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April 28, 2008

Seduced by the the Bat Lady

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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America
David Hajdu - 2008
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York

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Artists and Models
Frank Tashlin - 1955
Paramount Region 1 DVD

I was taking classes in the summer of 1971 at the University of California in Berkeley. At a course on Mass Communications, I was discussing underground comics with a teacher. He encouraged me to read Seduction of the Innocent, the influential "study" of comic books by Fredric Werthem. A psychiatrist adept at self-promotion, Werthem's book fed into the fears about the corrupting influence of comic books of the kind that were available in the early Fifties. While I don't think my parents read Werthem's book, the hysteria regarding comic books was such that by the time I started buying them myself around 1960, the only kind I was allowed to buy were Classics Illustrated. I had also been aware that many of the comic books I wasn't buying featured a special seal of approval, stating that the comic met some designated code. David Hajdu's book tell about the history of comic books up to the time that the code was mandated.

When Artists and Models was released, the comic book industry had already changed. The screenplay refers to a kind of comic book that no longer was published. To a degree Tashlin's film reflects the film industry's attitude at that time towards comic books, both as a rival form of entertainment and for its depiction of violence. The middle class attitude toward comic books is reenforced with the main characters leaving the comic book industry for the more wholesome pursuit of children's stories and advertising art.

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Even though Hajdu's book makes Tashlin's film outdated in its view of comic books, and the people in the industry, it still remains the best film from the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Eddie Mayehoff's comic book publisher probably was inspired in part by Bill Gaines. Gaines was perhaps the best known publisher not only because of the notoriety of "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror", but also his bravery to actually face the congressional hearings regarding comic books. Tashlin plays with the notion of how much influence comic books had on anti-social behavior on youth with nine year old George Winslow threatening Lewis with a letter opener thrown like a Bowie knife, and Lewis appearing on a television panel to report the effects of reading comic books for much of his life, the word "retarded" stressed in that scene.

Having Dorothy Malone as a comic book artist seemed unusual to me until Hajdu pointed out that until about 1954, the comic book industry was one of the few places where female artists could work. Hajdu explains the stratified world of professional artists in New York City, and how the comic book industry was more inclusive of women and racial minorities, especially when the industry peaked in the early Fifties. This is also documented by Hajdu's list of names of artists who were forced to leave the industry after 1954. Many of the events in The Ten-Cent Plague take place simultaneously to the HUAC trials of Hollywood filmmakers, and the later Army-McCarthy hearings. Similarly, it should be of little surprise that many of the people affected were of Jewish background such as Will Eisner, Stan Lee (Lieber) and Bob Kane (Kahn). It would be interesting to know if Bill Gaines had seen Artists and Models or if Frank Tashlin had ever read "Mad" magazine, the only Gaines publication that survived after 1954. The two shared an affection for parodies of movies, as well as an affection for the culture that they also satirized.

Setting aside the more topical aspects of Artists and Models, familiarity does not diminish the humor of Jerry Lewis confusing himself and Dean Martin in explaining his accidental encounters with the Bat Lady and the Fat Lady. While the Martin-Lewis films are usually overlooked in most discussions of musicals, the film features two scenes that continually delight. Written by Jack Brooks and Harry Warren, "Innamorata" may not be quite as catchy was the pair's "That's Amore", but it charms as one of the better vehicles for Dino's crooning to Dorothy Malone. Better and funnier is Shirley MacLaine belting out the same song, stopping the hapless Jerry as he attempts to make his way to catch some sun on their building roof. "The Lucky Song" is the type of number that could have probably wedged its way into a number of films but is fortunately found here. Dino is surrounded by some talented dancing neighborhood kids in this alternative version of Greenwich Village. Included is a dixieland jazz band featuring a piano player who looks like Fats Waller. It is also worth noting that unlike most films the time, the group of children performing with Martin are racially mixed, giving a little bit of New York City truth to this made in Hollywood scene.

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Posted by peter at April 28, 2008 12:00 AM

Comments

I LOVE this film and totally agree that it was the best Lewis and Martin picture. I thought Shirley MacLaine was wonderful in the movie too but I can watch young Shirley in anything really. I haven't seen it in many many years so I should give it another look.

I worked at a comic shop for 5 or 6 years during the '90s and was deeply immersed in the culture so I'm a bit of a comic book nerd and I've always found women's long running involvement in the comic book industry fascinating. Maybe that's why I love this movie so much? If you're looking for other books to read I highly recommend any of Trina Robbins terrific books about the history of women in comics.

Posted by: Kimberly at April 28, 2008 07:26 PM