Artists and Models (no, the other one)

There is a fairly well-regarded American comedy called Artists and Models.  It has Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in it, and was directed by Frank Tashlin.  This post is not about that film at all, but rather a wholly unrelated comedy from about 20 years previously that just happens to have the same name.

I’d post a link to the next TCM airing of Raoul Walsh’s 1937 Artists and Models if it was on the schedule anytime soon—you’ll just have to keep an eye out for it on the schedule yourself.  But don’t expect it to turn up in any plum primetime slot—this is strictly filler stuff, what TCM jams into the late night hours to avoid having to broadcast dead air.

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Which is unfair.  Artists and Models is quite enjoyable, if you know how to approach it.  Problem is, knowing how to approach it requires a bit of context—and that context is generally lacking for contemporary audiences.

Encountered cold, it just looks like a crazy mess.  Which it is, but there’s a world of difference between a sloppy incompetent mess and a deliberate anarchic mess.  But to make the case for why this is the latter and not the former, let’s pick apart what it is first.

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Jack Benny is the obvious place to start—he’s the headliner, after all.  I know the conventional wisdom is that Jack Benny’s cinema career was a non-starter except for Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, but he’s got a few great bits here—and if anything, this seems to have had some vague influence on Lubitsch.  For one thing, there’s a scene where Benny thinks he’s been shot that is recreated gesture for gesture in To Be Or Not To Be.  And the finale finds Benny in Renaissance gear exceedingly like his Hamlet costume from To Be Or Not To Be.

While we’re listing funny Benny bits, there’s also the moment where he stops to listen to Jack Benny on the radio, or when he carries on a non-sequiter-laced conversation with Rube Goldberg.  I mention all these because the cumulative effect is to signal that this is going to be an absurdist star-driven comedy vehicle.

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And as far as Benny’s part of the proceedings go, that holds true: he plays a promoter named Mac Brewster, who’s in charge of the Artists and Models Ball (a big gala event of some kind).  He’s also arranging models for various advertising accounts, including Townsend Silver—the commercial imprimatur of the blue-blooded Townsend family.  Jet-setting Alan Townsend (doughy Richard Arlen) believes that the right ad campaign behind his line of silverware will bring urbane well-bred sophistication to the masses—and to that end he wants the Queen of the Artists and Models Ball to be the same person as the Townsend Silver girl.

Benny’s long-suffering girlfriend is Paula Sewell, played by Ida Lupino, and she wants that gig.  Benny wants it for her, too, but Alan Townsend shoots the idea down without even laying eyes on her—he wants to use a true socialite.

So Paula cooks up a scheme: pretend to be a socialite and get Alan’s attention, so he hires her without realizing it’s the same girl he already rejected.  Off she goes to Miami to infiltrate his vacation, and…

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Well, here’s where it gets complicated.  This plot should play like a screwball comedy—it has all the ingredients: the mistaken identities, antagonists falling in love while traveling together, love triangles, love crossing class barriers.  All the boxes are ticked.  But while Jack Benny’s comedy chops are not in doubt, there’s a reason nobody hails Ida Lupino as a great comedienne.

She doesn’t even try.  She plays her scenes straight, and it shows what a slender reed separates screwball comedy from romantic drama.  With her no-nonsense portrayal of what are, in fact, all-nonsense scenes, the film develops a severe case of schizophrenia as it wobbles between Benny and Lupino’s separate plotlines.

If that’s all there was to it, we could just chalk this up to some poor casting or maybe Raoul Walsh not effectively integrating his two stars into the same style.  But if you add up all of Jack Benny’s and Ida Lupino’s scenes, you barely get half this film’s running time.  In terms of tonal shifts, whipsawing between Benny and Lupino is just the beginning.

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Instead, the film skips madly between Jack Benny’s absurdist bits, Ida Lupino’s not-quite-screwball stuff, and various vaudeville routines featuring guest performers.  There’s a scene where Martha Raye staggers around like a drunken sailor while Louis Armstrong plays “Public Melody Number 1,” or another scene where Russell Patterson’s marionettes stage a massive musical number that mutates from a Fantasia-style orchestral performance into a Busby Berkeley-esque revue.

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Some of these vaudeville intrusions are incorporated into the logic of the plot: for example, the opening sequence is a grand spectacle of “let’s do everything we possibly can, all at the same time, for no reason at all” that introduces us to the idea of Jack Benny as an entertainment promoter (here’s another connection to To Be Or Not To Be, which opens with a similar gimmick).  Similarly, the climax finds Richard Arlen proposing to Ida Lupino, and her Cinderella moment actually happens while the two of them are dressed in Cinderella costumes, plus he actually has a glass slipper—but all that makes “sense” because it’s supposedly part of the big Artists and Models Ball gala finale.

But some of the musical interruptions just happen, suddenly and without explanation, as if the filmmakers grew bored with their plot and decided to do something else for a while.

Let’s take Judy Canova and Ben Blue as a case study.

There are two ways to explain why Judy Canova is even in this movie—the thoughtful way, and the correct way.  The thoughtful way would involve the observation that she serves a crucial narrative function in Ida Lupino’s “screwball” story.

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Like It Happened One Night (which came out two years before this film, and directly influenced the screwball components of Artists and Models), the romance between Lupino and Arlen is threatened at the 11th hour by some stubbornness and hurt pride.  Arlen has gotten into his head that Lupino played him for a fool—just because she lied to him about who she was, and manipulated her way both into his affections and into his employ.  And so the film heads towards its conclusion with the various parties lined up with the wrong romantic partners—someone needs to go convince Arlen to get his head out of his butt and realize that he genuinely loves Lupino and she genuinely loved him.  In It Happened One Night this role is played by Walter Connolly as Claudette Colbert’s dad—the plain-speaking guy who cuts through all the nonsense and says the obvious.  Judy Canova has that role here.

But that’s just happenstance.  The real reason Judy Canova’s in this movie is she was a middlingly popular performer who gets trotted out to do her shtick—which in Canova’s case is loud, brassy, hillbilly comedy.

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Canova comes barreling into the movie like a force of nature, right after Ida Lupino has had way too much time to pretend this is a sensitive piece of serious drama.  And fast on Canova’s heels is Ben Blue, an annoying comic who tended to play man-baby roles in the Harry Langdon mode, but without Langdon’s penchant for sly transgressive mischief.  Blue mostly just twitches and gapes.

I’m going to run this scene more or less in its entirety because words just don’t do it justice.  Bear in mind, neither of these characters have any real connection to the rest of the plot, except for Canova having one useful and relevant line of dialogue later on.  They just show up and completely sidetrack everything—seconds ago we were wondering who will be the Queen of the Artists and Models Ball and who will model for Townsend Silver, and now we get a) an inventor of artificial rain, b) a boy and girl smacking each other like the Three Stooges, c) is it love?, and d) why not sing a song while you’re at it?

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If you squint, you can sort of force that scene into making sense.  As I already mentioned, Judy Canova has a role to play in the denouement, and since both Jack Benny and Ida Lupino end up finding true love at the end, it sort of fits that Judy would also get paired off with a boyfriend.  It’s weird for them to sidetrack everything so thoroughly with a digression into artificial rain as a career, and a such a strange song, but there’s no law that says subplots have to be related to the main plot very closely.  OK, it’s an oddity, but not yet an incomprehensible digression.

But then the puppets start playing.

How?

The puppets are even introduced—they get their own title card, fer crissakes!  And they’re clearly on a stage—they’d have to be!  They’re puppets!  But what stage?  Who’s the audience for this?  Where is this taking place?  The person who stages shows like this—Jack Benny—is back in New York.  Yet Judy Canova and Ben Blue are down in Miami with Ida Lupino.

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And then Ben Blue wanders into the puppet show, dazed and confused.  He plays it like a child, unaware of social boundaries, entranced by the spectacle, going where he shouldn’t.  He’s invaded the stage.  You’re waiting for the stage hands to hook him off the stage before he gets tangled up in the marionette’s wires.

But Ben starts interacting with the puppets—he’s part of the show.

Stop.

This is where all pretense to logic shatters.  Ben Blue was introduced to us as a retailer of rain, he’s not an entertainer.  He’s a dim bulb—I can buy him getting excited by the puppets and rushing the stage, but then he gets incorporated into the show.  However Ben Blue is in fact a professional entertainer, and he’s in a movie full of professional entertainers—each of whom gets to do their act.  Russell Patterson gets to have his puppets perform not because it has anything to do with anything, but because it’s interesting.

And now we’re on to something: Artists and Models is primarily a vehicle for vaudeville comics and other performers to do various comedy and musical numbers.  There is a loose narrative structure that more or less ties all these bits together, but not completely.  The movie isn’t a comedy plot that is variously interrupted, but more like the 1930s equivalent of a sketch variety show like Laugh-In, or Saturday Night Live.

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You should keep your eyes out for it when it rolls back around on the TCM schedule because it’s quite fun (Jack Benny’s reaction to being proposed to by Gail Patrick is terrific).  More to the point, though, keep your eyes open for similar 1930s comedies that use the structure of vaudeville and variety reviews instead of narrative logic to hold themselves together.  As discussed in Henry Jenkins’ excellent but densely written text What Made Pistachio Nuts, the 1930s were full of these anarchic comedies.  In fact, a small handful of them broke out and went big, so big they became massive hits remembered for generations even as the context that spawned them was forgotten… but that’s a story for next week.

24 Responses Artists and Models (no, the other one)
Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : June 15, 2013 9:17 am

NIce piece. It seems like Paramount was always doing this kind of kitchen-sink at the time. I recently watched the 1935 Burns & Allen film HERE COMES COOKIE — not terribly good, but it seemed to have the same type of anything goes, variety act style. And let’s not forget 1934′s HOLLYWOOD PARTY. Now there was a real mess; it was like the studio just ultimately threw their arms up in frustration and said “let’s forget any real sense of coherency and just make the whole thing Jimmy Durante’s bad dream!”. And yet, as downright bizarre as it all turned out (with even Mickey Mouse showing up for God’s sake) it was damn funny in spots.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : June 15, 2013 9:17 am

NIce piece. It seems like Paramount was always doing this kind of kitchen-sink at the time. I recently watched the 1935 Burns & Allen film HERE COMES COOKIE — not terribly good, but it seemed to have the same type of anything goes, variety act style. And let’s not forget 1934′s HOLLYWOOD PARTY. Now there was a real mess; it was like the studio just ultimately threw their arms up in frustration and said “let’s forget any real sense of coherency and just make the whole thing Jimmy Durante’s bad dream!”. And yet, as downright bizarre as it all turned out (with even Mickey Mouse showing up for God’s sake) it was damn funny in spots.

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : June 15, 2013 10:20 am

Jack Benny was an underrated as an actor. Besides To Be or Not To Be, he was in a very good film, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1946). It sounds like many of the problems in this film were due to how the film was put together. It is easy to blame the director but sometimes decision makers tied the director’s hands. Looking at his work, the decisions may have been made by Director Frank Tashlin though.

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : June 15, 2013 10:20 am

Jack Benny was an underrated as an actor. Besides To Be or Not To Be, he was in a very good film, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1946). It sounds like many of the problems in this film were due to how the film was put together. It is easy to blame the director but sometimes decision makers tied the director’s hands. Looking at his work, the decisions may have been made by Director Frank Tashlin though.

Posted By evan dorkin : June 15, 2013 12:06 pm

I’m a sucker for these patched-together kitchen sink films that trot out various performers and specialty acts (like International House, et al). I’ve wanted to see this one for ages also because there’s a number of cartoonists involved and there are few opportunities to see folks like Russell Patterson “live and breathe” on film.

I also think Jack Benny is more than adequate in movies, he works well as a certain character and would have benefited from better productions and direction (who wouldn’t?). I think his bad rep as a film actor was mostly spread by his own mocking of his films on his radio show.

Posted By evan dorkin : June 15, 2013 12:06 pm

I’m a sucker for these patched-together kitchen sink films that trot out various performers and specialty acts (like International House, et al). I’ve wanted to see this one for ages also because there’s a number of cartoonists involved and there are few opportunities to see folks like Russell Patterson “live and breathe” on film.

I also think Jack Benny is more than adequate in movies, he works well as a certain character and would have benefited from better productions and direction (who wouldn’t?). I think his bad rep as a film actor was mostly spread by his own mocking of his films on his radio show.

Posted By BPiper : June 15, 2013 12:41 pm

I’m a bit surprised, considering the theme of this article was comedic anarchy, that no mention was made of the Yacht Club Boys. This was my introduction to them and at first I thought they were the Ritz Brothers on LSD. I enjoyed them immensely.

Posted By BPiper : June 15, 2013 12:41 pm

I’m a bit surprised, considering the theme of this article was comedic anarchy, that no mention was made of the Yacht Club Boys. This was my introduction to them and at first I thought they were the Ritz Brothers on LSD. I enjoyed them immensely.

Posted By Doug : June 15, 2013 5:35 pm

David, as soon as I saw Benny on that poster I started grinning, and it grew wider as you mentioned Rube Goldberg(!), Ida Lupino,
Louis Armstrong and Gail Patrick. I would love to see this show.
I like Ida just fine; she was kewpie doll cute in “The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt” with Warren William.
I would watch this despite Ben Blue and Judy Canova.
I agree with Evan-the supposed bad rep for Benny came from his self deprecating assessment of his film success.
It was as real as his ‘feud’ with Fred Allen. He knew he was good, but also knew that those “Stars” that flaunt their success could alienate their fans.
Perhaps Paramount will someday make this available-it sounds great.

Posted By Doug : June 15, 2013 5:35 pm

David, as soon as I saw Benny on that poster I started grinning, and it grew wider as you mentioned Rube Goldberg(!), Ida Lupino,
Louis Armstrong and Gail Patrick. I would love to see this show.
I like Ida just fine; she was kewpie doll cute in “The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt” with Warren William.
I would watch this despite Ben Blue and Judy Canova.
I agree with Evan-the supposed bad rep for Benny came from his self deprecating assessment of his film success.
It was as real as his ‘feud’ with Fred Allen. He knew he was good, but also knew that those “Stars” that flaunt their success could alienate their fans.
Perhaps Paramount will someday make this available-it sounds great.

Posted By Coach : June 15, 2013 11:09 pm

My favorite Jack Benny film is George Washington Slept Here. True Benny humor. Seldom seen and not on DVD.

Posted By Coach : June 15, 2013 11:09 pm

My favorite Jack Benny film is George Washington Slept Here. True Benny humor. Seldom seen and not on DVD.

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 10:38 am

I’m a sucker for these kinds of films as well, even if they can’t all be Hellzapoppin’. Check out the cast list for Paramount’s adaptation of the popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern, the mind reels:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037662/

Or 1930′s Paramount on Parade:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021232/

I don’t know if these titles have ever turned up on TCM, but I’ve come across “grey market” copies at movie memorabilia shows, interesting curios if nothing else.

And aside from his earliest sound titles, like acting as an MC in MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 or the creaky talkie The Medicine Man, I’ve enjoyed most of Benny’s features, especially when trading barbs with Fred Allen (Love Thy Neighbour is a hoot). Too bad they didn’t get more opportunities to take their so-called feud to the big screen. I used to take old-time radio LPs out of the local library as soon as I was old enough to operate a record player, and Benny & Allen were particular favourites early on.

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 10:38 am

I’m a sucker for these kinds of films as well, even if they can’t all be Hellzapoppin’. Check out the cast list for Paramount’s adaptation of the popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern, the mind reels:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037662/

Or 1930′s Paramount on Parade:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021232/

I don’t know if these titles have ever turned up on TCM, but I’ve come across “grey market” copies at movie memorabilia shows, interesting curios if nothing else.

And aside from his earliest sound titles, like acting as an MC in MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 or the creaky talkie The Medicine Man, I’ve enjoyed most of Benny’s features, especially when trading barbs with Fred Allen (Love Thy Neighbour is a hoot). Too bad they didn’t get more opportunities to take their so-called feud to the big screen. I used to take old-time radio LPs out of the local library as soon as I was old enough to operate a record player, and Benny & Allen were particular favourites early on.

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 10:44 am

BTW, Artists & Models is available on a TCM-associated set of rare-ish titles from the Universal/Paramount holdings, also including W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties and the Gary Cooper drama Souls at Sea.

Just wondering if anyone here has seen the sequel, Artists & Models Abroad with Joan Bennett, Mary Boland and…the Yacht Club Boys! Just can’t shake those guys…

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 10:44 am

BTW, Artists & Models is available on a TCM-associated set of rare-ish titles from the Universal/Paramount holdings, also including W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties and the Gary Cooper drama Souls at Sea.

Just wondering if anyone here has seen the sequel, Artists & Models Abroad with Joan Bennett, Mary Boland and…the Yacht Club Boys! Just can’t shake those guys…

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 4:26 pm

I have seen two Jack Benny movies: To Be or Not To Be and George Washington Slept here. I enjoyed both. This sounds like an interesting mess.

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 4:26 pm

I have seen two Jack Benny movies: To Be or Not To Be and George Washington Slept here. I enjoyed both. This sounds like an interesting mess.

Posted By Doug : June 21, 2013 5:21 pm

Rob, another good goofy film is “Buck Benny Rides Again”-it followed stories from his radio show, the 1940′s equivalent of a movie continuing a TV series such as “The X Files”.
I am planning on getting the Criterion “To Be Or Not To Be”.

Posted By Doug : June 21, 2013 5:21 pm

Rob, another good goofy film is “Buck Benny Rides Again”-it followed stories from his radio show, the 1940′s equivalent of a movie continuing a TV series such as “The X Files”.
I am planning on getting the Criterion “To Be Or Not To Be”.

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 5:26 pm

Didn’t a particular contributing blogger to this site also contribute the commentary for that soon-to-be released disc?

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 5:26 pm

Didn’t a particular contributing blogger to this site also contribute the commentary for that soon-to-be released disc?

Posted By Stacia : June 27, 2013 8:55 am

I’m shocked no one here has brought up the blackface, which was infamous even in its day. The musical number was directed by Vincente Minnelli — his first directing role, and apparently a disappointing experience for him. It starred Louie Armstrong with Martha Raye as lead singer, covered in cork, her outsized “Harlem Negro” antics (as Mordaunt Hall called them, IIRC) offending critics across the country. Most were offended because she was “lowering herself” but some were offended at the broad, racist stereotypes. I’m convinced it’s this sequence that keeps the film from being better known.

Artists and Models is a good film except for that one heinous misstep that really sullies the rest of the production. I’m not big on the “it was a different time” excuse for these things, and after reading contemporaneous critics in 1937 complaining about the racism, I know it wasn’t “just how things were.”

I’ll step off my soapbox now. Jack Benny in this film, by the way, is a treasure, and those glamorous art deco puppets are almost literally unbelievable.

Posted By Stacia : June 27, 2013 8:55 am

I’m shocked no one here has brought up the blackface, which was infamous even in its day. The musical number was directed by Vincente Minnelli — his first directing role, and apparently a disappointing experience for him. It starred Louie Armstrong with Martha Raye as lead singer, covered in cork, her outsized “Harlem Negro” antics (as Mordaunt Hall called them, IIRC) offending critics across the country. Most were offended because she was “lowering herself” but some were offended at the broad, racist stereotypes. I’m convinced it’s this sequence that keeps the film from being better known.

Artists and Models is a good film except for that one heinous misstep that really sullies the rest of the production. I’m not big on the “it was a different time” excuse for these things, and after reading contemporaneous critics in 1937 complaining about the racism, I know it wasn’t “just how things were.”

I’ll step off my soapbox now. Jack Benny in this film, by the way, is a treasure, and those glamorous art deco puppets are almost literally unbelievable.

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