It’s touted as a remake of Preston Sturges’s 1944 film The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but Rock-a-Bye Baby, one of eight features Frank Tashlin made starring Jerry Lewis, is cut from the cloth of its two auteurs, one a veteran of Termite Terrace, the other a legendary performer who would pursue a great directing career of his own not too long afterward. Like the other seven films the two men would collaborate on, every second of Rock-a-Bye Baby either leads up to, or away from, some surreal flight of fancy, musical number, or silent-comedy-inspired gag. The only filmmaker who made a successful transition from making Looney Tunes to live-action features, Tashlin was also a well regarded parody artist, and he would lean hard on his talent for spoofing showbiz phonies, gratuitous glamour, and the boys who pratfall for busty dames.
It’s no shock, then, that Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), the ruined woman of Preston Sturges’s manic masterpiece, has been split into two characters, one to embody small-town-U.S.A. goody-goody-ness (at least, at first), the other to bear the weight of Original Sin. To paraphrase some dialogue from Raising Arizona, our hero, Clayton Poole (Lewis) eventually has more than he can handle, infant-wise, and the onset of early fatherhood only serves to push him further down the path of man-child regression. As it turns out, his childhood sweetheart, Carla Naples (libidinous Marilyn Maxwell, who played the erstwhile love interest of Kirk Douglas’s prizefighter in Champion), now one of Hollywood’s foremost leading ladies, has three buns in the oven, and due to machinations concerning a coveted movie role as well as the lack of secrecy in a small American town, the triplets are deposited on his doorstep, under the cover of darkness. Carla’s younger sister, Sandra (future former Carrie Fisher stepmother Connie Stevens) keeps a torch going for the love-struck Clayton and, well, before you can say “Carla’s first movie’s coming on the Late Late Early Late Show,” things get really complicated.
Lewis’s films as director would eventually pursue the surrealism he inherited from Tashlin to places once thought impossible, while the latter’s genius wore thin after the pair’s final film together, 1964’s The Disorderly Orderly. During Tashlin’s greatest period, there were no cheap gags or trick bits of business whose falseness couldn’t be transcended by perfect execution and dedication to craft. Carrying on the tradition of comedies and musicals that illustrate the intrusion of the dreamlike on our waking life, Rock-a-Bye Baby stops dead in its tracks for such “numbers” as Jerry playing all the dials on late-night television, Jerry mowing down the town with a high-pressure fire hose, or any number of musical interludes. The latter is far more prevalent here than in most other Tashlin-Lewis collaborations, so much so that Rock-a-Bye Baby might easily be considered a musical first, a screwy comedy second. In one lovely scene, Jerry shares a duet with legendary Italian opera singer Salvatore Baccaloni, who plays “Papa” Naples, soon to be a grandfather eight times over.
Vertigo, Bonjour Tristesse, Some Came Running, Party Girl, with innovations in Technicolor, CinemaScope, VistaVision, and stereophonic sound in full swing, 1958 was, in many ways, the culmination of cinematic of Hollywood's storied "Golden Age." Looney Tunes veteran Frank Tashlin had already done wonders with the 'Scope frame when he made Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can't Help It, and had now switched to the less wide but higher-density VistaVision frame for this Preston Sturges reboot. The colors on Olive Films's single-disc DVD are suitably psychedelic, well in line with Tashlin's vivacious, slightly satirical, Full Color Magazine Advertisement palette. For Tashlin, solids like the octopus ink-like billow of soot that flows from Mrs. Van Cleeve's house, or the multiple grades of immaculate eggshell we saw in her living room, pre-gag, were as vitally important to his effects as the color contrasts, optical effects, and Minnellian soundstage artificiality. If you feel like you're falling into the high-resolution film image, you may not mind the infernal edge enhancement, and the occasional, wavering discoloration that's likely inherent in the slightly flawed materials. The sound mix is evenly managed, emphasizing the high treble of the film's man-child hero (the film's audio is almost entirely designed around his squawks, yelps, and panicked bouts of running at the mouth), even if the thinness of the low end is apparent when Baccaloni speaks or sings.
An empty cradle.
As barren as an octo-dad's bank account, Olive Films' single-disc DVD for Rock-a-Bye Baby preserves the otherworldly density of Frank Tashlin's VistaVision canvas.