No one can claim to be a film fan without trying to come to terms with Jerry Lewis.
For nearly two decades, there was no bigger star on the big screen than Lewis, who turned 88 March 16. With and without his longtime partner Dean Martin, from 1951 through 1963 Lewis made the list of Hollywood’s Top 10 Money-Making Stars 11 times. Other stars have done that, including Abbot and Costello. But Bud and Lou were never accused of being among the true creative geniuses of cinema. Jerry, of course, has been.
And not just in France, where he’s been idolized since the 1950s. There are Hollywood directors who still treasure their dog-eared copies of Lewis’s long-out-of-print handbook, The Total Filmmaker, which even in the digital age remains an essential step-by-step text concerning writing, financing, directing, and distributing movies.
But like an awful lot of people, I largely stayed away from Jerry’s film oeuvre, influenced, I must admit, by the dismissive attitudes of just about everyone I knew.
And so one recent weekend—thanks to a Jerry Lewis Festival on my cable company’s Movies on Demand channel— I sat down to figure out, once and for all, what’s the deal with Jerry Lewis? Here are the films I saw, and what I learned:
The Stooge (1952) This was the first movie Jerry and Dean starred in, but the studio, afraid audiences would be turned off by how mean Dean is to Jerry in the flick, held it back for two years while they made four (!) other movies. Dean is, indeed, a true heel in the movie, playing a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian who hires Jerry to be his comic foil. The story dips its toes too deeply into the waters of melodrama, but we do get to see some of the team’s classic nightclub bits. This is Lewis at his most manic, the one that helped make him a King of All Media during the 1950s. As a surreal man-child who could do pratfalls, play drums, shoot venomous insults, quote Shakespeare and finish up with a chaser of seltzer water down your pants, Lewis was funny in ways that perhaps no one had ever been before. Without Jerry Lewis there would be no Pee Wee Herman, no Jim Carrey, maybe no Robin Williams. That’s a kind of genius, whether you enjoy it or not.
Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) After splitting with Dean in 1956, Jerry teamed up with director Frank Tashlin to make some distinctively manic comedies (Tashlin was the perfect director for Lewis: He cut his teeth writing and directing Warner Brothers cartoons). Predictably, because Jerry plays an inept baby sitter here, the film occasionally gets its feet stuck in sappy sentiment. But get a load of this jaw-dropping title sequence, sparking with energy and imagination and unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Jerry does everything but grab you by the collar and drag you into his movie.
Cinderfella (1960) Most critics place The Nutty Professor (1963) at the top of Jerry’s 1960s output, but Cinderfella—a retelling of the Cinderella story with You-Know-Who as the put-upon hero—is the film where Lewis came closest to striking that delicate balance between pathos and slapstick. The funny bits are consistently funny, and his big dance number, strutting down an endless staircase to a Count Basie tune, is classic. The transitions from comedy to sentiment are handled with uncommon finesse: The song Somebody—with Jerry sadly returning from the ill-fated ball, glumly switching off the lights along a cavernous hallway—genuinely earns that lump in your throat.
The Bellboy (1960) Jerry desperately wanted Cinderfella to play theaters at Christmas, but Paramount needed a Jerry Lewis movie for the summer. So in eight days in February, he whipped up the script for this nearly wordless comedy, then he filmed it with his own money at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel while he was performing a month-long gig there. The Bellboy is Jerry’s Citizen Kane, the movie that confirmed what his ardent admirers had long suspected: That he was capable of combining low comedy with high art. Unable to hire a director at the last minute, Jerry took the reins himself, and it is as if Jerry Lewis was suddenly channeling great directors from Rene Clair to Buster Keaton to Billy Wilder. His crisp black-and-white photography elicits the glaring Florida sun, even in the interior scenes. His use of deep focus, and his meticulous choreography of the milling crowds, conveys a sense of order in the midst of chaos. And his title character, a cross between Chaplin’s Tramp and Jackie Gleason’s Poor Soul, moves across this landscape in an almost ethereal manner, wreaking havoc as if by his mere presence. If the French didn’t love Jerry before this, it’s easy to see why they adopted him after The Bellboy: His camera work, episodic structure, and nearly wordless shooting script seem lifted directly from the great French film comic Jacques Tati, whose comedy “Mon Oncle” had won the Oscar in 1958.
It’s just possible that at least one scene from Tati’s 1967 masterpiece Playtime was inspired by this masterful set piece from The Bellboy. Lewis is telling a visual joke that can only be related through one long, almost unnerving shot. If you choose to laugh at the joke, you’ve got to be willing to sit through its interminable set-up. In fact, the set-up is the joke. It’s like a scene by Godard, only funny. And it also happens to be shockingly original in a way that—sorry, Jerry Lewis haters—can only be described as pure genius.
Likewise, the Bellboy’s battle with a bank of ringing telephones echoes Tati’s lifelong rebellion against technology’s tendency to rob us of our humanity.
You’re tempted to want to take Lewis’ scattered moments of true brilliance and create some sort of “Greatest Hits” reel, leaving out all the obvious sight gags, the maudlin speeches, and the forgettable songs in between. But part of the fun of watching a Jerry Lewis movie is the wait. Each of his films is a safari through dense, nearly impenetrable thicket—punctuated by unexpected sun-drenched clearings where the waters of genius flow. And so what if those waters sometimes come from the nozzle of a seltzer bottle?
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