Sharp-suited Jerry Lewis croons the theme song, hoofing round a studio daubed in candy-coloured lights and scantily-clad showgirls. Welcome to another live action cartoon from the comedy dream team of writer-director Frank Tashlin and producer-star Lewis. It’s one of their liveliest efforts, a loose remake of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Hollywood diva Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) is set to headline a biblical epic as “the White Virgin of the Nile”, when she discovers she is pregnant with triplets. Carla’s bullfighter husband died in the ring, leaving her career in crisis.
She decides to leave the baby girls in the care of her small-town boyfriend, TV repairman Clayton Poole (Jerry Lewis), still smitten with the glamorous movie star even though her kid sister, Sandy (Connie Stevens) is crazy about him. Clayton selflessly raises the babies as his own, incurring suspicion from the girls’ volcanic Italian papa (Salvatore Baccaloni) and the nosy residents of Midvale.
While perhaps more sentimental compared to Preston Sturges’ movie, Rock-a-Bye Baby is arguably even funnier and often downright moving. Its heart-warming qualities stem largely from disarmingly haunting musical episodes, artfully handled by Frank Tashlin and graced with beautiful songs by Harry Warren and Sammy Cahn. Especially the lovely “When You Love in Vain” - so movingly sung by Jerry Lewis, you just might cry - and the delightful “Why Can’t He Care for Me?” wherein Connie Stevens duets with her own reflection. A dreamy interlude where Jerry briefly performs “Land of La-La-La” alongside a phantom of his younger self (Gary Lewis, his real-life son), illustrates why the French New Wave rated Tashlin a major auteur.
The film skirts the issue of child abandonment, reluctant to peg Carla as cruel. We see she loves her babies and is even reluctant to burden Clayton, moved to tears by his devotion. Yet Tashlin cuts through any treacle with snippets of small town satire, insider jokes about Hollywood, crazy digs at advertising (spray-on hair!) and often ingenious slapstick episodes. His background as an animator at Warner Bros. is evident from the gorgeous, glossy, colour-saturated production design that brings Midvale to storybook life (eagle-eyed film buffs will recognise the town square from Back to the Future (1985)) and his larger than life gags.
Tashlin never had a better live action cartoon character than Jerry Lewis. One inspired set-piece finds him impersonating a TV set to fool the drunk Papa Naples, switching characters whenever Sandy “changes channels.” Lewis handles the shifts from pathos to broad clowning with great aplomb. From his wacky efforts to raise three kids, to the courtroom climax where he pleads for father’s rights, or the (surprisingly credible) rock and roll number where he dances with crazy-legged abandon, this is one of his most full-out, crowd-pleasing performances. Click here to watch a clip
Connie Stevens makes a great sparring partner, underlining how Tashlin deals with sex in playfully witty ways, when she flashes her legs and teases: “I’m getting to you, tiger. Your thermometer is rising.” Instead of a vapid female foil, Sandy is as reckless and zany as Clayton - in other words, the perfect match. As in Tashlin’s excellent Susan Slept Here (1954), this has a young woman prove herself more grownup and desirable than a supposed sophisticate. It segues into an overall theme concerning the journey from childishness masked by surface sophistication towards real emotional maturity, as by the film’s end Clayton, Carla and Sandy have each grown up considerably.
American director whose films were heavily influenced by his years spent working in cartoons. In his 20s and 30s, Tashlin worked at both Disney and Warner Brothers in their animation studios, before moving into comedy scriptwriting in the late 1940s, on films like Bob Hope's The Paleface. Tashlin moved into directing popular live-action comedies soon after, with Hope in Son of Paleface, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, and most notably Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? These films were full of inventive, sometimes surreal touches, and used many of the techniques Tashlin had learnt as an animator. Continued to work during the sixties, but without the success of the previous decade.