#280. Artists and Models (1955)

Artists & Models was a strange, amusing, and ultimately very apt conclusion to a day full of cinema having to do with the Jewish experience.

It’s amusing for obvious reasons: the music is good and the concept is funny and Jerry Lewis (though annoying at times) is freakishly energetic, it’s a spectacle just to watch him in action, while his straight man, Dean Martin, is unabashedly odious in the way of Hollywood playboy characters from the era but endearing, too, on the grounds of his own talent. That tremendous voice. He’s not without talent as an actor, but he’s pretty dry. Only when he slips into song does he command favorable attention.

It’s also strange to watch because a few months ago I was working on a podcast about an unreleased movie Jerry Lewis made in the 1970s called The Day the Clown Cried. It’s a comedy/drama about a German circus clown, down on his luck, who goes to a bar one night, starts joking about the Nazi party, and gets overheard by gestapo officers who take him into custody and, from there, to a concentration camp. The character’s name is Helmut Doork (pronounced Door-kuh) and, if I’m remembering the script correctly, he isn’t Jewish, and so joins the section of the camp reserved for political subversives. He’s separated by a fence from the quarters for Jewish children and, with little else to do, he begins performing for them on the other side of the fence. First he’s just doing the schticks from his early days as a successful clown but, enchanted by how much they laugh at and love him, eventually starts coming up with new material. Starts trading his meager food rations for materials he might use in a routine.

            The story about the movie’s production and cancelled release is that, in the course of making it, Lewis started making the mostly-dramatic material into straight comedy. It allegedly began to look like a slapstick comedy set in a concentration camp. Advisors started telling him this was phenomenally tasteless and that he shouldn’t release it. So he didn’t.

            That’s the prevailing story.

            Do a little more research and you’ll find testimony from people involved in the production who tend to make it sound grayer than that. Apparently the script was based on a story from a pair of writers from whom Lewis never bought the rights. The movie was mostly or completely done when this was finally brought to his attention and he faced legal action of the movie should be released. So, allegedly, he shut it down.

            That’s another story.

            But those are the two versions that seem most complete. Different people with varying degrees of authority have contributed bits and pieces of the story that fit with one version or the other. Lewis himself, whenever asked about it in any kind of public forum (the one that comes immediately to mind is Larry King), would dodge the question. Would say that the movie was just so terrible it should never see the light of day.

            But why, then, did he keep a print?

            There might’ve been more than one but everybody knew that Lewis had at least one. In Patton Oswald’s memoir about being a movie fiend there’s a passage about how he and a few other comedians got their hands on a copy of the script and did stage readings to sold out audiences that found it hilarious – until they suddenly got a cease-and-desist from some producer who’d bought the script and wanted to adapt it with Chevy Chase twenty years after Lewis’s own ill-fated production. Oswald also mentioned the rumor that Lewis always carried around the print with him in a briefcase. Prepared, I guess, to show it if the urge should overtake him. Or else he just didn’t trust any kind of storage.

            But that’s probably just a rumor.

            When Lewis died in 2014 he left a copy of The Day the Clown Cried to the Library of Congress, stipulating that it not be released to the public until 2024. So maybe then we’ll finally see what all the fuss was about.

The script, however, is readily available all over the internet. So I downloaded and read it in hopes of finding something really jaw-dropping and scandalous but found, instead, a surprisingly heartfelt narrative about a guy who’s fallen from grace, pays a horrible price for that fall, and in the process finds a terrible and beautiful sort of redemption. There’s some compelling ambiguity, if you’re a storyteller yourself, about whether Doork, the clown, is performing for these children on the other side of the fence because he’s trying to distract them from their hardship or because it strokes his ego, makes him feel like a big shot again. In this, I think, Lewis was exploring some of his own demons. As a world-class clown with a huge following and tons of adoration, it seems like this movie was the manifestation of a sort of creative crisis wherein he’s asking himself what really motivates him. Seems like the imposter syndrome that Robin Williams allegedly felt. There’s a story, I forget who tells it, about Robin Williams walking off stage after a live show, the crowd still in hysterics about his performance, he’s getting a standing ovation, and he stands there, just off stage, and looks out over the crowd. All those laughing faces. Asks himself, aloud, “Why can’t I make myself that happy?”

            But so while researching all that I could find about Day the Clown Cried, including reading the screenplay, I watched a bunch of TV interviews with Jerry Lewis, mainly the revealing few hours he spent with Larry King over the years, and he was such a serious older man. Lapsed sporadically into gags and funny one-liners, as I think that sorta comedy finally just works its way into your bones, but for the most part he’s talking about, for instance, his stalker, his troubled relationship with Dean Martin, the vindictive idiocy of movie critics. He talked about the telethons for which he became a staple, raising money for muscular dystrophy. He talked about the hardships faced by afflicted children and the reward he felt in helping them out.

            He wore a scowl. There’s one interview from his late eighties or early nineties where he breaks down into sudden sobs at the prospect of dying, of not being able to “love on” his wife and children. He cries openly in a clip from his final telethon. There’s a clip where he’s overwhelmed by emotion to see Dean Martin appear on stage.

That’s Lewis on the left, Martin on the right.

            He was a guy with depth and lots of worries and passions and he was clearly jaded by lots of stuff, wounds that were both real and, probably, perceived, so to see him here in Artists & Models performing as a young man, probably still eager to make a splash, is kinda…surreal. This guy I’d discovered a few months back doing research on one of the darkest periods of his life is – understandably – way more bubbly as a twentysomething comedian.

            Something similar is happening right now as I watch these videos proliferating on YouTube and Instagram showing Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both in their seventies, lifting weights in preparation for Rambo V and Terminator 6, respectively, and in the comment section you’ll see people marveling over these guys’ physique and technique and work ethic and stamina, but also, just as often, mourn the sight of their age. People reminisce on what it was like to go to the movies as kids and see Sly and Arnold in their prime. Bonding with their parent or sibling over those ‘80s action movies.

            Taboo is a terrific movie from the silent era that was also the last movie by director F.W. Murnau, who’d first appeared on the List with Nosferatu and then popped up another couple times with Last Laugh and Sunrise. He died shortly after Taboo was completed and I mentioned in the essay about that movie how it was interesting to mark Murnau as the first talent whose career is featured in its near-entirety on the List. And I think at this point, in the mid-1950s, there’ve been a few major talents whose careers have risen and peaked and fallen, or they plateaued and then stepped away (William Powell? Greta Garbo?) but I don’t think we’ve really seen anybody age from youth to seniority. Gary Cooper appears to’ve aged a hundred years between Sergeant York and High Noon, but I have a feeling that’s got something to do with his lifestyle, or the illnesses to which he was prone and ultimately succumbed.

            Anyway. We’re about five pages into this essay already and I haven’t mentioned what the movie’s about but it hardly matters. Artists & Models is a slapstick screwball romantic musical comedy. Dean Martin plays an artist and Jerry Lewis an aspiring writer. They’re best friends since childhood and, presently, roommates. Lewis is obsessed with a comic book called Bat Lady and soon finds that its writer/artist lives upstairs with a roommate of her own. The quartet of lovers are about the same age, maybe mid or late twenties, and by the end of the movie, following an over-long but funny-enough musical number that reminded me of Gene Kelly’s eternal showstopper in An American in Paris, they’re all safely in each other’s arms.

            Not much to say about it storywise. Who cares about the story. Some beautiful and talented young people are gonna dance, sing, crack jokes and fall in love along the way. It’s genuinely funny, I laughed pretty hard at a couple scenes in the first act and thought there was plenty of amusing stuff to keep the third act afloat.

            I recommend it. And I think Jerry Lewis is gonna be one of the figures, like John Ford and Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford and Erich Von Stroheim, that I end up studying.

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