Artists & Models

Frank Tashlin's Artists & Models
March 24th 2024

“I always pick the wrong people to fight with,” said Frank Tashlin. The quote in question refers to Walt Disney, but Tashlin’s pugnacious integrity was such that he never seemed to hold a job in Hollywood for very long even as those around him respected his enormous talent. A high school drop-out born in Weehawken, New Jersey, Tashlin worked for Disney (and Hal Roach) as an animator before finding a group of kindred spirits at the legendary Termite Terrace; after leaving Warner Bros he proved equally adept as a joke writer for flesh-and-blood icons like Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball. Tashlin’s unique combination of versatility and virtuosity—and volatility—attracted the attention of Jerry Lewis, who, along with producer Hal Willis, chose the filmmaker to helm the wild comedy Artists and Models (1955), which satirized the postwar moral panic around comic books.

Slyly mining the art-trash dialectic a decade ahead of Pauline Kael, the film pits Lewis’s arrested-adolescent childrens’ author Eugene against Dean Martin’s creatively stymied painter Rick; the latter can’t get a good night’s sleep with his roommate dreaming up fantasies about space stations, superheroes, and a statuesque Bat Lady whose fetishistic costume is the source of Eugene’s nocturnal emissions. The plot thickens when it turns out that Eugene’s subconscious actually contains state secrets—an obscure rocket formula that could affect the space race with the Soviets. It’s a twist that makes little literal sense but works brilliantly within the lucid-dream-logic of the film’s pop-inflected storytelling.The serene velocity of Tashlin’s style is something to behold here, with sight gags employed not as distraction but narrative tissue; nearly every frame contains some kind of surreal flourish or barely veiled sexual innuendo. The theme, at once deeply embedded in the material and thoroughly unpretentious, is the lurid, liberating power of imagination, which leaps over spiritually cloistered, Kefauverish moralizing in a single bound. “Long live American comedy,” declares a besotted Jean-Luc Godard—who was surely taking notes for La Chinoise (1967)—in "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts and Artists and Models,” his first essay for Cahiers du Cinema after a four year hiatus. This is what a true movie Marvel looks like.

Artists & Models screens tomorrow night, March 26, at The Balboa Theatre as part of the series “Gallery 3630 Presents.”

CONTOURS is a column developed by Saffron Maeve examining films that thematize the world of visual art: heists, biopics, documentaries, and experimental fare. Maeve also programs a screening series of the same name and premise at Paradise Theatre in Toronto.