Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython.
George Marshall’s Money from Home (1953) was shot in 3-D but I have not seen or studied the film in this capacity; I do hope to say a few things about depth and dimension. Money from Home is a “round” sort of narrative. It’s about debts and acquisitions. Early on, the currency is money though the film opens onto other kinds of currency, gradually.
A lot of the slang for cash is borrowed from the pantry: Money from Home uses “potatoes” and “biscuits,” though I think it skips “clams,” “bread,” and “dough.” Money—its promise, anyway—is what sustains Dean Martin’s character, Honeytalk Nelson. (Honey, another food.) He’s introduced as an individual who is known the whole town over as potential loan sources. The next good feeling will take him to the race track. Honeytalk isn’t a malicious man, he just sees other people as means to an end. This instrumentalism means you pay a debt with another debt; Honeytalk the gambler prints his own I.O.U.’s. A mob boss, Jumbo Schneider, obliges him to throw a horse race.
Jumbo repeats himself a lot in his brief screentime, with variations. (“It is not nice to know me—I know me, and believe me, it is not nice to know me.” “You talk good, Honeytalk, but you talk wrong.”) Honeytalk, when trying to convince Jumbo he’ll pay back his debts to the boss, promises his luck will change: “I got that feeling right in the seat of my pants, and when I get that feeling…” The film ties verbal slickness, and the poetry of small variations, to its moneymakers.
When Jumbo is explaining what he wants from Honeytalk, he leaves his desk to sit on an arm of a chair. A shot-reverse structure between the boss and the gambler covers several lines. The method to throw the horse race involves seduction of Phyllis Leigh (Marjie Millar), the owner of the odds-on favorite My Sheba. Of Jumbo’s associates, only Honeytalk can be instrumentalized in this way.
At this point Jumbo rises off the arm of the chair and performs an introduction. “Do you honestly think that a very pretty doll could go for the, uh, Seldom-Seen Kid, Short Boy, Russian Henry, or the Big Midget?” The camera moves up to follow Jumbo, seated to standing, who puts its hands on Honeytalk’s back and gives him a circular tour of less attractive faces: camera right and up, left, right again, describing a jagged spiral. The henchmen, present throughout the scene, are only established as names when their usefulness for the boss (or rather, their lack of it) becomes apparent. It’s a narrative echo of an establishing shot, after the scene has already had its establishing shot two minutes prior. From this single camera movement:
“They look pretty cute to me!” snarks Honeytalk. Jumbo isn’t impressed, and he repeats his words and sentiments: “Well you ain’t no very pretty doll, you’re just a guy in hock!”
Honeytalk eventually learns Kant’s lesson about treating other people as ends, not means. He originally wants to treat everyone as, effectively, a stranger who would invest in him on the basis of his rhetoric only, not his character, his reputation, or his past. This change of heart happens courtesy of the preferred Hollywood vehicle of romance. Miss Phyllis Leigh, after all, is not simply a “very pretty doll” but a woman of principle and intelligence. Honeytalk chooses the pursuit of her over the pursuit of money, when the two conflict.
“Ain’t it quaint?” / “Isn’t it quisn’t?” Another kind of translation emerges in the figure of Honeytalk’s animal-loving cousin, Virgil Yokum (Jerry Lewis). Rather than a smooth, slangy language, Virgil’s speech and gestures are marked by grating loudness, interruptions, and incongruities. He wears bells on his pants to warm animals of his movements. He’s introduced stopping city traffic to allow a dog to cross the street. When a customer mistakes him for a veterinarian, he explains he’s only an intern. The distance from what is to what could be or what will be is scrupulously open in Virgil’s world. He looks forward to a possible existence where all people wear bells on their pants.
Jerry Lewis, throughout his career, generated a stream of comic observations on the roles of men who don’t quite “fit.” To fit into a place, a society, or a set of rules implies a quality of belonging. Square pegs in round holes, Lewis’ on-screen resence in late studio era Hollywood threatens to be uncontainably clumsy or in poor taste. His vulgarity is one of awkwardness; the way he would shape his mouth into a prounounced overbite, for instance in The Nutty Professor, intruded into the illusion-space of a chic Hollywood world. Imperfect movements and imperfect bodies arise from the real-life Lewis’ own performances.
In a comparable way, Lewis’ appearance in Money from Home renders a throwaway plot a mere backdrop for farcical elements. This is not a subversion—it’s the point of the film as a Martin & Lewis vehicle. All the same, the movie is an echo of a moodier, darker genre narrative. The gap between gravity and levity is productive. A third of the way into the film, Virgil is encouraged to masquerade as a British jockey, Bertie Searles. Dressed with an ascot, his elocution see-saws between booming Shakespearean orator and cockney chimney sweep. The nasal American voice of Lewis/Virgil is the fulcrum between the two.
“I say, it is a bit dusty, wot.” He peers through a monocle, face scrunched.
“Dusty? Good heavens, it can’t be dusty!” replies a woman sitting nearby.
The response from Virgil: “It kawnt? I say—oh for heaven’s sake it’s me monocle.” The “wots” and “me monocles” commingle with an exaggerated mimicry of upper-class British speech.
I’ve always noted the grain of Lewis’ short haircut in the 1950s, the patch of longer straight hair on the front, top of his head. It’s boyish and unsophisticated—it feels at home neither in the barracks nor a nightclub. A moment later, “quite nice” becomes “kwowit noice” and then dips into American Jerry, “I haven’t felt this good since I left London-town.” A curious interloper from that side of the Atlantic enters the conversation: “Oh I say, how is dear old London-town?”
“I beg ye pa’d’n, seh,” says Jerry. The two embark on a brief exchange of British-sounding doubletalk that defamiliarizes the English language. Virgil concludes the exchange with an unmotivated, clearly recognizable, vaguely posh “November twenty-first—but it was awfully nice chatting with you, sir. Toodle-oo.”
If Honeytalk’s way of being in the world is to make his intentions believable and honest-looking, to smooth things over when he’s in fact pulling a fast one, then Virgil’s hilarious ineptitude is the opposite. Virgil, an honest man, is a bad liar. His attempt at simulation for the sake of his cousin is, however, honest, so he grasps at whatever comes to mind as a British disguise. It’s a hodgepodge, and he becomes his own ventriloquist’s dummy.
A note from my editor that I’ll attempt to reproduce here in a way that intrudes a bit like a Lewis overbite: “I’m pretty sure every time Lewis plays an overblown national stereotype there is always a representative of that nationality right there next to him. I’m thinking of the representatives of three nationalities in Living It Up, the Japanese generals at the end of Which Way to the Front, the Japanese chefs looking on at Lewis’ yellowface in Hardly Working … I mean this perhaps just as a note.” Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lewis (or Lewis’ characters’) forays into national or ethnic stereotype do tend to sketch out that very gap between a representation (including an awkward and a bad one) and the person or type being represented. The implications of belonging and “unbelonging” become palpable.
Virgil’s own romantic transformation comes when he meets a veterinarian and fellow vegetarian, Autumn Claypool (Pat Crowley). A lovely scene involves the two of them visiting a vacant lot that will host Autumn’s future clinic. She shows Virgil where she plans everything to be. It isn’t a house, but represents a kind of home. There, here, the vocations of these two animal-lovers can be joined. Autumn proposes partnership—professional, yet also romantic, no distinction made for love or money. This moment of make-believe is suitably guileless. They know that they are not at this place yet, but hope to get there.
“Virgil, you’re on the end-table.”
It is no revolutionary act for an entertainment to culminate in a romantic union. Money from Home, though funny, though the first color Martin-Lewis vehicle, is neither a canonical work nor a philosophical treatise. It is, though, worth remarking on when a sweet-natured movie explores the gap between a transactional approach to social life and an altruistic, cooperative one. Honeytalk tries to get things on credit, Virgil does what he can to loan himself out. Someone calls Virgil “unusual” in Money from Home, and indeed he is. The promise of a place where Virgil, too, might receive as he gives makes for a wonderfully, disproportionately moving sentiment. Home, or bust.