Artists and Models

(Frank Tashlin, USA, 1955)


Like Douglas Sirk‘s melodramas, Frank Tashlin‘s contemporaneous crazy comedies exaggerate to the point of subversion the popular values and aesthetics of the American ’50s.

Tashlin’s terrain was not the domestic home and hearth but the media-sphere of advertising, TV, movie glamour and showbiz gossip: by gleefully embracing and slyly satirising this plastic arena of clichés and stereotypes, he anticipated much Pop Art.

Artists and Models, which provided the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis duo with its finest screen hour, is a dizzily reflexive play on movie illusion.

Eugene (Lewis) is a comic book addict whose colourful dreams are transcribed – and secretly sold by Ricky (Martin). (The unofficial source for this plot is the media-panic caused by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, an exposé of the deleterious effects of comics on tender minds.) They are mirrored by two women, sultry graphic artist Abby (Dorothy Malone) and ditzy Bessie (Shirley MacLaine).

Tashlin’s endlessly inventive game of permutation and combination between these four characters builds to a piece of burlesque mayhem without equal in the annals of film comedy: Eugene and Bessie’s delirious détournement of the kitschy romantic ballad "Inamorata".

With its plot that launches without warning into an international espionage intrigue (enter Eva Gabor), and its splendid musical demonstration of image-and-sound artifice (the number "When You Pretend"), it is little wonder that the strategies of Artists and Models have subsequently been respectfully echoed in the merry modernisms of Jacques Rivette (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974), P. T. Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002) and Australia’s Yahoo Serious (Mr Accident, 2000).

© Adrian Martin June 2003

When You Pretend

The happiness you find is all a state of mind,

That’s true, my friend.

And life is full of happy endings

When you pretend.


The films of Frank Tashlin, as Roger Tailleur already suggested in 1958, create “a universe of pure representation”. (1) Everything in them is artificial, already-constructed, pre-given. Tashlin’s pleasure, a very modern one, is in the game of arranging and shifting these elements, placing and displacing them.


There is one side of Tashlin that is often discussed: his play with the formal elements of cinema, such as his use of visual distortion, image against sound, and breaks in the self-contained diegesis of the narrative. But there is another side I would like to emphasise in discussing one of his greatest films, Artists and Models. Tashlin’s games also question the very basis of narrative and representation, of stereotypes and the ideology they construct. They explode from within the central obsessions of the Hollywood cinema: finding one’s identity and place, reaching the happy endings of adulthood, sexual satisfaction, monogamy, marriage. Such endings are indeed achieved by the films, but they are made strange – and the narrative path that leads to them is nothing if not tortuous.

Interpreting Artists and Models is a matter of tracing out its various sexual combinations and possibilities, both explicit and implicit. The initial material of the film is its male pair – Rick/Dean Martin and Eugene/Jerry Lewis. Two buddies, innocent, asexual, rather like the characters Eugene creates for his book, Little Goosey Goose and Freddie Fieldmouse. The association with animals and nature is reinforced by the two friends’ fond reminiscences of their childhood in the Kangaroo Patrol.

But Tashlin introduces two threats into this perfect, undisturbed male union: homosexuality and women. The first is hinted at through various marital jokes and tensions between Rick and Eugene (“You can have full custody of the beans”); while the second is writ large in the film’s stunning, opening set piece: the two are ‘inside’ a huge advertising billboard of a woman, devoured by a monstrous, phallic mother (the signifier of her maleness: cigarette smoking) who is alluring (her red lips) and deadly.

To eradicate these twin threats, the men must be paired with women – i.e., safe, ‘normal’, heterosexual women. The course of the narrative will be devoted to reaching that desired destination. But it is in the process of differentiating the men and their complementary women that Tashlin begins to play his subversive games.

The brilliance of Artists and Models lies in its use of the pre-existing Martin/Lewis personae – the difference between them developed and extended very which way. Rick is, above all, the stereotype of masculinity, the embodiment of patriarchal power. He is in every sense the Artist, the one in control, who sets the scene. At one point, he poses for Abby (Dorothy Malone) and becomes her model, but this is only a momentary ruse: as he sings his seductive love song (“You Look So Familiar”), he alters her painting so that it is she who appears within the image and he who places her there. In another scene, when Abby is unaware of his presence, he pretends that the song he is singing to her is coming from the radio; he is anywhere and everywhere. He is able to seduce women of all ages, from Abby down to the little girl who adoringly mimics his dance steps during the “I’m Going to March Down the Avenue” number. He is handsome, self-assured, pragmatic – the full-blown, cultural representation of maleness.

Eugene, by contrast, is regressive and infantile, with the familiar Lewisian traits of squeaky voice and white socks. He is lost in dream worlds, be they the Bat Lady comics he reads so avidly or his own Freddy and Goosey inventions. According, once again, to a dominant cultural representation of childhood, he is pre-sexual: when he innocently asks Sonia (Eva Gabor) whether he can do anything for her, she knowingly replies, “I doubt it.” Also like a child he is stuck in his narcissism, a veritable mirror phase. During the Artists and Models Ball, Rick and Eugene move among the audience to paint portraits of the guests on the bare backs of waitresses. They both square up the perspective with their thumb. When the girls turn around, we see that Rick has painted a person while Eugene has painted … his own thumb.

The respective sexual attributes of the two men are summed up when they sing the “Artists and Models” theme at the Ball. Rick touches coloured bundles of fabric and magically materialises women – artistry, seduction and power all combined. Eugene tries in vain to do the same but is unable to do so, as he possesses none of these requirements for masculinity. Only the last bundle he touches springs to life – a monstrous giant twice his size. His mother, about to punish him for entertaining wicked thoughts?

The two women mirror this relation of artist to model, reproducing it. (Ideology is always about the reproduction of a representation.) Abby is the beautiful female, adorable and intense, intelligent and practical. Bessie (Shirley MacLaine) is the female Jerry Lewis: short hair, squeaky voice, nutty mannerisms. As Eugene is lost in comics, she is lost in astrology. Abby and Bessie as women – like all the women in the film, beginning with the introductory beauty parade during the credits – function as models for the desiring gaze of men, their artists, those who give their life meaning. One of the songs states this baldly enough, in its dedication “to the gals who look so fetching/to the guys who do the sketching”, and its reference to “those Greenwich guys … painting portraits of their pretty little chicks.”

But this basic gender division is not as simple as it first appears. For whereas Rick chases Abby, it is Bessie who goes after Eugene. In the film’s final moments, Eugene points to Rick and Abby – “she’s his” – to which Bessie responds, “you’re mine”. This follows a very precise ideological logic. If Eugene, a child, is lacking his maleness, Abby is a failing female. Being a successful artist connotes being a frigid career woman. Rick tells her, “I can give you what you don’t have to be missing anymore … What’s the matter, all work and no playing around?” Through their respective relationships, Bessie will give Eugene a phallus, and Rick will deprive Abby of hers. This system could be set out using a loose adaptation of the narrative model of the semiotic square proposed by A.J. Greimas (2):
This model generates the rules of the narrative/sexual code. Rick/Bessie and Abby/Eugene are logical, presupposed pairs, but useless to the film. The drama only exists if Abby and Eugene can be transformed from their positions contrary to the norm, brought back into line, to where they belong – if the threat they incarnate can be successfully eradicated.

Tashlin plays on these set positions. Rick tells Eugene to wait outside a door and kiss Bessie when she enters. Abby comes through instead, to Rick’s horror: “I wouldn’t have sent a boy to do a man’s job”. The richest source of comedy for the film is Bessie’s repeated attempts to be in a position other than the one that the narrative (i.e., society) allots for her. She may be fighting for the welfare of the female norm, but she does not possess Abby’s conventional feminine beauty; this is what she desperately desires in order for her to seduce Eugene. Early on, the film makes a spectacle of Dorothy Malone’s legs as she steps out of the shower – a voyeuristic spectacle for the implied male viewer. After this moment, Bessie often tries to put Eugene in that same spectatorial position, displaying her wares to him – but he responds with bewilderment or disgust.

Similarly, Bessie would like to use on Eugene the same seductive tricks Rick uses on Abby, so she borrows his love song “Innamorata”. When Rick sings it, Abby runs into his arms, admitting that a woman can fall in love with a man she has only seen a few times, while birds coo romantically beside them. But with Bessie, each time she hits the melody’s high note, Eugene comes crashing down the stairs with his sunbathing gear, foiled in his attempt to escape her. It is among the greatest anti-musical scenes in all cinema.

The resolution to such sexual dilemmas is delayed by introducing further complication and splitting. For Eugene is two people, waking and sleeping – or, rather, two children. The waking child will be cured of his unhealthy addiction to comics through the correct, parental influence. As in other Martin-Lewis films (You’re Never Too Young  [Norman Taurog, 1955]), a family scenario implicitly develops, whereby Lewis attains Martin as his father and, as here, Abby as his mother. She encourages him to write his ‘good’, clean, children’s literature, and provides the illustrations using him as the model. She puts him on a television talk show where he swears off comics in Rick’s name – i.e., In the Name-of-the-Father.

But for the sleeping child, the Eugene who dreams and desires, even Bat Lady comics are not enough. His fantasies reach new heights of excess as he recounts the adventures of Vincent the Vulture and Zuba   tales dripping with sex and violence. A child who desires, within the representations of our culture, is a monster child, an abnormality – Artists and Models, it is not fanciful to suggest, provides a precedent for the figure of Regan (Linda Blair), the possessed little girl in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). In the film’s best scene, Tashlin pits opposing child-representations against each another. George Winslow (who was also in Hawks’ Monkey Business [1952] and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]) is a splendid monster child. His famous ‘foghorn’ voice, his innuendos, his violence all belong in the adult domain. This child, prematurely adult, meets the waking Eugene, an adult who is still a child. Each is what the other should normally be.

But is even this correspondence so clear or simple? Tashlin never ceases to complicate the character of Eugene for, in his waking hours, he is subject to mysterious fits of desire. It is, in fact, Rick who orders him to remain innocent. When Eugene is told by Rick to entertain Sonia, he immediately takes her to the couch and begins kissing her. Rick responds with: “I didn’t mean that! Do your bird calls.” And during the “Artists and Models” number at the ball, Rick chases a Jerry-Lewis-turned-Harpo-Marx around the stage, keeping him from all the ‘pretty little chicks’. Tashlin poses, with regard to cultural representations, the complementary question to the one Gilles Deleuze (in The Logic of Sense) uncovers in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that of ‘what is a little girl?’. Here one is led to ask: ‘what is a little boy?’

Rick’s position as symbolic father in the family scenario is also complicated, for he is a very bad father, indeed. While Abby is the artist for Eugene’s innocent children’s stories, Rick steals his dreams and makes comic books out of them for the Murdock publishing company. “If he’s working for Murdock, we’re not pals anymore” proclaims Eugene – so Rick is forced to lie by pretending he is making money out of ‘legitimate’ art, a healthy cultural product.

The dilemma posed for the narrative is this: Rick is the embodiment of the male norm, but he is too masculine – an opportunist, a rake, believing (rightly) the world is his to conquer, by whatever means. He threatens the basis of marriage as both a bad father and a promiscuous husband. At one point it is, in fact, Eugene who is referred to as the ideal man for marrying: “He’s not very handsome … that makes him safe, a good husband”.

These various loose ends – where the characters are not yet in their proper place, gendered and socialised – are tied by the inclusion of the final textual knot in Artists and Models: the phallic, castrating woman.

Let me warn you, stranger, that red means danger –

Beware of any gal who wears it.

I agree she may be very gracious,

But you’ll find that she’s kinda vivacious.


Beginning with the billboard woman and her bright red lips, the danger signs are posted everywhere around the film. The sexual woman is more threatening and abnormal than any other cultural ‘mis-fit’ or excess within the narrative, be it Eugene’s lack of manhood, Abby’s career success or Rick’s promiscuity. It is her inclusion in the film as a floating signifier that enables all the other problems to be solved.


Behind the Murdock publishing company, pushing it to its sordid extremes in the comic business, is a character whom we never see: Mrs Murdock. She ‘wears the pants’. It is she who institutes an empire of castration. The comics, from Eugene’s dreams, tell of Vincent the Vulture, whose life and virtue are threatened by the monstrous Zuba – “That Zuba is all girl!”, as Mr Murdock so aptly comments. She, too, has luscious red lips – plus three eyes, “one lavender, one purple, one magenta”. And, finally, it is the government secrets inadvertently leaked in the comics that usher in the real-life materialisation of the phallic woman in the form of the communist spy, Sonia – “where men are concerned, Sonia never fails.”

Sonia’s position/function in the film is extremely complex. She absorbs all the previous signifiers of feminine beauty that have belonged, for instance, to Abby – such as dazzling legs – and these are recoded in terms of danger, the deadly lure. The introductory shot of Sonia is taken from the waist down and the next scene shows Eugene (literally) aflame with desire as he gazes upon her legs and she blows cigarette smoke in his face (the billboard woman). There is an exact narrative rhyme between two moments. The first is during Bessie’s rendition of “Innamorata”, a shot of bewildered Eugene taken through her upturned, dancing legs. At the end of the film, as the heroes fight Sonia and her cohorts, she is disposed of by being dropped headfirst into a great urn, with her legs flaying in the air. Passing from Abby to Bessie to Sonia in the textual circulation of the film, this sign of female sexuality is no longer threatening but contained, defused, castrated.

A similar rhyme occurs in relation to changes in Rick’s character. The implied evidence of his promiscuity is Anita (Anita Ekberg) – another dazzling beauty. Although she is his model, he comes to choose not to exercise his seductive power over her – as she puts it, “now when I pose for you, all you do is draw … ”. Later, Sonia pretends to be a client commissioning and modelling for her portrait. In a strict inversion of the earlier scene in which Rick turned the tables on Abby, reinstating himself as the artist by putting her in the image, here it is Sonia who ‘sets the scene’, posing only in order to seduce him. But now, rather like the virtuous Vincent in Eugene’s dreams (“defender of truth and liberty, he fights off her embraces”), Rick escapes from her clutches at the first available opportunity and rings the secret police.

This is a key moment in the film. Rick’s desire is finally socialised, brought under the jurisdiction of the law – which is equally a sexual law, for the act marks Rick’s acceptance of monogamy, just as his preceding decision to quit working for Murdock reinstates him as a good father. But all this is not without irony. The secret police order him to ‘detain’ Sonia if necessary. He protests, but is assured that it is his patriotic duty; he remarks: “Boy, if I had have known that, I would have joined the FBI, not the Kangaroo Patrol”. His excessive desire is not castrated – it is simply sanctioned by law.

Sonia solves the problems that beset Eugene and Bessie as well. Throughout the film, Eugene’s love is the Bat Lady, whom he sees in the flesh early on. What he does not know is that it was Bessie inside the costume; since her earnest advances do not interest him, she could not have possibly have been this mythic person/creature. He desires a bad woman, a superwoman, the woman of his abnormal dreams – abnormal both for the child that he is and the man that he should be. It is Sonia, logically, who should be wearing the Bat Lady costume, and this is exactly what happens. She locks Bessie in her dressing room at the ball, puts on the Bat Lady outfit, seduces Eugene, transports him to her secret castle and significantly tempts him out of his Freddie Fieldmouse costume – the innocent child led fatally astray.

But Sonia’s kisses cannot arouse Eugene; he realises his preference, after all, is for Bessie – “when she kisses me, the tops of my shoes pop open” – and indeed, it is her kiss which brings him out of the hypnotic trance Sonia drugged him into, giving him access to a new-found masculinity. Now he can help Rick dispose of the villains. All of Eugene’s problems disappear in a single stroke. He is cured of his desires for the Bat Lady, both in his waking and in his sleeping  – under the hypnotic drug, he can talk only of Freddie and Goosey – and Bessie then gives him his phallus, his path to manhood no longer blocked, miraculously accelerated. As the final song declares: “Things turned out just fine.”

Or almost. Tashlin reserves for his dizzy narrative play one final irony, one final excess. Rick, in relation to Abby and in relation to the world, has come under the limits and requirements of the law. But when Eugene is transformed by Bessie’s kiss, at last a man like Rick, his frenzy and strength are too great – after knocking cold the villains, he obliviously proceeds to do the same to all the available policemen. After so much effort, the film derides the notion of a complete ideological and narrative closure. It is a typical Tashlinesque twist.

Tashlin’s particular, dazzling presentation of Hollywood conventions is best summed up in the title of a song in Artists and Models: “When You Pretend”. His films are inextricably caught up in a familiar perpetuation of illusions and myths, both ideological and cinematic – where, ideally, the form of the film is invisible along with its message, its cultural project, which should appear natural and commonsensical. But Tashlin never ceases to demonstrate when he is pretending, constructing, spinning the text of his films. As Eugene avows, “I have everything when I’m pretending.”

An example: to efface the marks of its narration, its contrivance, the Hollywood film often appeals to a supposed external force which is guiding the events within the fictional world: God, destiny, heredity are some examples – think of Frank Borzage’s great films. In Artists and Models the stars in the sky fill this role. Bessie explains that she moved into her new apartment because her astrology guide said she would find her true love there, and it predicts correctly the moment of her first meeting with Eugene. Abby, too, wants to be influenced by the stars; she asks Bessie, “What does your book say about Rick?”. But Tashlin sabotages this naturalising device by having Bessie arbitrarily switch mid-film from astrology to numerology, a ‘science’ which, in her hands, is itself completely arbitrary, and which always produces the same result: “Zero – Eugene again”.

The film’s happy ending arrives – the result of all the complicated narrative manoeuvring, the pretending that has gone before it. But, as in the cinema of Douglas Sirk, the illusion is obvious, over-marked, the effort is too great: miraculously, as the two couples sing, their costumes change to wedding outfits. Everything that ideology desires for and imposes on its subjects is at hand – marriage, this visible, legal seal on the sexual law of monogamy. And as the camera pulls back to show the audience at the ball cheering this perfectly harmonious resolution, one cannot help but think that Tashlin means to include us, implicate us in that applause – we who are, perhaps, equally relieved that “things turned out just fine”. The film turns back on itself, endlessly, on its positions, its systems, its codes, its seduction … in a word: its pretending.

There always comes a time for wedding bells to chime.

That’s true, my friend.

And life is full of happy endings

When you pretend.


  1. Roger Tailleur, “Anything Goes”, in Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen (eds), Frank Tashlin (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1973), p. 26. back
  2. Uses of this model in relation to cinema can be found in Alan Williams, “Structures of Narrativity in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis”, Film Quarterly (Summer 1974); and Sam Rohdie, “Semiotic Constraints in Now, Voyager”, Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 4 (1978). back

© Adrian Martin 1978

MORE Tashlin: The Disorderly Orderly, Who’s Minding the Store?

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search