Where to begin with Jerry Lewis

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the manic, comic genius of Jerry Lewis.

Matthew Thrift

The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy (1982)

Why this might not seem so easy

The stats don’t help: over 70 credits as an actor in almost as many years; 13 as director; eight helmed by the great Frank Tashlin; twice as many with co-star Dean Martin. He’s been The Kid, The Idiot, the serious actor. Depending on who you ask, he’s variously the subject of idolatry or disdain. The French love him – so the cliché goes – the Americans don’t. To borrow from the title of his 1971 filmmaking manifesto, there’s a totality to his career in pictures that frustrates efforts in reduction, of attempts to separate it into its component parts.

The Errand Boy (1961)

The Errand Boy (1961)

As often with great screen comedy, there can appear to be a mass of contradictions in the films of Jerry Lewis: the auteur’s insistence on absolute control vs the performer’s seeming abandonment of it; the precision-tooled architecture of a given shot in service of the lowest-brow punchline. Witnessing Lewis at the height of his powers can induce a sense of wonder at the possibilities of the medium as often as a belly-laugh at the most exquisitely-timed pratfall.

Still, it’s easy to see why as a screen personality Lewis might be considered an acquired taste. His manic, mugging intensity is insistent from his earliest performances, where he played the man-child naif to Dean Martin’s smooth swagger in a partnership that evolved from the pair’s cabaret double-act. The duo appeared in 16 films together before an acrimonious split in 1956, two of their last (and best) directed by Looney Tunes maestro Frank Tashlin.

Lewis would continue his relationship with Tashlin for a further six pictures on his own, alternating more sentimental, Chaplin-esque narrative concerns in the likes of The Geisha Boy (1958) and Cinderfella (1960) with the kind of expansively anarchic balletics drawn from Tashlin’s animation days. Theirs was one of screen comedy’s great hive-minds, and with their final two pictures especially – Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964) – parsing questions of authorship becomes a fool’s errand.

“I think a film I am in, and have not directed, is less of a film even though the public may judge it otherwise,” wrote Lewis in his book, The Total Filmmaker. “When you make a film yourself, write it, produce it, direct it, perhaps star in it; a piece of your heart enters the emulsion. It stays there the rest of your life, good film or bad. So from a purely personal viewpoint, the film I directed and starred in is a hundred times better than the other man’s film starring me, simply because of the care it was given.” As ungenerous to Tashlin as such a comment appears – and neglectful of his evolution through collaboration – there’s little denying the formal and experimental leaps Lewis took after assuming ‘total’ control, immediately evident in his 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy.

The best place to start – The Errand Boy

The Ladies Man (1961)

The Ladies Man (1961)

Given Lewis’s talent for employing the very mechanics of cinema in service of the gag, a great place to start is with his reflexive, postmodern exercise in movie-magic lid-lifting, The Errand Boy (1961). Unashamedly episodic, its basic framework (Lewis’s chump is hired by a money-haemorrhaging film studio to spy on their operation) affords a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hollywood dream machine, set-piece by set-piece. Highlights include: uncomfortable elevator encounters; jelly beans and ladders; Jerry’s attempts to eat a sandwich thwarted by the frame itself and a Count Basie dumb-show routine that’s sheer bliss.

For even more formally rigorous pleasures, Lewis’s skewering of masculine anxiety The Ladies Man (1961) features the kind of jaw-dropping master shots – on a vast doll’s house of a set – that would make Orson Welles blush.

If you prefer your narratives more traditionally organised, there’s good reason The Nutty Professor (1963) occupies a central position in the Lewis canon, even as its straightforward arc operates as a Trojan horse for more subversive psychological concerns. Questions of duality rear their head throughout Lewis’s filmography, but they rarely come as foregrounded as in this riff on Jekyll and Hyde – or arrive loaded with venom quite like the eponymous Dr Kelp’s boorish alter-ego, Buddy Love.

What to watch next

You really can’t go far wrong with the Lewis-Tashlin collaborations. The first two, Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956), are a good way to get a taste of the Jerry & Dean relationship at its most simpatico. Elsewhere, the Lewis directorial canon can essentially be split down the middle, his first six features those for which he’ll always be most fondly remembered. Which isn’t to ignore his dramatic roles, not least a career redefining turn in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), a film which makes for a fascinating double-bill with Lewis’s own 1964 picture The Patsy. The latter is a brilliantly acerbic self-examination and satirical unravelling of the vain accoutrements of celebrity, its pill sweetened by an idiocy that touches the sublime.

It goes against the remit here to simply say you really ought to watch the lot, but even the lesser pictures contain sequences or bits of business to warm the coldest cockles. No student of screen comedy should be without: the rabbit or Sessue Hayakawa’s garden bridge in The Geisha Boy; Jerry doing the dishes and the ballroom dance in Cinderfella; the typewriter and vacuum-cleaner gags in Who’s Minding the Store?; channel-surfing in Rock-a-Bye-Baby; the vases in The Patsy; setting up the ballroom in The Bellboy; the airline business in The Family Jewels

Artists and Models (1955)

Artists and Models (1955)

Where not to start

If there’s one place you can’t start, it’s with Lewis’s missing-in-action Holocaust film, The Day the Clown Cried (1972). It’s currently under lock and key at the Library of Congress in Washington, with an agreement in place that the film won’t be screened for another 10 years, as Lewis deems his treatment of this sensitive subject a colossal failure.

Having not released a film as director in 10 years, Lewis returned in 1980 with comeback vehicle, Hardly Working. “One of the great non-experiences of my moviegoing life,” wrote an evidently angered Roger Ebert. “I was absolutely stunned by the vast stupidity of this film. It was a test of patience and tolerance that a saint might not have passed – but I didn’t walk out. I remained for every last dismal wretched awful moment.”

Hardly Working (1980)

Hardly Working (1980)

Judging by the rest of his piece, Ebert isn’t much of a Lewis fan. A film about transience and the encroachment of age, Hardly Working feels like Lewis’s equivalent to Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), his melancholy final farewell. But he was back three years later with Cracking Up (1983), a film which piles on the manic angst (it opens with Lewis trying to top himself) to delirious effect – a middle finger if ever there was one, raised to Hardly Working’s notion that the world may be done with clowns.

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