Jerry Lewis Takes Manhattan

The nasal whine of Jerry Lewis is slowly screeching it’s way back into the American consciousness. He won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award at the last Oscar ceremony, and he’s returning to Broadway as the director of a musical version of The Nutty Professor, set for the 2010-11 season. And over the past few weeks, Anthology Film Archives held a retrospective of his directorial work, from The Bellboy through Cracking Up (aka Smorgasbord). The series was timed with the release of Chris Fujiwara’s concise study of his style published by the University of Illinois Press. It’s been a crash course in Lewis’ comedy, as I only have a passing knowledge of his movies, specifically the ones with Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models first and foremost). What became immediately clear is his astonishing technical command.

Regardless of whether I was laughing (which was about half the time), I was struck by the precision of his staging and the intricacy of his sound design. He’s adept at both crowding the frame with detail and locating a joke in the chaos (in the crowded elevator scene in The Errand Boy), or emptying out spaces and placing the gag in long shot (in the setting up the chairs bit in The Bellboy). His use of sound is just as fascinating, as he’ll often expose the mechanics of the film itself. There’s the sequence in The Ladies Man where he unplugs a microphone and the screen goes silent for a sequence of exaggerated pantomime, or the dubbing gag in The Errand Boy, where he loops his voice over a singing starlet.

As Fujiwara notes, “A main principle of Lewis’s films is not to fill in everything…”. His sets are spacious and garish,always calling attention to their artificiality, as in the dollhouse-like set of The Ladies Man (image right) , or in the “overhead crane shot in Kelp’s laboratory in The Nutty Professor, the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the presumedreal dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of experimentation with identity.” He creates a theatricalized space to fit his constantly performing characters, and “Identity in Lewis is always performed; there is no private self.” And what an identity.

The Lewis “idiot” character is an empty vessel, either completely silent, as in The Bellboy, or a creation of studio hacks (The Errand Boy and The Patsy). His characters rarely have complete arcs, as he structures his films around a series of disconnected vignettes, bits of business that have little to do with the ostensible plot. The Bellboy is the extreme instance of this non-narrative approach, which so spooked the studios they tacked on an introduction explaining the concept (Jerry Lewis is a bellboy who wanders around doing nutty things). The Nutty Professor is his only film to crack into the national imaginary, probably because it  has the strongest story arc – he’s trying to win over Stella Stevens. His other films raise “problems”, only to discard them later, as with Lewis’s fear of women in The Ladies Man. He gives these plot devices little notice, content to construct elaborate gags around his invisible man.

The theme that inevitably emerges throughout all of these films is of the construction of Lewis’s own fame, and the unreality of his life. In The Bellboy he appears as himself, and The Errand Boy and The Patsy echo Lewis’ own rise to fame. It’s this overpowering sense of self-regard that turns off so many of his detractors, but his obsession with his identity springs organically out of his candy-colored style, so intent on revealing the artifice behind his own films’ making.

But is he funny? Well, your mileage may vary, but yes, absolutely. His “building-block” structure results in a lot of failed gags, but since they bump into each other in a quick profusion, there’s something to please everybody.  I’m not partial to his rubber-faced reaction shots, which bury his punchlines into the ground, but adore some of his slow-burn conceptual bits, such as his dressing down routine with Buddy Lester in The Ladies Man, where a simple hat adjustment ends up destroying Lester’s psyche. (see below, it starts at the 3 minute mark).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftWcTU3TQew&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

His physical humor can also grate, as his long-take style pulls out a gag like taffy. A large suitcase doesn’t have handles, and he spends minutes sliding and tumbling trying to get a handle. This simple bit should hit and move on, but he holds it for every variation of physical degradation. It’s both admirable and exhausting, although some build from such unpromising material into a mad delirium. Take the dinner scene in The Patsy. Lewis takes one joke, he doesn’t know when to stop tipping, and keeps hammering it until he’s unloading his entire wad to a school of hovering violin players (see below). This is where the slow burn pays off, where one simple gag leads to Lewis repeatedly topping himself, instead of the stolid repetition of the suitcase bit.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxxN6U1vT6s&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

The truly wonderful thing about Lewis’s work, though, is that even if a particular joke is tanking, there are always beautiful compositions and resourceful actors to fall back on. Lewis had a penchant for casting old Hollywood types in his films, guys who hadn’t worked regularly in years but he respected (he talks about this in a candid extended interview in Fujiwara’s book – in which he memorably describes his “steel balls”). Just look at some of the faces in The Patsy: Everett Sloane, Peter Lorre, George Raft (as Lewis’s reflection) Keenan Wynn, and John Carradine.

This could have been a silent film and the faces would have told the story. This is another aspect of Lewis that elicits criticism – his sentimental streak. And for the most part, it’s warranted, as he inserts stilted speeches about the power of innocence and beauty in the mouths of his female protagonists. But at certain moments, emotion arises naturally out of the action, either through his love of an actor or himself. Two moments stick out in particular. One in The Ladies Man, where Lewis and Raft do a soft-shoe in the living room. Lewis refuses to believe Raft is Raft, and to prove it, George twirls them around the impromptu dance floor. Lewis goes to a high angle, darkens the room, and isolates them in a spotlight, an absurd and surprisingly sad image of Raft dancing into the twilight of his career (the clip starts at 0:03:43).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH5wVfJsqgw&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

The other occurs near the end of The Errand Boy, when Lewis wanders into the prop room and starts chatting about his emotions with a southern belle duck puppet who calls herself Magnolia (see the top image to this post). She’s possibly the most fully realized of his female characters, which doesn’t say much for his writing for actresses, but speaks volumes for this improbably moving scene. It is played as straight drama, as Jerry tells her the story of his life, his childhood in Jersey, his dreaming of Hollywood, and his disillusionment upon getting there. Then he discusses the pain behind all of his pratfalls and screw-ups, “I’ve done nothin’ but cause everybody trouble.” Then he pulls himself back, and wonders why a puppet is talking to him. Poised between sentimentality and idiocy, with an undertow of sadness, it manages to condense Lewis’s cynicism about show business, his penchant for proliferating identities, and his childlike belief in the power of imagination into one insane and beautiful sequence. He’s one of a kind, for better or worse.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvrytAgFTpY&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

0 Response Jerry Lewis Takes Manhattan
Posted By Jerry Kovar : November 25, 2009 7:18 am

Over the years we seem to grow less and less appreciative of Jerry Lewis. As his audience has grown older, there appears to be a stigma that his humor is now beneath us. How could those wacky French pay homage to this man.

However, his annual Christmas and summer releases were major Box Office, not to mention the numerous re-released double bills – of his Martin-Lewis films as well as his solo work – to satisfy our Jerry craving.

The man was funny. Poor and (definitely) simple. “The Bellboy” is classic comedy but it seems that “The Nutty Professor” is the only Lewis film worthy of retrospective.

Like many full length comedies, it is very difficult to sustain 90 minutes of laughs. His bits were hit and miss but the hits were huge and the misses tolerable. (Watch “The Bellboy” again if you haven’t in a while.)

Kudos to the Anthology Film Archives, Chris Fujiwara, AMPAS and R. Emmet for giving the Clown a little more spotlight.

Jerry Kovar

Posted By Jerry Kovar : November 25, 2009 7:18 am

Over the years we seem to grow less and less appreciative of Jerry Lewis. As his audience has grown older, there appears to be a stigma that his humor is now beneath us. How could those wacky French pay homage to this man.

However, his annual Christmas and summer releases were major Box Office, not to mention the numerous re-released double bills – of his Martin-Lewis films as well as his solo work – to satisfy our Jerry craving.

The man was funny. Poor and (definitely) simple. “The Bellboy” is classic comedy but it seems that “The Nutty Professor” is the only Lewis film worthy of retrospective.

Like many full length comedies, it is very difficult to sustain 90 minutes of laughs. His bits were hit and miss but the hits were huge and the misses tolerable. (Watch “The Bellboy” again if you haven’t in a while.)

Kudos to the Anthology Film Archives, Chris Fujiwara, AMPAS and R. Emmet for giving the Clown a little more spotlight.

Jerry Kovar

Posted By saraeg : November 25, 2009 9:44 am

When i was young, my uncle took me to the movies and because we lived in New York City, i saw alot of movies in Times Square in the old movie palaces, Radio City Music Hall, and the RKO Coliseum on 181st Street. He enjoyed taking me and I saw him laugh out loud whenever the movie was a Jerry Lewis movie. There wasn’t a lot to be happy about when I was growing up, being that my parents and their families escaped from Nazi Germany and it was hard for them to assimilate into American culture besides being poor. I think my uncle even looked a little like Jerry Lewis. So whenever there is a chance to see Jerry on TV in one of his old movies or the Labor Day Telethon, it reminds me of those days. I also got to see Jerry on Broadway when he starred in ‘Damn Yankees’ That was a special night and I will never forget it. God Bless Jerry Lewis!

Posted By saraeg : November 25, 2009 9:44 am

When i was young, my uncle took me to the movies and because we lived in New York City, i saw alot of movies in Times Square in the old movie palaces, Radio City Music Hall, and the RKO Coliseum on 181st Street. He enjoyed taking me and I saw him laugh out loud whenever the movie was a Jerry Lewis movie. There wasn’t a lot to be happy about when I was growing up, being that my parents and their families escaped from Nazi Germany and it was hard for them to assimilate into American culture besides being poor. I think my uncle even looked a little like Jerry Lewis. So whenever there is a chance to see Jerry on TV in one of his old movies or the Labor Day Telethon, it reminds me of those days. I also got to see Jerry on Broadway when he starred in ‘Damn Yankees’ That was a special night and I will never forget it. God Bless Jerry Lewis!

Posted By suzidoll : November 25, 2009 11:01 am

The first blog I wrote for the Morlocks included several paragraphs on THE BELLBOY, specifically his use of an entire hotel as a prop (The Fontainebleu in Miami). You can better understand Lewis if you see him in context with the history of American physical comedy — from Keystone shorts to Stan Laurel to the Three Stooges to the Ritz Brothers to Lewis. But, to only talk of his comic persona is to miss half his talent. For ex., his breaking of the 4th wall, or his self-reflexive gags, adds another layer to his film comedy. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was a Jerry Lewis film, VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET, and I have been a movie lover ever since. I figure I owe him.

Posted By suzidoll : November 25, 2009 11:01 am

The first blog I wrote for the Morlocks included several paragraphs on THE BELLBOY, specifically his use of an entire hotel as a prop (The Fontainebleu in Miami). You can better understand Lewis if you see him in context with the history of American physical comedy — from Keystone shorts to Stan Laurel to the Three Stooges to the Ritz Brothers to Lewis. But, to only talk of his comic persona is to miss half his talent. For ex., his breaking of the 4th wall, or his self-reflexive gags, adds another layer to his film comedy. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was a Jerry Lewis film, VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET, and I have been a movie lover ever since. I figure I owe him.

Posted By Medusa : November 25, 2009 8:38 pm

I’m a tried-and-true Lewis fan, probably more fascinated than strictly amused by his movies, but always loving him.

It’s always a good time to celebrate Jerry Lewis! If memory serves me correctly, fellow Morlock Jeff and I attended a live performance of Mr. Lewis in Atlanta once upon a time. Faced with an auditorium that was not close to filled to capacity, he came out an announced that he was going to give an amazing show, no matter how many of us were in the audience. And boy, did he!

He’s a trouper!

Posted By Medusa : November 25, 2009 8:38 pm

I’m a tried-and-true Lewis fan, probably more fascinated than strictly amused by his movies, but always loving him.

It’s always a good time to celebrate Jerry Lewis! If memory serves me correctly, fellow Morlock Jeff and I attended a live performance of Mr. Lewis in Atlanta once upon a time. Faced with an auditorium that was not close to filled to capacity, he came out an announced that he was going to give an amazing show, no matter how many of us were in the audience. And boy, did he!

He’s a trouper!

Posted By Al Lowe : November 27, 2009 12:08 pm

You are getting old if you remember back when Jerry Lewis was enormously popular.
But boy was he popular! He was a sensation in the movies and on 50s television.
There are a few points I’d like to make.

1. In all fairness, you should at least mention the truly terrible movies he made, such as THREE ON A COUCH and THE BIG MOUTH. Lewis is amazing in that he alternates moments of brilliance with choices so awful that even small children ask, “Why in the world did he decide to do that?”

2. He reminds me of Marlon Brando in one respect. When he was at the zenith of his popularity he rejected efforts by incredibly talented people who wanted to write for him – namely Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett. Brando did the same thing; he fired Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah from ONE EYED JACKS.
By the way, Norman Lear of All in the Family fame was one of his writers for the Colgate Comedy Hour.

3. I may be alone in this but I liked him best in AT WAR WITH THE ARMY. There were a lot of people and subplots in that movie but you kept waiting for Lewis to come back on screen again. You had no such waiting period in some future Lewis epics where he would play six or seven parts – all badly.

4. I recall a routine I first saw Lewis do when he was hosting the Tonight Show nearly five decades ago. It is a tongue twisting memory trick, first used to test announcers on their memories and pronunciation skills.
This is it. See how much you can remember and how well you can say it:

One hen
Two ducks
Three squawking geese
Four limerick oysters
Five corpulent porpoises
Six pairs of Don Alverso’s tweezers
Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array
Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt
Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth
Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery all at the same time.

Posted By Al Lowe : November 27, 2009 12:08 pm

You are getting old if you remember back when Jerry Lewis was enormously popular.
But boy was he popular! He was a sensation in the movies and on 50s television.
There are a few points I’d like to make.

1. In all fairness, you should at least mention the truly terrible movies he made, such as THREE ON A COUCH and THE BIG MOUTH. Lewis is amazing in that he alternates moments of brilliance with choices so awful that even small children ask, “Why in the world did he decide to do that?”

2. He reminds me of Marlon Brando in one respect. When he was at the zenith of his popularity he rejected efforts by incredibly talented people who wanted to write for him – namely Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett. Brando did the same thing; he fired Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah from ONE EYED JACKS.
By the way, Norman Lear of All in the Family fame was one of his writers for the Colgate Comedy Hour.

3. I may be alone in this but I liked him best in AT WAR WITH THE ARMY. There were a lot of people and subplots in that movie but you kept waiting for Lewis to come back on screen again. You had no such waiting period in some future Lewis epics where he would play six or seven parts – all badly.

4. I recall a routine I first saw Lewis do when he was hosting the Tonight Show nearly five decades ago. It is a tongue twisting memory trick, first used to test announcers on their memories and pronunciation skills.
This is it. See how much you can remember and how well you can say it:

One hen
Two ducks
Three squawking geese
Four limerick oysters
Five corpulent porpoises
Six pairs of Don Alverso’s tweezers
Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array
Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt
Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth
Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery all at the same time.

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