Thursday, April 05, 2018

Who’s Minding the Store?

Who's Minding the Store? The finale of the vacuum cleaner sequence. John McGiver (John P. Tuttle), Agnes Moorehead (Phoebe Tuttle), Jill St. John (Barbara Tuttle), Jerry Lewis (Norman Phiffier).

Who's Minding the Store? Jerry Lewis's pantomime to Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter".

Jerry – myyntipäällikön kauhu / Nu är det kul igen.
    US © 1963 York Pictures / Jerry Lewis Pictures. Distr: Paramount Pictures. P: Paul Jones. D: Frank Tashlin. SC: Frank Tashlin, Harry Tugend – based on a story by Harry Tugend. DP: W. Wallace Kelley – Technicolor – 1,85:1. AD: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira. Set dec: Sam Comer, James W. Payne. VFX: Farciot Edouart, Paul K. Lerpae. Cost: Edith Head. Makeup: Wally Westmore. Hair: Nellie Manley. M: Joseph J. Lilley. Soundtrack: “The Typewriter” (Leroy Anderson, 1953). S: Lyle Figland, Charles Grenzbach – mono (Westrex Recording System). ED: John Woodcock.
    C: Jerry Lewis (Norman Phiffier), Jill St. John (Barbara Tuttle), Ray Walston (Quimby), John McGiver (John P. Tuttle), Agnes Moorehead (Phoebe Tuttle), Francesca Bellini (Shirley Lott), Peggy Mondo (female wrestler), Nancy Kulp (Emily Rothgraber), John Abbott (Orlandos), Kathleen Freeman (Mrs. Glucksman), Fritz Feld (Irving Cahastrophe, the Gourmet Manager), Milton Frome (Francois, chauffeur), Mary Treen (mattress customer), Dick Wessel (traffic cop), Jerry Hausner (Smith), Richard Deakon (tie salesman).
    Loc: Paramount Studios – 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood.
    Premiere: 27.11.1963.
    Helsinki premiere: 28.2.1964 Aloha, distr: Paramount Pictures – tv: 13.7.1988 MTV3, 30.7.2006 Yle Teema – VET 68325 – S – 2475 m / 90 min
    A 35 mm print with Swedish subtitles viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Jerry Lewis in memoriam), 5 April 2018.

Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis are at their best in this penultimate collaboration of theirs (they made eight films together). Who's Minding the Store? is one of the great department store comedies, to be compared with The Floorwalker by Charles Chaplin, Safety Last! by Harold Lloyd and The Big Store by the Marx Brothers. With carefree abandon Tashlin shapes a satire of the consumer society of the 1960s. The points remain topical although the department store phenomenon is in decline in the age of online shopping.

The film is gag-driven, but the plot is more than nominal now. The heiress of the department store dynasty, Barbara Tuttle (Jill St. John), wants nothing to do with her mother Phoebe (Agnes Moorehead), who runs the family empire with an iron hand. Barbara wants to marry a man who loves her for herself, not for her money, and she has found him in Norman Phiffier (Jerry Lewis). Phoebe engages detectives who discover in Norman a man who cannot hold a job (the highest achievements on his CV have been as a dog walker and animal sitter). Hidden camera footage reveals a man whose table manners remain on the infant level.

Because Barbara is working incognito at the department store as an elevator assistant, Phoebe decides to engage Norman there, as well: "give him every dumb job you have". The intention is to have Norman irreversibly humiliated in front of Barbara's eyes.

Norman starts in the mailroom and proceeds to paint flagpoles. Gag opportunities appear at the ladies' shoe department (with a lady wrestler as a customer), at the timecard machine, and with ingeniously masked shoplifters. At the gourmet department Jerry gets acquainted with delicacies such as roasted grasshoppers and toasted black ants, and at a clothes sale he faces a stampede of customers who rip him of his clothes. He has to perform a tie-in of selling both a mattress and a huge tv receiver to be installed in the ceiling. Of topical relevance in today's debates is the gun department sequence where Jerry serves a big game hunter, Emily Rothgraber (Nancy Kulp) who is looking for an elephant gun. Jerry accidentally fires the elephant gun, and by force of its recoil careens through the building with catastrophic results. Another catastrophe sequence is the mirror episode: when Jerry carries a giant mirror into a van its reflections cause a multiple traffic collision. The earliest catastrophe has taken place at the golf department where Jerry demonstrates the Futurascope Fairway golf simulation device.

The catastrophe scenario is a link to the earliest stage of screen comedy around 1900 when Méliès, Cretinetti, R. W. Paul, and others established the trend, later followed by Mack Sennett and other founders of American film comedy. In Tashlin's film the store building remains intact, but entire departments are demolished, and traffic pile-ups become endemic as soon as Jerry is let loose.

An early gag sequence, "The Typewriter" (see image above), is a music-driven pantomime to Leroy Anderson's popular tune. The setpiece can be compared with Charles Chaplin's barbershop performance to Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5 in The Great Dictator. Funny in itself, "The Typewriter" can also be seen as a satire on simulating work. Apparently Lewis himself could be a pedantic boss who fired Mel Brooks from the production of The Ladies' Man when Lewis did not hear Brooks's typewriter humming from 9 to 5.

The following sequence, "The Flagpole", can be compared with Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. The comedy is built on the fear of heights, acrophobia, and vertigo, and there is a natural metaphorical dimension. Both Harold and Jerry start from the bottom and are on their way to the top. We are made to laugh at the idea of climbing and the nightmare of falling.

The climax is the vacuum cleaner sequence. (The device is called Waste King Universal Disposal). Jerry rewires the criss-crossed lines of a customer's vacuum cleaner with the result that it becomes supercharged. Jewels, toasts, ties, mugs, floor tiles, shoes, and corsets fly into its mouth, as well as the customer's poodle. The bag inflates into a giant balloon which rises to the ceiling. Jerry climbs onto the top of a ladder to cut it and release the poodle. The balloon explodes, and the debris fills the department.

Again, the sequence harks back to the earliest film comedies where the world was expected to perish utterly. But the catastrophe and traffic jam themes also anticipate Godard and Tati, as well as the finale of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Like Donald Duck, Jerry Lewis has the strange distinction of being either a walking catastrophe or a virtuoso of some special skill, and sometimes both, as when he is displaying his golf bravado at the Futurascope Fairway.

In Who's Minding the Store? Jerry Lewis is in top form in physical comedy. As soon as he has been promised the opportunity of "room at the top, and lots of raises" he gives a hilarious parody of "a brisk walk". One of his ordeals is to perform for the sports department at the show window. When he performs a marathon, running around the block, his slowed down jog and stagger are brilliant comic studies of the essence of those actions.

In The Ladies' Man Lewis adopted qualities of the monkey. In Who's Minding the Store? the key animal is the dog. Lewis is not only a dog walker but also a perfect dog sitter who identifies with pets. He even knows how to deal with bobtailers. At the finale of his marathon ordeal he almost becomes a dog himself, lapping water like one. Lewis's transformations are smooth and seamless. His presence is like quicksilver.

To everyone's surprise Norman shows character in his ordeals. He is never discouraged but willing to learn. He becomes the best friend of John P. Tuttle (John McGiver), Barbara's father, without knowing who he is. He is even let in the family secret: it is a matriarchy run by the ladies of the house. "All the Tuttle women have married boobs" who change their names into Tuttle at marriage. John is a man constantly excusing his existence ("our house has never been a home"), and his only activity is golf at the office room. When Barbara announces her wedding plans to her mother she wishes for only one wedding present: "disinherit me". At the vacuum cleaner catastrophe climax (see image above) the identities are revealed, and Jerry quits the Tuttles at once since he does not want to marry money. But that is the final proof of character. In the finale all four are seen walking dogs, and around the corner there is the biggest crash of a multiple collision. Everybody is hugging.

It would be interesting to read a feminist study on Who's Minding the Store? There is a chauvinist "boss chasing a secretary" and "secretary chasing a boss" agenda, similar to Mad Men narratives. Beyond the teasing surface there is a matriarchal foundation: the universe is in reality ruled by the formidable mother. (I am even thinking about The Manchurian Candidate, released the year before). And the film is peopled with funny ladies who are often stronger than men such as the lady wrestler and the female big game hunter.

Who's Minding the Store? is a Jerry Lewis comedy but Frank Tashlin directs a strong cast (see again the image above). John McGiver was a fine actor whom we remember for instance as the debonair Tiffany salesman in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Agnes Moorehead had been introduced to the cinema by Orson Welles; here she displays talent in hilarious comedy. Jill St. John is still active, and she has made films in eight decades. Portrayed by her, Barbara is not just a pretty girl but a woman of character whom we can believe to become the next CEO of the department store empire.

Jerry Lewis gives a brilliant performance, and Frank Tashlin is to be credited with the fine ensemble work and the satirical bite. As well as the abandon in the hyperbole which often takes us to the impossible like Tashlin's animations and cartoons.

I like the sense of humour in this film. We are not laughing at these people; we are laughing with them and at ourselves. We are all victims of our urges and circumstances. The satire of conspicuous consumption is no less urgent today when we are aware of climate change, the ecocatastrophe, and our drowning into our own garbage, not least in the plastic cesspools of the ocean. Waste King Universal Disposal, yes. Who's minding the store, indeed.

The more I think about Jerry Lewis the more I'm impressed by the metaphysical and eternal in his performances. In my remarks on The Ladies' Man I claimed that with Jerry we laugh at the human condition (walking, talking, looking, thinking, expressing), at mimesis, even at being itself. Like Charles Chaplin, Jerry Lewis emerges like a creature from outer space who tries to give impressions and imitations of humanity (and even of life and of being in general). In Who's Minding the Store? targets would also include family, work, service, money, commerce, exchange... and society, and the world order?

Of great comedians such as Charles Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe it has been said that they always preserve their dignity no matter how ridiculous their predicaments. Of Jerry Lewis I'm not sure if the word "dignity" is apt. I sense something more atavistic. There is a current of energy, a life-force, an irrepressible joy of life, an innate sense of fun. In that dimension he can connect directly with a juvenile, a baby, a wild being, an animal. Yes, even a dog in the best sense of a dog being an incarnation of joy and friendliness.

The quality of the colour on the print is fair at first, good for the rest. The print is peculiar, like a carefully cropped, Academy-formatted television print which somehow went into theatrical distribution. Quite watchable but does not do full justice to the mise-en-scène.


Amerikkalainen Frank Tashlin (1913–1972) oli popkomedian mestari. Hän työskenteli animaation piirissä edeten askel askeleelta juoksupojasta lähtien vuodesta 1928. Bob Hopen ansiosta Tashlin sai läpimurtonsa pitkien näytelmäelokuvien ohjaajana. 1950-luvun puolivälissä Tashlin pääsi ohjaamaan vuosikymmenen suosituinta koomikkoparia, Dean Martinia ja Jerry Lewisiä, värikkäissä komedioissa Vaarattomia vakoilijoita (1955) ja Huoleton härkätaistelija (1956). Minkäpä tyttö sille voi (1956) oli kaikkien aikojen rock-parodia. Houkuttelevat huulet (1957) pilkkasi kulutusyhteiskuntaa ja Madison Avenuen ”mad men” -maailmaa. Naurunaiheisiin kuului 1950-luvun Amerikkaa villinnyt povifetissi.
    Kun Jerry Lewis aloitti soolouransa elokuvakoomikkona, Tashlin jatkoi hänen ohjaajanaan ja neuvoi Lewisiä myös kun tämä alkoi itse ohjata. Jerry sai kolmoset -elokuvassa  (1958) antennin-korjaaja Jerryn asiakkaana on tv-addikti, joka uskoo jopa mainoksiin. Jerry kipusiskona -elokuvassa (1964) Jerry on ylieläytyvä sairaanhoitaja, joka kokee potilaiden tuskat voimakkaammin kuin nämä itse.
    Jerry – myyntipäällikön kauhu, yksi Lewisin ja Tashlinin hillittömimmistä kulutusyhteiskunnan parodioista, sijoittuu tavarataloon. Kohokohdassa Jerry demonstroi huipputehokasta pölynimuria, joka imee sisäänsä Kaiken, myös asiakkaan puudelin ja myyjättären alushousut. Suunnaton pussi kohottaa imurin ja Jerryn kattoon, missä koko roska lopulta räjähtää ilmaan.
    Ethan de Seife kirjoittaa Frank Tashlin -kirjassaan: ”Jerry – myyntipäällikön kauhu on Tashlinin 1960-luvun laajamittaisin ja tyrmäävin satiirinen saavutus. Modulaariselta rakenteeltaan se muistut-taa Jerry Lewisin omia ohjauksia, kun taas järjestelmällinen hyökkäys konsumerismia vastaan on Tashlinin tunnusmerkki. Tässä elokuvassa sama idea, joka tarjoaa modulaarisen rakenteen lähtö-kohdan, on myös satiirin ponnahduslauta. Elokuva sijoittuu lähes kokonaisuudessaan tavarataloon, ja Tashlin käyttää kutakin osastoa – urheiluvälineitä, kotitaloustarvikkeita, jne. – satirisoidakseen amerikkalaista konsumerismia aina uusilla tavoilla”.
    Hauskoihin irtogageihin kuuluu Jerry Lewisin pantomiimi aikansa novelty-hitistä, Leroy Ander-sonin sävellyksestä ”Kirjoituskone”.

– Antti Alanen (lainaus Ethan de Seifen kirjasta Tashlinesque – The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012) AA 5.4.2018

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