AERO Theatre double feature celebrates cinematic comedy creators Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin
By Michael Aushenker
Jerry Lewis remains an underrated talent.
Yes, even though Lewis, in his prime, went from headlining with crooner Dean Martin – one of the most successful comedy-duo live acts in history – to starring in a string of comedy blockbusters grossing hundreds of millions of dollars for Paramount Studios as Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, Lewis has been all but overshadowed by his telethon work and a cultural punch line regulating his slapstick brand of physical comedy to the French.
After all, Lewis, as a director, pioneered the technique of videotaping daily footage on a film shoot – a practice that became a Hollywood standard. He also gave a dramatic performance in director Martin Scorsese’s 1983 cult of celebrity meditation, “The King of Comedy,” opposite Robert DeNiro, that, while not Oscar-nominated, was certainly Oscar-worthy. And he greatly advanced the man-child template that has become one of Hollywood’s most successful tropes: a formula exploited by everyone from Steve Martin, Adam Sandler and Sasha Baron Cohen to Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, Pauly Shore, Pee Wee Herman and innumerable “Saturday Night Live” defectors.
Beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 11 at the Aero Theatre at 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica, a pair of Lewis vehicles from 1963, “The Nutty Professor” and “Who’s Minding the Store?” will remind viewers of Lewis’ genius… as well as that of his filmmaker mentor, the inimitable Frank Tashlin.
Long before Eddie Murphy donned a fat suit to remake the comedy into a hit franchise, “Nutty Professor” starred Lewis in a dual performance as the dorky lab rat Julius Kelp, who overcomes his awkwardness with females by creating a potion transforming him into his smooth ladies’man alter ego, arrogant jerk Buddy Love. Also written and directed by Lewis, “Nutty” became the most successful comedy of his career. Filmed on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, this hilarious twist on “Jekyll and Hyde,” co-starring Stella Stevens, became Lewis’ fourth film as a multi-hyphenate and in 2004, the Library of Congress selected “Nutty Professor” for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry as a film of cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
In Tashlin’s “Who’s Minding the Store?,” hapless Norman Phiffier (Lewis) and richie Barbara Tuttle (Jill St. John) fall in love, only to tangle with Tuttle’s disapproving department store-owner mother, Agnes Moorehead (“Bewitched”), who puts Phiffier through the paces when he’s employed at her store.
Perhaps even more underrated than Lewis as a comic mind was Tashlin, a New Jersey-born cartoonist who cut his teeth in animation. Dropping out of high school to work for animator Paul Terry (“Mighty Mouse,” “Heckle and Jeckle”) by age 17, Tashlin eventually directed a handful of Porky Pig cartoons at Warner Bros., which led to his detour into screenwriting live-action comedies. (Iconic Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones adapted one of Tashlin’s three children’s books into an animated short.)
Tashlin’s directorial career began as a trial by fire in 1951 after he was brought in to complete the Bob Hope-topliner “The Lemon Drop Kid.” As a director of comedy, Tashlin applied the Warner Bros. cartoony energy and Tex Avery style of absurdism to his live-action comedies, beginning with Hope comedies (“Son of Paleface”) and, soon after, Martin and Lewis vehicles (“Artists & Models”).
“Who’s Minding the Store?” came out seven years after Tashlin had directed Lewis and Martin’s cinematic swan song, “Hollywood or Bust,” a 1956 comedy musical that sent Martin and Lewis on a cross-country road trip (along with a Great Dane named Mr. Bascomb). After Martin and Lewis went their separate ways, Tashlin continued making solo Lewis vehicles, including “Rock-A-Bye-Baby,” “The Geisha Boy,” “Cinderfella,” and “The Disorderly Orderly.” He also helmed a pair of brassy mid-1950s Jayne Mansfield classics, including “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and “The Girl Can’t Help It.”
While the Lewis and Tashlin comedies are basic cable staples, the Aero Theatre provides a rare opportunity to see a couple on the big screen the way they were intended — a fitting way to view these very larger-than-life, flesh-and-blood cartoons.