For close to six generations, the Tuttle family have prospered running a chain of lavish department stores across America. However, it's the Tuttle women who wield the real power while their meek, subservient husbands change their surnames and generally do as they are told. Millionairess Phoebe Tuttle (Agnes Moorehead) is dismayed when her daughter Barbara (Jill St. John) rejects the family fortune and secretly starts working as a humble elevator girl at their New York store. Worse, she is romantically involved with Norman Pfeiffer (Jerry Lewis), a klutzy yet hard-working and earnest guy who struggles trying to earn enough money for them to settle down.
In Mrs. Tuttle's eyes, Norman is hardly ideal marriage material. Her solution is to have store manager Quimby (Ray Walston) hire Norman and have him do every thankless, near impossible task around the bustling store. From painting the knob at the end of a flagpole hanging from the ninth floor, to helping a lady pro-wrestler find the perfect pair of shoes and taming a monstrously out of control vacuum cleaner. Norman turns out to be made of sterner stuff and triumphs through oddball ingenuity, all without suspecting his sweetheart is really the boss' daughter. Norman even befriends the henpecked Mr. J.P. Tuttle (John McGiver) and reignites his wounded male pride, inspiring him to rebel against his overbearing wife...
Ladies, if you see only one Jerry Lewis comedy in your lifetime make sure it isn’t this one. Who's Minding the Store? draws from some deeply dated sexual politics with an alarmingly neurotic view of women as emasculators, voracious sexual predators and basically, self-serving bullies responsible for all the ill in the world. Which is surprising given how subversive Frank Tashlin usually is, in The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) for starters, though less surprising if you consider how many heroines in Jerry Lewis movies are sappy substitute mother figures.
As Barbara, Jill St. John exhibits none of her sassiness from Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Barbara begs to be disinherited! Okay, not every girl wants to be a career woman but how many nowadays would throw away wealth, influence and lifelong security in a thriving business, just to mollycoddle a man-child so straight-laced he rebuffs Barbara's sexual advances every time. Come on fella, you're fooling nobody. Anyone who has seen Mad Men knows the early Sixties were one of the randiest eras in history.
Fair enough, this was a far from enlightened time with regards to gender roles. It might be wrong to single this movie out, but take a look at the other female characters served up: a lady wrestler itching for an excuse to indulge her violent whims; a tough female big game hunter (Nancy Kulp) who bullies her way to grabbing a free gun; a ravenous horde of shoppers who stampede through a big sale. Even Quimby's sexy secretary, (Francesca Bellini) rings false. She is supposedly bilking him for an ever-escalating series of raises but given Quimby sulks or scowls whenever she is around, their's is the least passionate illicit romance you're likely to see. Late in the day Tashlin throws in a line of dialogue that recasts this as a battle between the sincere and insincere, but it really adds up to a world being sapped of its joy by those ruthless, heartless women. When Norman surveys portraits of past Tuttle matriarchs with barely concealed disgust, he utters a rallying cry in inimitable Lewis fashion: "A man should be king of his own ranch style type tract-house." Quite.
If the film has a sour centre, it is surrounded by a deliciously sweet shell. Coming at the height of Jerry Lewis' glossy Paramount era superstardom, it unfolds in snazzy Technicolor with lavish production design and costumes by Edith Head. Lewis’ sight gags and pantomime are often inspired, including a wonderful musical moment with an invisible typewriter, a hilarious gag wherein a stray golf ball creates havoc around the store, and a genuinely touching moment when both Norman and Mr. Tuttle touch hands with Barbara without the other realising. Tashlin paints himself into a corner with his battle of the sexes and so wraps things up with a cutesy, but unsatisfying ending. There is enjoyment to be had, but this is not the ideal comedy to watch with your significant other.
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.