FAVORITE FILMS: "Who's Minding the Store?"

Fifty years have gone by since the Spanish release of "Who's Minding the Store?" (1963, Frank Tashlin), on the 21st of December 1964. During this time, it has become one of Jerry Lewis best remembered films. Legendary scenes, such as the "Typewriter" scene, have delighted many movie fans, specially in Spain, where it became a classic. Undoubtedly, this is one of my favorite films that I keep on watching it just for the sake of enjoying, over and over again, those beloved scenes. Over the years, its depiction of those funny catastrophes originated in a department store, seems to me to be more lucid and timeless than ever. Similarly, its dialogues are now located in my personal Gourmet section. A very special space in my mind, where great comedies deserve to be.

Welcome to Tuttle's.

Mr. Quimby: You are modest, Mr. Phiffier but that's good. We need modest and intelligent young men. Men to learn the mercantile business from the ground up.
Norman Phiffier: Oh, you mean I'll start from the first floor?

Two for the show

That hectic atmosphere of fictional Tuttle's department store, was the perfect setting for the combination of two major talents: Jerry Lewis and director Frank Tashlin, who were right at the top of their game. They made a grand total of eight films together, this film was their penultimate association.

It was a match made in heaven, since they were both facing a key moment in their cinematographic careers. The successful American comedy duo, comprising Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, was in decline. Frank Tashlin was appointed director for two of the last films of the comedy team. The first one was "Artists and Models" back in 1955, a terrific comedy devoted to super-hero comic books. The second one (and final film for the duo) was "Hollywood or Bust" (1956), a really funny satire on Hollywood. They continued working together, now with Lewis as the only star, in "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" (1958) and "The Geisha Boy" (1958), a truly witty touching story, set in Japan. Through all those films, they created a great and prosperous partnership, for all their movies were huge box-office hits. Tashlin also influenced Lewis as he shifted to direction. Already a tremendous star as an actor and comedian, Paramount Pictures gave him carte blanche, so that he could fully display his creativity and craftsmanship. In addition to "Who's Minding the Store?", he also released one of his most acclaimed films as a director, "The Nutty Professor" (Jerry Lewis) back in 1963. That surely was a milestone year.

Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis while filming "Rock-A-Bye-Baby".
Image via TheRedList

Conversely, Frank Tashlin had reached stability and was on a much more steady course. Previous to his career in motion pictures, he worked as an animator and cartoonist(1), drifting from one studio to another, from Warner Bros. to even Disney. In 1946 he became a gag writer and and slowly made it to filmmaking for Paramount Pictures, where he met his greater success alongside Jerry Lewis. This film, which Tashlin cowrote with Harry Tugend, continues the work of Preston Sturges wonderful comedies, in terms of gag construction. He paved the way for an original and new narrative in comedy. Presumably as a result of his cartoonist background, his style was based on cartoonlike gags not restricted to physics and on his constant use of ellipses. In Tashlin's world, anything is possible, everything is out of control and over the top, which benefits the plot and increases its satirical approach.

Frank Tashlin drawing on his studio.
Image via Ethan de Seife.

In contrast to the other comedies of the time, from Blake Edwards, Richard Quine or Stanley Donen, “perhaps Tashlin, ten years their senior, was sharper and less sentimental, sarcastic and less emotional, in his approach to a certain social reality and its references, which are totally left unaddressed by his fellow comedy directors.”(2) Those references are filled with icons of the new mass culture –comic books, television, rock and roll or Hollywood– and they focus on the mundane average American obsessions, to highlight the flashiness and frustration of a booming society. Such allusions can be found in "Who's Minding the Store?", particularly those referring to television. There's a special tv reference that may go unnoticed by many –such was my case until my research for this film– and that is the one that spoofs sixties hospital drama "Ben Casey" (1961-1966, James E. Moser)(3). The series starred Vince Edwards, a surgeon whose face expression remained exactly the same in every situation. The drama and its protagonist's feature became famous and, for the film, Jerry Lewis parodies the actor and the tv show in a scene where he and the dog Bosley are watching tv. It seems that this spoof was not sufficient for he went on to write, direct and act in an episode of the show called "A Little Fun To Match the Sorrow". Just another example of his incomparable talent and his audacity as a creator.

Norman Phiffier: Don't worry about it, Bosley. TV actors never die, well in this case anyhow, because he's a TV doctor and he has to be on next week. Patients die, you see. Don't be concerned about it now, just don't worry about it. Old Ben will take care of him. That's Ben, you know, behind that mask he isn't even smiling.

Comparison of Who's Minding the Store? and Ben Casey
A comparison of "Who's Minding the Store?" and "Ben Casey".

Curiosities aside, another essential aspect of Frank Tashlin's work, visible on "Who's Minding the Store?", is the satirization of gender roles. Somehow men are constantly deprived from their masculine attributes whereas women's are definitely enhanced. As the critic Dave Kehr pointed out in his article for The New York Times(4): "The most absurd figure in Tashlin’s films is not the heavy-bosomed blonde but the pathetic male in a pure, helpless state of arousal, continually provoked by the eroticized environment that surrounds him". As I read those words, a particular scene from the movie comes to mind. The president of Tuttle's department store –played by John McGiver– reveals the portraits of the "true presidents": Tuttle's heiresses, presided by Agnes Moorehead as Phoebe Tuttle. A devastating scene.

For all the fun Tashlin provided, he also insisted on the not so auspicios consequences of a society whose spongelike attitude towards media was increasing. Nevertheless, approach always left room for hope. Truth is, even though five decades separates us, Tashlin and Lewis representation of the world they lived in, is not so different from our own.

A hostile environment

One of this film's genius moves, in terms of narrative, was its setting: the department store. Such recognizable surroundings are fundamental. Every gag is now perceived as formidable contemporary satires, as an ironic depiction of consumerism.

More than most of the films at the time, "Who's Minding the Store?" is one of the best examples of a profound change in consumption habits that took place in the 1960s and also of a massive increase of publicity in movies and theaters. After WWII and during the 1960s, the United States experienced its longest uninterrupted period of economic expansion in history. Consequently, demand for new products soared and advertising extended its influence. TV momentum contributed to the rapid escalation of the number of advertisements released on television and on movie theaters. Then product placement emerged and became standard practice. Due to Lewis box-office success, for this production, numerous brands made an effort to contribute as sponsors. Honda, RCA Whirlpool, Browning Arms or Hoover vacuum cleaners, are notable examples.

An example of brands in "Who's Minding the Store?".

Each product has –alongside a wonderful cast of character actors and actresses– a capital role in the film. They are not only elements of the set but the trigger for chaos and the key factor for many scenes in "Who's Minding the Store?". Playing on of his typical parts, Jerry Lewis is a willing maladapted and clumsy young man, who must struggle to succeed when the elements are against him. Either a golf practice machine or an ordinary vacuum cleaner, every device rebels with newfound nuclear powers, much to our amazement and enjoyment. All these objects ultimately are an extension of society, of its highly questionable moral standards, of its strict codes of behaviour and of its will to bring every human being into alignment.

Following the argument of a masterpiece such as "Modern Times" (1936, Charlie Chaplin), the idea that Tashlin is trying to convey is that the machine would eventually humiliate and alienate men. That view is prevalent in Tashlin's filmography and, even more, in his marvelous children books, written and illustrated by this great artist, that I will discuss in future posts.

Paradoxically, the most remembered machine of them all is the one we don't see. I am referring to the classic scene in which Jerry Lewis mimics the usual movements of a typist on an invisible typewriter, to the wonderful beat of the melody composed by Leroy Anderson. No matter how many times I have watched this scene, both its music and Lewis performance mesmerize me. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that this gag was previously performed in the show "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (1950-1955) for NBC, during his association with Dean Martin.

An immortal legacy

It is impossible not to give full account of the enormous influence of these two superb talents, both in motion pictures and in television. Being able to translate social and economic changes or the impact of the new media, into funny yet biting scenes would be an arduous task for almost every creator. The value of their work should be considered not as a lost art, but as a necessary point of view to meet changing circumstances and to force viewers to acknowledge themselves –to laugh and to condemn their actions–, as they enjoy this formidable show. That legacy has historical value and should by all means, be rediscovered.

Throughout their careers, they delighted audiences around the world and left an indelible mark on great filmmakers such as Joe Dante or John Waters, true fans of Tashlin work. His style would pave the way for Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker comedies like "Top Secret!" (1984) or "Airplane!" (1980). Asserting that Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin were two film masters is no exaggeration, specially in Jerry Lewis case, for he taught a film directing class at USC (University of Southern California) in Los Angeles, for a number of years. His students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, among others.

No. That's not all, folks.


(1) Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) worked practically for every studio during the Golden Age of American animation. From Van Beuren Studios for RKO, to Columbia Pictures Screen Gem Studios, to Leon Schlesinger Studios –later absorbed by Warner Bros. Cartoon Studios and responsible for "The Looney Tunes"–, and even to Disney, Tashlin wrote, designed and directed many animated pieces of that era.

(2) A quote translated from the Spanish book Historia general del cine. Volumen X: Estados Unidos (1955-1975). América Latina. COSTA, J.; F. HEREDERO, C.; GOMERY, D.; GUBERN, R.; PARANAGUÁ, P. A.; TORREIRO, C. Historia general del cine. Volumen X: Estados Unidos (1955-1975). América Latina. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, S. A. 1996. p. 126.

(3) An American medical drama, which competed with "Dr. Kildare", which ran on ABC since 1961 until 1966.

(4) An article titled "Unmanly Men Meet Womanly Women: Frank Tashlin’s Satires Still Ring True" published in August 20th 2006 in The New York Times, by Dave Kehr.

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