[28 July 2003]
There’s something a little annoying about the comedy of Jerry Lewis. In his stage routines and movies with Dean Martin, as well as his early solo films, Lewis specialized in the playing the infantile klutz whose misguided attempts to navigate in an adult world led to calamity.
In popular films like The Geisha Boy (1958), The Bellboy (1960), and The Disorderly Orderly (1964), Lewis exhibited the short attention span, frenzied hyperactivity, and self-centeredness typical of a six-year-old. This, combined with his bodily contortions and high-pitched nasal whine, made the irritation factor exceedingly high. But he approached these clumsy outsiders with just the right amount of pathos, so audiences cared about them. Lewis’ blundering inevitably led to happy conclusions where he was accepted, even loved. Despite their bumbling selfishness, they had their hearts in the right place.
The Nutty Professor (1963) saw Lewis attempt to break away from the goofy shtick of his previous films, as he played both the gentle Dr. Julius Kemp and his alter-ego, the bitter entertainer Buddy Love (insiders say this was Lewis’ swipe at Frank Sinatra). Fans loved the two Jerrys in this Jekyll and Hyde take-off, and The Nutty Professor remains his greatest success. Buddy Love also revealed a darker side of the Lewis persona that paved the way for the more adult but still unlikable guys he would play in mid-‘60s films like Boeing, Boeing (1965) and Three On A Couch(1966).
Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River (1968), now available on DVD from Columbia, finds Lewis in full Buddy Love mode, as the fully repellent George Lester. A labored attempt to combine Lewis’ trademark mania with a more mature sensibility in service of a screwball plot, the film wants to be all things to all people: romantic comedy, spy spoof, serious commentary on the nature of relationships, wacky romp. Directed by TV veteran Jerry Paris (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Happy Days), it’s a jumbled series of nonsensical episodes leading to a predictable happy ending. That the zaniness is uninspired makes this film one of Lewis’ more disappointing outings.
An American entrepreneur living in London, Lester is a conniving opportunist whose get-rich schemes usually result in disaster. Under the opening credits, we see Lester strolling through downtown London, wearing a bowler and twirling an umbrella. Other than these costume details and obligatory shots of Big Ben and the London Bridge, the film conveys no sense of “Englishness,” the setting merely allowing Lewis again to play the fish out of water. This premise never develops, however, as Lewis presents his character as being smarter than the Brits around him, giving Lester the off-putting air of American arrogance.
The film’s lightweight plot involves stolen microfilm, angry Arabs, double-crossing dentists and other contrivances that allow Lewis to indulge in the type of madcap schtick he was famous for. Strapped for money and threatened with divorce from his long-suffering wife Pamela (Hammer Films regular Jacqueline Pearce), Lester comes up with a series of increasingly ridiculous schemes to bail himself out.
In an effort to show Pamela his resourceful as a businessman, George turns their country home into a Chinese-style restaurant/disco (which means Lewis slants his eyes and affects a bogus accent: “Tly the egg loll”). When a furious Pamela demands he return the house to its original state George raises the money by stealing plans for an electronic oil drill from her new boyfriend.
Predictably, George dons a variety of bizarre outfits and weird accents in order to steal the microfilm, outsmart the Arabs, and woo his ex. That Pamela finds herself falling back in love with George is only one of the film’s many unbelievable conceits: he’s plainly a selfish lout. Part of the problem is Pearce’s lightweight performance: she shrinks in the face of Lewis’ full-throttle antics. At the same time, Pamela is supposed to be intelligent, so why would she never see through George’s obvious lies? Pearce, at least, never plays Pamela as the victim and she gives the character a sense of spunk. Lewis, on the other hand, seems slightly bored, like he’s done this type of thing one too many times. As a result, his clowning seems tired and forced and the film suffers because of it.
The supporting players fare better, particularly Terry-Thomas as George’s mentor, conman H. William Homer. Thomas was best at playing snooty, upper-class British connivers in films like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and How To Murder Your Wife (1966); with his gap-toothed smile, caterpillar mustache, and expressive eyebrows, he plays Willy with a perfect balance of smooth charm and sleazy menace.
The delightful Patricia Routledge (BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances) shows up in a small but funny role as a man-hungry Girl Scout troop leader with the hots for George’s accomplice, Fred (Bernard Cribbins). When she gets drunk on champagne, Routledge’s Lucille reveals a tender longing for love simmering just beneath a hard-edged surface. Such broad comedy suggests a lightweight farce, lending the film its few laughs. A scene where Thomas is threatened by knife-wielding Arabs reveals an inspired lunacy, but the film rarely achieves this kind of energy.
One problem is that Lewis can’t decide whether to ham it up or play it straight. In one scene, he uses an exaggerated German accent to woo a client. In the next, he goes into a self-pitying soliloquy, asking Pamela (and the audience) what he did that was so “wrong” that she should want a divorce. That he plays this scene so solemnly speaks to unresolved conflicts, both in Don’t Raise the Bridge and in the characters Lewis was playing at this stage of his career. George Lester never realizes his own mean-spirited shallowness and he never changes. Yet, the film asks us to root for him.
Much like Jim Carrey’s or Steve Martin’s, Lewis’ comedy is an acquired taste. You either get it or you don’t. But in Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lewis goes too far, asking his audience to accept whatever insipid tricks and boorish character he throws our way. It’s like spending 99 minutes in a room a person you don’t like in the least.