It’s hard to believe that, at the time of this article, Jerry Lewis is alive and well! In fact, Jerry Lewis celebrates his 90th birthday today. Jerry Lewis (with Dean Martin) featured heavily on my television screen on a Saturday afternoon growing up. His antics on film made me laugh as a kid until my sides burst. However, for the most part, American critics in recent decades have paid little to no attention to Jerry Lewis’ genius. (Some regard his body of work, some 50 films, as not worthy of a second look.) Many people consider him a relic of the past, out of touch, with a big mouth and by today’s standards also somewhat politically incorrect.
Jerry Lewis for many reasons just seems to polarize people, but some effort it seems in recent years have been made to recognize him. The Motion Picture Academy, for instance, honoured Jerry Lewis in 2009 with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award – an honour recognizing charity work. However, many notable supporters of Jerry Lewis considered this a token gesture, almost an insult, to one of the most influential American film comedians of all time. The question was asked why not simply award him with an academy Life achievement Award? Not only was he an enormously popular actor and creative force during the 50’s and early 60’s, he was also an innovative and talented director. Examples of Jerry Lewis’ contribution to the film making process, is no more evident than in his invention of video assist, which allowed film directors to instantly watch what they had just filmed or in his genius of mise en scène that I believe has rarely been rivaled. In later years his influenced extended across generations of comics and film-makers such as, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, John Landis, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who once called Jerry Lewis “a Hollywood treasure”.
Hopefully, with a little more open-mindedness, Jerry Lewis may still yet be properly honoured with genuine importance as a comedian and filmmaker. It is true that many of his films fall below par in excellence and are just plain embarrassing. This is why film critics accuse him of being just a simple slapstick buffoon. But Jerry Lewis did make some fine pictures too, which includes gems like Living It Up (1954), Artists and Models (1956), The Ladies Man (1961), Cinderfella (1960) and arguably his greatest masterpiece The Nutty Professor (1963). By the late 60’s his star began to fade, but he always remained on the radar, as host of the annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Jerry Lewis briefly made a comeback in the early eighties, to show us that he wasn’t simply a buffoon, in The King of Comedy (1983). He won rave reviews for his dramatic performance, and do I dare say, if he had made a few more brave decisions like this in his career, how differently the reception towards him today might have been?
In 1995, a small British-American comedy-drama was released to little fanfare called Funny Bones starring Oliver Platt and Jerry Lewis. The Guardian newspaper described it as a film “about being funny and about being yourself, about being funny as an expression, a definition of self.” I struggled to find a theatre that was playing it in Melbourne, but I eventually found an independent theatre that was brave enough to release it. I wont attempt to review the film here, but I will say that it was wonderfully nostalgic. Jerry Lewis delivered a monologue in the film that still remains with me, that sums up almost everything about (the comedy of) Jerry Lewis from his glory years. His character George Fawkes says, “We were funny people. We didn’t have to tell funny stories. We were funny. We had funny bones!” I like to believe that Jerry was talking a little bit about himself (even though he was in character) because that is how I see Mr. Lewis. Not a buffoon, but a gifted, sincerely funny individual, who loved to entertain. I am glad that his maniacal persona will forever live on through his films.
The following list below are my top 5 personal favourites, not necessarily Jerry Lewis best films, but those that have meant something to me as a classic movies enthusiast. I warn you that it was quite difficult narrowing it down to just five. Ask me again sometime in the future and the list might be totally different! Nevertheless, on that note, Happy birthday Mr. Lewis!
Sailor Beware (1952)
Sailor Beware is without a doubt my favourite Martin and Lewis film. It is consistently funny from beginning to end, from the very moment Al (Martin) and Melvin (Lewis) become friends after meeting in a navy recruiting line to when Lewis gets a sympathetic kiss from nightclub goddess Corinne Calvet. This movie captures the genius of Martin and Lewis in many well staged scenes and gags. As an added bonus we get a taste of their madcap real life cabaret act during a nightclub sequence in the film (that is as close as it gets to being in the audience of their cabaret shows) that features Dean’s duet with Jerry called “The Old Calliope”. With so many funny gags from Jerry nearly drowning when he is caught top-side mopping the deck of a submarine, to the boxing match sequence, where Jerry faces off with ‘Killer’ Jackson, I honesty can’t decide which is my favourite. Though, if I had to choose, it would probably be when Dean and Jerry prepare for the fight in the dressing room. Jerry pretending to be a ‘punch-drunk’ boxer is hilarious.
Artists and Models (1955)
I almost wish this film was retitled ‘Vincent the Vulture’ who is the subject of Eugene Fullstack’s (Lewis) nightmares or colourful dreams. The back story of this film sees Eugene (Lewis) screech amazing superhero stories involving ‘Vincent the Vulture’ in his sleep, while Rick (Martin) writes them down and secretly sells them. Before they know it, the stories are a sensation, sold as comic book across the country! Along the way, Martin and Lewis, attract the attention not only of leading ladies, Dorthy Malone and Shirley MacLaine (who almost steals the show as the ‘Bat Lady’), but also the attention of a goofy international espionage ring. On a personal note, there are too many great scenes to mention that make this a truly fine comedy. But look out for the scene where Lewis receives a passionate kiss from Shirley MacLaine and the sequence where Lewis repeatedly runs up and down flights of stairs to take a telephone message for Martin. It’s absolutely comedy gold!
The Geisha Boy (1958)
The Geisha Boy was Jerry Lewis’ 4th film as a solo act, in which, Lewis first felt most comfortable as a solo performer, after the Martin and Lewis break up. It is in my opinion, a simple story based on a successful formula of slapstick and sentiment. In fact, the rather heavy use of sentiment works well inviting the audience to fall in love with the dopey Lewis, as the ‘Great Wooley’, a small time magician, who goes on tour to entertain soldiers in Japan. Jerry Lewis’ screen relationship with Japenese orphan, Mitsuo is adorable. But don’t be surprised when Mitsuo attempts to leave Japan with Wooley, you may become a little teary, when Wooley (Lewis) pretends he no longer loves the orphan boy, while Mitsuo stands there crying on the airport runway. Many of my favourite sequences though, involve Wooley’s amazing rabbit (Harry), who gets into as much mischief as Jerry Lewis.
The Bellboy (1960)
The most incredible thing about The Bellboy is that it was hurriedly put together for release in the summer of 1960. Lewis wrote a 160+ page screenplay in eight days, filmed it in twenty days and edited it amazingly in less than four weeks! Paramount studio originally wanted Jerry Lewis to release his recently finished Cinderfella, as the summer of 1960’s comedy hit, but Lewis argued that it would be better received as a Christmas holiday film. So Lewis came up with a madcap idea about Stanley, a non-speaking, bumbling idiot, bellhop. Set in the expensively stylish Fontainbleu Hotel in Florida’s Miami Beach, the camera follows Stanley around during his day to day duties. Essentially it is a plotless film, one that works well with a compilation of staged gags. (In many ways the film pays homage to Stan Laurel, a hero of jerry Lewis.) The best gags are unexpected, especially the scene where Lewis takes a photograph with his camera at night. As the huge camera’s light globe flashes, the night sky turns into day.
The Ladies Man (1961)
Many of Jerry Lewis’ sexist comments over the past decade are most unwelcome. Whether it is the old school mentality of his generation or simple stupidity, we will never truly know. How ironic that one of his best films stars an all female cast and guess what? They are funny, something that Lewis has been crucified for saying that girls just can’t do comedy as expertly as the fellas. Maybe he has a short memory, I don’t know, but I think he will be the first to admit that, what a wonderful top female supporting cast he had for The Ladies Man. If you know anything about the film, you soon realize that the entire set is a huge cut-away ‘dollhouse’ with dozens of rooms, where the story of a young man, who was rejected by his girlfriend, comes to hide from the world. After he realizes that it is a huge boarding house for women, he plans to escape, only to be stopped by those who sincerely care about him. As Herbert (Lewis) is convinced to stay, a riotous sequence of gags and situations unfold with psychosexual madness. Lewis gives one of the best performances of his career, where almost anything goes! Watch out for the bizarre “Spider Lady” sequence or when Herbert is dusting a portrait on the wall and accidentally smear it and doesn’t quite know what to do.
Photo Credit: The header movie still image of the film The Bellboy (1960) is courtesy of Paramount Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use to highlight an example of Jerry Lewis’ work. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips.