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Monkey King

David Sanjek

As a filmmaker, Jerry Lewis reveled in the possibilities of widescreen cinematography, stereophonic sound, and audacious bursts of Technicolor.

The Bellboy [1960]

The Ladies Man [1961]

The Errand Boy [1962]

The Disorderly Orderly [1964]

The Patsy [1964]

The Family Jewels [1965]

All released on DVD by Paramount on 12 October 2004.

Admitting to admiring Jerry Lewis can sound like rationalizing the satirical superiority of Revenge of the Nerds or arguing for Tom Green's admission to the comic pantheon. It appears to value the grotesque and juvenile over the refined and sophisticated. Add to that Lewis' smarmy sentimentality (every year, the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon reminds us of his oversized ego and emotional grandstanding), and it's hard to make a case for his art or your taste.

Such presumption concerning Lewis' talents persists despite Martin Scorsese's memorable manipulation of Lewis' persona in King of Comedy (1982) or Peter Chelsom's in the equally insightful Funny Bones (1994). The comedian remains trapped in collective memory as Dean Martin's goofy partner (Lewis describes the relationship as "a handsome man and a monkey"). Even his deification by the French, say his detractors, testifies to that nation's gullibility rather than good taste. Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema (1968), castigates his lack of verbal wit, the shoddiness of his narrative frameworks, patchy direction of actors, and occasional ham-fisted attempts at sincerity: "He has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade-in to fade-out."

Still, the man has supporters. David Thomson concludes that "the first six films directed by Lewis deserve a place in any study of American comedy" (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002). And Chris Fujiwara effuses in a career survey on the Australian-based website Senses of Cinema, "No director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities" of the medium.

Part of the problem in assessing Lewis is that, for many years, his pictures rarely screened at museums or festivals, and on television and home video, they were routinely panned and scanned. So it is something of a godsend that Paramount has rolled out this flood of DVD releases in their original screen ratios and vibrant color, accompanied by an array of extras drawn from Lewis' voluminous archives. This material is a mixed bag. The outtakes can be fun, particularly the ones shot during rehearsals or auditions. (One shows how Lewis instructed young Donna Butterworth, the juvenile protagonist in The Family Jewels, to keep up with his manic energy by engaging in verbal horseplay. No matter what the comedian throws at her, she keeps her poise.) Less fun are the commentaries conducted with Steve Lawrence, of Steve and Edyie fame. The slick lounge singer just doesn't have the historical or informational chops to provide more than adulation. Much more useful are observations by director-historian Peter Bogdanovich. Though he can come across at times as fawning, he has known Lewis since the early 1960s, and understands and appreciates his skills.

The following comments focus on five of the features Lewis co-wrote, produced and directed -- The Bellboy (1960), The Ladies' Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), The Patsy (1964) and The Family Jewels (1965) -- as well as one of the numerous works helmed by helmed by his directorial mentor, Frank Tashlin, The Disorderly Orderly (1964). If Lewis' self-description as "Total Filmmaker" seems typically hyperbolic, the substance of the term does not lack for demonstrations in these DVDs.

During this period, Lewis worked with skilled collaborators, achieving the kind of sheen one associates with the best of the studio system. Drawing on his interaction with Tashlin (a professional comic strip creator, animation writer and director, scriptwriter, and producer-director), as well as a proclivity for technical experimentation, Lewis reveled in the possibilities of widescreen cinematography, stereophonic sound, and audacious bursts of Technicolor. He even established some industrial benchmarks, more or less inventing the video assist as early as 1960, to get around waiting for rushes to be processed.

Lewis similarly transformed narrative requirements. Feature-length comedy traditionally integrates gags into a linear plot, often failing any kind of balance in the process. Lewis dispensed with this classical ambition, allowing whim to guide his stories. He interjected a sequence without sound (The Patsy) or relinquished a plot's forward momentum, reconceiving film within the formalities of vaudeville (demonstrated by the Novelties in The Bellboy, the Step Brothers in The Patsy, and a congregation of adolescent basketball players in The Errand Boy). One would be tempted to dub Lewis' tendency avant-garde, were it not for the fact that American screen comedy often amounts to little more than an agglomeration of disparate elements, one gag strung after another.

While Lewis' gags might seem to veer to the moronic almost as a reflex, he actually exhibits a variety of techniques. These include incongruity (a lion's roar emerges from a dachshund) and the inversion of expectations (in The Patsy, Lewis knocks one after another of Hans Conreid's antiques, only to catch each just before it reaches the floor). Whole sequences build rhythmically from titter to giggle to belly laugh, as when, in The Errand Boy, Lewis jumps into a swimming pool after a diver and, asked what he's doing, holds up a sign that reads, "I'm drowning." And an audaciously surreal episode occurs with Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis) at the all-female residence where Lewis serves as an all-purpose factotum in The Ladies' Man. All of a sudden, he enters her all-white room, she descends from the ceiling like a hovering insect, and wordlessly leads him into a lavishly appointed ballroom where Harry James and his big band perform on an elevated stage. Upon entering the set, Lewis' customary costume instantaneously transforms into a snappy suit and his heretofore spastic physicality metamorphoses into an Astaire-like smoothness. As the orchestra's selection concludes, he flees the room and just as unexpectedly resumes his workday attire.

The sumptuous presentation of this one-off musical performance exemplifies Lewis' appetite for fully conceived cinema. Fujiwara writes, "This fantasy sequence reveals Lewis's cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, d├ęcor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing." The set-piece points as well to the flexibility of Lewis' films, and how what might be understood as willfulness and self-absorption might also result in rapturous manipulation of sound and image.

Lewis' confidence in his ability to bend narrative and technical imperatives to his own vision parallels his plasticity of personality throughout these pictures. While the "monkey" might seem, on its surface, a one-dimensional dimwit, here he contains multitudes, as if any unity of identity were altogether anathema. As the late British film critic Raymond Durgnat observes in The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image (1970),

Any idiot can play the fool but only Jerry Lewis can play so many idiots simultaneously. He is imbecility sunk to the height of genius. He appears to have the mentality of a child of six, but a six-year-old primed to explode into every emotion which he has been suppressing since he was one. He doesn't so much emote as disintegrate into an emotional gamut ranging through Donald Duck, the Frankenstein Monster, Pluto, Cheetah, Alfred E. Newmann, Phlebus, Stan Laurel, Michel Simon in La Chienne, and, in The Nutty Professor, Humphrey Bogart pretending to be a kind of dirty old man who buys expensive pornography in The Big Sleep. Any appearance of tranquility is actually a catatonic spasm before he reverts to his normal state of fizzily incoherent benevolence.

Lewis thinks in and through his body, as if his very physiognomy acts as a transmitter of random signals. Sometimes, his multiphrenia becomes the core around which Lewis constructs his plot. In The Family Jewels, he plays the five siblings from whom the orphaned Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth) must choose her new father. In The Patsy, his monkey-like lead is transformed by a congress of show biz boosters (Ina Balin, Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, and John Carradine), forming a critique of the star system. His oscillation among various guises -- pop singer, night club comic, mime, man about town -- preempts customary notions of unitary personality.

To this point, Lewis also enters a number of his pictures, like a comedic Hitchcock. He checks in at the hotel in The Bellboy, whereupon guests confuse the star with the eponymous lackey. The final sequence of The Errand Boy has the titular protagonist assist another figure played by Lewis, who is erecting a billboard announcing the end of the film, and Lewis' professional caricature features briefly in a display window in The Disorderly Orderly. Other Lewis family members also engage in the joke. The plot of The Family Jewels comes to a halt when one of the characters played by Lewis listens to his son Gary's rock group, the Playboys, play "This Diamond Ring." Such self-conscious references drew the attention of avant gardists like Jean-Luc Goddard, who admired his playful treatment of cinematic identities as altogether plastic.

Time and again, Lewis sets his stories in the entertainment arena or brings in actors from Hollywood's past as warm-hearted homage. One of his favorite clowns was Stan Laurel. Lewis wrote a character for his first self-directed feature, The Bellboy, which he hoped Laurel would play. Though the aging comedian declined, the role is played by a look-alike (Lewis' writing collaborator Bill Richmond). The Errand Boy, shot at Paramount, offers a final image in which Lewis' newly established star passes through the lot in an open limousine, and is complimented by someone named "Snub." Only a film aficionado would recognize the name and connect the aging figure with the silent comedian Snub Pollard, who worked at the Hal Roach studio. Lewis doesn't forget.

Admittedly, he did occasionally give in to instances of indigestible sentimentality. At times like these (his exchanges with puppets in The Errand Boy or Ina Balin's irritating defenses of Lewis' protagonist in The Patsy), one cannot help but sympathize with Sarris' judgment that Lewis routinely succumbs to self-righteousness. As well, Lewis' self-directed films can be annoyingly erratic. For every memorable and mind-blowing episode, another will come across too much like the "monkey" loose without a keeper. You wish that he possessed a better internal editor, but since these films were, almost without exception, box office hits, no one in the front office was doing anything to deny the King of Comedy his chance to call the shots.

In this context, The Disorderly Orderly serves as corrective as well as contrast. Tashlin's work could be as innovative as his star's, but his gags and shot sequences exhibit greater patience. Watch how he sets up the Magritte-like wackiness when Lewis lets a completely bandaged man fall out of a wheelchair and roll down a hill; the figure hits a tree, revealing no one beneath the wrapping: the tracking shots and quick cuts could come straight out of Griffith. And yet, would Tashlin ever tackle something as entirely out of left field as Jerry's encounter with Miss Cartilage? Maybe and maybe not.

Which is another way of asking the key question: Is Jerry Lewis funny? For me, this is most emphatically answered by the revelatory virtuosity and flat-out hilarity of The Ladies' Man. It showcases Lewis' grasp of physical comedy, his audacious use of widescreen photography and an ever-mobile frame, his commitment to outrageousness.

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