Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 15, 2012
On Friday, March 16th, Jerry Lewis will be celebrating his 86th birthday. Jerry’s been on my mind a lot lately so I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without making note of it. I love Jerry Lewis but it’s not always easy being a Jerry Lewis fan.
Jerry’s said and done plenty of things that have made my toes curl and my hair stand on end. I often think of him as that loony uncle I never had who was a lady’s man in his youth and is now feeling the pull of time so he fights off melancholia with sharp barbs and off-color jokes. You enjoy spending time with him and he always makes you laugh but he can wear out his welcome mighty fast once he’s had a few too many drinks and his monumental ego gets out of control. But when you love somebody and think their work is brilliant it’s easy to overlook their flaws and failings. And that’s the way it is between Jerry and me. I love him. Even if I don’t always like what he says and does.
Recently the multi-talented comedian, actor, producer, screenwriter and director was the subject of a documentary aptly titled JERRY LEWIS: METHOD TO THE MADNESS. This sensitive portrait of an artist in his twilight years originally aired on Encore in December 2011 and runs through April 2012. JERRY LEWIS: METHOD TO THE MADNESS was directed by Gregg Barson and it presents its subject in a respectful and often flattering light but the documentary is never patronizing or dull. Its scope is limited and neglects to mention the contributions of some important Lewis collaborators like director Frank Tashlin. But I genuinely admired the way it focused on the comedian’s creative contributions and gave Lewis’ comedic genius historical context outside of his personal conflicts and public controversies.
Director Gregg Barson was granted unprecedented access to his subject, which resulted in some candid interviews with Lewis who reflects on the incredible highs and lows of his lifelong career. Lewis started working at age 5 with his parents who were both vaudeville performers. After dropping out of high-school he perfected his act and by age 19 he was working side-by-side with Dean Martin as part of the Martin & Lewis comedy team. After Martin & Lewis ended their partnership, Jerry started writing, directing, producing and starring in his own movies in the 1960s. The documentary features never-before-seen footage as well as clips from some of Lewis’ best films. There are also insightful and impassioned interviews with his friends, imitators and admirers including Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Lewis, Deana Martin (Dean Martin’s daughter) and previous TCM Essentials’ co-host Alec Baldwin. JERRY LEWIS: METHOD TO THE MADNESS will be released on DVD eventually but I highly recommend giving it a look while it’s still showing on Encore.
Besides being the subject of a documentary, three Jerry Lewis films and a television production were released on DVD and Blu-ray in February. The first title made available was THE JAZZ SINGER, which originally aired on NBC’s Lincoln-Mercury Startime TV series in 1959. It was released on DVD by the Inception Media Group and it also contains a making-of short detailing the restoration of THE JAZZ SINGER as well as a still gallery. This updated adaptation of the famous Al Jolson film features the comedian in a rare dramatic role. Lewis’ own background in vaudeville undoubtedly drew him to the story and he makes a smart creative choice to substitute Jolson’s blackface makeup for clown makeup. THE JAZZ SINGER is an interesting attempt to modernize the material but it’s hindered by the limitations of television.
The three Lewis comedies that were just released on DVD by Olive Films include two 1958 Frank Tashlin films, THE GEISHA BOY and ROCK-A-BYE BABY, which make better use of Lewis’ broad talents. THE GEISHA BOY is a silly and sentimental comedy starring Lewis as a magician on a USO tour in Asia where he ends-up befriending an orphaned Japanese boy. ROCK-A-BYE BABY is an updated version of the classic Preston Sturges’ comedy, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944). Both films are well worth seeking out if you appreciate Frank Tashlin’s work with Lewis. And last but certainly not least, the funny and somewhat dated sixties sex farce BOEING BOEING (1965) features Lewis in one of his more subdued roles alongside costars Tony Curtis, Thelma Ritter and Suzanne Leigh. John Rich’s film details the sexual exploits of a manipulative bachelor (Tony Curtis) who’s wooing three naïve airline stewardesses. Lewis steps in to lend his buddy some advice and ends up falling in love with one of Curtis’ conquests (Suzanne Leigh).
Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950)
Tomorrow Jerry Lewis will be the guest of honor at a special birthday bash being held at the Friars Club in New York where he currently reigns as the club’s “Abbot.” There are plans to show the documentary JERRY LEWIS: METHOD TO THE MADNESS followed by a Q&A with Lewis himself. He’ll be supported by friends and fans like comedian Richard Belzer who is co-hosting the event.
If you’d like to celebrate Lewis’ birthday yourself you can tune into TCM where you’ll find a great selection of Jerry Lewis comedies airing all afternoon including AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950), HOOK, LINE AND SINKER (1969), DON’T RAISE THE BRIDGE, LOWER THE RIVER (1967), THE BIG MOUTH (1967) and THREE ON A COUCH (1966). HOOK, LINE AND SINKER and THE BIG MOUTH have never been released on DVD and THREE ON A COUCH has gone out of print so you might want to set your Tivo or DVR to record them. You can find the full schedule of Lewis films being shown March 16th posted on TCM’s website.
I also recommend making time to listen to some episodes of the very funny and entertaining Martin and Lewis radio show that are currently available at the Internet Archive. The Martin and Lewis show aired on NBC Radio from 1949 through 1953 and featured guest appearances by many beloved Hollywood actors such as Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Peter Lorre, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Jane Russell, Shelley Winters, William Holden, Linda Darnell, Tony Curtis, Marlene Dietrich, Boris Karloff, Joseph Cotten and the Chairmen of the Board himself, Mr. Frank Sinatra. You can stream the episodes for free and they contain comedy sketches as well a musical numbers. These audio time capsules provide listeners with the opportunity to become more familiar with Jerry Lewis’ early work and get a better understanding of why he’s considered one of the reigning kings of comedy.
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