Monday, September 6, 2010

Beautiful Vulgarities

[This appeared on the Tisch Film Review website on January 20th, 2009.]

Living It Up (Norman Taurog, 1954)

Frank Tashlin’s reputation has only increased over the decades. Not so for the other great director of Martin and Lewis comedies – but, then again, Norman Taurog’s late films never had a reputation, so he’s lost nothing, which doesn’t mean that he deserved nothing. It’s true that Taurog did make some “reputable” films – he even won an Academy Award. But his best movies are the ones he made in the 1950s and 1960s: bikini comedies, Elvis travelogues and, of course, the half-dozen movies he directed for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. For all the classy polish of the middle(-brow) portion of Taurog’s career, the Martin & Lewis movies are what give Taurog his identity. They define him as the great vulgarian of American cinema, the cheap cigar to Frank Tashlin’s filtered cigarette. It’s a pungent cinema, made with a contempt for everything.

The Martin and Lewis comedies are distant relations to Taurog’s 1930s and ’40s work; they seem more like the children of the first movies Taurog made, his 1920s shorts for the homuncular Larry Semon, the most grotesque of the silent comedians (early in this short, Semon can be seen devouring a make-up kit like a goat). What a Sturges or a Tashlin or a Wilder might thumb his nose at, Taurog shits on. The opening scene of Pardners, with Martin and Lewis as their characters’ fathers, is a mockery of cowboy heroism, a piece of satire so bleakly straight-faced, Paul Verhoeven could have directed it. A satire so close to non-satire, to sincerity, that it makes sincerity seem disingenuous.

In the best of his Martin and Lewis movies, Living It Up, everyone becomes convinced Lewis is dying of radiation poisoning, except Martin, his low-rent doctor, last in his class at medical school and more prone to practicing his guitar-playing than medicine. When someone knocks on the door, he puts on his white coat the way you’d throw on a bathrobe. Janet Leigh is the reporter who comes to their New Mexico town, and Martin and Lewis decide to keep up the ruse to score a free trip to New York. The man who’s footing their lavish bills is Leigh’s boss, an easily-conned newspaper publisher using human interest stories to further his own poorly thought-through politic interests auspiciously named Oliver Stone. Handed the key to the city upon their arrival, Martin stuffs it into the back pocket of the unconscious Lewis slung over his shoulder, Lewis’s ass taking up a good portion of the frame. A bellboy at their hotel asks Martin if he has any tips on when his patient might die; he’s placed a bet giving Lewis 14 days. Martin, always friendly, says that for him, he’ll “speed things up.” No one seems to notice that Lewis is fine and, for that matter, egotistical; his childish demands are met with tears. Everyone’s sorry for “the poor kid.” Even Leigh, in love with Martin’s quack, marries Lewis out of pity. Pretending to go crazy from his radiation sickness, Lewis climbs into a chandelier and claims to be a bomber pilot, yelling dialogue that would belong in a patriotic war movie as he throws lightbulbs at his wedding guests. The final shot of the film gives the finger to their fantasy New York, as Martin and Lewis, now streetsweepers, reprise the credits song, singing to the glories of New York’s streets as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a wide avenue strewn with colorful trash.

Jumping Jacks, made in the middle of the Korean War, has soldiers so lazy that their main concern is putting on a music show. Lewis is, as in almost all of the movies Taurog directed him in, pretending to be someone else: a paratrooper. Martin is his old nightclub partner, now enlisted, who has his friend come disguised to help out with a performance for the men on his base. Lewis is easily snuck into the base; the men are more concerned with clean uniforms and proper salutes than security. Of course, in the Martin-Lewis-Taurog films, people are conned because they want to be: You’re Never Too Young even has man-child Lewis ditching the “man” part entirely and holing away in a private school with the identity of a 12-year-old boy in a turn of events aided by his unsettling theft of an actual schoolboy’s clothes in a scene that makes hating children and the people who give into their whims seem more natural than loving them.

The show in Jumping Jacks is a hit, and the general asks them to tour the other bases with it; Martin and the other soldiers blackmail Lewis into participating, saying he’ll be executed for espionage if he reveals that he isn’t really enlisted. They eventually finds their way into a combat maneuver exercise, where Lewis’s idiocy helps him outwit many of the trained soldiers, including Martin, who is taken prisoner by the opposing team almost instantly. The final two images of the film are Martin and Lewis together on a motorcycle with a sidecar, talking about how nothing can separate them now, followed by the bike and sidecar separating at a crossroads. The film has a younger cousin in Taurog’s filmography: Sergeant Deadhead, a 1965 military comedy with a beach party cast which finds the United States accidentally sending the wrong man into space. This is a nuclear age, a space age, whose dangers give life a comic nihilism. Annihilation makes everything seem stupid (just like when, early in Living It Up, Lewis drove a car through Los Alamos, forcing a startled tank off the road and into a house). There is a reverse effect, too: the bleakness is invigorated. Later in Living It Up, Martin and Lewis perform the film’s main musical number, dancing down a seedy street in coats and tails. A police car’s spotlight becomes their follow spot; they play around with the signs of striptease joints, kick cans and rouse a group of sleeping bums into helping them commandeer a horse and carriage. Only Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery is more beautifully, carelessly vulgar. It’s the mean-spirited joke that puts a smile on your face.

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