It’s Only Money
Dir. Frank Tashlin, 1962
by Nicolas Rapold
Frank Tashlin poked fun, some would say too slyly, at the infantilism of an earlier, atomic age of super-sized culture by working in its idiom. The double-warhead figure of Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It is usually taken as his shorthand for the ever enduring regressive tastes of the American male. But (surprise, surprise) that ignores Mansfield’s heartwarming performance (presented as cheap irony by the title) as the quintessence of traditional motherhood, wanting nothing more than to cook and clean for a big family—like the one of six or seven brothers she grew up with. Tashlin nailed the full picture of the male fantasy of mature immaturity, a momma who’s Betty Crocker plus Bettie Page.
It’s Only Money finds Tashlin paired with a comic whose routine is unwittingly recreated by most people during the ages of two and three—that is to say, one of the most overtly infantile performers in a very competitive field. It was the sixth of eight collaborations with a man he called his best friend, and who in turn called him his teacher, which pretty well captures the actor-director dynamics of Tashlin containing classroom chaos and Jerry Lewis raising hell but acceding out of respect. (Lewis in The Errand Boy even names his character Mort Tashman.) That relationship might be why it’s one instance where Lewis’s toddler antics are even slightly endearing, balanced by Tashlin against a few supporting comic freaks and saved from Lewis’s own directorial tendencies towards unraveling oh-this’ll-be-rich strings of gag scenes.
Lewis is Lester, a verbally incontinent TV repairman who’s mad about detective novels (e.g., Death Takes a Coffee Break). He latches on to a dumpy shamus, Pete Flint (Jesse White), after repairing his TV, and the two investigate a disputed will, sparking a bit of half-hearted gumshoe parody. An electronics magnate’s sister (Mae Questel, the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop and a superb effortless performer) is looking for her brother’s lost son. If he stays lost, that would be fine for her murderously scheming suitor Gregory DeWitt (Zachary Scott), who grimaces painfully and patiently through her loving attentions. Only her nurse (Joan O’Brien) suspects the plot. And the heir just might be Lester (an orphan, by the way) as DeWitt’s butler henchman Leopold (Jack Weston) confirms while raiding old files. (Here it’s possible to glimpse Tashlin’s typically missable joke on unloved entertainers: next to Lester’s folder in the file cabinet at the orphanage is another labeled “Jack Mason.”)
In other words, It’s Only Money is another example of Lewis’s nearly pathological repetition of a simple narrative: Unworthy schmuck thrust disastrously into wrong job ultimately shows up his betters anyway. I’ve never been sure how much of Lewis’s spasmic routine is joyful cynicism about his own profession (favorite: the opening parodies of The Errand Boy) that collapses the distance between schlubs and heroes, and how much is a slightly nasty satisfaction at our shit-eating grins (making clear who’s the real schmuck). Lewis is one of those performers whose dogged style, trumpeted headlining, and rampant reflexivity make it hard not to pull in his offscreen manner, too, dominated by reports of old-school Hollywood viciousness and don’t-you-forget-it ego. For Lewis, as with many comedians, this also goes with a sense of bottomless, gutter-minded perversity. Like Fatty Arbuckle, he’s far dirtier than his contemporary age would ever allow him to be on-screen. Lewis seems to take particular pleasure in the opening scene of It’s Only Money, grinding his crotch White’s face as the detective helps him down from the rafters after an explosion. Through The Bellboy, King of Comedy, and beyond, this self-awareness is nothing new, territory Lewis himself guards fiercely.
Besides taking some of the aggressively insistent edge off Lewis’s bits, Tashlin’s strategy is to set the superstar among other grotesques and play up his innocence. The millionaire’s surviving sister is a babyish middle-aged bubblehead in a mansion who allows herself to be shepherded about by DeWitt and the nurse. She’s content in her cluelessness and total girlish delusion about DeWitt’s devotion (which allows her a precious wedding gown fitting scene). DeWitt’s unstable thug Leopold is himself a piece of arrested development, close to tantrums about his failed attempts on Lester’s life and what they might mean for his stature in the Peter Lorre Fan Club. Tashlin cultivates the two of them as side characters without reducing them to one-note gags. And then there’s Lester’s random encounter with an irate fisherwoman on a pier; I’ve waited till now for the inevitable mention of Tashlin’s history as a cartoonist, but this lady virtually screams the symbols and marks above the number keys on a typewriter.
But by this point it might sound as if I think Tashlin’s main accomplishment is keeping Lewis from being annoying. Far from it: I didn’t truly appreciate Lewis’s verbal flair until now—his stream of chatter, spiking and obsessing like a bird’s when a cat goes by, has its own kind of subtlety, virtually its own dialect, as Lewis improvises pages of wandering lines and unwieldy gerunds, timed particularly well here when talking past others. From his childlike bubble he’s reporting his reactions to the clumps of reality around him: “What is that frightening?” in response to some loud noise. When a kiss with the nurse is cut short, he can’t get over the experience and wants more: “What happened to the lips? What about the lip? Can I take a lip with me?” The style rises to a pitch of alarming nuttiness when the harridan on the pier hooks him and reels him off a boat that explodes: “You made my living life no death!” he chants, making you think he just might throttle her to death in his blind enthusiasm. There’s also at times, with knowledge of the improvisation, the feel of what he might say at any time were he to keep going (one longwinded explanation about a pet cat named Pussy March, for example, gets cut off).
Much is made of Tashlin’s finale, which pits Lewis against a fleet of runaway automatic lawnmowers in the magnate’s gadget-ridden house. It’s another, yes, suitably cartoonish spectacle, but maybe you have to have more of taste for such mad-technology chases. I prefer such touches as the lingering ambiguity over the nurse’s motives in helping Lester, whom she eventually marries. Or Tashlin’s deploying Big America icons like a jug of milk and slab of steak in the background of one scene, or a centerpiece scene on a wet black road where Leopold repeatedly tries to run down Lester in a huge shiny car. It’s Only Money isn’t the best work by the director-comedian team, but ironically it might find Lewis some new fans, and, as always, continued respect for Tashlin’s wrangling.