Growing up with the Saturday and Sunday matinee double feature on television from midday introduced me to Jerry Lewis (1926-2017 heart disease).
He was a clown who had it as opposed to the clown from the movie It. And if you mention the name of Jerry Lewis to the younger generation most won’t know who he is. But for well over a decade back in the 1950s and 60s he produced a couple of masterpieces and his share of duds. But as someone said to me, there is no Jerry Lewis film without some merit.
The most repeated movies on those matinees were Pardners (1956) which Lewis made with his usual co-star Dean Martin (1917-95 lung cancer and emphysema). It was their second last movie together – they made over a dozen… Also repeated was Living it Up with the pair again that had Lewis as a supposed victim of radiation poisoning who lives the high life in New York. It was the first film I knew which dealt with suicide, although not really when Jerry is found to be not dying at all and is practically forced to jump off a bridge.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis started out on radio together in 1949 in an act which would last ten years. They signed with Paramount and were the comic relief in the film My Friend Irma (1949). After starring in their own movie At War with the Army (1950), they became the hottest comedy act in America in the early 1950s, with Lewis’s clowning and Dean Martin singing a song every now and then.
Martin eventually grew tired of his role and as most critics said Lewis was the real talent behind the team they split after the film Hollywood or Bust (1956).
Martin said of Lewis that once they compared him to silent movie clown Charlie Chaplin, there was no talking to him as the praise went totally to his head.
At the time, the praise seemed warranted.
In terms of Lewis’s solo career, which kicked off with The Delicate Delinquent (1957), it was also the first film he screenwrote.
Another film which often played the matinees when I was a kid was Lewis’s first solo colour outing Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958). Directed and written by animator Frank Tashlin (1913-72 heart attack) whose comic book background suited Lewis’s cartoonish style, Tashlin had already directed him and Martin in Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust. He would also go on to direct Lewis in The Geisha Boy (1958), Cinderfella (1960), It’s Only Money (1962) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964) – the peak of both the careers of Tashlin and Lewis.
But Lewis as director of himself brought us the best and worst of his work, starting off with The Bellboy (1960). The best film I believe Lewis directed was The Ladies Man (1961). It is his masterpiece along with The Nutty Professor (1963). But to just call these movies his masterpieces is nit-picking because most of the early movies he directed are semi-classics, including The Errand Boy (1961) released the same year as The Ladies Man.
Lewis was just at the right age when he made The Ladies Man – not quite middle aged – as he could pass for late 20s at 35 years of age. Many comedians say it is hard for an older comedian to mug and to watch Lewis in his later movies Hardly Working (1979) and Smorgasbord aka Cracking Up (1982) can be excruciating at times.
The genius of Jerry Lewis peaked in the mid-1960s with the slight overreach of The Family Jewels (1965). Here we have the serious clown introduced to us at the end of the movie in the form of one of the uncles a child heiress played by Donna Butterworth must choose to live with. The clown is supposedly a child-hating cynic.
It is Lewis, but it is Butterworth’s loving chauffer in disguise, not the cynic uncle at all. It should be noted that the serious side of The King of Comedy as Lewis was known, was shown in the Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy (1981) where Lewis does almost no clowning at all. It is a masterpiece with Robert de Niro’s cringe-worthy “Jerry” fan Rupert Pupkin, who hatches a plan to kidnap the comedian.
Lewis is serious as a heart attack in this film and behind the scenes and clown make-up, hinted at in The Family Jewels, Lewis really was just as serious in person.
The clown cried in an interview in the years before his death when he broke down at the thought of leaving his wife and daughter from his last marriage “alone”.
And while we are on this subject, I should also mention The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis’s unfinished and unreleased project from 1973. In it, he plays a clown named Helmut Doork who leads children to the gas chambers in the concentration camps of World War Two. Filmed in Sweden, long after Lewis’s star had fallen, it was beset by financial problems and Lewis refused to finish and release the film because he said he got the tone of the film totally wrong.
What was to be the Life is Beautiful (1997) or Jakob the Liar (1999) of its day, it is slated for release in 2024 as Lewis left an incomplete copy to the Library of Congress to be screened around that date. What it will reveal is anybody’s guess but a family movie about the death camps? A comedy? Or will it be more dramatic? Lewis would get angry during interviews when asked about this movie. The clown make-up used in this film and The Family Jewels was also used in 3 Ring Circus (1954) and Hardly Working.
After The Family Jewels, Lewis did more mature roles, directing the “sophisticated” comedy Three on a Couch (1965). The film, which made the 50 Worst Movies Ever Made book in the 1970s does not have a Lewis script.
The best Lewis scripts of his later career were done in collaboration with Bill Richmond (1921-2016) who helped write the classic The Ladies Man. It is legend that Mel Brooks also worked on the script but clashed with Lewis and left the production.
The Ladies Man, from its opening with Lewis as his own mother, make-up streaming down her face as she cries for “my child”, to its incredible four-storey high set which rivals Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), there is also the foil of Kathleen Freeman (1919-2001 lung cancer) to Lewis’s Herbert Herbert who is a misogynist who works as a janitor in a sorority house full of beautiful single women…
Amid the general lunacy, the film also takes time to talk about depression when one of the girls tells Lewis: “I get so depressed sometimes… I don’t know if I can explain it… I always feel there isn’t anyone in the world but me… Doesn’t it sound silly?” It’s amazing for such a scene to appear in such a wild comedy. Perhaps Lewis tried something similar for The Day the Clown Cried? The Ladies Man continues with Lewis ballroom dancing with tough guy actor George Raft…
Whereas Three on a Couch was seen as a worst film and the first real sign of Lewis’s decline, The Ladies Man is selected in the book 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die.
The pathos in the years following The Ladies Man was only in passing and when Lewis says he would give his millions away to orphans to buy parents in It’s Only Money, it is unconvincing. That gift would have to wait…
Following Three on a Couch came his last film for Paramount, the French bedroom farce Boeing Boeing (1965) also starring Tony Curtis. It was then the reviews for Lewis’s films got worse and worse. Not that all of them are bad, its just they lack the zing and zaniness of his earlier films. There was Lewis in outer space in Way, Way Out… (1966) which he didn’t direct. He did direct The Big Mouth (1967) another comedy written with Bill Richmond, but it was no Nutty Professor. Producing Hook, Line and Sinker (1969), it had a cheap television look to it as it was shot on the soundstage of Bewitched (1964-72).
But back to The Ladies Man and Lewis destroys the live television appearance by the sorority house’s benefactress Helen N Wellenmellon and performs one of the funniest dancing tributes to her that I’ve ever seen.
“If you hate wine, don’t go to Paris. Asleep by nine, don’t go to Paris…” is a song which follows and is probably a tribute to the French who championed Lewis. Intellectuals of the influential movie magazines of the time hailed Lewis a “genius auteur” both in front and behind the camera. American critics, however, just found him self indulgent and absurd. They also didn’t like his ego, which was blamed for the Martin and Lewis split. The French were bewildered the Americans couldn’t see Lewis the genius.
The start of Lewis directing and writing his own movies came after the shooting of Visit to a Small Planet (1960) in mid-1959, which was based on a play by Gore Vidal. Vidal hated Lewis being cast as the alien who comes to Earth named Kreton. This low-brow comedy with pretensions by a high brow intellectual like Vidal must have appealed to Lewis and may have been a melding or the opposite experience for him. The role encapsulates the alien or genius of Lewis in an intellectual world which could take him or leave him because of his apparent low brow behaviour/performances (borne of high intelligence) from another cartoonish world.
Directed by Norman Taurog (1899-1981), who had been around since the 1930s and directed many Lewis films in the 50s, Visit to a Small Planet may have been a defining moment where Lewis the intellectual genius and Lewis the low-brow actor/character became one as he took total artistic control of his films and used Paramount as their distributor starting with his next film, the quickly shot The Bellboy. He would be totally free of the shackles of directors like Taurog for a period – Frank Tashlin was always a better director for Lewis and they would work together during this successful period. It led to Lewis having a career peak over the next five years. But then that could just be ME being pretentious in suggesting the connection. The genie was otherwise let out of the bottle! Then came further comparisons to great comedians such as Jacques Tati and many others. If all the international praise did go to his head, the American critics stopped it from exploding.
Lewis was the first to use video assist in the industry when he attached a video camera to the side of cameras in The Bellboy and Ladies Man. Video assist is something the industry grew to rely on. So Lewis was a pioneer there too.
While Lewis acknowledged the French’s admiration for him, he always said he was more popular in Japan and Australia. He made many trips to Australia in his lifetime, almost dying of viral meningitis on one trip to Darwin.
Perhaps the last really good Lewis movie is the much-hated Which Way to the Front? (1970). It features Lewis as a rich boob, who is rejected from serving during World War Two due to not reaching proper mental standards. He wants to do his bit and with several others in the same boat takes them to Italy during the height of the war and impersonates a Nazi general Eric Kesselring.
Leonard Maltin gives it a BOMB rating which is part of the reason why this film is universally despised. Yet it was this “stinker” which led to taking the WW2 experience a step further with The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis had obviously not learned his lesson… If the muse had departed Lewis around the time of The Family Jewels (1965), it is totally obvious by Which Way to the Front?, except perhaps to die hard fans like myself.
The pathos of The Ladies Man, also used in The Family Jewels, where Lewis plays seven different roles is the gift to orphans he half-heartedly promised in It’s Only Money. The clown, whose love and respect for a little girl is beautiful in The Family Jewels, is ageing by the time of this movie, and while it tries hard to be one of the masterpieces of yore – it misses the mark slightly. Or it’s his last masterpiece! It all depends on your taste for the comedian.
The Errand Boy (1961) released after The Ladies Man is another film ahead of its time as it is set behind the scenes on the studio lot and again is a minor classic.
It was the previous year though, while filming Cinderfella (1960) that Lewis had his first heart attack and by The Patsy (1964), he had taken to smoking onscreen and was starting to look middle-aged. No wonder he took to make-up for the sillier scenes in The Family Jewels.
In Which Way to the Front?, Lewis doesn’t hog the screen and while the jokes don’t come as thick and fast as they used to, it must hold some sort of record that the opening credits begin some twenty minutes into the film.
“I am simple Japanese gardener,” says George Takei before whipping out his machete, while a supposedly innocent Robert Middleton says: “I’ll get my rod,” after being offered $25,000 to misbehave.
The band of misfits includes the first African American to go deep into enemy territory before Carl Weathers did in Force 10 from Navarone (1978). The whole thing plays like a television movie, just like Hook, Line and Sinker before it, but it’s not surprising since the writers were also responsible for the television series Get Smart (1965-70). There is also liberal use of freeze frame for no apparent reason. It’s also the last film for Batman’s Commissioner Gordon Neil Hamilton (1899-1984 asthma attack) and one of The Three Stooges Joe Besser (1907-88 heart failure).
Despite a lot of gags falling flat, there are many funny moments such as when Lewis as Kesselring hands out medals to the German “heroes”. He deftly sends up the German army – a happy feat for the man born a Jew named Joseph Levitch. Which way to the Front? is all in your point of view and Lewis as Kesselring is either a tour de force or a total dud.
“Besides this is not a nice person… I never liked him,” says Lewis about assassination plans for Hitler before declaring everything at the security gate from dental floss to a bomb… Then there’s the dance between Hitler and Kesselring upon meeting again.
The film is like the play within Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967) brought to life, but its critical fate met total misfortune as Brooks kept Hitler’s caricature at further arm’s length. Why Lewis didn’t succeed with this one is a mystery to me.
“Did you know that last year more people died from cigarette smoking than from bombings?,” says Hitler.
“What will you do about that Fuhrer?”
“Increase the bombings!”
Whether the assassination attempt on Hitler is successful and rewrote history like Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards (2009) remains a mystery. Good try fellas!
Next would be the The Day the Clown Cried, which in terms of war movies would be a bridge too far, something which set back his career a number of years.
But I’ve jerked you around too much with this article. It all turns pear shaped with The Family Jewels. I can only announce to you once again Jerry Lewis was a genius, especially in his youth and until his mid-30s.
It was then age and ego saw him overreach himself in a time when cinema tastes were changing. This saw him try to briefly shift to mature comedy roles. It simply wasn’t the same anymore with the possible exception of Which Way to the Front? – the magic was lost. I must admit a liking for one of the movies he made in France in the 1980s entitled The Defective Detective, it gets points for trying so hard and even Cracking Up has some laughs.
Just being a kid and listening to Martin and Lewis sing: “You and me will be the greatest pardners buddies and pals” is pure magic. And as Martin says to Lewis at the end of Living it Up after his “suicide”: “You were just a flash in the pan in old Manhattan. In a week they will have forgotten your name.”
I shared with my teenage niece and nephew The Nutty Professor and they watched it – all of it. They didn’t know who Jerry Lewis was, and now having forgotten that film, they still don’t. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye.
It must be noted that Lewis spent his latter years raising tens of millions of dollars for muscular dystrophy through his yearly telethons and even if there was ego, there’s no doubt he was a true humanitarian, who with The Family Jewels left a gift for the child in us all… imperfect that it and he is. It being a clown named Jerry Lewis and not the now popular Stephen King variety who cries under the grandstand in Part Two to capture a little girl named Vicki.