they consoled themselves by imagining that the crooner was whistling past the graveyard of musical obsolescence; actually, they were just too young to appreciate a kindred spirit, a performer whom no less an expert than Elvis Presley had dubbed “The King of Cool.” With the release of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition (StarVista, six DVDs, $59.95), you can judge anew whether the tall, dark, and handsome baritone born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, still deserved his crown as he and his cronies yukked it up during the twilight of an improbable, uniquely American, career.

In his magisterial biography Dino, author Nick Tosches describes Martin (1917–1995) as a natural-born singer who expanded effortlessly into nightclub comedy and a wide variety of roles on the silver screen. But despite his fabulous wealth and perennial popularity, Martin, according to Tosches, found little solace and even less meaning in his boundless success, maturing into what Dino’s hoodlum pals termed a menefreghista, Italian for someone “who simply did not give a fuck.” In his early singing career Martin was serendipitously teamed with a rubber-faced comic named Jerry Lewis, and their ad-libbed mayhem was an instant smash on the high-rolling nightclub circuit. In 1948, Dean began landing his songs on the pop charts; during the next year, he and Lewis embarked on a lucrative string of ludicrous comedies on the big screen. Lewis once said, with little financial exaggeration, “Can you pay two men $9 million to say ‘Did you take a bath this morning?’ ‘Why, is there one missing?’ — Do you dare contemplate such a fuck and duck? Yet that’s what we did.”

The act broke up acrimoniously in 1956, but by then Dean already had a bundle of top-10 songs, and there were plenty of solo roles awaiting him in Hollywood. Although Martin’s performances received decidedly mixed reviews, he was vindicated by boffo box office. The star was laconic about his acting style; later in his career, one director told Look magazine, “Dean doesn’t like acting, really. We set scenes up so that he only has to work in short spurts.” In the same article Dean dismissed method acting: “Motivation is a lotta crap.”

In 1965, when NBC introduced The Dean Martin Show, Dean found his true metier: indifference. The crooner opened with his mega-hit “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which the year before had knocked “A Hard Day’s Night” out of Billboard’s No. 1 slot and remained there for eight weeks. For his premiere, however, Dean warbled only a few bars, quipping, “No point in singing the whole song; you might not buy the record.” Next up: Dean and his guests cracking wise around a set built to look like a bar, a duet with old pal Frank Sinatra, and plenty of jiggling cleavage and high-stepping gams.

In its review, the Christian Science Monitor sniffed that if Dean “were anymore relaxed, he’d fall on his face,” adding, “One wondered, watching Dean, whether this man cared whether his show went over or not.” But, as Tosches relates in his filigreed prose, “the Dean Martin Show was an immense and immediate success. His uncaring manner and good-natured boorishness endeared him to the millions who were sick of sincerity, relevance, and pseudosophistication. Dean was a man whose success and fortune no man begrudged him. He seemed somehow kindred, one of them but blessed beyond them by the Fates. In him, for one late hour before the final day of every workweek, the multitudes, tired and half-drunk and onward-slouching, found something of their own: lullaby and vindication, justification and inspiration, a bit of boozy song and a glimpse of gal-meat.”

In 1973, producers brought the format of the New York Friars Club roast to the show, relieving Dean of any preparation at all save donning a tux and keeping his glasses handy for reading cue cards. Between that year and 1984, Dean hosted more than 50 roasts, 12 of which appear on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition DVDs, and they offer a time capsule of comedy spanning from vaudeville throwbacks Jack Benny and George Burns right up through some of the era’s hottest comics, including Flip Wilson, Rowan and Martin, and Freddie Prinze. The formula is simple: An announcer welcomes a bevy of roasters — some of whom, such as standup comics Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and Nipsey Russell, and impressionist Rich Little, were basically regulars — followed by host Dino and the Man or Woman of the Week. The gang chortles amid a haze of cigarette smoke and everyone hoists drinks like it’s the fall of Rome, but what really redlines the Wayback Machine are the jokes. For the Sammy Davis Jr. roast, Dino’s opening quip imagines the NBC peacock wearing an afro, the first salvo in a barrage of cracks about the Klan, riding in the back of the bus, and Davis’s copious jewelry. There are also digs about Sammy’s obsequiousness toward Sinatra, a spectral presence in these 12 roasts, notable for his atrophied sense of humor. Comedian Jan Murray emphasized Ol’ Blue Eyes’s vindictiveness by warning Davis that if he kept closing his Vegas act with “My Way,” Sinatra’s signature tune, “You’ll wake up tomorrow morning with the head of a watermelon on your bed.”

Everyone on the dais was hip enough to acknowledge the malevolence of racism while also accepting it as an ongoing way of life in these United States, a sort of “use those ignorant rednecks for material” attitude. Occasionally, African-American performers inverted the formula, as when Sanford and Son’s Demond Wilson pretended to forget roastee Jack Benny’s name, saying, “You’re that nice Jewish boy who used to be on Rochester’s show.” Wilson added, with an exaggerated stage smile, that Benny had done much for black people in America: “Before Jack came along, everybody thought blacks were only fit to be shoeshine boys and railway porters. The Jack Benny program proved to America that they could also be chauffeurs, dishwashers, and houseboys.” Finally, pointing out that the black characters on the old Amos ’n’ Andy radio show were played by whites, Wilson called Benny a visionary, who’d hired a black actor to play Rochester on his radio show because “he knew that television was coming and it would’ve cost him a fortune in burnt cork.”

One repeated Rickles shtick is shouting gibberish in the cadences of an African-American preacher; he would then face the camera with an “I don’t understand what they’re saying either” shoulder shrug. But when Rickles heckled Muhammad Ali during a 1976 roast, the heavyweight champ rounded his gaze upon the comedian, who immediately turned subservient: “I drive the school bus and you go to school.”

Ali replied, “You’re not as dumb as you look, boy.”

Some jokes reveal the inroads of gay lib on the nation’s consciousness, as in Orson Welles’s louche surprise as he performs a dramatic reading of Dean’s hit song “That’s Amore”: “‘Like a GAY tarantella’? Apparently Dean has a side we know nothing about.” But the proceedings become more antediluvian when Rickles, in the same roast, professes, “I love my wife. [Pause] But my wife is ill,” and then introduces blonde Police Woman star Angie Dickinson with “I’d like to bring on this girl. And when we bring her on, let’s have the whole dais attack her.”

You know we are in the age before MADD when Gabe Kaplan, of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, jokes that he was going to enter Dean in the Drunken Olympics Decathlon: “Ten drunks trying to find their cars.” And woe to the comic who had to follow any of Foster Brooks’s inebriated alter egos, including Jack Benny’s accountant, Martin’s Boy Scout master, Jackie Gleason’s personal physician, or, most uproariously, the illicit lover of Rickles’s wife: “Don, I really must compliment you on your spouse, Missus [burp] Missus Pickles. I say that because she’s a real dilly. And I must also admit you have a very lovely home. Incidentally, you’re out of scotch.” It is great fun to watch Brooks stumble into character as he approaches the podium, and then, when his crapulous bit ends, straighten up and stride back to his seat, suave in his neatly trimmed beard and silvery mane, looking like the prototype for the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign. The other comics simply shake their heads in admiration.

For political junkies, there are plenty of Watergate jokes in earlier episodes, such as a 1974 introduction of Rickles as “the only civilian that was ever impeached,” or Rowan and Martin, in the Bicentennial year, mocking our nation’s only appointed Commander in Chief: “John Wayne has never run for president.” “Well, neither has Gerald Ford.” The shows often seem edited with Ginsu knives — occasionally, a roaster is welcomed to the dais but never makes it to the lectern. During the Davis roast, the diminutive song-and-dance man explodes twice in exactly the same gatemouth roar, 30 minutes apart, his hands flailing, a duplicate reaction shot meant to ensure that no viewer misses Sammy’s double-fisted bling collection.

In his Dino biography, Tosches is cruelly melancholy on the Celebrity Roast sunset of Martin’s career, noting that some segments were taped at the NBC studio in Burbank and others at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which meant that “guests often delivered their lines to empty chairs or pretended spontaneous laughter at words that had been uttered in another state.” Lamenting the “ten-writer assembly line” that cranked out “canned happiness,” which he felt imbued the show with “the quality of a relentlessly monotonous and vaguely disquieting dream,” Tosches renders his ultimate judgment: “It was a dais of despair. They sat at banquet tables at either side of the podium: the undead of dreamland and the fleeting stars of the television seasons.”

But as critics sometimes do, Tosches was substituting his own expectations and disappointments for those of the fans. Sure, to a bare-knuckled Virgil of the shadowlands like himself, a nightclub bruiser such as Gleason was old hat. But for millions of viewers who knew Gleason best as the hard-luck Brooklyn bus driver with a heart of gold, it was a revelation to see his calmly menacing bulk lounging at the lectern with gold pinkie ring, gold cigarette case, gold lighter, and gold cufflinks all glittering. When he says to Russell, “Just think, if you were white, you coulda been Sammy Davis Jr.,” we glimpse the standup heavyweight as captured in “Pafko at the Wall,” Don DeLillo’s rip-roaring opener to his novel Underworld: “Gleason got his start doing insult comedy in blood buckets all over Jersey and is still an eager table comic — does it for free, does it for fun, and leaves shattered lives behind.”

Bingeing on the discs’ 12 episodes as opposed to viewing them spread out as they were over their original air dates reveals some lazy bits. A favorite Rickles routine runs, “I know [fill in name of celebrity on the dais] is a great [singer, comedian, athlete, etc]. How do I know this? Because ([he/she] told me so backstage just before the show.” But for the most part, despite repetition, Mr. Warmth’s delivery, expressions, and gestures all kill, whereas Rich Little’s imitations of Jimmy Stewart’s fractured speech quickly grow stale. And, love or disdain them, 1970s roastees like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Lucille Ball are shining stars for the ages; by 1984, Joan Collins seems pretty low-wattage.

And so we are left with a final question: Was Dino really as smashed as he always appeared to be onstage? Among the scores of drunk jokes directed at the master of ceremonies, one from Brooks pretty much sums it up: “The last time you and I were side by side, somebody [hiccup] stepped on my tongue.” But after Martin’s death, on Christmas Day, 1995, his old friend and colleague Joey Bishop swore that there had never been any drinking during working hours. “He had, in his J&B bottle, apple cider.” If so, Martin’s drunkard persona was worthy of the Oscar he was never nominated for.

Martin’s enduring charm resided in his insouciant indifference. If the ultimate joke asks, “What is the meaning of life?” Dino’s style embodied the punchline “Who cares?”

So give him the last word, from the close of his very own roast. “I’ll remember this night,” [squint at cue card, smile] “until I get to my car.”

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Almayer’s Folly

One of the year’s most hypnotic and fascinating films, Chantal Akerman’s newest is a provocative adaptation of Conrad’s novel of the same name, an “exotic” tour through the wet jungles of Southeast Asia and a superbly crafted old-school melodrama complete with a ravishing half-blood temptress (Belgian-Greek-Rwandan beauty Aurora Marion) and a big dose of colonialist comeuppance. Conrad’s 1895 story is set in 19th-century Borneo, but Akerman has nudged it to the ’50s Cambodia, where the bitter titular Frenchman (Stanislas Merhar) nevertheless refers to his recalcitrant native wife as “the Malaysian.” (The dialogue is French and Khmer.) Stuck in the jungle while waiting out a failed gold mine, Almayer must give up his half-caste daughter for a convent education. But wait: We’ve already seen Nina (Marion) grown up in the film’s entrancing opening, as a Khmer dandy lip-syncs to Dean Martin’s “Sway,” gets knifed mid song, and spurs a dreamily dancing Nina to saunter up to the camera for a mega close-up and croon Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” in Latin. Time hopscotches, but Nina’s sequestered absence and then return to the forest, fierce and hateful and full-bodied, is the story’s main crucible, a sultry and uncontrollable riposte to self-pitying Euro privilege in the colonies. Typically for Akerman, it’s an intensely rhythmic, brooding, and contemplative movie, but the iconography of maddened white men lost in the Torrid Zone wilderness never gets old.

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WHAT A NUT

Jerry Lewis turned 82 this year, but it’s doubtful that the original Nutty Professor, who rose to fame in the 1940s as half of the comedy team Martin and Lewis, has grown up any. Known for wise-cracking his way through interviews, Lewis should keep the audience in stitches as he discusses his career with his longtime friend director-actor Peter Bogdanovich at the King of Comedy, presented by the Museum of the Moving Image. Throughout the talk, you’ll see clips from such films as The Nutty Professor, The Errand Boy, and The Ladies Man and from Lewis’s television appearances with Dean Martin on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Maybe he’ll even do a “Laaa-dy!” for old time’s sake.

Sat., Nov. 22, 7 p.m., 2008

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Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s Frank Acts

A performance by Monica Bill Barnes puts strange thoughts into my head. Do I want to take her home and sit her on a sofa so her big eyes can follow me around and keep my life from feeling humdrum? Or do I want to lock her in the attic? Suddenly Summer Somewhere, her new duet with Anna Bass, is no different. Barnes is a small, very pretty woman who moves big; she’s grabby with space, springy, vibrant with life. But she most often presents herself and her dancers as awkward, uncertain, teetering on edges we don’t even know exist.

The pair stride into view and position themselves at two mics that have up to now been used by audience members brave enough to sing along with Frank Sinatra. Tonelessly, Barnes and Bass echo Dean Martin rendering “I Love Vegas.” Only a blackout separates that mismatch from a scene in which the women, wearing dowdy coats, stand face to face on top of a small table set with a few dishes. A clock, its pendulum swinging, hangs behind them. Slightly hunched, staring glassy-eyed past each other, they take cautious, shuffling steps forward and back, as if the danger of falling were great. On some level, maybe it is. Oops, there goes a plate.

As Sinatra (mostly) sings a parade of seductive golden oldies, they perform a number of inscrutable acts. Barnes lies on her belly, digs her chin into the floor, mouth open, and curves one arm out like a broken wing. Then she rises, goes over to the table where Bass still stands, grabs her by the ankles and shakes her hard.

To “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” they execute a deadpan foxtrot side by side and put on mean faces. To “Call Me Irresponsible,” they button up the coats they’ve unbuttoned, hug each other, and smirk. One of them poses, and the other lugs her around. No one’s a smoothy on this bumpy metaphoric dance floor. Another time, when they attempt to hug (to “You Make Me Feel So Young”), their straight, stuck-out arms won’t mold into anything resembling an embrace; they move to different spots and keep trying. But Barnes gets happier when Bass pushes her into little flights as they circle the floor.

In the end, Barnes, about to remove her coat, has to stop and prop Bass up before she falls. When she sheds the garment and stands on it in her glittery little maroon party dress, Bass is bending lower and lower. Maybe I won’t take either of these two home: The world needs them in all their sour glory.

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In Living Color

Half a century ago this summer: Elvis on TV, the surrounding hysteria approached only by that around dead star James Dean; Ike poised for re-election; Marilyn Monroe marrying Arthur Miller, who has just defied HUAC; liberation movements gathering momentum in Alabama and Eastern Europe; Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Searchers still playing drive-ins, The Ten Commandments set to drop, and in production, The Girl Can’t Help It!

Revived for a week at Film Forum, The Girl Can’t Help It is the garish acme of CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color, monumentally loud and blatantly exploitative —a veritable Parthenon of vulgarity and a supremely unfunny comedy that is pure eau de Fifty-Six. This satire of Elvis and Marilyn (or rather, of their clones) shimmers with radioactive pinks and cobalt blues; at once strident and static, the movie defines the atomic-Wurlitzer chrome- tailfin Fontainebleau-lobby look. Producer-director-co-writer Frank Tashlin is one of the very few Hollywood directors who broke into movies as an animator and, like the Dean Martin–Jerry Lewis comedies that preceded it, The Girl Can’t Help It is something like a live-action Looney Tune.

Every aspect of The Girl Can’t Help It is at once secondhand and bigger than life. Malibu doubles as “Long Island,” home of Edmond O’Brien, a retired gangster who favors plaid tuxedos, has a Vermeer on his wall, and desires nothing more than to transform fiancée Jayne Mansfield into any sort of star. (She is already a Kabuki goddess with blindingly platinum, blonder-than-blond tresses and contours that make Jessica Rabbit seem like a bunny-hopping denizen of the Nature Channel.) With unerring irrationality, O’Brien hires alcoholic press agent Tom Ewell to perform his particular publicity voodoo. Like America’s, the resultant success is universal and banal beyond anyone’s dreams. The idea is so much more magical than the achievement . . .

Leading man Ewell is wizened, dyspeptic, and so lacking in charisma that he is easily upstaged by the jukebox that blasts out the movie’s unforgettable title song—appropriated by John Waters some 15 years later as the only appropriate way to introduce his 300-pound gender-blur Divine. Having lusted after Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Ewell gets to make out with an imitation Marilyn—devised by 20th Century Fox to punish the original after she left the studio. Self-conscious self-referentiality is Tashlin’s stock in trade, along with a case of alienation so severe it dares not speak its name. Jayne’s unconvincing desire for domesticity suggests one automobile industry observer’s characterization of the newly elongated, blatantly forward-thrusting, gaudily two-toned 1955 Chrysler: “Marilyn Monroe as a housewife.”

Grotesque stereotypes collide with billboard-sized caricatures. This proto Pop Art pathology might be too painful to contemplate were it not for the exotic life forms flourishing around its periphery. Climaxing with a rock show performed for an audience of teenage white zombies, The Girl Can’t Help It is populated by all manner of failed honkers and would-be cool cats—as well as Fats Domino, the Platters, a gospel-shouting Abbey Lincoln, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent (his band, the Blue Caps, wearing actual blue caps). The coolest presence ever recorded by a Hollywood camera may be Little Richard, first seen standing entranced before a piano—as if wondering whether to pulverize or incinerate it.

Julie London is on the set as well—she plays herself as a manifestation of Ewell’s delirium tremors. Instead of the checkered demons and pink elephants he normally sees, the drunken flack hallucinates London sprawled across his rumpled bed chantoozing “Cry Me a River.” But, beyond good or evil, The Girl Can’t Help It belongs to Mansfield—a computer-generated image before the fact. (The Girl and Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? have been newly released as part of Fox’s Mansfield DVD box.)

Squealing and purring, Jayne sashays like Mae West through this raucous, new-minted rock ‘n’ roll world—so abstract that even the sparkles have sparkles. It hardly seems coincidental that she’s given the name “Jerri” to match the Ewell character’s “Tom” and echo the famous cartoon cat-and-mouse combo of the 1940s.


Film Forum is following The Girl Can’t Help It with a week of Tashlin features and one program of his animated cartoons. The two forms should be seen together. Tashlin’s animations are characterized by cinematic angles and editing, even as his features are implacably anti-natural.

An actual and metaphorical flatness heightens the sense of artifice. Gags are callous and the laws of physics flouted with impunity. Bob Hope drives a car across an abyss at one point in Son of Paleface (1952), and his delayed response to Jane Russell’s charms is typical Tashlin: Hope nonchalantly lights his pipe; it unfurls like a party whistle as smoke pours out of his ears; his body spins while his face remains fixed front, drooling over Russell’s bodice. There is a sense in which Tashlin’s best jokes aren’t really funny. But neither is a pas de deux.

Tashlin may have been only Jerry Lewis’s idea of an intellectual, but his oeuvre is a Bartlett’s of mass-culture quotations: His cartoons parody contemporary movies and comic strips; his films typically revolve around some aspect of American mass media. Hollywood or Bust (1956) concerns the movies. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) satirizes advertising. Tom Ewell plays a TV writer in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956). Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis produce comic books in Artists and Models (1955).

For Tashlin, the media constituted a single system. In Artists and Models, Lewis overhears The Honeymooners‘ “Ralph Kramden” fighting with his wife “Alice” in the apartment upstairs; later, Dean Martin dances with “Shirley Temple” and the “Little Rascals,” and when he serenades Dorothy Malone, it is noted that he sings like the guy who sang “That’s Amore,” i.e., Dean Martin. The social context is a nation of robotic image junkies. The movie fans in Hollywood or Bust and Rock Hunter are typical. In Artists and Models, Lewis is exhibited on TV as evidence of “what can happen to the human brain on a steady diet of comic books” while art is synonymous with idiocy. The movie’s insipid, if outrageously derriére-garde, finale has Jerry and Dino duel with their brushes to body-paint showgirls in plumed headgear: “On the streets of Montmartre, there’s a Frenchy kind of art . . . ”

On the back lot in Burbank, however, Tashlin is the original pop-culture Pop Artist. Artists and Models, which ranks with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as his quintessential movie, opens with Dean Martin painting the lips on an enormous billboard face—James Rosenquist before he discovered his destiny. Like Roy Lichtenstein, Tashlin cartooned cartoons; like Andy Warhol, he represented stars as representations of themselves. His landscapes, where they exist, look like molded plastic. They have the fetishized surfaces, at once seductive and repellent, of a Tom Wesselmann still life. The guy couldn’t help it.

Along with Douglas Sirk, Tashlin embraced American vulgarity in all its lurid, widescreen splendor, deploying flesh-and-blood caricatures as if to cast Sirk’s most famous title: Imitation of Life. That one director made “comedies” and the other “melodramas” hardly matters. Both trafficked in Technicolor flesh tones and laminated sheen, the supreme garishness of mid-’50s consumer culture—the flat, flaming all-American inauthenticity that Euro-theorists like Eco and Baudrillard would, decades later, term hyperreal.

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Film

Why, back in the epochal summer of ’56, did Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis declare it splitsville? Was it the seven (actually 10) year itch? Professional jealousy? Sibling rivalry? The ascendance of Elvis? Lewis’s memoir Dean & Me doesn’t lack for world-historic perspective: “In the age of Truman, Eisenhower, and Joe McCarthy, we freed America,” he begins. “For ten years after World War II we were not only the most successful act in history—we were history.”

Among other things, Lewis reveals that both he and Martin had been lonely kids with rejecting parents, attributing their onstage chemistry to an “X factor” defined as “the powerful feeling between us.” Dean, nine years older, was the big brother he never had. Showbiz savvy Martin protects his naive junior partner on a number of occasions, their intimacy peaking when big bro rummages through little bro’s pubic hair in search of crabs. It’s a hilarious scene with Lewis totally in character, yelling about seafood as Martin applies the tweezers.

There’s plenty of other heartwarming stuff—did you know that Frank Sinatra never called Lewis anything other than “Jew”? (” . . . and I loved it.”) Or that Jerry got all the good reviews, while the critics relentlessly piled on Dean? And while Lewis gave Martin “scores of presents,” Martin never gave him one damn thing in return? So why, other than the fact that (reading between the lines) Dino seemed pretty fucking sick of Jer, did the guys break up? Read Dean & Me to the bitter end and you’ll discover that, so far as Lewis is concerned, they never have. He still dreams about Martin, “maybe once a month” since his death: “He’s almost always young, tan, still unbelievably handsome—indestructible.”

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Smooth Sailing: Cruising for Beers at This Former Sailor Bar

Rumored to have been a sleazy WWII-era sailor bar, the casually fabulous Nowhere slipped largely unnoticed onto the East Village gay scene exactly a year ago. But now an enticing crowd can be found there—both at happy hour and during late nights. Owned and managed by the crew who gave you the Phoenix and Brooklyn’s own Metropolitan, it offers the same wide-open atmosphere that makes its sister bars so popular—one relaxed enough for your straight pals, and yet cruisy enough to keep the sexual tension on a steady simmer for all concerned. The cozy, semi-basement Nowhere also boasts purple-and-gold brocade wallpaper, stiff (but reasonably priced) drinks, and a jukebox that offers everything from the latest Magnetic Fields and Loretta to vintage Love, Dean Martin, and Dolly. Behind the imposing carved wooden bar you’ll find an ex-model and a brace of would-be rock stars whose collective good looks and charm make it well worth finding this treasure, wedged between a cell phone joint and a tacky hair salon. For the ursine-inclined there’s Big Lug night every Tuesday, where burly, bearded gents and their admirers gather for $2 PBRs, free peanuts, and the opportunity to discuss Star Trek, hankie codes, and Atkins with relative impunity.



bars@villagevoice.com

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Shopping Districts

You need a button. Just one button, for that vintage jacket you bought at a stoop sale, perfect in every regard save the missing fastener.

Fortunately, you’re in New York. Elsewhere you might be reduced to scrounging through an inadequate selection at the local Wal-Mart. Here, you’ll find a whole street dominated by BUTTON PURVEYORS—39th between Seventh and Eighth, to be exact. In the cramped confines of stores like La Button Boutique (250 West 39th), you can rummage through dusty boxes for the perfect match. This being part of the mostly wholesale garment district, you’ll have a minimum purchase of $3. In the surrounding blocks—known in common parlance as the MILLINERY DISTRICt back when people wore hats—you can pick up a variety of other trimmings and notions, from tassels to tiaras.

Ask longtime New Yorkers where to get a given item and they’ll toss off the answer after fluttering through the Yellow Pages in their minds (feathers? 36th and 37th streets). Not only that, they’ll assure you that they know where you’ll pay the best price. The city, if you know it well enough, is like an enormous, more-or-less-organized closet. Retailers and wholesalers of various goods and services tend to clump together, exposing themselves to the vicissitudes of competition in a supreme—if sometimes doomed—display of capitalistic confidence. Shoppers come away with the illusion, at least, of having gotten a deal.

The DIAMOND DISTRICT, centered on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, may be the best-known example of the phenomenon. Show up around 10 a.m. or so, and watch as dozens of shopkeepers set out their wares in window after window, tenderly dusting off the velvet throats of their display models and draping them with glittering gold and jewels. Upstairs, dealers move most of the diamonds that enter the United States. Within the malls at street level, you can pick up a $20,000 diamond ring or a safe to keep it in; if you’re in a divesting mode, follow the blinking red signs offering LOANS.

Head up Seventh Avenue through one of the city’s tackier shopping sections: the TOURIST JUNK DISTRICT, where you can buy all the Statue of Liberty snow globes and animated Dean Martin statuettes you could ever want. On 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, in a row of shops selling MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, are the once-dueling retailers Manny’s and Sam Ash, where they’ll sell you anything from a harmonica to an acoustic bass. Manny’s, where Hendrix used to shop, was bought out in 1999 by its rival, so the semblance of competition between the two is today just that. But independents remain, including the International Woodwind and Brass Center (up the dingy stairs at 174 West 48th), and a tiny adjacent storefront hawking accordions. Colony Music, at the corner of 49th Street and Broadway, will supply the score.

Around Rockefeller Center is a cluster of shops selling FOREIGN-LANGUAGE BOOKS. Looking for Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase in the original Japanese? You’ll find it at Kinokuniya Bookstore at 10 West 49th Street. And the Librairie de France, with its entrance on the mall between Fifth Avenue and the skating rink, will be happy to sell you an unabridged bilingual edition of Le Petit Prince.

Sometimes you don’t even need to be buying to get a rush from the city’s concentrated shopping energy. Walk down chaotic 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the heart of the mostly wholesale FLOWER DISTRICT, and you’re overwhelmed by the heady persistence of supply and demand for something so ephemeral—piles of roses furled tight as cigars on the sidewalks, banks of orchids ablaze behind grimy windows.

On the stretch of ORCHARD STREET between Stanton and Delancey, where spiffy municipal signs proclaim “the Bargain District,” disheveled old men emerge suddenly from between racks of metallic leather jackets muttering “only $99” as if they were dealing crack instead of coats. People have been shilling for schmattes in this neighborhood for well over 100 years, and down along Grand Street between Orchard and Ludlow, there are still a number of places to buy old-lady underwear (“Bras $5” reads the sign at Sultan Bras and Girdles, 330 Grand Street). Between Mott and Elizabeth, Chinese pharmacies like Kamwo (209-211 Grand Street), feature men standing behind the counter folding piles of dried herbs and fungi into neat paper packets.

The Bowery south of Houston is another venerable commercial strip. The KITCHENWARE DISTRICt—with its ranks of pizza ovens, restaurant chairs, and meat slicers—gives way, after crossing Delancey, to the glitz and shimmer of the lighting district, which in turn is supplanted by the DOWNTOWN JEWELRY DISTRICT that turns the corner of Bowery onto Canal (jade and marvelously peculiar gold figurines are the specialties here). The exhaust-laden Western end of Canal Street near the Holland Tunnel is home to an unlikely combination of CAR-STEREO OUTLETS AND PLASTICS STORES. Industrial Plastic Supply (309 Canal Street) stands ready to provide shimmering curtains of Mylar fringe, or nearly life-size statues of camels, while at Canal Rubber (329 Canal Street), they’ve recently added yoga mats (only $16.95! in four colors!) to their inventory of hoses and tubing.

Some of the city’s most arcane and delightful commercial sections, like the booksellers’ row on Fourth Avenue, have succumbed to history; others, like the flower district, are endangered. The thriving radio district was cleared aside for the building of the World Trade Center. And the once-lively rivalry between Miller’s and Kauffman’s equestrian shops on East 24th Street was stamped out when Baruch College built its massive new campus, destroying the 90-year-old row of former stables where Kauffman’s made its home. Now Miller’s is called Copperfield’s (117 East 24th Street), and while you can still buy a snaffle bit there, it isn’t the same.

But the boroughs, as usual, are picking up the slack. In Jackson Heights, Queens, 74th Street is the place to go for INDIAN GOODS from saris to gold-filigree jewelry. And along the increasingly Islamified section of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Fulton, there’s a newish crop of stores where you can buy shea butter by the pound, as well as items like INCENSE AND ESSENTIAL OILS. “Cannabis”-scented soap? They can get it for you wholesale. Or, in the great New York shopping tradition, they’ll make you believe that they did.