Gotta hand it to Frank Tashlin. He could always find a way to tweak a censorious nose. Maybe Otto Preminger or Billy Wilder found more ways, but they liked to announce it. Tashlin just went ahead and did it, without fanfare, slipping in something that was teasing, or borderline, or just plain dicey. Whether it was Jayne Mansfield clutching her milk bottles or Jerry Lewis bestriding a flagpole, Tashlin found a way.
(I’m not even going to go into Lewis mounting hobbyhorse on a lady’s leg.)
Those last gags, of Lewis jockeying with his staff and piggybacking a female gam, appear in Who’s Minding the Store, released in 1963. It was Tashlin’s next-to-last film with Lewis, and (in spite of all those scenes of Jerry riding shotgun on various extended objects) a film very much geared to the family crowd. It’s a funny movie, loaded with complex visual gags such as a golf ball ricocheting up, down, and throughout a department store, and a vacuum cleaner running amok among housewares. It also has a sweet story, of ex-dog-walker Jerry trying to impress his sweetheart by working in the title emporium. So there you have it: jokes, romance, slapstick, Technicolor, visual wit, Jerry Lewis, a galumphing sheep dog, and lots of fun for the kids.
There’s also Ray Walston in a roomful of naked ladies.
Ray Walston plays Mr. Quimby, the store’s sleazy manager, and the nude women in his office are statues and paintings highlighting the unclothed female form. (I’ve helpfully marked these objects in the screenshots with red arrows and squares, for easy finding.) No one in the movie ever remarks on Walston’s choice of decor. Nor, from a quick Internet survey, could I find anyone writing about the film remarking on it either.
I’m a little surprised by this silence on the subject. It’s not as if these naked damsels are obscured from view. They’re right out there, for anyone to discover. And Walston (as canny a comic actor as they come) would even occasionally interact with them.
Still, how were these undressed bodies allowed? As late as 1963, the Hollywood Production Code was still (somewhat) in force—and within it was a specific stricture against “[c]omplete nudity…This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.”
I suppose you could argue that since no one in the movie was actively leering at or salivating over all these bare colleens, that no “lecherous or licentious notice” was involved; and hence the Code was being observed. So everyone could relax. I suppose.
It wasn’t until 1964 that Production-Code approval was grudgingly granted to a Hollywood film, The Pawnbroker, which featured female nudity (even then, approval was given as an “exception”). Meanwhile, Frank Tashlin was scattering nude lasses aplenty right in front of his camera lens. And no one uttered a peep.
Watching the film, I found the scenes in Walston’s office peculiarly mesmerizing. Every time one came on, I felt as if a great calm had descended upon me; I found myself absorbed in the background view. My guess as to why Tashlin added all these misses au naturel was precisely for such a purpose. Consider: if you were an adult who had to escort the wee ones to that afternoon horror, the kiddie matinee, for ninety long minutes of frenetic movie viewing, wouldn’t you want an island of calm in the midst of such madness? Something that you could devote your attention to? I’m reminded of how George Balanchine choreographed a startlingly sexy hootch dance smack in the middle of his Nutcracker, as a means of soothing the fractured tempers of adult males forced to attend a ballet marketed to tots (“We’re going to wake up the fathers,” said Mr B.). So thus did Tashlin cater to his tired, middle-aged audiences. Between boomeranging golf balls, schmaltzy loves scenes, and Lewisian mugging, Tashlin gave the oldsters something to look at.
And what the hell. If anyone ever did object, he could just say it was Art.