Woody Allen is rightly recognized for his prolific output which veers between comedy and drama; Mel Brooks is of course recognized for his contributions to comedy with such well-crafted parodies as BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN; and in recent years, a new crop of filmmakers have emerged whose work fits into the tradition of quirky, offbeat humor pioneered by people like Hal Ashby.
But perhaps the most unique comic filmmaker to emerge since the post-WWII era, at least in America, is Jerry Lewis.
His rise to stardom can be traced to the late ‘40s, when he began appearing as part of the celebrated team of Martin & Lewis opposite crooner Dean Martin, first in nightclubs and then on film and television. Throughout the 1950s, they became the most popular team of the decade, appearing in a number of comedies together, before the team split and Lewis went solo, starring in his own vehicles for Paramount.
But in 1960, circumstances arose that gave Lewis the chance to demonstrate that in addition to being a brilliant comedian, he was also a brilliant filmmaker.
CINDERFELLA was a comic inversion of the “Cinderella” story with Jerry Lewis as the young man who must contend with an evil stepmother (played to perfection by Judith Anderson) and two stepbrothers who torment him. The film was directed by the highly original and talented Frank Tashlin, with whom Lewis had done much of his best work.
However, the film was scheduled to be released in the summer of 1960, and Lewis wanted to hold it back as a big Christmas release. He offered to direct a quick film that Paramount could release in the summer to fill their release slate, so that CINDERFELLA could be released during the holidays as he’d hoped.
The studio agreed, and Lewis embarked on THE BELLBOY, one of the most unique comedies to be made in Hollywood before or since. In a return to the “auteur” days of comedy, when filmmakers like Chaplin and Keaton had total control of their projects, Lewis would write, direct, and star in the film, which was shot quickly and cheaply at a hotel in Miami where Lewis was appearing at the time.
Filming took place during the day so that he could perform on stage at night. The film is a virtually non-narrative piece about an accident-prone bellboy named Stanley who precipitates one mishap after another. The film brings to mind the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton in its singularity, while Lewis’ character evokes the comedy of Stan Laurel (with whom Lewis consulted on the script, and pays tribute to in the form of a Laurel imitator who shows up in the film). With its single setting, and characters milling about within the large hotel, it also brings to mind the comedy of Jacques Tati, especially since there is little dialogue in the film (Stanley the bellhop doesn’t utter a word until the very end).
While some of the individual gags are of variable effectiveness, the film overall stands as a brash debut, cheerfully violating so many of the “rules” of filmmaking while simultaneously using the medium so creatively to present new kinds of gags (such as the moment where Stanley’s camera, snapping a photo, causes the night to turn to day instantaneously!)
It was also on this film that Lewis would introduce the video assist technology that allowed him to view his own performance while he was acting in a scene, saving time by providing instant playback rather than having to wait for the rushes to be developed.
Lewis’ next film as director, THE LADIES MAN, was even more audacious.
Released in 1961, and photographed in vibrant Technicolor, the film places Lewis as a nebbish whose love of his life has broken his heart. He ends up moving into a boarding house filled with women, who almost drive him over the edge. The entire film is set inside a highly elaborate house set, built to scale with all of the rooms connected together. The film combines Lewis’ trademark clowning (there’s a particularly fun scene with Buddy Lester) with a kind of whimsical and magical quality, such as when he lifts the glass on a butterfly collection, and the butterflies promptly fly off!
Lewis followed up THE LADIES MAN with THE ERRAND BOY, released the same year.
In some ways a throwback to THE BELLBOY, THE ERRAND BOY is another black-and-white film set within a single location – a comic look inside a film studio – which appears to have been shot relatively inexpensively on the Paramount backlot. It lacks the audacity of the gags in THE BELLBOY and the style of THE LADIES MAN, and all in all feels like a lesser effort, though it does contain one of his most inventive sequences, in which Lewis, playing a young production assistant with dreams of making it big in Tinseltown, sits in an empty boardroom at the head of the table, and pantomimes the blustery dictations of a big businessman in time with Count Basie’s recording of “Blues in Hoss’ Flat”.
Whereas THE BELLBOY, THE LADIES MAN and THE ERRAND BOY seem to eschew traditional narrative, Lewis’ next film, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963), was a take-off on the Jekyll and Hyde story about a nerdy (but good-hearted) professor who invents a potion that transforms him into the cool (but vulgar) swinger Buddy Love.
In the end, of course, he learns the value of being himself, but the moralistic ending is subverted when Love’s father finds a way to market his potion to the professor’s students!
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR represents Lewis’ ability to juggle the requirements of a narrative while still finding room for his surreal and offbeat brand of visual comedy (such as the moment when he is lifting weights in a gym, and suddenly loses his grip, with the weights falling to the floor and stretching his arms out all the way to the ground!)
THE PATSY, released the following year, is in many ways one of Lewis’ most interesting films.
It’s a deft satire of Hollywood and the idea of celebrity as a commodity. Lewis is once again Stanley the bellboy, this time drafted to become a replacement for a major star who has just perished in a plane crash, and whom Stanley happens to be a dead ringer for.
Whereas THE ERRAND BOY had been a fairly straightforward send-up of Tinseltown, THE PATSY cuts a little deeper, and takes digs at television and rock and roll as well. In many ways, it is Lewis’ satire of the vapidity of American pop culture. One of the most effective scenes in the picture occurs when tastemaker Hedda Hopper shows up at a party wearing a ridiculous hat, and Stanley is the only one honest enough to laugh at it.
Lewis’ final film as director at Paramount was THE FAMILY JEWELS, a silly farce about a little girl whose father passes away and leaves her a fortune, provided she selects one of her uncles as her new caretaker.
She takes turns living with her variety of crazy uncles (all played by Jerry Lewis) before settling on the family chauffeur (also Lewis) as her new “father”. It’s a sweet and good-natured, albeit typically raucous comedy, and certainly affords Lewis the chance to play a number of colorful characters, but lacks the really distinct gags that had made his earlier efforts so memorable.
Lewis would continue directing films until 1983 (he is still active directing today with a stage adaptation of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR in the works), but the films he made for Paramount in the first half of the 1960s hold up as his strongest, funniest, and most consistently innovative works.
Like all great artists, Jerry Lewis has the ability to invent, innovate, and push himself and his cast and crew to new heights of brilliance; a tireless constructor of comedy, and a pioneer in cinematic technique, he is that most unique of artists who (like his mentor Stan Laurel) has the ability to do all that, and still make it look effortlessly simple and fun.