November 24, 2009


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 presumed real 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.

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.

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 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.