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Depth of Field: Jerry Lewis - GENIUS!

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Sunday, Sep 2, 2007


Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.


Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.


We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:


Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.


The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.


The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.


Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.


The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.


The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.


It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.


The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.


Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 


The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.


The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.


The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.


Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.


The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.


Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.


Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.


Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.


The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 

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