Stars of Slapstick #78: Jerry Lewis

Today is the birthday of Jerry Lewis (b. Joseph Levitch in 1926). Though he came into the world just a hair too late for vaudeville, his parents (former vaudevillians) let him onstage with them when they performed at Borscht Belt resorts as early as age five. He began performing on his own while still a teenager, doing a lip syncing routine with a record player that was very much along the lines of what Andy Kauffman later became famous for.

In the 1940s, he teamed up with Dean Martin and they achieved such notoriety with their long-running, highly improvisational music and comedy act at the Copacabana that they went straight to radio, live television and films.

And this is where you get off the bus, right? Most people I know frankly can’t take Jerry Lewis. Not even a LITTLE of him. One of my favorite books about cinema, Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind titles its section on Jerry “The Problem of Jerry Lewis”. And I’ll grant you, it’s never going to get any better than that. Jerry Lewis will never be better than a problem.

However, most people simply write Jerry off as horrible and leave it at that. That ain’t me. To me, Jerry is a patchwork of many things: infuriating, annoying, grating, appalling, obnoxious, bewildering, self-indulgent, and occasionally — gut-bustingly hilarious. So very few people in the movies have been genuinely hilarious (or interesting or different), that some of us are willing to ride out the rest of those moments to get to the funny. (There is a small minority that thinks that Jerry is just always funny. That’s the segment of the population that’s got to be watched. )

I discovered Jerry when I was about 16, largely via the enthusiasm of my older brothers, and, people, I’m here to tell ya, 16 is the perfect age. I don’t think there’s any mystery why. Jerry plays an angular adolescent who can’t control his voice or his body. Sadly, in Hardly Working he plays such a character at the age of 55, but in most of his films, the stretch isn’t so painful. Anyway, I had a lot more tolerance for screaming and yelling and stepping into buckets and so forth when I was 16, mostly because I spent a great deal of time doing the same things myself.

As for the movies…

Personally, I think you can pretty much write off the pictures with Dean. It’s not Dean’s presence per se. He’s a likable movie star who’s especially great in a number of westerns. But the vehicles starring the two of them are abysmally boring. They’re just not worth sitting through. But starting with the Delicate Delinquent (1957) and ending roughly with The Family Jewels (1965) Jerry had an amazing streak of interesting and funny if problematic films, the best of which were directed by himself or former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin.

Just some random thoughts on some of the films:

The Delicate Delinquent (1957): parody of delinquency films that were popular at the the time, in which Jerry is paired with a police officer played by Darren McGavin. In my view this is the movie in which Jerry makes his funniest faces.

Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958): Directed by Tashlin. Jerry has to babysit a set of newborn triplets! Has that classic scene where, having broken the television set, he puts his head inside and pretends to be all of the programs. He also had a hit record, singing his version of the title song, which had earlier been associated with Jolson.

The Geisha Boy(1958): This is the film where Jerry furthers international brotherhood by doing highly insulting imitations of the Japanese.

Visit to a Small Planet (1960): This one was written by Gore Vidal! Intended, I guess, as some sort of satire on American culture, Jerry infuses the picture with a badly needed lack of sophistication. He plays a child-like visitor from outer space who disrupts a suburban cul-de-sac in (for some reason) Richmond, Virginia.

The Bellboy(1960): Jerry’s first outing as director, just a string of sight gags around a Miami hotel. The film is almost entirely silent with sound effects and seems to owe a lot to Jacques Tati. For this and subsequent films he self-directs, Jerry invented the system now called “video assist”, essentially a simultaneous videotaping of the shoot while it’s in progress. This was back when film was all literally film. Immediate playback was a kind of revolutionary idea, and Jerry invented it out of necessity. As director he needed to see how the takes he had acted in had come out. The system eventually became widespread throughout the industry.

Cinderfella (1960): A sex-reversed version of Cinderella with Ed Wynn as the Fairy Godfather, and Dame Judith Evans as his stepmother. (Shall I repeat that?) At any rate, the sound of Dame Judith Evans bellowing “Fellah!” is priceless.

The Ladies Man(1961): College student Jerry is houseboy in a woman’s sorority house — and the only trouble he gets into involves comedy mayhem! While I don’t quite buy him as a college student, Jerry the director was innovative in building an enormous cutaway set of the sorority house, so the camera on a cherry picker could move from room to room. This, and his name is Herbert Heebert, and his foil’s name is Mrs. Wellonmellon, are its selling points.

The Errand Boy (1961): Jerry is hired by movie studio executive Brian Dunleavy to be an unwitting efficiency expert. When he spoils a big shot at the end of the picture, he is hired as a comedy star!

It’s Only Money (1962): A mystery of sorts. TV repairman Jerry doesn’t know it, but he’s heir to a million dollar fortune. But not if villains Zachary Scott and Jack Weston can kill him first!

The Nutty Professor(1963): Jerry’s best film, remade in 1996 by Eddie Murphy. A sort of cross of the story of The Ugly Duckling and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Who’s Minding the Store?:(1963): Department store CEO Agnes Moorehead doesn’t want Jerry to marry her daughter Jill St. John so she puts him through the tortures of the damned!

The Disorderly Orderly (1964): Jerry flunks out medical school, so he gets a job causing havoc at a hospital!

The Family Jewels (1965): This is the one where he uses camera tricks to play seven different uncles to a little girl, which definitely inspired Eddie Murphy to do the same stunt in the Nutty Professor films.

There are numerous other films, before during and after this bunch — these are just the ones I’ve seen pretty recently and thus are fresh in my head.  Starting around 1966, age, the changing times, a bad back and an addiction to Percodan made his hodgepodge of films even stranger, mixing some of the old Jerry with “sophisticated” new sex comedies and shit so weird it defies description. For example, look at this scene from Which Way to the Front? (1969), in which he portrays a millionaire trying to serve in World War II by reliving a Hogan’s Hero’s episode:

WTF, right? Admittedly, part of my attraction to any Jerry Lewis film is the Car Wreck aspect. I just can’t look away.

The famous “problem” with Jerry is that he undermines his performance every three seconds or so with attention-getting stunts that stray from the character’s apparent intentions. Some comedy fans think that’s egghead stuff, but guess what? Who hates Jerry Lewis? EVERYBODY! So he must be doing something WRONG! The thing he is doing wrong is we don’t care about what’s happening, we don’t care about the story, because HE doesn’t care what’s happening to him, HE doesn’t care about the story! So individual gags are indeed hilarious, but watching an entire film is a trial.

On the other hand, this constant undermining of the narrative makes him interesting, kind of like an unintentional alienation effect. This is probably among the things the French like about him. This strategy of distantiation, as I learned to call it at NYU to my everlasting regret. And I have found that, if you pretend what you are watching is a LIVE performance, watching Jerry gets better. (If it is worth it to you to make that kind of effort). He came out of improvisational live performance. That is what he does, only, what he has done is now trapped forever on a permanent record of film.

Many other comedians would do many takes and only keep the ones that made sense, that were not self-indulgent, that do not irritate us. The difference with Jerry is, he just leaves that right in. Personally, I  could listen to him string together unfinished thoughts for a century — and there are times when he seems determined to fufill that desire:

“But you said…Mrs…in the…when you…I was just going to…ow, my head hoits…Lady!…from the hitting…”

And if you can’t stand his performances….

I happen to think Jerry is a great comedy director. He has tremendous instincts about how to compose a shot, about camera movement, and about the rhythm for cutting comedy. And this just hit me the last few weeks, re-watching a bunch of these films: Don’t forget that he directed all of the other actors in the film. The humor is enhanced immeasurably by watching the other actors playing it straight, staring stony-eyed at Jerry’s antics. And when these actors are familiar Hollywood character actors like Judith Evans, Agnes Moorhead and Zachary Scott, it’s downright surreal.

And there is more good to be said for him. He is the last of the total slapstick comedy film-makers, a line that goes back to Mack Sennett. He regards himself as an heir to Chaplin; to be charitable I would say that he is more like an heir to Harry Langdon. But Jerry was keeping a certain tradition alive in his heyday. And not only that, he hired tons of old silent comedy stars and vaudevillians for his films, long after the time when no one else would: Mae Questel, Benny Rubin, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Snub Pollard, Jack Durant, Rosco Ates, etc etc.

He sort of flamed out in 1972 after directing a misguided Holocaust movie called The Day the Clown Cried that sounds like a cinematic black velvet painting. For nearly a decade his main work was his annual telethon, which I wrote about here.

Since 1980, he’s been quite active again, reinventing himself constantly, appearing in many critically acclaimed films, writing numerous books, triumphing over some pretty severe medical problems. Today, let us celebrate (or perhaps just acknowledge) the work of this bizarre, confounding, deeply troubled and (sometimes) very funny man.

For more on slapstick comedy, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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