Hitchcockian Comedy and Jewish Kabuki: Jerry Lewis’ The Big Mouth (1967)

One way to think about The Big Mouth (1967) is to see it as Jerry Lewis’ parody – or better, his loose remake – of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). We have a case of mistaken identity, leading to an innocent man (Jerry Lewis in the Cary Grant role) being caught up in deadly machinations and dangerous chases. We have a romantic comedy wrapped in an adventure thriller (Susan Bay, subsequently married to Leonard Nimoy in real life, takes on the Eva Marie Saint role). We have authority figures who explain all the otherwise nonsensical twists and turns of the plot (the Leo G. Carroll character in Hitchcock’s movie is parodied by Frank De Vol’s Narrator). We have a MacGuffin (in this case, a bunch of stolen diamonds that are never found) around which the whole plot is organised. And we have a finale in an iconic location (the tacky Sea World in San Diego serves as an antitype for, and takes the place of, the majestic Mount Rushmore).

The mistaken identity theme is key, although of course Lewis is nothing like Cary Grant. In Lewis’ earlier films, his own character, the Idiot, is the originator of, and the primary focus for, all the mayhem that unfolds. But in The Big Mouth, this is no longer the case. Lewis’ primary character, Gerald Clamson, is pretty much a blank, a man without qualities. He’s an accountant (often portrayed in comedy as the stereotypically dullest profession), come to San Diego to go fishing during his yearly vacation. It is almost as if Lewis had erased all the characteristics of his comedic persona, to leave us with nothing more than a purely generic movie protagonist. Clamson’s love interest, Suzie (Susan Bay), is similarly bland and generic: she’s an airline stewardess and an old-fashioned sort of girl who likes it when men act chivalrously towards her. Between the two of them, Lewis and Bay make for an utterly hellish vision of pre-second-wave-feminism American gender norms.

The Big Mouth

I am not saying that, when Lewis made The Big Mouth, he intended any critique of hegemonic regimes of sexuality. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be the case. But the movie would not work if it were not organised around, and against, such a degree zero of normativity. The same arguably applies to the movie’s use of offensive ethnic stereotypes of Asians (particularly with the character of Fong, ostensibly Chinese, but played by the white actor Leonard Stone). These clichés – much like the movie’s lampooned images of gangsters, cops, and the like – form the necessary background for an ever-widening circle of weird transformations.

The trouble begins for Gerald Clamson because he is a dead ringer for Syd Valentine (also of course played by Lewis), a crook who has double-crossed all his associates. Valentine’s main attribute is that he returns alive – emerging from the ocean in a frogman suit – no matter how many times he is killed. Syd is as indestructible, but also as uncatchable, as George Kaplan, the nonexistent spy for whom Grant is mistaken in North by Northwest. This empty similitude is nothing in itself, and Gerald Clamson does not understand it; but as it spreads outward it affects (or infects) everyone else. The three henchmen of chief gangster Thor (Harold J. Stone) all have nervous breakdowns when they encounter Clamson, whose very appearance contradicts their certainty of having witnessed Valentine’s death. Gunner (Vern Rowe) is frozen on all fours, and behaves thereafter like a dog; Studs (Buddy Lester) spits out all his teeth and starts talking backwards; Rex (Charlie Callas) becomes a mess of twittery gestures, nervous tics, and stuttering. In other words, the gangsters all regress, and turn into Jerry Lewis characters. When Lewis himself plays someone who is boringly normal, his comedic mannerisms are all transmitted to others.

Gerald Clamson also encounters a Jerry Lewis-style comedic persona in the form of Webster (John Nolan), who claims to be an FBI agent. Webster is the only character in the entire movie who seems to be the least bit competent, let alone authoritative. Unfortunately, the performance does not last. Webster turns out to be an escaped mental patient. He babbles ever more deliriously, claiming to be the head of the FBI, and then the President (either LBJ or Lincoln), as the men in the white coats come to take him away. The collapse of Webster’s persona pushes Clamson himself to the point where he has a near-breakdown – which is to say that he starts acting in the way that we expect from Jerry Lewis: rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue, muttering nonsense syllables, tearing up the newspaper, and speaking into a vase as if it were a telephone. Even the blank Gerald Clamson can become a Jerry Lewis character, once his frustration is amplified to a hysterical pitch.

But Gerald Clamson most fully turns into someone we can recognise as a Jerry Lewis character when he puts on a disguise. In order to get a room in the hotel from which he has been banned by the smarmy manager (Del Moore, ringing changes on his previous role as the college president in The Nutty Professor), Clamson adopts a rich-old-geezer disguise, in a performance that closely resembles Lewis’ eponymous role in The Nutty Professor. This is a strange inversion; in The Nutty Professor, the continually humiliated Julius Kelp transforms himself into the suave Buddy Love, who seems to incarnate his warped vision of normality. In The Big Mouth, to the contrary, Lewis’ normative character evades detection by disguising himself as a singular eccentric. The disguise allows him to wreak havoc wherever he goes. As the Narrator remarks, Clamson now looks like a “live creep” instead of a “dead crook”. It is sort of like passing in reverse.

The Big Mouth

But for me, the high point of the movie comes when Clamson disguises himself as a kabuki dancer. This happens during the movie’s climactic chase scene in Sea World, as Clamson is running away from four separate groups who are all after him. He wanders onto a stage where a kabuki performance is underway, dressed in a kimono, with a white hair wig and white face paint. The joke is that, in this context, Jerry Lewis is nearly undetectable. His nonsensical exclamations and abrupt gestures harmonize perfectly with with the actions of the other dancers, and with the accompanying music. Of course, this sort of gag presupposes cultural ignorance – an audience of Americans who, like me, know nothing about Japanese culture or the Japanese language. But it is worth noting that – at least according to Wikipedia – even in Japan, “kabuki can be interpreted as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘bizarre’ theatre.”1 The Big Mouth was made at a time when, after two decades of amazing popularity, Jerry Lewis was starting to lose traction with American audiences. It is almost as if, in response to this, he is starting to present his art as being esoteric and “foreign”, almost like a transmission from outer space. The kabuki stage is almost the only location in the whole movie where Lewis truly seems to be at home. As one blogger puts it, “Here, Jewish, Japanese and Chinese culture are rendered indistinguishable — ground up in the same, nightmarish cultural Cuisinart.”2

In The Big Mouth, Jerry Lewis turns the Hitchcockian theme of mistaken identity into a means for the production of comedy. Precisely by making his base character into a generic nonentity, he is able to propagate waves of identity disruption throughout the world of the film, engulfing the other characters, the settings (the Mission Bay Hilton and Sea World), and eventually us in the audience.

Thanks to Barry Schwabsky for the initial suggestions that led, years later, to this essay.

 

The Big Mouth (Jerry Lewis, USA 1967, 107min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Camera: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Jack Haynes and Al Overton Sr.
Music: Harry Betts
Editing: Russel Wiles
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Gerald Clamson, Syd Valentine), Harold J. Stone (Thor), Susan Bay (Suzie Cartwright), Buddy Lester (Studs), Del Moore (Mr. Hodges), Paul Lambert (Moxie), Jeannine Riley (Bambi Berman), Leonard Stone (Fong), Charlie Callas (Rex), Frank De Vol (Bogart), Vern Rowe (Gunner), David Lipp (Lizard)
Producer: Jerry Lewis and Joe Stabile

The Big Mouth is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.

Endnotes

  1. See the Wikipedia entry on kabuki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabuki. Accessed June 28, 2016.
  2. The Flying Maciste Brothers (Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr). http://templeofschlock.blogspot.com/2009/03/big-mouth-1967.html. Accessed June 28, 2016.

About The Author

Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of The Cinematic Body (1993), Post-Cinematic Affect (2010), and Melancholia, or, The Romantic Anti-Sublime (2012), among other works.