Jack Lemmon as Comedy Star

February 8 is the birthday of the late and much-missed Jack Lemmon (1925-2001). One comes close — so close — to being able to encapsulate the artist with the phrase “screen comedian”, a favorite species of ours. And that’s certainly how I thought of Lemmon primarily for a spell in my younger years when I was joyfully discovering a lot of his earlier work.

But there’s this handful of super-serious performances that skew and distort his reputation, and come dangerously close to eclipsing everything else he did. You know what I mean, the prestige Oscar-bait stuff: Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Save the Tiger (1973), The China Syndrome (1979) and Missing (1982) especially. The weight of some of these make me on occasion tempted to include him amongst the ’70s Insufferables we wrote about here. On another memorable occasion, Airport ’77, he attempted to be a macho action hero, but no one was handing him any awards for that one. So, we need a broader word to describe him, and it simply becomes “actor”. Lemmon had studied with Uta Hagen, after all, and won both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars (for Save the Tiger and Mister Roberts, respectively).

Yet, I’ve had a raucous and illuminating time poring over his film credits on IMDB, and when you do that, you realize that though his serious roles were among his most respected and famous ones, they are relatively few in number. The vast majority of his work (I’m not about to literally tally it up, but it looks to me like something like 90-95%) is either comedy, comedy-drama, or musical comedy. Yes, though he did study with Uta Hagen, he had also been President of Hasty Pudding. In most of his work, he was that highest of all things, a comic actor.

How fitting then that it was he who presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charlie Chaplin at the 1972 Oscars? And who also presented an Honorary Oscar to Groucho Marx two years later? (Lemmon was a frequent houseguest of Groucho’s during the Erin Fleming years, btw. Learned that here). Or that it was Lemmon who narrated the 1977 documentary Ernie Kovacs: Television’s Original Genius. Lemmon had appeared in three pictures with Kovacs: Operation Mad Ball (1957), Bell Book and Candle (1958) and It Happened to Jane (1959). He and Kovacs were good friends. In fact it was Lemmon who identified Kovacs’ body at the morgue after the comedian’s fatal 1962 car crash, because wife Edie Adams was too distraught to do so.

Lemmon was the muse of comedy directors Billy Wilder (seven films), Blake Edwards (three films,though only two were comedies), and comedy writer Neil Simon (four films). Other comedy auteurs he worked with include George Cukor, Gene Saks, Mel Shavelson, Arthur Hiller, Richard Quine, Bernard Slade, George Axelrod, and Bob Clark.

Lemmon’s screen character reminds me a little of both cartoon Ducks: Daffy and Donald. His feathers are always flying. He’s highly excitable, often irritated. He complains and yells and rails but always ineffectually, otherwise we couldn’t take it. As a young man, he was usually a nebbish, a sad sack. In middle age he was often cast as a business man — not a rich one, but a middle-class everyman. His father had been the President of a doughnut company; the elder Lemmon has to have been a model for some of these performances.

Occasionally Lemmon went broad. In the case of Some Like it Hot (1959) he went “broad” by doing drag! In The Great Race (1965) he did his take on a top hatted silent comedy villain.

In his first couple of films he co-starred with Judy Holliday, a natural pairing given his Harvard background and her genius IQ (not to mention their screen chemistry). Later he successfully co-starred with Shirley MacLaine (twice), Kim Novak (twice), Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, Sandy Dennis, Anne Bancroft, and numerous others.

His most frequent co-star (15 films together) was of course Walter Matthau, who made such a good pairing with Lemmon because he too was a comic actor. Both men could be big, they could be ridiculous, but they always started with the seed of truth that underlay the scene. For this reason, I would hesitate to call them a “comedy team” as some people do. From a show business perspective that’s a completely different beast. Matthau and Lemmon are first and foremost scene partners, an acting team. They acted together in comedies, but did not perform comedy routines or bits, which is what comedy teams do. In 1971 Lemmon directed Matthau in the movie Kotch. Matthau played an old man in the film and was nominated for an Oscar, surely one of the factors that got him cast in The Sunshine Boys (seeing as how, unlike George Burns, he was 40 years younger than his character).  Kotch was the only movie Lemmon directed.

One interesting forgotten or little known fact: Lemmon was extremely musical. He sang and played several musical instruments. Several of his early movies in the ’50s were musicals, and he even released record albums. In Raised Eyebrows, Steve Stoliar writes of Lemmon playing the piano at parties at Groucho’s house. The public lost its taste for musicals in the ’60s, but I think it’s sad these skills weren’t fully utilized onscreen. Seems like a lost opportunity.

Another fun fact: he actually served as an ensign in the navy during World War II, experience which surely came in handy for service comedies like Mister Roberts and The Wackiest Ship in the Army. And I think I’ll let the latter phrase ring in your ears as my last word on the subject. Always remember — never forget — that Jack Lemmon starred in a movie called The Wackiest Ship in the Army. 

For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,