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Rock-a-Bye Baby

Rock-a-Bye Baby(1958)

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In the by-turns ludicrous and uproarious Rock-a-bye Baby (1958), Jerry Lewis is Clayton Poole, a small town television repairman in Midvale, Indiana who pines for the love of former hometown girl Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell). Carla has hit the big time in Hollywood. But she reenters Clayton's life in a capricious way. After an ill-fated marriage to a Mexican bullfighter who dies and leaves her a single parent, Carla finds herself juggling triplets and her movie career. On the advice of her omnipresent agent Harold Hermann (Reginald Gardiner) --a jaded sophisticate in a pencil mustache -- Carla opts to momentarily park the babies with a willing baby daddy. So as not to tarnish her sexpot image and impair the filming of her latest epic, The White Virgin of the Nile, Carla decides to leave the trio with Clayton, who she is sure will make an ideal babysitter for her brood of baby girls. As The New York Times aptly noted of the film, "it's a setup that plays into the defining ambiguity of Mr. Lewis's comic persona: his dual nature as a needy, vulnerable infant and a sexually aggressive adult."

Loosely based on Preston Sturges's script for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), Rock-a-bye Baby was one of eight films that director Frank Tashlin made with Jerry Lewis.

Clayton is introduced in a scene that establishes a certain cringe factor about his suitability as someone capable of nurturing. Poised on a rooftop adjusting a television antennae, Clayton is distracted by Carla's younger sister Sandra (Connie Stevens). He swings like a monkey from the wildly rotating aerial, sending a cascade of bricks down the roof in the process. Clayton manages to hit a water line repairman on the ground, sending a fire hydrant hose wildly gyrating through the streets, with more chaos ensuing.

Despite his unceasing ability to leave a trail of disaster in his wake, Clayton has somehow managed to be a ladies man, relentlessly pursued by the heartsick Sandra. Though he long ago promised his heart to big sister Carla, little sister Sandra is undaunted in her pursuit, even pulling the tubes from her television set in the middle of the night in order to lure Clayton over for a light night repair job. In one of the film's funniest moments, when Sandra's drunken father Papa Naples (Salvatore Baccaloni) -- who despises the boy and has forbidden his daughter to see him--comes home unexpectedly, Clayton saves his neck by pretending to be a succession of TV talking heads. Hiding behind the television screen, Clayton does a hilarious stream of impersonations of TV personalities, from a gruff politico to a drawling cowboy to one of Jerry Lewis's politically incorrect turns as a buck-toothed Asian weatherman.

When the triplets arrive on Clayton's doorstep, he takes to the daddy business with a remarkable avidity and skill. Rock-a-bye Baby suggests a precursor to both the never-grow-up Adam Sandler films of contemporary times as well a more recent string of Hollywood baby comedies. As in the inverted tale of three men taking care of just one baby in Leonard Nimoy's 3 Men and a Baby (1987), Rock-a-bye Baby hinges on the supposedly absurdist Hollywood set-up of men caring for children. Or as Clayton's boss Mr. Wright (Hans Conried) tells him "women are built to take such punishment, not men." During the course of the film Rock-a-bye Baby becomes a battle of the sexes as Clayton strives to prove his maternal mettle, going so far as to earn a diploma in child care in order to keep the triplets.

Not only classic Lewis, with all of the spastic hilarity one has come to expect, Rock-a-bye Baby is also prime Frank Tashlin. A man of many talents, over the course of his career Tashlin wrote children's books, the newspaper comic "Van Boring" and directed cartoons for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies and live-action films. Legend has it that while Tashlin was working as an animator at Warner Bros., producer Leon Schlesinger found out that he was also writing the "Van Boring" comic for The Los Angeles Times and demanded a cut of the profits. When Tashlin refused, Schlesinger promptly fired him.

An understandably action-oriented director, Tashlin also possessed a knowing, clever ability to take down the sway of Madison Avenue on the American public and otherwise parody the American way of life even while making it look as glossy and sweet as hard candy. Clayton's landlady, the sweet, white-haired Miss Bessie (Ida Moore) sits for hours glued to the television where she slavishly buys and uses every product advertised, often while still watching TV. In addition to his firecracker sense of humor and canny social commentary in films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) Tashlin was a superb director of mise en scene and action. It is no wonder Tashlin started out making Looney Tunes cartoons. His films explode with zany energy and the riotous colors and actions of a toon. The film is loaded with great comic bits of business like the voice of Papa Naples filling in for the voices of Clayton and a judge during a judicial hearing to determine if Clayton is a fit parent.

Also adding to Rock-a-bye Baby's considerable charm are musical numbers like the saucy, winking film-within-a-film of a curvaceous Carla as The White Virgin of the Nile dancing alongside a bevy of scantily clad chorines and buff male dancers. Also among the musical numbers is a duet between Lewis and Italian opera star Salvatore Baccaloni. A pure, daffy entertainment on many levels, Rock-a-bye Baby is as streamlined and curvy as a tail-finned Fifties sedan.

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by Felicia Feaster