In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This edition of In Focus highlights our film of the month, the classic piece of slapstick perfection, Who’s Minding the Store? (1963).
This lighthearted comedy is pure Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin at their best. It starts with the beautiful heiress Barbara Tuttle (played by Jill St. John) falling helplessly in love with the endearing oaf Norman Phiffier (Jerry Lewis), and it only gets more ridiculous from there. The film functions as a series of wacky vignettes taking place in and around a fancy New York department store. While it’s undeniably Lewis’s show, the supporting cast really comes through. Jill St. John, Ray Walston, John McGiver, Agnes Moorehead, Nancy Kulp, Kathleen Freeman, and Fritz Feld are just some of the stars and character actors who help move the show along with their comedic talents.
Even though the film might not be the actor’s most famous, you’ll see many now-iconic Jerry Lewis moments that came from the film including the rogue vacuum cleaner scene, invisible typewriter gag, and encounter with Nancy Kulp as a renowned big game hunter. Some of the values are a little outdated, but it’s an undeniably charming romance full of elaborate and clever set pieces.
“I believe a man has gotta be king in his own ranch-type-style tract house.”
“Forgive me for saying this, but this boy has character, and I know what character is! I remember when I had it!”
“There’s no place in business for a man of character. His sincerity could ruin the world! ”
“Naturally, that’s why we, the insincere, must be in charge.”
“I just wanted to satisfy a charge customer so I could be the greatest salesman just like you, who are my idol, Mr. Quimby. If I ever turn out to be as good as you, I shall really live and breathe the air of kings. Oh, if I could ever be like you, oh boy, there’d never be Death of a Salesman with me.”
Jerry Lewis plays Norman Phiffier. He’s one of the all-time great comedic geniuses of cinema. What more is there to say? Who’s Minding the Store? revolves around the quintessential Lewis character: full of heart, inelegant but not stupid, exaggerated, and lovable.
Frank Tashlin (aka Tish Tash or Frank Tash) writes and directs. He began his animation career at the young age of 17, joining Schlessinger’s cartoon studio at Warner Bros. at 20 and working his way up to being an animation director there at 26. Tashlin got his start in live-action film in the 1940s writing gags for the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and Bob Hope. In 1956, he began his long comedic partnership with Jerry Lewis, directing Hollywood or Bust (1956). His cartoon-like style of directing brought the perfect absurd flavor to Lewis’s slapstick comedy style. Who’s Minding the Store? is the penultimate (of eight) collaboration between Lewis and Frank Tashlin.
Jill St. John also stars. By all accounts, this talented actor was an absolute genius, studying at UCLA when she was only 14. Some might find it ironic that her career began with roles as the adorable, fun-loving ditz in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, she kept pace with her male co-stars as a jet-setting femme fatale, trading one-liners with them in films like Diamonds are Forever and The Liquidator. She brings an irresistable charm to Who’s Minding the Store, playing a sort of hybrid of her happy-go-lucky ingenue and witty, tongue-in-cheek femme fatale characters.
Lending their humorous talents in supporting roles are Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane, TV’s Bewitched), Ray Walston (The Apartment, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), John McGiver (Midnight Cowboy, The Manchurian Candidate), Nancy Kulp (Shane, TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies), Kathleen Freeman (The Nutty Professor, The Fly), and Fritz Feld (Bringing Up Baby, Barefoot in the Park).
DID YOU KNOW?
Jill St. John, who plays the department store heiress Barbara Tuttle, was herself the daughter-in-law of real-life Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
In the scene where Norman is put to work selling gourmet foods and must (to his chagrin) eat a plate of fried ants, Lewis was actually eating fried ants. He wasn’t told that they were real fried ants until after the scene was finished.
In the film, Norman Phiffier had previously held down jobs as a caddy and a TV repairman. Jerry Lewis fans will recognize that these are jobs that some of his characters held in earlier films: The Caddy, Rock-a-Bye Baby, and It’s Only Money.
The famous invisible typewriter gag uses Leroy Anderson’s novelty instrumental piece The Typewriter.
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“Frank Tashlin directs with full emphasis on the madcap nonsense and Jerry Lewis has a field day playing it all out in his uninhibited (meaning zany) style. It’s fun.” — Variety
“Under director Frank Tashlin’s steady hand, this proved to be a fairly entertaining outing, with Lewis offering an inventive, madcap performance.” — TV Guide
“There are still some great gags to be had here, typical prop-based humor at which Lewis excelled and which Tashlin always knew exactly how to stage, but there’s a sort of “been there, done that” feeling to much of this film that keeps it from ever achieving a uniform sense of energy and momentum.” — Jeffrey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com
Who’s Minding the Store is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
April 14, 2017