Flashback to November of 1963: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was such a stunning, awful event that my family needed some pure escapist entertainment. Hence, on a chilly Sunday in November of 1963, they took me to my first movie. It was “Who’s Minding the Store” starring Jerry Lewis. Lewis’ first appearance in this movie shows him, in close-up, noisily slurping a bowl of soup. With every slurp, the audience laughed. They continued laughing throughout the movie, sometimes so loud it drowned out the soundtrack. This was a packed house, maybe 700 people. My young mind somehow understood that this crazy man on the big screen was making all those people happy at once during a period when most were quite sad. Behold the magic of cinema.
I hadn’t known who Jerry Lewis was when I saw “Who’s Minding the Store.” The only one in that movie I recognized was Ray Walston, as he was currently on TV in “My Favorite Martian.” But this first moviegoing experience was the catalyst for a lifetime of film study, and it started with a keen interest in comedy on film.
From that point on, throughout childhood, I would pore through TV Guide for every comedy movie I could find. By the time I had reached my teens, I had familiarized myself completely with the work of well-known comics, and lesser-known ones, from the silent era to the present. I found reason to appreciate them all, at different levels. And, realizing most of these were very old films, I sought out information as to which of these performers were still living, how long their careers lasted, and so forth. This was before the Internet. It was even before many books had been written about film history’s clowns. Gathering information was like building a giant jigsaw puzzle.
When I was in high school, one of the networks, probably CBS, was running “Who’s Minding The Store” on its Late Movie. I not only laughed more than I had as a five year old, but also realized quite clearly what a great comedian Jerry Lewis is. After spending my childhood watching and re-watching old comedy films, gathering facts and opinions whenever possible, I had acquired a certain knowledge of what was original as opposed to merely derivative. Hence, I was not only able to laugh at Jerry Lewis; I was able to appreciate him as well. And once again “Who’s Minding the Store” influenced a quest; only this time it was to see every Jerry Lewis movie.
Had these been the days of video, I would have carefully tried to watch all of the Jerry Lewis films in chronological order, from his first appearance opposite Dean Martin, to his latest (at that time), “Which Way to the Front.” Unfortunately I had to wait for Jerry Lewis movies to hit television, and watch them with commercial interruptions. So while my peers were discovering how well the iconoclasm of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields held up during the 1970s, I was searching out Jerry Lewis movies (I had already seen the Marx Brothers and Fields films by this time anyway).
Lewis’ best efforts are indeed great films, every bit as good as the output of any of the well-respected screen comedians. Imagine a curious Lewis approaching a butterfly exhibit, lifting the protective glass, and watching as the exhibits fly away. Or an efficient Lewis carefully dusting an old portrait hanging on a wall, only to have the paint smear. It’s surrealism to rival Dali, and also very clever and funny.
Lewis learned a great deal from Frank Tashlin, a director who started out doing wonderfully bizarre cartoons for Warner Brothers and MGM, and later turned to live action. Tashlin’s satire on advertising, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” (1957) retains its bite some 60 years later, but his niche seemed to be wild slapstick, using Lewis as a live action cartoon character.
The gags in the Tashlin-Lewis films, such as a heavily bandaged Lewis crawling about a hospital grounds and being passed up by a cartoon snail, have that cartoon-like quality that marks Jerry’s best work. But the films with Tashlin always have some grounding in reality with offbeat doses of drama (the suicidal former cheerleader in “The Disorderly Orderly” (1964), the orphaned Japanese child in “The Geisha Boy” (1958), et al). When Lewis began directing his own movies, he used what he’d learned from Tashlin regarding outrageous sight gags, but created a world that was every bit as outrageous as his character; a surreal universe in which outrageousness was the norm replaced Tashlin’s cynical world.
Lewis’s first directorial effort, “The Bellboy” (1960), is a black and white, plotless pastiche of sequences involving a big-hearted, inept bellhop at a plush Miami resort. Lewis, in the title role, does not speak. He lets his actions speak for him. And while the backdrop is not in itself surreal, the bellboy is capable of activities that are beyond this world. When told to enter a cavernous auditorium and set up chairs for a presentation, the bellhop, whom Lewis calls Stanley, is expected to be busy for hours. Lewis, the director, shows the bellboy walking down the enormous room, his footsteps echoing as he strides to get a chair, which he carefully places in position. There is a brief cutaway of two other bellhops going to see how Stanley is doing. As they open the door, the auditorium is filled with chairs. Stanley has completed his task in a matter of minutes.
This surrealism reaches its zenith with “The Nutty Professor” (1963) in which Lewis plays Julius Kelp, a chemistry professor who is meek, fidgety, and utterly sexless. Kelp mixes a concoction that, when consumed, transforms him into Buddy Love, a sexist, greasy lounge singer who is as unlovable as Kelp is lovable. Naturally, women fall for Buddy Love for all the wrong reasons. This variation on “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde” is surreal enough, but it also includes the same type of bizarre sight gags that highlight all of the best Lewis films. Typical is the scene in which Kelp, after partying all night as Love, comes to class with a stunning hangover. Each little noise in the classroom is amplified, from a student writing on the chalkboard to another chewing gum. Lewis, the director, shoots each noise in close-up, cutting away to a suffering Kelp after each. And each noise is louder and more annoying than the next. Along the with rhythm of the editing, Lewis further enhances this scene by making the sounds somewhat louder on the soundtrack, making them as annoying to the viewer as they are to Kelp.
One unfairly overlooked Lewis-directed film is “The Patsy” (1964), a showbiz satire that bears a more than passing resemblance to Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (as Lewis has stated, he only stole from the best). “The Patsy” presents not only the Lewis character as outrageous, but all of show business is displayed in the same surreal fashion. Several cold corporate types attempt to transform the Lewis character, an inept bellhop named Stanley Belt, into a carefully packaged star commodity in order to maintain their status in the business (their previous star has died). They concentrate on giving him fancy clothes, haircuts, etc., sticking with externals in order for Lewis the writer-director to present the superficiality of manufactured stardom. But scenes like Lewis being rapidly groomed by a succession of different hairdressers, manicurists, et al, take on the surreal quality that sets this film apart. When a ticklish Lewis giggles through a pedicure, his voice is speeded up on the soundtrack so that it is higher pitched and faster, as if from a Chipmunk cartoon. As a shoeshine man (Scatman Crothers) works on Lewis’ shoes, he is overtaken by the rhythm the towel is making and gets caught up in his own scat number. Various grooming specialists crowd around him, coming and going from this area in rapid succession, until Lewis is spun around and shown to the viewer. His hair is slicked back, his expression is one of bored cynicism, and his packaging has, in effect, transformed him into another person. It is all very surreal, but manages to angrily maintain its satiric point despite its daring to step well past the usual trappings for what was, at that time, perceived as safe comic parody.
Lewis made millions for Paramount Pictures throughout the sixties, to the point where Paramount honcho Barney Balaban, stated that if Lewis wanted to burn down the studio, Balaban would supply the matches. But as moviemaking became more corporate, Lewis left Paramount to do independent productions and releasing through Columbia, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. As ways and mores changed rapidly in all areas of popular culture during the mid-to-late sixties, Lewis attempted to experiment, opting for conventional situation comedies like “Boeing Boeing” (1965) and “Three on a Couch” (1966). While the films succeeded at their own level, the realism was far less interesting than the wacked-out world Lewis created with his earlier comedies.
The culmination came about with “Which Way To The Front” (1970), a wonderful attempt to blend the counterculture attitudes of the sixties with the overtly patriotic World War Two era. Lewis set his film during WW2, with a handful of wealthy 4F classifications pooling their finances to start their own army (complete with current peace symbols on their uniforms). Lewis played the head 4F as well as the Nazi General Kesserling, using all his over-the-top acting for the latter character (save for a delightful bit of craziness as the 4F Lewis attempts to learn German from a record album’s instructions, the man on the disc speaking too rapidly as Jerry tries hard to keep up). But “Which Way To The Front” was given scant distribution during its 1970 release, and lost money domestically (it was, however, a tremendous hit in Germany — oh irony!). This financial setback kept Lewis out of movies until the end of the decade, when he returned with the lackluster “Hardly Working,” which seemed like somebody else trying to emulate a classic Jerry Lewis movie, and not very well.
The 1984 feature “Cracking Up” tried to recapture the sort of surrealism that gave us films like “The Patsy,” but it was only a shadow of what Lewis had accomplished so effortlessly in the past. Eventually, he settled into character roles (including a frighteningly accurate portrait of the put-upon celebrity in Martin Scorcese’s “King of Comedy”). After success on Broadway and overseas in a revival of “Damn Yankees,” Lewis found a comfortable niche being a veteran showbiz icon, and that is where his status remains today.
Of course since I grew up with Jerry Lewis the comedy star, it was later on that I discovered the Martin and Lewis years, all of which happened before I was born. Their movies are fun, conventional comedies about things like army life and haunted houses, but their TV appearances are unbridled comic masterpieces and they achieved Beatles-level popularity before any of the Fab Four even met. They were Elvis before Elvis. And their breakup was difficult. Jerry’s warm, funny, fascinating account of these years can be found in his best selling book “Dean and Me.”
We rarely get the chance to meet our heroes. But I did get that chance. My knowledge of film led to a writing career, initially inspired by that trip to the movie theater way back in 1963. Finally, after having had three books published, I finally decided to co-write, with my friend and fellow author Ted Okuda, a film-by-film look at the Jerry Lewis movies. We sought an interview with Lewis, and were happy to be welcomed into his home, and given his full cooperation. Through extensive interviews, we were able to offer his opinion on every one of his movies, adding authenticity to our book. When it was published in 1995, Lewis bought several copies and referred to it as “the bible.” When, after 18 years in hardcover, it was released in softcover, Lewis again bought several copies. His support and encouragement was such that he was always ready to help on other projects – writing the Foreword to Ted’s and my book on Stan Laurel, and agreeing to an interview for my book on the Elvis Presley movies, having known Elvis when both were making films at Paramount. I just received the contract to write what will be my 21st book. Thanks Jerry.
Jerry Lewis is now 90 years old, and despite his advanced age, he continues to perform for his legion of fans. And beneath the age lines we can still see the crazy uninhibited kid who first burst onto the scene in the 1940s and has wowed audiences with his wild onstage cavorting for several generations.