Friday, May 25, 2007

You Can Trace the Mystery of Ancient History

(Opening disclaimer: Yes, I know I've written too many posts recently about the films of Frank Tashlin. I was doing some research on his career and the stuff I'm researching tends to find its way into my blogging. I will harp less on this subject in future.)

The Martin & Lewis Collection Volume 2 has some things wrong with it: it leaves out two of their color films (one of their best, Money From Home, as well as one they both hated, Three Ring Circus), it has no special features, not even trailers, and it doesn't even present the films in the right order. (The first disc contains their two last films, Pardners and Hollywood or Bust.) But I strongly recommend the set anyway, because it presents the first-ever widescreen home video releases of their two movies with Tashlin, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust. (And also of two other VistaVision films, the good You're Never Too Young and the not-so-good Pardners.)

I don't know whether these are the best possible transfers; DVD Beaver will probably have a review eventually and he'll know more about that than I. But after seeing Artists and Models only in beat-up VHS prints, it's a real pleasure to see it looking like an actual movie. VistaVision movies do not, in terms of actual picture information, lose a lot in pan-and-scan (which may be one of the reasons Paramount used it instead of CinemaScope), but the framing in pan-and-scan prints is very unsatisfying, because the TV prints have extra information at the top and bottom -- sometimes including boom mikes -- and less information on the sides. So when you compare a clip from Artists and Models from the VHS to Artists and Models in widescreen, there's just more space on the sides and less dead space on the top and bottom. Take a look, and then put the DVD on your shopping list:

Now, the question that I sometimes ask myself about the Martin and Lewis movies is this: are Artists and Hollywood or Bust really their best movies, or am I being mindlessly auteurist in saying that? Many Martin and Lewis fans don't place these two movies at the top of the list; in fact, some of them consider Hollywood or Bust their worst picture, pointing out that their real-life antagonism seeps into the film and kind of kills their chemistry. It's also true that other movies make better use of Martin and Lewis as a team: they spend much of the time apart in Artists, they do only one song together, and they don't do any of the typical M&L stage routines. If you want to get the essence of what Martin and Lewis were about as a team, you're much better off looking at some of their earlier movies, or at least parts of them.

But after viewing most of the films again, I stand by my judgment; Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust are the only ones that are really great as movies, as opposed to collections of comedy routines. As with Leo McCarey working with the Marx Brothers on Duck Soup, there's something magical that happens when a great comedy team gets into the hands of a great director, but the magic can come at the expense of some of the things that made the team great. Duck Soup has a lot of typical Marx Brothers routines in it, but it also does away with many of the things that had been part of their act (no harp solo, no piano solo, no love story). Similarly, Artists and Models does away with a lot of things that we expect from Martin and Lewis -- but making a really good comedy often means dropping things that are funny but not an organic part of the movie. That's what a strong director brings to a comedy: not only knowing what's funny, but knowing what funny stuff should be left out for the sake of the overall vision. Artists and Models is a satire of '50s pop culture; a typical Martin and Lewis crooner/stooge routine wouldn't fit into that, so it's not here.

Here's one other side-by-side (well, not literally side-by-side, more like up-by-down) comparison of the pan-and-scan Artists and Models with the widescreen version. The reason I highlight this scene -- which I've already mentioned as an example of Tashlin's wholesome fetishism -- is that it gives me an excuse to mention another piece of information I turned up in doing some research on Tashlin: an article written about a month before the release of Artists said that this scene had been cut from the film due to the objections of the censors, because Tashlin had a character wearing nothing but a strategically-placed towel. Either the decision was reversed, or Paramount decided that the censors' objections weren't worth bothering with (since the power of the censors was weakening by 1955). Anyway, it's a glimpse at how the censors could object to even as mild a scene as this.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I know I've written too many posts recently about the films of Frank Tashlin.

This is not possible.

Anonymous said...

Just curious if you've seen KILL THE UMPIRE, a Tashlin-scripted film from 1950 recently released on DVD by Sony. I believe this is the one that prompted director Lloyd Bacon to make a complaint along the line that he didn't know whether he was supposed to try to film Tashlin's slapstick chase finale or hire a crew of animators to draw it.

Anonymous said...

Tashlin's films with Martin & Lewis, compared to the rest of their output, is kind of similar to what happened with Abbott & Costello a decade earlier at Universal, when they made "The Time of Their Lives", which took both out of their normal partnership and standard film of a series of skits knitted together by only the thinnest of plots.

That movie has gotten critical acclaim today as their one of their best pictures, but it was a disappointment for their fans at the time, who didn't want to see A&C trying to "stretch" themselves, and perferred the normal role of straight man and patsy. It's also, like "Artists and Models" or "Hollywood or Bust", a film you really couldn't do until you were several years down the line in Dean and Jerry's movie careers, where the standard plot line was getting close to being exhausted and some variations were being sought.

Abbott & Costello took their setback by going back to their standard story lines for the next decade. Martin & Lewis might have gone that way as well, but the breakup of their partnership just after A&C's split left that question unanswered.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I must be in the distinct minority here, because I think Pardners is one of Dean and Jer's best pictures. What fascinates me is the glimpse you get of the future Lewis: the scene in the saloon where he humiliates the bully (since he's just been made sheriff) is not that far from his characterization of Buddy Love in his "masterpiece," The Nutty Professor (1963).

Plus, the bit at the end where the duo encourage the audience to keep coming to the their movies even though the honeymoon was coming to a close--they're so damn convincing, it's possible they're better actors than we previously thought.