To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it’s necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis’ work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there’s the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis’ selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.
Isolating for commentary Lewis’ work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis’ multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis’ directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can’t exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis’ many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis’ directorial work?
So limits must be set, and this short appreciation of Lewis’ work will restrict itself to the twelve released feature films on which he is credited as director. To this body of work the addition of several television episodes and one short film officially directed by Lewis is unproblematic, but any further attempt to extend his directorial oeuvre involves ramifications that lie beyond the proper scope of an entry in a critical database.
Twelve films: all autobiographies, all reflections on their own existence and their own production. I’ll enter this hall of mirrors with one of the self-images Lewis rejects: Everett, the clown in The Family Jewels (1965). Everett comes from outside the magical world of this film, this world imagined by a child: he brings with him a grim and depressing reality dominated by money. From Everett’s adult perspective, the delight felt by children at a circus is merely the noise of “squealing brats”. Everett’s perspective suddenly inverts the film, denying illusion and wonder, suggesting a bottomless despair and horror. Perhaps it expresses Lewis’ hatred of this character that he denies Everett the opportunity to display his performance skill to the film audience (Lewis would film his own performance in circus-clown makeup in Hardly Working ). We see Everett only backstage, in the act of removing his makeup and becoming the naked man, at a moment when he doesn’t know he’s being viewed by an audience (one of the “squealing brats”, who is dejected by the revelation of the clown’s misanthropy). This scene is the converse of the one near the end of The Nutty Professor (1963) in which Professor Kelp’s Buddy Love mask melts away: there, the audience’s presence is known to the performer and inescapable, forcing him to a confession, and the slipping of the mask inspires love rather than disappointment.
The Family Jewels isn’t just a magical film, it’s also a moral film, and the morality is stated most clearly by the little heiress Donna (Donna Butterworth), speaking of the man she loves, Willard (Lewis): “It’s not right that he should be my chauffeur or my bodyguard or something like that. He should be my father.” The right of the child to have the father she wants and needs is fundamental to Lewis’ view of the world, but it’s equally significant that in order to become this father, Willard must assume the disguise of Everett. In this, Willard makes the same choice – of passing through his own opposite – that the timid Kelp makes in The Nutty Professor in becoming the aggressive Buddy Love and that the neurotic American millionaire Byers makes in Which Way to the Front? (1970) in becoming the Nazi general Kesselring. For all three of them, it’s a question of assuming a masculine role that they fear to assume, or in which their performance in their own guise has been questioned (as Byers’ fitness to serve in the Army is questioned when he is declared 4F).
Assuming the masculine role is the explicit theme of The Ladies Man (1961), in which it receives an ambivalent treatment: Herbert (Lewis), unmanned by his beloved’s betrayal, seeks to avoid women, but ends up working in a house of women (a boarding house for aspiring actresses) – a situation that leads to neither of the most obvious possible resolutions of his conflict (forming a couple with one of the women, or becoming a Don Juan) but merely makes possible a symbiosis between Herbert’s longing to be needed and the women’s willingness to let him do errands for them. Meanwhile, The Ladies Man accumulates situations of what Scott Bukatman, in a valuable essay on Lewis, has described using the psychoanalytic term “masculine protest” (1): Herbert’s anger as he submits to being spoonfed in a high chair; Herbert reducing tough guy Buddy Lester to anxiety, tears and abjection by “accidentally” sitting on his hat. Such situations mark a telling displacement from the film’s initial scenario.
The classic scene with Buddy Lester’s hat exemplifies some of the most distinctive and attractive features of Lewis’ directorial style. As always, Lewis refuses to be hamstrung by a concern with surface psychological consistency for its own sake: Buddy Lester’s character is at first portrayed somewhat realistically, though comically, as an overly self-assured tough, but through his obsession with his hat he rapidly unravels and proves weak. This quick reversal is an example of Lewis’ constant search for the points of vulnerability of the characters in his films. The scene further shows Lewis’ willingness to let a scene’s formal properties determine its unfolding, and it demonstrates his use of duration and repetition as sources of humour. As Herbert tries vainly to repair the crushed hat, Lewis cuts back and forth between Herbert’s solicitude and his victim’s pained reactions. Extended cross-cutting is a recurrent figure in Lewis’ films, one of the regular strategies by which he frees gesture and affect from the realistic time of the narrative and makes them live for themselves.
The hat scene is one of many in Lewis’ work in which strong male figures are undermined, criticised, or humiliated – a classic motif in American film comedy, which Lewis gives a modern dimension. In The Bellboy (1960), the paternal boss (Alex Gerry), through his excessive volubility, deprives Stanley (Lewis) of speech; the climax of the film, withheld until the very end, comes when Stanley demonstrates his linguistic ability, whereupon it finally occurs to the boss to ask, “How come we never heard you talk?” In The Errand Boy (1962), the blustering studio chief (Brian Donlevy) finally gets told off by his most abject underling, Mr. Sneak (Howard McNear), who functions as a surrogate for the Lewis figure. In The Nutty Professor, Kelp’s subservience to his boss, Dr. Warfield (Del Moore), is avenged by Love’s ability to manipulate and humiliate Warfield (and there’s a fleeting moment in which this revenge is directed against the victim’s hat, as in The Ladies Man). In The Patsy (1964), the father’s role is split among multiple characters, the team of show-business professionals who try to turn bellboy Stanley Belt (Lewis) into a star. The climactic reversal of the film consists of Stanley’s assertion of dominance over his former handlers. At the end of Cracking Up (also known as Smorgasbord, 1983), the suicidal self-confessed “misfit” (Lewis) magically assumes the confidence and poise of his psychiatrist (Herb Edelman), while the latter finds himself embroiled in an elaborate car accident.
Lewis’ casualness with plot, perhaps most striking in The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy (which both start from strong premises only to move somewhere else) but present in all his films, thus conceals a profound necessity. The characters played by Lewis are in a state of flight, which is always implicitly a flight from something, even when it’s posed as a flight toward something. (In The Big Mouth , it’s both: Clamson [Lewis] is in flight from the crooks and in search of the treasure; similarly, in Which Way to the Front?, Byers, fleeing from the dread word “rejection”, embarks on a mission that takes him into the stronghold of the Nazi high command.) The outward conditions of the plot of each of Lewis’ films are only mechanisms to let the character assume various disguises and to confront him again with the objects that precipitated his flight. It’s characteristic of Lewis that the hero rarely overcomes these objects directly, but that his triumph consists instead in a trying-out, in the mode of play and fantasy, of various possible attitudes toward them: The Big Mouth (a variation on The Bellboy, in that the Lewis character is now no longer mute from the beginning but progressively gives up the effort to speak) is the most extreme example of this phenomenon.
Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis’ own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there. Three on a Couch (1966) extends this metaphor: here, Chris (Lewis), whose profession of artist makes him an ideal personification of the director function, liberates three beauties (his psychiatrist-fiancée’s three patients, whom he, adopting three different disguises, makes fall in love with him) but finds himself endangered by their freedom, so he must, so to speak, restore them to their cases.
Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage’s bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart’s traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.
This fantasy reveals Lewis’ cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella [1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis’ work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.
The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film’s world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it’s a stage set, a doll’s house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp’s laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).
If the Miss Cartilage sequence emphasises the importance, for Lewis, of establishing a segregated space for transformation and using this space as a metaphor for cinema, the priority of this maneuver is clear already in his choice to set The Bellboy in Miami’s luxurious Fontainebleau Hotel. Throughout the film, staging and cinematography emphasise the vastness and sleekness of the hotel interiors, as in the sequence in which Stanley (Lewis) embarks on his task of setting up chairs for a film screening in a huge and initially empty ballroom. The Bellboy is extremely interesting for how it captures a real environment in a way that subtly stresses its reality (from time to time the film suggests a documentary, a feeling introduced in the second of the film’s two prologues, with narrator Walter Winchell introducing Miami and the Fontainebleau), while revealing it as a space for fantasy and escape and exposing the commodity nature of the escape (Winchell identifies Miami as a place where people come to “play” and “pay”).
Many of the mini-narratives of which The Bellboy is constructed deal with attempts to use the hotel for escape, such as the sequence involving a pair of clandestine lovers and that involving a newlywed couple, or for personal transformation, such as the sequence in which a large female guest goes on a weight-loss program and becomes svelte, only to resume her previous state after Stanley gives her a box of chocolates. Stanley, whose role throughout much of the film consists of unintentionally undermining and frustrating others’ escape attempts, functions as an agent of truth, a catalyst for the revelation of reality, turning the film into a critique of the fantasy as commodity. At other points in the film, Stanley, like other Lewis characters, is the privileged subject of a private, non-commodified fantasy, which Lewis-as-director shares with the audience: notably in the sequence in which Stanley conducts an imaginary and invisible orchestra (whose sounds are audible on the soundtrack).
The Errand Boy is Lewis’ most thorough exploration of the site of cinema. Set largely in the offices and soundstages of Paramutual Pictures, the film is a striking deglamorisation of Hollywood filmmaking, a project announced at the beginning of the film, in which the voiceover narrator promises to take us behind the scenes and expose the inner workings of the studio. This promise is fulfilled in an unexpected way, as the misadventures of Morty Tashman (Lewis), a poster-hanger recruited as a management spy, reveal the mechanics of filmmaking as a series of impersonal processes in which anonymous and interchangeable people labour to glorify unimpressive stars and antiquated stories. This behind-the-scenes activity is unconscious and automatic: attending a premiere, a young starlet (Felicia Atkins) blithely takes Morty to be her escort for the evening and carries on an extended one-sided conversation with him as if they had been intimates for years; in the script-typing room, Morty, by tripping over a garbage can, triggers a cataclysm of tumbling pages and shuffled genres.
One of the most unusual aspects of The Errand Boy is that Lewis combines his biting critique of Hollywood with a wistful evocation of the importance of the products of the dream factory in the lives of their audiences. In a scene central to Lewis’ work, Morty, searching through a wardrobe storage room, has a miraculous encounter with a hand-puppet ostrich named Magnolia. She speaks in the accent of a Southern belle and listens sympathetically to Morty’s account of his desire, as a kid growing up in New Jersey, to go to California, the source of movies, and of his disappointment on finding, after arriving there, that “I wasn’t any closer to it than when I was in New Jersey.” Morty’s melancholic insight introduces a new metaphor in a film full of metaphors, and a new master narrative for the film’s plot, suddenly revealing depths of loss and sadness beneath the relationship between the cinephile and the object of his love. (The difference between Lewis and his mentor, Frank Tashlin, can be summed up succinctly by comparing the harsh absurdist satire of movie mania in Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust , featuring Lewis as an obsessed fan, and the more contradictory, more ambivalent, more delicate treatment Lewis gives the same theme in The Errand Boy.) And Magnolia reaffirms the limitless power of (cinematic) imagination by explaining to Morty, “You believed what you liked” and validating his access to a private world in which imaginary creatures appear as fully real partners in a continuing conversation.
Most of the features that make Lewis’ directorial work such a remarkable exception to the dominance of a realist aesthetic in Hollywood filmmaking are brilliantly apparent in The Errand Boy, including the foregrounding of sound manipulation (most blatant in the sequence involving the post-synchronisation of the song “Lover” for a musical film, and in the tape manipulation of Kathleen Freeman’s reaction to having been left by her driver in the back seat of a convertible receiving a car wash) and the placement of actors in a shot so as to highlight the presence of the camera (as when Morty, an undirected and oblivious extra in a film-within-the-film cocktail-party scene, keeps looking at the camera from the background of a shot in which other extras, in their roles as party guests, intermittently block him from the camera).
At the end of The Errand Boy, Morty, elevated to stardom, reviews from his passing convertible a lineup of numerous figures he has interacted with throughout the film, only to be confronted with his alter ego in the form of the new and even more inept occupant (also played by Lewis) of the poster-hanging job he once held. This ending links The Errand Boy to other films in which Lewis discusses performance and celebrity by contrasting twin figures played by himself, one successful and assured, the other subservient and accident-prone: The Bellboy, The Nutty Professor and, above all, The Patsy, the most conceptual of Lewis’ films.
The Patsy is a film so radical that it makes comedy out of the situation of a comedian who isn’t funny, in the sequence of Stanley Belt’s disastrous nightclub debut. This scene and one in which Stanley, while on a date at a fancy restaurant, spectacularly demonstrates his unfamiliarity with tipping etiquette, are masterpieces of a cinema of embarrassment that Lewis made his special domain and to which he alone holds the secrets. More than any other Lewis film, The Patsy is a discourse about comedy; as Jean-Pierre Coursodon has noted, the film “tackles the crucial questions: What is funny? How do you make people laugh?” (2) The Patsy also contains the great tour de force scene of Stanley knocking over, one by one, the priceless vases in the collection of a music teacher (Hans Conreid), only to catch each vase a fraction of a second before it would hit the floor. Here the avoidance of catastrophe, rather than its occurrence, yields comedy. In this respect, the logical contrary of the vase sequence is the scene in The Ladies Man in which Herbert demolishes a collection of glass flowers in almost the same instant that he first sees it: it’s as if Lewis set out to prove, with The Patsy, that what doesn’t happen can also be funny. This is the point of the sequence in which Stanley appears on The Ed Sullivan Show: the expectation that Stanley will once again fail sets up the (reverse) comic potential of the scene, but the expectation is frustrated as Stanley proves to be an adroit comic.
It’s in The Nutty Professor rather than The Patsy, however, that Lewis finds for his personal obsessions with celebrity, performance and popularity a form palatable to a wide public – a success confirmed by the traditional critical prejudice (in Anglo-American writing) that finds this to be Lewis’ one acceptable film. It’s obvious that I don’t share this prejudice, but neither will I give in to the cultist temptation of underrating The Nutty Professor in favour of some other, less admired work: The Nutty Professor clearly deserves its central place in the Lewis canon, although I’d emphasise the aspects of the film that make it as uncompromising and uncomfortable as any of his other works: the deliberate unreality, so characteristic of the director, of its depiction of life on a college campus; the refusal to resolve (or to moralise about) the tension between detesting the boorish, egomaniacal Buddy Love and finding him sympathetic.
The campus in The Nutty Professor is a volatile space of personal transformation. At the start of the film, an explosion turns the world 90 degrees on its axis (so that a door becomes a coffin lid) and leaves behind a thick fog suggestive of the origin of life: we witness death and rebirth, occurring in abstract space. All the settings in the film are psychological: Warfield’s outsized office, which makes Kelp shrink but which Love dominates and turns into an ironic and pitiless theatre; Kelp’s childhood home, remembered in flashback, with its wide-angle perspectives and outsized props; the auditorium that becomes the site of a purely personal confession (and to which is adjoined a backstage area of solitude and deflation, feelings familiar to any performer and no doubt a source of particular terror to Lewis); above all, the Purple Pit, the most alluring of Lewis’ escapist sites, a zone of romanticism, illusion and alcoholic dissolution of identity.
Since The Family Jewels, a film of transition (as critics who appreciated Lewis as a profound and personal artist immediately recognised upon its release), Lewis has directed six films, each of which expresses in a new and idiosyncratic pattern the themes that received a relatively consistent development in the five films from The Bellboy to The Patsy (a phase in his career that may be called classical). I will not here undertake the defense of these six neglected films, partly because this will be part of my project in a forthcoming book. One point I wish only to suggest is that, although Lewis’ directorial work, when it has been taken seriously, has usually been discussed mainly in terms of his personal myth (or, at a higher level of generalisation, in terms of the dilemma of the performer), it should also be seen both as an extended experimentation with sound, image and narrative form (even, and not least, in Hardly Working, the one Lewis film, apart from The Bellboy, in which he benefits least from the resources of a studio, and one in which he proves again that his control of the medium doesn’t depend on those resources) and as a discussion of certain aspects of American life: contradictory ways of defining success, the exigency of self-definition through choice of a profession, and the breakdown or absence of social and cultural forms capable of sustaining and responding to the communication of extremes of experience. That The Big Mouth, Which Way to the Front?, Hardly Working, and Cracking Up are also brilliant and very funny films is an opinion that I must here leave unsubstantiated.
This filmography includes only the released feature films on which Lewis is officially credited as director. More extensive filmographies, including information on Lewis’ film and television appearances, may be found in the books by Benayoun, Krutnik, and Neibaur and Okuda (see Bibliography).
The Bellboy (1960)
The Ladies Man (1961)
The Errand Boy (1962)
The Nutty Professor (1963)
The Patsy (1964)
The Family Jewels (1965)
Three on a Couch (1966)
The Big Mouth (1967)
One More Time (1970)
Which Way to the Front? (1970)
Hardly Working (1980)
Cracking Up (1983) also known as Smorgasbord
From the extensive literature on Lewis, I’ve selected only a few of the texts that may be of value for the consideration of his directorial work. Extensive bibliographies can be found in the books by Benayoun, Krutnik, and Levy.
Robert Benayoun, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, Paris, Eric Losfeld, 1972.
Scott Bukatman, “Paralysis in Motion: Jerry Lewis’s Life as a Man” in Andrew S. Horton (ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991.
Jean-Pierre Coursodon, “Jerry Lewis” in Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage (eds), American Directors, vol. 2, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.
A. S. Hamrah, “Aftermirth,” Bunnyhop, no. 8, 1997, pp. 29–31.
A. S. Hamrah, “Thus Spake Cinderfella” in R. Seth Friedman (ed.), The Factsheet Five Zine Reader, New York, Three Rivers Press, 1997.
B. Kite, “The Jerriad: A Clown Painting” part 1, The Believer, no. 7, October 2003, pp. 49–58; part 2, The Believer, no. 8, November 2003, pp. 52–60.
Frank Krutnik, Inventing Jerry Lewis, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Jean-Louis Leutrat and Paul Simonci, Jerry Lewis, Premier Plan, no. 36, Lyon, SERDOC, 1965.
Shawn Levy, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Jerry Lewis, The Total Film-Maker, New York, Random House, 1971.
Jerry Lewis and Herb Gluck, Jerry Lewis in Person, New York, Atheneum, 1982.
James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda, The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Company, 1995.
Murray Pomerance (ed.), Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film, New York, New York University Press, 2002.
Gérard Recasens, Jerry Lewis, Cinéma d’aujourd’hui, no. 59, Paris, Editions Seghers, 1970.
Noël Simsolo, Le monde de Jerry Lewis, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 1969.
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- Scott Bukatman, “Paralysis in Motion: Jerry Lewis’s Life as a Man” in Andrew S. Horton (ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 196ff.
- Jean-Pierre Coursodon, “Jerry Lewis” in Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage (eds), American Directors, vol. 2, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983, p.193.