Where to start with Jerry Lewis’ considerable, oft-misunderstood filmography

Where to start with Jerry Lewis’ considerable, oft-misunderstood filmography

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Jerry Lewis

Why it’s daunting: Born into a show-business family, Jerry Lewis learned at an early age how to be a ham onstage and off, developing an act that allowed him to clown around shamelessly: leaping about, doing impressions, pulling faces, and generally behaving like a precocious, hyperactive 12-year-old. When Lewis started working with aloof Italian crooner Dean Martin in nightclubs in the mid-’40s, they were two personalities who had no business sharing a stage, and they played off each other unpredictably, creating moments of real anarchic surprise during a time when the entertainment industry was more staid and slick. The two then transferred their talents to film and TV, but had a falling-out when Martin began to feel that his contributions to the partnership were being undervalued, due to Lewis’ talent for self-promotion. Lewis didn’t miss a beat after the 1956 split, and for the next 15 years continued to star in broad movie comedies at roughly a two-a-year clip, often serving as writer, director, and producer as well.

The sheer heft of Lewis’ filmography makes him a difficult artist to jump into, especially given that he made more than a few clunkers while he was at his most prolific. Also, comedy in general doesn’t always age well—and that’s not just a reference to Lewis’ occasional lapses into racist caricatures. Some modern viewers find Lewis’ mugging to be excessive, and find the manic, relentlessly silly quality of most of his movies hard to take for 90 minutes or more. But while the running joke that the French love Jerry Lewis is meant to be evidence of France’s dubious taste and strange pretensions, those French cineastes aren’t necessarily wrong. There’s real genius in many of Lewis’ films, even if it only appears in the form of one or two clever setpieces or a fleeting background gag. Lewis worked so fast and so often during his productive years that he never really took the time to fashion a flawless masterpiece, but he had masterful moments, and some of his movies are more generous with them than others.

Possible gateway: Artists And Models (1955)

Why: Former Warner Bros. animation director Frank Tashlin moved over to live-action by the end of the ’40s, finding ways to bring the anything-goes mentality of Looney Tunes to movies with actors. Tashlin was particularly simpatico with Lewis, working with him on several movies notable for their clockwork gags and free-ranging zaniness. The colorful musical Artists And Models was Lewis and Tashlin’s first film together, and is also the peak of their collaboration, with Lewis playing a comics-addled, self-proclaimed “retard,” obsessed with the extra-gory Bat Lady series, while Dean Martin plays Lewis’ roommate, a starving artist who pays their rent by drawing Lewis’ nightmares. Lewis also gets a love interest with comic chops to match his own in Shirley MacLaine, who co-stars as an upstairs neighbor who wears a Bat Lady costume to model for her prim cartoonist roommate Dorothy Malone. Tashlin and screenwriters Herbert Baker and Hal Kanter mock the life of starving New York artists, the national hysteria over violent comics, and even find room for a few digs at the Cold War, as Lewis is found to be mumbling state secrets in his sleep.

But what makes Artists And Models a classic is that it all but abandons any pretense that the Martin and Lewis movies should be anything other than joke-generating machines—and the wilder the better. There’s scarcely a minute of Artists And Models that doesn’t contain something wonderfully strange, whether it’s Lewis pretending to play the piano on an empty drafting board, Martin dueting with himself in the bathroom mirror, MacLaine’s kisses making a water-cooler boil over, or a spy speaking with a Jimmy Stewart voice as he says, “I can’t see so well from this rear window.” Though Tashlin made just as good a use of Martin as he did of Lewis, the latter saw more of a future in Tashlin’s madcappery, and quickly began to marginalize Martin. Once he went solo, Lewis’ films tended to follow the model of Artists And Models, and Lewis eventually developed his own style once he moved to the director’s chair in the early ’60s. But he never made another movie as consistently funny and entertaining as Artists And Models.

Next steps: After becoming a top draw on the nightclub circuit, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, which decided to “introduce” the duo in its 1949 big-screen adaptation of the popular radio sitcom My Friend Irma. The film stars Diana Lynn as an ambitious career gal whose life is complicated by her ditzy roommate Marie Wilson and by Wilson’s slickster fiancé John Lund. Martin plays a singer Lund takes on as a client, and who turns Lynn’s head from her plan to marry her rich boss. Early on, Paramount considered casting Lewis in Lund’s role, but decided it’d be better to let Lewis be Lewis, and wrote him into the movie as Martin’s weird, immature pal. Unlike later Lewis roles, his turn in My Friend Irma has him playing more of a cranky New York livewire than a naïf, and while Martin and Lewis are only in about a quarter of the film, they bring a lot of life to what’s otherwise just a light, likable domestic comedy. The duo are featured far more prominently in the 1950 sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West, in which Lund’s efforts to get Martin into the movie business lead to the whole gang getting waylaid in Las Vegas. Martin and Lewis get to do more of their act in the second My Friend Irma, including one classic sequence where Martin attempts to sing a song on TV while Lewis serves as the orchestra conductor and creates chaos. Throughout, Lewis does impressions—his Bette Davis is impeccable—takes pratfalls, and is generally more “up” than in the first film, giving screen audiences the first real taste of the Jerry Lewis to come.

Following the Irmas, Martin and Lewis became top-billed stars in a trio of military comedies: 1950’s At War With The Army, and 1952’s Sailor Beware and Jumping Jacks. The first of these three is the best, if only because it’s based on a James Allardice play that provides a solid narrative framework for what became the team’s standard schtick in these “humor in uniform” films: Reluctant serviceman Martin croons a little, woos ladies, and strives to take it easy, while the alternately cowardly and incompetent Lewis stumbles into trouble. But all three of these films are lesser Martin and Lewis, with only flashes of what the duo did best. (Jumping Jacks contains one of those scenes: a big musical number in which Lewis plays parachute strings like a harp and dances with a mop.) Later, when Lewis went solo, he returned to the military theme for 1957’s The Sad Sack and 1959’s Don’t Give Up The Ship. The former’s fairly slight—just a retread of Lewis’ past “klutzy enlistee” routine, only without Martin around to pick up the considerable slack. But Don’t Give Up The Ship is solidly entertaining, with Lewis as a newlywed sailor trying to explain to his bosses (in flashback) how he lost a destroyer. As with At War With The Army, Don’t Give Up The Ship has more of a conventionally enjoyable movie-comedy structure, and is fascinating as an example of Lewis trying to tone down his wackiness and play a slightly more mature character as he entered middle age.

The Martin and Lewis team started to find its groove on film with the help of a couple of directors: Norman Taurog and Frank Tashlin. Taurog (who also directed Jumping Jacks and Don’t Give Up The Ship) guided Martin and Lewis through some of their best early films. In 1952’s The Stooge—which Lewis has sometimes called his favorite of the pair’s movies—Martin plays a floundering nightclub performer whose act takes off when he hires Lewis to bumble onto the stage to be his comic relief. Besides foreshadowing the decline of the duo’s own relationship—by rooting its plot in a dispute over credit—The Stooge features the longest stretches of the actual Martin and Lewis stage act, showing why the sheer “anything can happen” quality of their comedy was so popular. The team also comes off well in 1953’s The Caddy, a golf comedy co-written by Danny Arnold (who also worked on Martin and Lewis’ TV show, and went on to be one of the main creative forces behind Bewitched, That Girl, and Barney Miller). The Caddy is one of the most conventionally slapstick-heavy of the Martin and Lewis comedies, but it’s smoothly constructed, making good use of one of Lewis’ best screen personas: the gifted fool.

The duo is strong, too, in the Taurog-directed Living It Up, a remake of the classic ’30s screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, with Lewis playing his typical braying doofus while Martin is whimsically lackadaisical as a quack who misdiagnoses Lewis with radiation poisoning. The characters’ subsequent trip to New York—on the expense account of a newspaper looking for a sob story—doesn’t play out with the acid misanthropy of Nothing Sacred, but it’s bright and energetic, with lots of stunning mid-’50s décor. It’s also an example of how, by the end of their partnership, Martin and Lewis had become segregated in their movies, playing fewer and fewer scenes together. That dynamic is evident in Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood Or Bust, their final film. Hollywood Or Bust is a fairly conventional road picture, with Martin playing a small-time hood who tries to swindle dim movie-lover Lewis out of a new car. As with the other Martin and Lewis movies, there’s no real narrative tension, though Tashlin occasionally pushes certain American archetypes—like a giggling used-car salesman known as “Stupid Sam”—until their inherent ridiculousness is exposed in a frenzy of absurdist visual gags and pop satire.

Lewis had such a strong creative affinity with Tashlin that they continued to work together after Lewis split with Martin, producing a series of films that aren’t always Lewis’ best, but which do consistently come through with an inspired joke or scene. In 1958’s extremely spotty The Geisha Boy, for example, Lewis plays a magician, and he and Tashlin get a lot of mileage out the hero’s rabbit, which Lewis treats like an obstinate best friend (or like a fuzzy Dean Martin). And in 1963’s Who’s Minding The Store? Lewis and Tashlin minimize the plot and just proceed through a series of slapstick scenarios, such as Lewis tapping away at an imaginary typewriter (one of his classic routines) and trying to squeeze shoes onto a stubborn lady wrestler. The two best (non-Martin) Tashlin/Lewis films are 1960’s Cinderfella and 1964’s The Disorderly Orderly, both of which have the advantage of feeling like actual movies—laced with real sentiment—and not just a vehicle for gags. The former inverts the classic Cinderella story, casting Lewis as a put-upon stepson who earns the affection of a beautiful princess; the latter has Lewis as a hypochondriacal med student who does grunt-work at a sanitarium to help pay the bills for a suicidal childhood sweetheart. Even with the more straightforward stories, Cinderfella and The Disorderly Orderly find plenty of room for Tashlinesque craziness, as in the latter’s montage of wind chimes, which ends with a shot of a clanky skeleton hanging outside an anatomy class.

Beyond the Tashlin- or Lewis-directed solo Jerry Lewis movies, pickings are slim, but there are a few that are worth a look. Lewis’ first post-Martin movie, 1957’s The Delicate Delinquent, is a fun spoof of mid-’50s “teen hoodlum” movies, with Lewis expanding his shtick by playing a high-school misfit who gets recruited by the cops. And 1960’s Visit To A Small Planet (directed by Taurog) adapts a fairly sharp Gore Vidal play about a nutty alien named “Kreton” who terrorizes a TV commentator trying to become known for the catchphrase, “Space men… there ain’t no such animal.” Lewis just does his usual Lewis thing in Visit To A Small Planet, but Vidal’s dialogue is snappy, and the story does have a point to make about humanity’s petty delusions.

Still, for those who want to know why Lewis is beloved by film buffs—and not just by the older comedians who grew up watching him—the place to start is with the movies he wrote and directed himself, frequently in collaboration with writer Bill Richmond. The true auteur projects that Lewis made in the early ’60s reveal what he learned from Tashlin’s everything’s-in-bounds ethos, as well as what he picked up by watching the great film comedians who were also visual stylists, such as Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati. From 1965 on, the Lewis-directed movies get much shakier, but 1960’s The Bellboy, 1961’s The Ladies Man, and 1963’s The Nutty Professor are all among the top comedies of their era, full of skilled pantomime, fluid camerawork, and remarkably sophisticated humor at times. Whether its Lewis making the “monster” in The Nutty Professor’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story into a parody of his unctuous showbiz pals, or Lewis navigating an elaborate boarding-house set (a set that Michael Powell or Max Ophüls would envy) in The Ladies Man, it’s clear he poured the best of himself into these films.

The quality of Lewis’ work declined considerably in the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, at a time when pop culture itself was leaving Lewis’ generation behind. He took a long hiatus from movies after shooting and then scrapping the notorious 1972 Nazi concentration-camp comedy The Day The Clown Cried, and then came back with the shoddy (but successful) 1981 comedy Hardly Working. The last film Lewis directed was a reunion with Richmond, 1983’s Cracking Up (a.k.a. Smorgasbord), and as a clearinghouse of left-over Lewis slapstick routines, Cracking Up makes for a fine farewell to “classic Jerry.” (Lewis went on to make some wacky comedies in Europe for other directors, but those aren’t readily available in the U.S., and don’t have particularly good reputations.)

Lastly, while neither of these films are “Jerry Lewis movies” per se, his work in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film, The King Of Comedy (in which Lewis plays a talk-show host who gets kidnapped by a creepy fan, played by Robert De Niro), and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy, Funny Bones (in which he plays a legendary comedian who overshadows his comedian son, played by Oliver Platt), show that Lewis could’ve had a strong career as a more serious actor, if he’d had more opportunity or interest when he was younger.

Where not to start: Post-1965, Lewis’ movies generally become less imaginative and more strained, even when he tries to play “straighter” characters. Typical of the more dire late-’60s Lewis pictures, 1966’s Way…Way Out stars Lewis and Connie Stevens as astronauts who agree to a paper marriage so that they can take up residence on the moon and beat the Soviets, who are also planning to pair up a man and a woman in outer space. The result is a combination of bland political satire and timid ’60s sex-comedy, sprinkled with routine slapstick.