jerry lewis

Of Jerry Lewis, the French, and an undying myth

Why do the French love Jerry Lewis?  It’s an age-old question—one that has dogged American pop culture for over 50 years.  It’s inspired no end of speculation—Rae Gordon wrote a whole book on the subject, and as recently as last year such publications as The New York Times and Vanity Fair took their cracks at it.  The answers dig into the history of film comedy, of comedy itself, of traditions of clowning, of differences in French and American culture, of philosophies of masculinity…

Blah blah blah.  For all the effort that’s been put into answering the question, precious little has been spent in questioning the question.  In other words, before we wonder why the French love Jerry Lewis, we better first figure out do the French love Jerry Lewis?

i.0.jerry-lewis-french-love-comedian-god

Let’s pause a moment to savor the weirdness of even having to ask this.  I mean, the whole “the French think Jerry Lewis is a genius” thing is such a longstanding cliché that if you mention the name Jerry Lewis in just about any context to just about any group of people, you can be sure of getting the question back, a guaranteed call-and-response reflex.  It’s the title of a book, it was the subject of a SNL skit, it’s just one of those Things Everybody Knows.  And France isn’t some impenetrable other world—not like North Korea.  You can say just about any crazy nonsense about what happens in North Korea and I can’t dispute it.  But France is geographically not very far away, and culturally fairly deeply intertwined with America.

Mind you, my wife believed that the French were obsessed with Jerry Lewis, even though she’s been to France several times—recently, even—and has never once experienced anything Jerry Lewis-related firsthand.  When I pointed this out, she noted that we’d seen a Jerry Lewis-flavored gelato in Florence.  Italy.  25 years ago.  And I have no idea whether that was some weird quirk of that one gelato shop.  (For the record, a Google search for “Jerry Lewis flavored gelato” returned nothing)

But how could we possibly think we know something so fundamental about French culture if it isn’t true?

A recent Vanity Fair article insisted the cliché was true, but I have a quibble with their investigative methodology.  The author was attending a revival screening of The Nutty Professor at a French theater and interviewed the audience, publishing their enthusiastically pro-Lewis gushing as proof of the continued French fascination for the man.

Nutty_prof

This was no randomly selected sample of  the population—this was a crowd of folks who decided the best use of their summer weekend afternoon was to go to an arthouse theater to see a 50 year-old subtitled import.  If they didn’t have an interest in Jerry Lewis, why would they be there at all?  And this was a screening of The Nutty Professor, for Pete’s sake—not one of his lesser-known or lesser-regarded films, but a film that was one of the top moneymakers of 1963, placed on the AFI list of 100 best comedies, and ensconced in the National Film Registry.  If you had that kind of excited crowd coming out for, say, a revival of Cracking Up, then maybe we’d be talking.  But as it is, the whole thing is a bit like if I went to the Film Forum’s revival of Alphaville in an effort to prove whether or not Americans are in love with Jean-Luc Godard.  It’s stacking the deck.

It could be argued that the idea that the French have a thing for Jerry Lewis probably started sometime around 1957, when Robert Benayoun wrote an article in Positif about Lewis’ comic artistry.  Of course, at that point Lewis was indisputably one of the top comedians in the world.  As Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle Living It Up (1953) outperformed Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront, and The African Queen.

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The Martin-Lewis films overall were outstanding box office champs.  Judging by ticket sales alone, the Martin-Lewis teaming was the most successful movie comedy duo of all time.  You have to come up with all kinds of weasel words and qualifiers if you want to say that Laurel and Hardy come out ahead of Martin and Lewis—and when Lewis struck out on his own, his first few films were just as popular, culminating in The Nutty Professor, whose credentials are noted above.

Lewis toured France in 1965, riding a wave of popularity driven by The Nutty Professor.  He was given a rock star reception, with fans swooning and going ga-ga like he was the Beatles or something.

But… well, The Nutty Professor was a massively successful comedy, widely beloved and appreciated by posterity.  It’s not notable to single out the fact that French audiences liked it, or enjoyed meeting its maker.

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Nobody gets much mileage out of claiming “the French love Hitchcock.”  There’s substantially more textual support for that claim, but it isn’t interesting—because the only response is “duh.”  Which is where we find the meat of this myth, and what makes it interesting—the statement “the French love Jerry Lewis” is incomplete on its own.  What keeps it alive is the unspoken second half: “the French love Jerry Lewis, which is nuts because Americans don’t.”  Right?  The idea that the French have some special fascination for Lewis is only news if it highlights some oddball tendency in those wacky French, something inscrutable.  The whole point of the statement is to make an implied backhanded swipe against Lewis.

From the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, Jerry Lewis was a major force in American comedy and a top box office draw.  A decade later he was box office poison.  Following The Nutty Professor, Lewis’ films started to hemorrhage viewers, lose critical support, and became increasingly poorly made on a purely technical level.

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This climaxed with the disaster of The Day the Clown Cried, which has remained suppressed at Lewis’ own insistence.  Later films like Hardly Working and Cracking Up could be described as a “comeback,” but they didn’t come close to the kinds of box office numbers Lewis once commanded.  And while these later works certainly have their defenders (for example, Jonathan Rosenbaum or Tim Lucas), even they would stop short of describing them as especially well-made.

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So what we have is a clown who went from the dizzying heights of popular and critical acclaim to a period of commercial decline.  This is nothing new—it’s the story of many, if not most, comedians.  Comedy is a fad-driven business, and audience tastes change over time.  Although the details obviously differ, the broad strokes of this career trajectory can be traced for Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle, even Charlie Chaplin—fill in your own examples here if you like.  There’s the same level of French enthusiasm for all of these guys (without the Cinematheque Francaise and Lobster Films we’d be missing huge chunks of their filmographies) but no comparable urban legend of “the French sure love Buster Keaton, don’t they?”

So something different happened to Jerry Lewis during his period of commercial decline, something that changed his reputation and how Americans responded to it.

It was the Telethon.

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The Telethon, of course, has been a force of outstanding humanitarian good.  Jerry Lewis gave generously of himself to advance a worthy cause and because of him, many lives are materially improved.

Lewis’ charity work won him a French Legion of Honor in 1984—an award that may have helped contribute to the whole “French love Jerry Lewis” myth, but which had nothing to do with him as a filmmaker or comedian and was entirely based on his humanitarian accomplishments.

Lewis’ role in the Telethon, however, was entirely built on his status and stature as a major Hollywood star, beloved entertainer of millions.  There was room, theoretically, for a smaller, niche audience to gather around Lewis’ post-Nutty Professor output and celebrate it on its own terms—much as there are people like me who celebrate Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but that sort of cult appeal is at odds with the image of Lewis as a major star.  The two are incompatible—and if one had to eat the other, it was obvious who would win.  The Telethon genuinely mattered in the world, and had Lewis’ sincere support.

And this calcified a certain image of Jerry Lewis, as a somewhat tone-deaf entertainer who didn’t fully connect with own fans, as someone more interested in parading his faded glory than earning new glory.

Jerry Lewis Hommage & 'Max Rose' Premiere - The 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival

You can see the tension in the SNL skit about the fabled French adoration of Lewis.  On paper, the skit sounds wonderfully edgy—as we’ve noted, the question “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis” necessarily implies that this is somehow incongruous or inscrutable.  Why would Jerry Lewis, so famously tetchy about his public image, willingly submit to appear in a skit designed around an implied insult to him?  And in turn, that is exactly why the skit misfires so badly, and fails to land its joke.  It isn’t about this at all—but rather proceeds from the premise that since the French do love Jerry Lewis, their obsession with his slapstick comedies would prevent them from correctly dubbing his more serious role in King of Comedy into French, since they’d assume it should be full of funny voices and pratfalls.

I wish I could show you the skit, but I can’t find a YouTube clip of it.  It hails from a period in SNL’s past that has been largely forgotten, so it doesn’t crop up in reruns or video compilations.  There’s a transcript here, and if anyone has a link to this video please put it up in the comments.

16 Responses Of Jerry Lewis, the French, and an undying myth
Posted By Tom S : February 1, 2014 9:30 am

I’ve always thought the myth had to do with the way Lewis was not only liked in France- since, as you say, that was practically universal- but actually respected, particularly by the Cahiers crowd. The Nutty Professor, The Family Jewels, The Big Mouth, and Cracking Up all made the year end top ten lists from Cahiers for their respective years of release, beating out films like 8 1/2, The Gospel According to Matthew, and Cahiers alum Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Chinoise (and, in the case of Cracking up, tying with Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.)

I don’t know of any other school of critics, save a few American oddballs (beloved oddballs, of course) like Jonathan Rosenbaum that would ever mention Lewis in the same breath as such rarefied titles, then or now.

Posted By terje rypdal : February 1, 2014 9:38 am

The other day I watched a nice print of “The Errand Boy” — & couldn’t stop laughing throughout … By the end I felt that this was probably the funniest movie I’d ever seen in my life! .. So then I started wondering to myself why for instance Maltin only gives it 2 1/2 stars …

And I realized that it must be because it’s totally worthless on a narrative or left-brained level … But IF you can relax your mind enough to appreciate it on a right-brained level; suddenly it’s an all-out masterpiece … Here’s a great clip of the so-called chairman of the board sequence from that film –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBASVon3dhs

(I think I’d previously found a pure copy of that clip but this one that popped up now is the split-screen one with the quite amusing family guy parody)

I think the whole joke about the French is supposed to be that macho Americans consider pantomime, like mime, to be somehow too “gay” or frou-frou or however you wish to phrase it, to be worthy of American red-blooded belly laughs …

Yet I think part of the incredible absurdity of the paradox is that what the French probably love MOST about Lewis is how unbelievably and iconically American he is !!! After all, the French love John Wayne to an extreme degree but no one makes jokes about that …

The other part of the answer is the obvious one — that in point of fact Lewis is closer to the spirit and sensibility of Jacques Tati — & in some regards, also of Marcel Marceau — than any other American entertainer … (And for that matter who has there been since in this category? Paul Reubens? Emo Philips??)

As Lewis aged, he became more & more grotesque … Heavy steroid prescriptions changing his youthful good looks into an almost disturbing, overly heavy visage … So by the telethon years he was a figure of fun for late night comedians and such … Needless to say none of this can detract from his astounding and unique comic and cinematic legacies.

Posted By Benboom : February 1, 2014 1:21 pm

One thing you overlook is the fact that the French have always loved slapstick comedy – hell, they still love it. Americans, for the most part, do not. There is an entire group of French entertainers whose old films remain popular in France (I won’t bother naming them because, honestly, the names would mean absolutely nothing to Americans) and to my eye (as a Yankee) these guys are not funny. Okay, if you don’t believe me, watch anything by Fernandel, if you can find it. The Brits get Benny Hill, we got Jerry Lewis, and I suppose the French got Fernandel…and Jerry Lewis.

I can say that during the time I have spent in France I have spoken with many, many French people about this (“Vous aimez Jerry Lewis? Mais pourquoi ça?”) and the answer is usually a simple “Because he’s funny”.

Well, if you say so, LOL.

Posted By Doug : February 1, 2014 6:44 pm

My impression, held for a long time and probably wrong, is that the French adoration of Lewis stemmed from “Cinderfella”.
I lost most appreciation for Lewis when I grew up and realized that, to me, he seems to have no soul.
Meaning that he can joke and grimace and do prats and all of that, but it’s all surface, it’s all for result and acclaim.
I have no doubt that he sincerely loved being the champion of MDA, but every kid in a chair that he hugged, it seemed like he was reaping the empathy due the child, that he was “proving” (to us, to himself)how much he cared. That he did indeed have a soul.
As for the French adoration of Lewis? As I said, “Cindefella”-but also I think that it is in part hype.
Like insuring a dancer’s legs, or an ingenue with a ‘swearing jar’ on set-it was a P.R. bit of business with a long half life due to his long career.
See also: Milton Berle.

Posted By The French aren’t obsessed with Jerry Lewis, actually : February 1, 2014 8:14 pm

[…] MovieMoorlocks: […]

Posted By george : February 1, 2014 8:50 pm

I’ve read that Woody Allen is more popular in France than Jerry Lewis ever was. But most Americans don’t know that.

The fact is, Jerry Lewis IS a genius. He should have gotten a special Oscar for his achievements as a filmmaker, not just for his humanitarian work.

That doesn’t mean every Lewis film is a masterpiece. He made some turkeys (especially after 1964), but so did Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Danny Kaye, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and every other great comic.

This is another case where the French were ahead of the curve, just as they saw the artistry in American detective stories, comic strips and jazz before most Americans did.

Posted By Anne Billson : February 2, 2014 5:34 am

I lived in France for ten years and came to the (possibly erroneous) conclusion that it’s not so much the comedy of Jerry Lewis that is admired by the French (though they ARE partial to lowbrow slapstick, hence the popularity of Louis de Funès) but his mise en scène.

Films such as The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor, especially, are full of the sorts of bravura camera movement and audacious coups de cinéma that are applauded when they’re pulled off by the likes of Martin Scorsese, but which tend to be overlooked when they’re at the service of a comedy. I think he took the directing style of Frank Tashlin, who had started out in animation and directed him in films like Artists and Models and Cinderfella, and pushed that even further.

In this respect, I think Lewis is akin to Jacques Tati, where the look of the film is carefully controlled, and the action becomes part of the design. I started liking Lewis’s films a lot more when I stopped trying to find them funny, and started looking more at the way they’re directed.

Posted By Sammy JEANBART : February 2, 2014 3:48 pm

The question is not why the french love Jerry Lewis, but why the americans don’t?
“The Nutty pofessor” is great , but if you want to see a mainstream movie That is funny and a pure abstract work of mise en scène then watch “the ladies Man”.

Posted By george : February 2, 2014 8:42 pm

“One thing you overlook is the fact that the French have always loved slapstick comedy – hell, they still love it.”

Chaplin has been a god in France since the ’20s (although most American film critics now prefer Keaton). The French may have recognized Lewis as working in the Chaplin tradition of slapstick, visual gags and pathos.

See the Chaplin vs. Keaton debate in Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS. At one point the American guy says to the Frenchman, with exasperation: “Don’t get me started on Jerry Lewis!”

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2014 4:53 pm

I suppose we’ll never know the true answer.

Posted By Jeb : February 3, 2014 5:16 pm

Made me think of SCTV’s take on Jerry Lewis’ influence on French films:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw1euf8QCz8

Posted By Marty : February 4, 2014 5:06 pm

When you think about the juggernaut that was the team of Martin & Lewis, you are talking about a money-making machine. Between their club act, their 10 years together at Paramount, their weekly radio show-cum Colgate Comedy Hour TV show, their income and the income of Paramount, NBC, MCA (their agents)and every night club with a velvet rope was stratospheric. My parents saw them at the Copa in New York and The Embers in Miami. They told me that people were so weak from laughter that they had to be carried out!

The best team pictures are The Caddy, Living It Up, You’re Never Too Young and Artists and Models.

Of Jerry’s solo work, I’d say The Bellboy, The Errand Boy and The Patsy.

Regardless of my opinion, Lewis’ pictures (even the solo pictures I didn’t mention and don’t care for)still haul in vaults full of money from all over the world.

And I believe the reason the French are enamored with Lewis is that they idolize the “auteur” — be it Chaplin or Tati or Lewis or anyone else who does it all.

For me, a great evening is watching their best team pictures.

Posted By kingrat : February 5, 2014 5:35 pm

At the height of Godard’s Maoist period, he gave an interview in New York in which he said that if Jerry Lewis had been working in Russia at the time of the Revolution, he would have been a great director.

No doubt this contributed to the general perception that the French are 1) bonkers about Jerry Lewis or 2) just plain bonkers.

Posted By Stephen White : February 7, 2014 10:24 am

While visiting my parents over the holidays, I found a DVD of At War with the Army, which I watched with my dad. He cracked up quite a bit at several of Lewis’ comedy bits. This was, I believe, the first film to feature Martin and Lewis as a starring comic duo, and it occurred to me while watching it that I don’t think I had ever actually seen a Martin-Lewis film before, which is a shame, especially if those films were as financially successful as indicated on this thread. To my knowledge, TCM hasn’t aired any Martin-Lewis films in the last five or maybe ten years. Maybe they used to in the early days of the network before I became a regular viewer. The Paramount back catalog now owned by MCA Universal seems to now contain the hardest-to-procure major studio output for TCM, replacing the 20th Century Fox catalog, which was once practically nonexistent, but for a number of years now, it seems you’re much more likely to see a Fox film on TCM than a Paramount one.

Posted By Doug : February 7, 2014 5:58 pm

I put no stock in gossip, but living in Vegas, I heard things about stars; one guy I knew had been married to one of Dean Martin’s grand daughters. Jerry Lewis, Babs Streisand when she opened the ‘new’ MGM Grand…as I said, put no stock in gossip, but Vegas is really a small town. I had a friend who was kind of ‘goofy’ looking. Bill had a scene as an extra with Deniro in “Casino” which never made the movie-riding up in an elevator,Deniro notices this odd looking tourist and does a bit of a take. That was Bill.
I heard nothing but good about Deniro, and nothing good about Streisand, Martin or Lewis.

Posted By george : February 7, 2014 10:15 pm

I recently reread Nick Tosches’ Dean Martin biography, DINO. Both Martin and Lewis come off as pretty appalling people … the sort of people you would cross the street to avoid, if you were smart.

But I still enjoy watching them on the screen, together and solo.

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