Rock-A-Bye Baby

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about. 

In 2011, for the first time in 45 years, Jerry Lewis didn’t take the stage over Labor Day weekend to host a telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The reasons remain vague. All evidence suggests the 86-year-old comic wanted to host what had been billed as his final appearance, after which he would continue as MDA chairman. The MDA had other plans, though, and it announced Lewis had resigned in early August. Lewis debuted the telethon in 1966, 16 years into his tenure as MDA’s national chairman, though he’d made initial attempts at a similar format in the 1950s. During his 60-year run as chairman, he helped raise a lot of money to fight muscular dystrophy, much of it over the course of those annual telethons, a strange, 21-and-a-half-hour mix of entertainment from an array of guest stars (many of them Lewis’ friends), gut-wrenching appeals on the behalf of children with the condition (Lewis dubbed them Jerry’s Kids), free-associative monologues that often suggested the visibly exhausted Lewis was going through some sort of public meltdown, and clowning. Commenting on the telethon in an AP article, Harry Shearer (who once wrote an extensive article on the 1976 Telethon for Film Comment), called it “psychodrama of a high order” that allowed different sides of Lewis’ personality—including the “inner 9-year-old” and the intellectual “autodidact”—to clash with each other.

In that respect, the telethon spotlighted in its rawest form the drama of being Jerry Lewis, a spectacle that’s been playing, onscreen and off-, for years. Lewis’ most famous film, and one of his best, runs with the notion of Lewis as a man with a split personality. In The Nutty Professor, Lewis plays a bumbling scientist named Julius Kelp who transforms himself into a lady-killing swinger named Buddy Love by ingesting a potion. Some have read Love as Lewis’ dig at his erstwhile partner Dean Martin, while others suggest that the film reflects the split between Lewis’ onscreen persona and the real Jerry Lewis. Both readings seem a little reductive to me, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to them, especially the latter. By 1963, Lewis had long been in the spotlight for his performances as a manic man-child, first as a nightclub act with Martin, then in a series of Martin and Lewis films, then as a star of films directed by others, and then, since 1960’s The Bellboy, in films he directed himself. But the Lewis viewers met onscreen differed from the Lewis who gave earnest interviews, recorded the hit album Jerry Lewis Just Sings, and presided over the short-lived variety program The Jerry Lewis Show. That Lewis could goof around, but he was no goof.

Lewis the straight-faced showbiz entertainer greets viewers in the opening credits of the 1958 film Rock-A-Bye Baby, singing the title song—written, like the film’s other six original songs, by no less than Harry Warren and Sammy Cahn. Stepping into a spotlight in front of a red curtain, Lewis croons as the credits roll, snapping and sashaying his way across a mostly empty movie set and through a couple of sight gags that don’t have much to do with the movie that follows, and have nothing to do with his character, a clumsy naïf in the mold of clumsy naïfs he’d played before. He’s a far cry from the slick fellow we see in the credits, but for some reason, Lewis felt it important that he get a smoother, cooler version of himself into the movie anyway.

It’s an odd way to start the movie, but strangely enough, it works. That’s partly because the film itself is pretty self-aware. Lewis worked with several directors after going solo, but none as frequently as Frank Tashlin, with whom he’d partnered for two of the best Martin and Lewis films: Artists And Models and Hollywood Or Bust. An animator before he turned to live-action work, Tashlin made cartoony films in the best sense of the term. His 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It combines bright colors, brilliant sight gags, and reality-bending satire with the energy of the early rock ’n’ roll it sent up and celebrated. The following year’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is even better, dropping Jayne Mansfield into a send-up of contemporary celebrity, television, and whatever Tashlin and co-writer George Axelrod deemed worthy of tweaking.

An extremely loose remake of the great Preston Sturges film The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, Rock-A-Bye Baby opens in the same satirical spirit, as a wry English agent (Reginald Gardiner) attempts to cheer up a temperamental star (Marilyn Maxwell) by talking up her starring role as the title character of The White Virgin Of The Nile, a controversial bestseller that’s sure to be a hit. (“You haven’t even seen the screenplay… I talked to four of the screenwriters, one of them who had actually read the book, and he told me they’ve only changed the last 200 pages of the original story.”) Gardiner soon learns the source of Maxwell’s despair, however: She’s pregnant after a one-night marriage to a bullfighter who died in the arena the next day. 

That’s an only slightly less-flimsy variation on the story that explained Betty Hutton’s pregnancy in Sturges’ film, and it’s made a little more ridiculous by the fact that Maxwell, who was in her late 30s when she made the film, doesn’t look like she could pass as the white virgin of anywhere. Nonetheless, she has a reputation to protect, so she and Gardiner hit on an elaborate scheme: She’ll disappear long enough to give birth, then put her child (or, as it turns out, three children) in the care of her childhood sweetheart Lewis, who works in their hometown installing TV antennas, with a sideline in falling down and creating chaos.

That’s just part of a scene that goes on for a loonnnggg time. (Firehoses, as it turns out, can cause all kinds of problems.) Like a lot of Lewis’ physical comedy, it’s funny and technically impressive, but not always both at once. Lewis’ later directorial debut, The Bellboy, was little more than a collection of chaos-creating opportunities like this. (That’s not a slam. It’s one of his best films.) Here, Lewis and Tashlin have a more complicated agenda, trying to exploit the star’s gift for comedy and his taste for sentiment. Lewis plays a loser who’s not just loveable, but admirable. He’s true to his friends and has kept a torch burning for Maxwell so bright, it’s blinded him to the charms of her adorable kid sister (Connie Stevens, making her debut), who nurses a powerful crush on him. When charged with caring for Maxwell’s infants, he not only doesn’t hold it against her that she fell for another man while he stayed true, and not only takes to the task easily, he spares a moment of admiration for the dead matador and his one night of bliss. “What a way to go! Heh!”

From there, the film has fun with scenes of Lewis awkwardly, but effectively, playing father to three babies (all of whom age pretty rapidly into toddlerhood over the course of a few months of movie time). It’s a mild comedy by Lewis and Tashlin’s standards, but sweet, too. When Lewis begs to be loved onscreen, he comes off as cloying, as in a self-pitying scene when he talks about how Maxwell could never love him because of his face. When he simply interacts sweetly with the babies, it works, even though he can’t resist throwing in some comic business to juice up the scene. He even makes it possible to think a knockout like Stevens could go for him.

The struggle between authenticity and phoniness seen in Lewis’ character extends to the entire film, which posits everything associated with Midvale as genuine and everything from the bigger world around it as fake, maybe even dangerous. (Never mind that Midvale itself is a back-lot vision of Middle America, filmed in part, if I’m not mistaken, on the same small-town set used in countless movies, including Back To The Future.) The film’s sharpest—and most Tashlin-esque—moment belongs not to Lewis but to Isobel Elsom, who plays his deeply impressionable aged landlord, a woman who sits by the television and consumes whatever the shows’ sponsors tell her to consume. (“No coffee, just flavor. Drink it! Right now.” Cue nervous, obedient fumbling with a coffee cup.) Then there’s Lewis’ pathetic bedroom, decorated with Maxwell’s magazine clippings and publicity shots. He can’t have the real thing, so now he’s buying the dream of a hometown girl as manufactured and mass-produced by Hollywood.

By the time Rock-A-Bye Baby was filmed, Lewis already understood Hollywood was the place you went to make it in show-biz, but also a place where people can get lost. In his excellent 1996 Lewis biography King Of Comedy: The Life And Art Of Jerry Lewis, Shawn Levy includes, almost as a postscript, his real-life meeting with his subject, who alternates from antic to hostile with seemingly little rhyme or reason. After researching Lewis extensively, he found the real Jerry Lewis out of reach. But maybe he didn’t have to look that hard after all. Maybe the Lewis of the telethons was the real Lewis, the one who hectored viewers to give and give some more, the one desperate to entertain and conversant in every proven show-biz trick to keep eyes on the screen and to stir emotion, the one seemingly at war with himself. That war has, for now at least, disappeared behind closed doors as Lewis has once again resumed a private life. But, looking back, it’s easy to see the battles playing out beneath the surface of even his most mirthful movies. 

Next: Foxes (1980)

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