Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Kitsch is bustin' out all over.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis head for Hollywood in a '50s musical comedy that's 100 percent cheese.


Charles Taylor
June 9, 1998 8:21PM (UTC)

Frank Tashlin's comedies are such garish displays of kitsch that you can
never be sure whether he's celebrating or satirizing. In the 1956 movie
"Hollywood or Bust," Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and a Great Dane named Mr.
Bascom are taking a cross-country trip in a cherry red convertible. They're
singing one of the several ridiculous songs that interrupt the movie at
various points -- something about how great it is to be out in the country
-- driving down shady back roads past barns and fields and swimming holes,
waving to the locals as they go. The thing is that every one of the
"locals" is a pin-up cutie in a bathing suit or some ensemble from the
Daisy Mae collection. These girls are everywhere -- perched on fences,
pitching hay (pitching woo comes later), riding tractors or plows. It is
one of the single most insane sequences I've ever seen. On one level,
Tashlin knows how ridiculous it is (especially when Dean and Jerry stand up
in the moving car and turn around to stare at a pair of bike-riding
lovelies while the auto stays perfectly on course), but the scene is
presented and acted as if it were an average, pleasant musical interlude with
nothing out of the ordinary going on.

Tashlin's movies never bubble over into the full-blown dementia of, say,
Busby Berkeley because Tashlin's got too much conventional Hollywood
schmaltz in him. During the '50s, the French film critics at Cahiers du
Cinema, particularly Jean-Luc Godard, championed Tashlin as capturing the
consumerist vulgarity of American life (or something like that). And there
are moments when he does get at the absurd artificiality of mass culture.
In "The Girl Can't Help It," his best picture, Jayne Mansfield strolls over
to a vending machine, puts in a nickel and receives a shiny red apple. The
joke, of course, is nature's bounty coming out of a machine as if it had been
manufactured (a joke that applies to Mansfield herself).

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Tashlin never seemed to have an idea, though, that there could be anything
other than the artificial. Even the coast-to-coast landscapes scattered
throughout "Hollywood or Bust" are presented in picture-postcard
perfection. The screamingly gaudy colors of Tashlin's movies, the showgirls
he manages to work into scene after scene, the sappy numbers that
Martin gets saddled with, are all part of Hollywood's desperation not to
lose moviegoers to TV in the '50s. (In the introduction, Dean even
addresses the audience as "refugees from television.") Some terrific
Hollywood movies were made in the '50s, but there was a widespread vulgarization as well,
and Tashlin's pictures are part of the latter trend. What's still fun about
the best of them is how disreputable they are. You don't watch a Frank
Tashlin movie seeking the wit and style of great romantic comedies, or even
the frantic sophistication and verbal gymnastics of Preston Sturges' films
(for my money, the greatest series of American comedies ever). Tashlin's
jokes aren't clever or sophisticated; they're dumb and broad and obvious.
He thinks in terms of gags rather than character or story. The relief of a
good Frank Tashlin movie is that he isn't pretending to give you anything
classy.

In "Hollywood or Bust," Martin is a gambler overdue on his debt to a
loan shark. To square himself, he's obtained a counterfeit set of tickets
for a raffle where the prize is a red convertible that he plans to sell and
pay off his debt. What he doesn't figure on is Lewis, as an obsessed
movie fan, also holding a winning ticket. Jerry plans to drive to Hollywood
in his shiny new car and win the girl of his dreams, Anita Ekberg. As
co-winners, they have to share the car, and Dean convinces Jerry that he's
from Hollywood and that Ekberg is his next-door neighbor. Figuring he
can ditch Jerry along the way or sell the car once they get to California,
the pair take off. Jerry's Great Dane, Mr. Bascom, foils every attempt to
ditch his master and -- presto! -- Tashlin has the premise on which to
string his gags.

The gags in a Martin and Lewis picture are Jerry's domain and, as always
with him, the line between hilarious and too much is a thin one.
Every time you start to tire of his high, strangled voice (which
seems to start no lower than his epiglottis), the open-mouthed grimace he
uses to register every disaster, the herky-jerky movements that make you
wonder how he manages to cross the street in one piece, he comes up with
some bit of pantomime that fractures you. "Hollywood or Bust" opens with a
tribute to moviegoers around the world, all played by Jerry. The Russian
moviegoer is swathed in Cossack furs and handcuffs, the "honorable Oriental
moviegoer" in silk pajamas and Coke bottle glasses as he shovels popcorn
into his mouth with chopsticks. (It's an indefensible gag, and I won't even
try to pretend that it didn't make me laugh.) In one scene, he ventures
into a farmyard to get milk from a cow. Of course, he wanders into a bull's
pen by mistake, and of course he's wearing a red jacket. Suddenly,
he's Rudolph Valentino in "Blood and Sand," his frying pan has become a
matador's hat atop his buzz-cut noggin and his red jacket a cape -- none of
this is as funny as the look of blissful, idiotic confidence on his face.

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In his pictures with Martin, Lewis played the moron as boyish innocent.
Danger registers only on the rebound -- when it first rears its head, he's
oblivious. Insisting that they pick up an old lady standing by a country
road, Jerry tells her she reminds him of his grandmother, who took him to
the movies. Does she like movies? She does. What kind, he asks, whereupon
she pulls a gun and Jerry exclaims, "Oh, gangster movies!" and, pulling his
own toy pistol, says, "I pack a rod, too, sister." (When he realizes she
means to take the car, he scolds, "You're a naughty old lady. Shame,
shame!") Jerry's movie mania is the source of some of the movie's best bits.
Extolling the virtues of Ekberg, he tells Dean about a picture in
which "she played the part of a girl who's always searching, searching,"
then, so choked up he can scarcely get it out, "searching." "What was she
searching for?" asks Dean. "She didn't know," Jerry replies, "that's why
she was always searching."

And Tashlin shows his roots as an animator in some gags, like the surreal
shot of Mr. Bascom driving the car, or the scene where, driving through
Texas, everyone (including the pooch) is suddenly wearing a cowboy hat.
Jerry's is a ludicrous ten-gallon affair that begins spurting oil.

Martin didn't have it so good. He's a smooth straight man, but that
works against him when he starts coming on to the redhead he and Jerry pick
up (the eminently uninteresting Pat Crowley). It would have been better if
Tashlin had allowed him to work some lecherous comedy in his Lothario
moves; as it is, he just seems slimy. It doesn't help that the lyrics he
has to sing run to couplets like "My what lovely scenery/Cupid's own
machinery."

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Those conventional bits of "entertainment" are what keep getting in the way
of "Hollywood or Bust." There's no point claiming that the movie is a lost
gem. At times its relaxed quality just seems dull. Its pleasure lies in the
throwaway gags that throwaway movies thrive on. Scattershot jokes serve Lewis better than a sustained, thought-out comedy could; they make
the best sort of showcase for his gifts, which seem no less peculiar
because they've become familiar. The silliness of "Hollywood or Bust" is
exactly the sort that kids will probably respond to. You might be surprised
to find how much of it makes you giggle with them.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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