A whopping 13 features deep into their cinematic partnership, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were reaching a new apex of open acrimony in their relationship when they worked under the direction of Frank Tashlin on 1955’s Artists and Models, their penultimate film as a duo act. A miraculous confection of ludicrous sight-gags, innuendo, aw-shucks flirtations, and Dino-led musical numbers, the film papers over this latent disdain with Tashlin’s invaluable experience from his time as part of Warner Brothers’ “Termite Terrace,” responsible for such lauded cartoons as Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies. As always, Lewis could hide behind his schtick, and Martin his honeyed voice, but the director also populates the film with some impressively game types: Dorothy Malone and Shirley MacLaine mirrored the boys’ roommate act as their upstairs neighbors, while George Winslow remains the incumbent funniest child actor of all time, a title he’d earned as the littlest bachelor, Henry Spofford, III, in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Martin and Lewis play Rick and Eugene, childhood best friends and roommates who depend on the former’s dwindling prospects as a painter for income. The latter (played with expectedly idiotic guile from Lewis) is far too obsessed with comic books to try and find a job, although he does handle the homemaking end of the arrangement. With an opening set piece that sees Eugene bungling his friend’s latest endeavor in the world of advertising because of his infantile obsession with the superhero Bat-Lady, Tashlin establishes his satirical net, and Artists and Models proceeds to survey the absolute mayhem therein.
Simultaneously thumbing its nose at the burgeoning idea of comics as an immoral, corrupting phenomenon — as introduced by German psychiatrist Fredric Wertham — while still exploiting the medium for as much highfalutin pulp as possible, Artists and Models is merciless in its topicality, taking aim at astrology, show business, Cold War paranoia, and more. Its espionage subplot begins innocently enough, with the “traumatizing” effects of comic books manifesting themselves in Eugene’s dreams. Unbeknownst to him, his babbling sleep talk effectively drafts the next great superhero, Vincent the Vulture (a “defender of truth and liberty and a member of the Audubon Society,” with a “tail full of jet propulsion!”), a character Rick draws then sells, lifting the two out of their near-destitute circumstances. Of course, Eugene’s also coincidentally blurting out codes to a classified weapons program, and since Rick’s transcribing his friend’s every word for publication, the two receive some undue attention from malevolent forces, steering the film towards hard-boiled farce.
The pace of these events is disorienting, though the film also offers pockets of reprieve in the form of a cross-apartment courtship between the four leads: Martin and Malone (who plays Abigail, the soon to be disillusioned artistic creator behind Bat-Lady), who are both sultry and adult; and, Lewis and MacLaine (as Bessie, Abigail’s model), who match each other in terms of their childlike, loose-limbed mania, the latter swapping comic books for horoscopes. Plus, as the model for the very Bat-Lady that runs rampant through Eugene’s mind, Bessie comes to amalgamate both his own sexual awakening and his stunted growth. The romance here moves between sweet and frenzied, while sidestepping any mawkish gestures. Just observe the revivifying kiss given by Bessie to a knocked-out Eugene amidst a clash with enemy spies (a Looney Tunes-like ruckus in a film full of them), which, while a swooning gesture in and of itself, gives way to Lewis springing to life with the destructive precision of a professional heavyweight.
Tashlin matched his hyperkinetic writing with a technical proficiency that allows his visuals the necessary breathing room in a film that’s otherwise defined by its freneticism. Even more so than in his CinemaScope ventures that’d follow (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), Artists and Models’ VistaVision frame feels impossibly large, every inch of it enhancing the countless gags therein. With characters boundlessly moving horizontally and vertically across the screen — something of an inevitability with performers like Lewis and Martin — Tashlin provides the necessary space with both his camera and set design. The apartment building, the mansion that houses the aforementioned skirmish, and the concluding Artists and Models Ball: all hint at the dollhouse quality that Lewis would later push to such extremes in his own films like The Patsy and The Ladies Man.
If all this rightly pegs Tashlin as a maximalist, he nonetheless manages to incorporate the humor of Artists and Models into its environment’s minutiae. Sure, there’s the almost unnerving elasticity of Eugene’s body that defies any conventional chiropractics, but there’s also the way he savors his and Rick’s paltry dinner, a sequence that owes much to silent comedy (and also leads into the endearing duet, “When You Pretend”), and the bubbling water cooler in Abigail’s office, which visualizes Eugene’s own aroused state as the dialogue skirts the topic of physical affection. Every scene, every performance, really everything in Artists and Models is crafted to maximize the impact of its visuals and humor; there’s never been a film so generous.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.