“O dear god please give me the serenity to understand the things I can not change; to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”

The Bellboy (1960), The Errand Boy (1961) and The Ladies Man (1961) all describe domestic employees with an assigned role. Each character, Stanley, Morty and Herbert have assigned tasks which involve serving others; (note how each name seems most appropriately uttered in the form of a yell or anguished cry). This distinguishes Lewis’ characters from those of other comedians whose characters are more free agents in the world.

In The Bellboy, Stanley confronts the menial tasks and obligations of an employee in a large hotel:

  • carrying the guests’ bags;
  • arranging the chairs in the auditorium;
  • manning the reception desk;
  • taking guests’ dogs for a walk.

In The Ladies Man, as a domestic employee in Mrs. Wellenmellon’s hostel for young ladies:

  • delivering the mail;
  • dusting the room and contents;
  • welcoming guests;
  • repairing the elevator;
  • feeding “Baby”.

In The Errand Boy:

  • spying on the other studio employees;
  • delivering scripts.

(In Lewis’ other films, he occupies similar positions of service:

  • Rock-A-Bye Baby (Frank Tashlin, 1958): Television repairman;
  • The Delicate Delinquent (Don McGuire, 1957): boarding house odd-job boy;
  • Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960): Servant to his step-family;
  • The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964): Hospital orderly;
  • Who’s Minding the Store? (Frank Tashlin, 1963): Store employee; dog minder;
  • The Patsy (1964): Bellboy;
  • The Family Jewels (1965), as Willard: Chauffeur.

Each of these characters has a defined area of operation. The character is confronted with obligations and standards of conduct. In this, he comes up against a system, an establishment of overseers enforcing procedures imposed from above which determine and therefore restrict his behaviour… a conflict situation; basically a chase situation as in animated films, with two elements:

  • the need for the character to “perform” in the sense of reaching a certain standard, carrying out tasks in a predetermined manner, with successful completion of these tasks having some value, e.g. approval of superiors;
  • the personal supervision by a superior or his representative;

The hero of these films also is involved in “proving” himself, making his mark, imposing himself on the world in which he finds himself… controlling this world. As an employee, the character would normally succeed by carrying out his tasks, either at first attempt, or more usually with comic heroes, after initial failure, success follows from the peculiar skills of the hero. A Lewis character, however, rarely follows this path. The job at hand, the area of their immediate involvement is not the real battleground. One can not imagine Stanley of The Bellboy applying himself to his tasks with any greater facility at the film’s conclusion than he has shown earlier. In The Patsy (original title: Son of the Bellboy), Stanley does not become a star by the usual procedures as planned by his mentors – the training, the try-outs, the Ed Sullivan Show appearance… these experiences affect Stanley differently than designed. This is of course due to the comic hero’s lack of character development. As a person “out of time” with the world, success for him results from a re-arrangement of the world by the comic hero, rather than from his adjustment to the world. As Jean-Patrick Lebel says in his book, Buster Keaton, “a comic character, being the incarnation of a fundamental attitude towards reality does not develop”; “his rapport with the world dynamic as it may be, once established is established forever.” This imposing of the comic hero’s character upon the world could be viewed in various ways:

  • a working out of his problems on the world; “making his madness work”;
  • establishing himself as an individual in a world which rejects and punishes individuality;
  • a cry for recognition, approval and love.

Where does the need to do well for others end and the peculiar selfish enjoyment of the task for himself begin? At times, the tasks seem only an excuse for him to grasp a situation and to retreat into a magic world of his own. There are moments in these films when he converts the elements of the situation into the components of a private world, as in The Nutty Professor (1963) with Professor Kelp’s “dancing-on-the-spot” jam session at the Senior Prom, where he is oblivious to all outside stimuli except the music and absorbing every ounce of it, pushes it out again through his body movements.

Jerry Lewis

The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963

Certain situations hold a fascination for Lewis’ characters: situations of things at rest yet containing the suggestion or quality of development, of possible change. These potential destruction situations provide the comic hero with the opportunity to add the ingredient of himself to the quiet and static mixture in order that it bubble up a more interesting brew.

The Bellboy – the sculptured face; Stanley, at first “accidentally” and then in frantic efforts to correct his blunder, remodels the face…

The Ladies Man – the butterflies in the case and and Mrs. Wellenmellon’s portrait which he cleans; Buddy Lester’s suit and hat…

The Errand Boy – the statue of Samson; the typewriter; the empty Boardroom…

This is a part of the comic hero’s general eagerness, the over-developed desire and need to confront the problem, even where there is no problem, in the normal sense of the word, exists. If there is no unbalanced situation, he will attack a settled situation and unbalance it. Thus his walk, a succession of running movements in different directions, start off The Bellboy; his inability to wait for complete instructions, the Bell captain, Stanley and the large steamer trunk in The Bellboy; his impatience when things don’t turn out the way he expects, the psychological tests in The Delicate Delinquent.

Jerry can also attack the quiet and well-ordered world of Professor Mule-rrr in The Patsy and just by exploring it, testing its function, set in motion a set of circumstances which result in chaos. But these encounters are not presented as chance situations which the hero accidentally becomes involved in. The comic hero, being who he is, seems under a compulsion to enter this territory. We, the audience, recognise this and Lewis treats us to a beautifully staged ritual of the comic hero vs the world. The sequence in The Patsy, from the moment Stanley enters the Professor’s home is choreographed as exactly as any ballet, each movement and gesture coming on natural beats and conforming to the overall rhythmic form which is headed to a spectacular finale: absolute catastrophe.

Jerry Lewis

Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960)

Jerry on Bicycles Two by Two

The notion of “doubling” and “doubles” is a constant theme in Lewis’ films. For it signifies the duality of each comic hero; his desire to accommodate the two opposite sides of his nature. The distinction is made in Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960) by Fella (Jerry Lewis) between “persons” and people. His song, “Let Me Be A People” quite clearly establishes his rejection of the aggressive, pushy, selfish personality. Good and bad, in the sense of character types, are presented as alternative paths which a person may take. Fella has chosen the path of goodness, although later he decides to reverse his character, underlying the point that one must work at maintaining the values that one chooses to subscribe to, life being a struggle between the two sides of a person’s character. The comic hero’s original decision to be a “People” will be challenged by new situations which will undermine the self-confidence of the hero and Lewis sees this as the key factor. All his films indicate that he believes faith in oneself to be the prerequisite for any worthwhile existence. In The Ladies Man, Herbert instils this attitude in Fay and the extension of it is voiced by Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor when he decries those who feign modesty to disguise talent or skill. In Cinderfella, Fella’s fairy godfather (Ed Wynn) enables him to overcome the purely physical barriers in order to meet the Princess (Anna Maria Alberghetti). The magic gives him nothing that he lacked before except the confidence. Thus the decision to be good “people” is insufficient without faith in one’s own capacities and this is something that others can not provide – How can others think more of you than you think of yourself?

The two sides of the hero’s character are not always as clearly presented or as specific as this. In all his films, his energy is directed from some darker side of his character to a better, more worthwhile set of character traits indicating self-awareness and healthy adjustment insofar as this relates to a comic hero’s quest to control his world.

The dark and the light, the black and the white – The Ladies Man – the inability of the hero to resist temptation of the forbidden places him in the all-white room of the vampire lady. Gerald Clampson, a mild-mannered tax official in The Big Mouth (1967), has a counterpart in the dark world, a double who is an underworld criminal and this causes Jerry’s life to undergo significant changes resulting from the confusion of identities.

Secondly, it introduces an element of chance, of random disorder, of coincidence in an otherwise normal balanced world. Thus, The Bellboy shows us the bellboys, Stanley and another (Lewis and Milton Berle) being identical in physical features to the comedy stars Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle. Whilst this is strange and bewildering to Stanley and his fellow bellboy, it forms a part of their world which they must ultimately accept; similarly, children may look very much like their parents to the extent that both faces, parent’s and children’s, become family masks, as in The Ladies Man with Herbert and his mother; or in Three on a Couch (1966), Christopher Pride (Jerry Lewis) creates a twin sister for the already fictitious character of Willard. They both “use” the same face, not because they are played by the same person (Lewis) but because by the laws of the universe we are involved in, this is acceptable as quite normal absurdity.

Thus the face becomes a mask; there is no longer anything particularly special about a face or a set of facial features; they do not signify any correspondence with a specific person nor serve to identify him as an individual. Stanley in The Patsy can for a moment mistake George Raft’s reflection in the mirror for his own, and in The Ladies Man, even though George Raft is present with him, Herbert is sceptical of his true identity until the visitor has flipped a coin and danced like the real George Raft. Physical features become an element to be utilised and manipulated – one which will affect the character’s contact with his world.

Thirdly, it enables Lewis to isolate those aspects of character and personality which interest him through the separation of one performer-one character. This gives him the freedom to play with the directions suggested by the energy of his personality, to subject each impulse to the rigour of a distinct character unit or framework. Each fights for supremacy. Lewis projects himself through the prism of a multiplicity of roles.

The comedian went on to discuss the duality in his own mind between his screen personality and the man who plays him, he spoke of the person on the screen as “him”. “Sometimes I write a memo in the morning”, he explained, “and then later, on the set when it’s carried out, I rebel against it – I’ve forgotten that it was me that asked for it.”1

The only trouble with my doing my own screen writing is that I get so involved with the character I play that the perspective gets distorted and I begin to send out messages which have nothing to do with what I started out to create.2

Lastly, the multiplicity reflects Lewis’ status as actor, director and character; a status, tenuous in balance, continually changing in development, leading to new parts and fresh destinations. In this he joins Chaplin, Keaton and other great comics of the past. (In the films in which Lewis is directed by others, he appears as an actor only, practising his craft obviously and perfectly.)

Auteur – Jerry Lewis is not only the auteur of the films which he directs, but, more or less, of those in which he is content to act, in particular: You’re Never Too Young [Norman Taurog, 1955], Cinderfella and The Disorderly Orderly. The only one in which you can affirm that he is there for nothing is Boeing Boeing [John Rich, 1965].3

This comment ignores the incredible performance of Lewis in Boeing Boeing. This film not only reveals his superb skill as an actor, but although forced to play a cat and mouse performing game with Tony Curtis, Lewis shows himself as a master of timing and gesture in the realm of farce; a one-dimensional character certainly, but in a film of such characters, Lewis is the only one able to introduce any tension into the scenes, in each, becoming the focus point of our attention.

He has a triple status: in front of the camera (actor), behind (director), and within (character). It would be wrong to quickly confuse the first and last of these. It is rare that an awkwardness of the actor serves the virtuosity of the character, it is in return frequent in his films, that the clumsiness of the character manifests only grace to the talents of the actor. An example of this: the entrance of Lewis in The Patsy. Skill of the character and virtuosity of the actor often meet each other to create an effect of added surprise (Example: the billiard scene in The Family Jewels).4

The theme of doubling sets up the multi-faceted role of Lewis and the elements he works with:

Auteur-personality-character

Premier Plan – Jerry Lewis – “There is not, this is certain, an auteur and his character, but clearly, an auteur playing his character with an acute lucidity.”

The feeling of Lewis “playing” his character is very real. There is no gap between auteur and character, but a bridge, a working tension we feel to be in operation. The performer faces the task of creating the character: we are observers of this process, witnessing the failures and victories. This of course arises from the film as a totality. Of course the idea of duality is most basic to the character of all “fools”. (See earlier notes on the duality of the fool).

Jerry Lewis

The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)

What Picture? We Ain’t Got No Picture

The Bellboy, the first film officially directed by Jerry Lewis, (he had in fact written the scripts of several of his earlier films and unofficially co-directed Cinderfella with Frank Tashlin, and later directed The Disorderly Orderly, though credited to Tashlin.)

I snuck in a few. Sure, I co-directed on an unofficial basis. It was necessary, along with diabolical planning. It had to be, because that’s really where my love lies.

The years spent with Dean Martin were a period of training, during which Lewis, not content merely to fulfil his function as an actor, absorbed the techniques of film-making and the creation of comic structures. He moved towards the point that the great comics of the past all eventually felt compelled to strive for – the position of having ultimate control of the material, as if their vision is so personal and unique that it can not be trusted to the hands of others. This was his apprenticeship.

Harold Lloyd:

The comedian must be responsible for creating his materials; he does not necessarily have to create it all himself. We all had men around us that were trained, or we trained, who had good comedy minds and worked with us; but the comedian has to be the guiding light. The comedian has to choose and I think all great comics more or less routine their own work, choosing what they want and how it should be done.5

Jerry Lewis:

I have fallen on my fanny for a good many years, and it’s just delightful to get behind the camera and have another fool do it for me. I was much too curious about technique and the development of film just to pass the time. I wasn’t really made aware of my interest until I started to put some of my information that I had gathered along the way to use, and the home movies which I thought was nothing more than playing. Fun was literally an exercise. I wrote strictly satirical impressions of the films: Fairfax Avenue, Lifeboat; we had Son of Lifeboat, The Re-Enforcer, Watch on the Line, that was a beautiful Paul Lukas satire; we never got anyone fat enough so that we could do The Maltese Falcon and call it Son of Chickenfat.

It felt like fun and just more or less breaking the tension of the pressure of everyday filmmaking, and we were literally satirising what we did on the set every day. I didn’t know that I was teaching myself cinematography, the writing concept of the paper, the written word to the film, and the cutting technique of course, and directing the performers. I didn’t know that I was getting as much information as I was at the time.

They were wonderful lessons, great teachings for me, but I wouldn’t like to see them again, for I think too highly now of film, of technique, and I would be embarrassed to see how shabby they were. Yet there were some very good things in them that I didn’t know were good, and when I had to direct my first film, I was stunned at all of the things that I knew that I had been frightened that I didn’t know.6

Called by one critic – “a poor collection of old jokes”, The Bellboy threw away the logical and gradual development of a plot and chose instead a series of gags based upon a bellboy’s experiences in a large hotel.

Jerry Lewis

The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)

Whilst having no “plot”, no developing story-line, the film was not lacking a foundation, a unifying force: this was the character of Stanley and of his manipulation by the film’s director, Jerry Lewis – rejected the conventional plot and sought the form of the great comic masterpieces of the silent era. This resulted not only from Lewis’ aims and intentions at this early stage of development but also sprang from the method of creating the film.

“Anyway, I’m sitting here in Hollywood, resting, when I get a call from jerry. He says to me, ‘Jake, you better come down here right away, we’re starting a picture on Monday’. I said, ‘Where are you?’ He says, ‘I’m in Florida!’ I saw, ‘What picture? We ain’t got no picture!’ ‘We do now,’ he says. ‘The trucks are already on their way.! You shoulda seen that production. I asked him, ‘Who’s gonna be in it?’ He says, ‘What’s the difference? We’ll cast it from Celebrity Service.’ Every scene was written the night before he shot it – for whomever was in town.”7

Like the originators of film comedy, Lewis used basic ideas as a springboard, working out the action on the set whilst shooting.

Stan Laurel:

We’d have a script, but it never contained the comic scenes or gags; it simply gave a resume of the basic story and served as a guide-line. For each scene, the ideas would be studied with the gagmen. Sure the script had some of the gags mentioned here and there, but they were always worked out on the set. We’d have two or three rehearsals before we filmed them.8

Harold Lloyd:

I don’t think we ever used a firm script until we did do a talking picture. In the real early days, we really made them up – we picked a cast and we went out to a park or some location and we actually made up the picture. But even so, as we started making pictures with much more organised and with better material, we still didn’t have an actual script. We only had many notes. We had a pretty good outline of where we were going. We would work in what we called our “gag rooms”, create our comedy ideas, and then we would go out with a pretty set idea of what we were going to do. But still, when we started shooting, sometimes even though we’d shot the first scene maybe exactly as we wanted it, we would still shoot it again, and maybe again and again, because we’d ad lib and do something entirely different.9

The task of making such a film not only required an acute appreciation of the spectator’s mind and the skill of presenting a gradually unfolding situation in terms of the arrangement of the gags, but also forced him to the realisation that insofar as the film is constructed, that he is the mainspring of this ordering of the components. Everything must be referred to the character of Stanley which determines its place and influence in the film.

As J.P. Coursodon writes of Keaton:

All of which is not to say that he began a film with no story outline, that his films were nothing but improvisations worked out on the spur of the moment; rather he never bothered to apply subtle rules of cause and effect, to let little details get in the way, to do all that is proper and right in dramatic scenarios.

And André Martin:

Keaton never looked for subtle visual equivalents but had one solid thread going through every action: he does this and I do that. And then this happens and then –––. His scenarios resemble appointment books of busy executives.10

Lewis picked his cast and went to some location, the Hotel Fontainebleau, Florida, and there made up the picture.

The Bellboy – which prompted François Mars to proclaim: “At last, sound the trumpets! Thanks to Jerry Lewis the magic equation can finally be stated: Film = Gag.”

This is a film in which Lewis gives birth to his new creation, a figure almost as helpless as a new babe, for whilst possessing the same senses as those around him, his view of the world in which he finds himself calls forth different responses and adjustments.

Jerry Lewis

The Bellboy (1960)

The Bellboy chronicles the establishment of Stanley as a person or force within the world he inhabits; someone to be taken into account, not above everyone else, but together with them. We see his struggle for recognition from his fellows and for control over his environment.

He has come into the world less ably equipped than others, but this disability, that of being mute and knowing only one form of language, exists only in relation to the progressive movement towards affirmation of his character. He is silent only because the opportunity is not allowed him to express himself. At the film’s end, his assertion of his personality, indicated by his speaking, results from his dominance of his world. He has had to earn the right to speak, not only by surviving, but also by triumphing – this victory is the subject of The Bellboy. This definition of the comic character has been expressed by Milton Berle, himself appearing in The Bellboy and in Lewis’ words, “The master, without question”, in these terms: “You gotta know who you are before you know what you are – before you know what you do.” (The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy).

In his search for himself, Stanley is a lone figure pitted against a harsh and hostile world and it would be very easy to ascribe an appearance of loneliness to him as a basic comic value. But as Lebel notes:

The appearance of loneliness is, however, on some way inherent in the comic. This apparent loneliness, which some have latched onto in order to pose the thesis of the moral loneliness of certain comics (maintaining that, like Molière of old, every great comic is “eternally solitary”, “desperately lucid”, finding his sole consolation in the comic spectacle that is the farce of life, and so on and so forth) – this apparent loneliness of the comic character is precisely that quality in him which makes him unique; but it goes no farther than that and certainly gives no real indication of the comic’s attitude towards the world. The loneliness of comic characters has no precise ethical value in itself.

By reviving a form and construction used by the great silent comics Lewis gave himself the freedom to conduct a detailed investigation and exposition of “the gag”. The lack of construction which to many critics (though not to the public) seemed to be a prime weakness, was in fact its raison d’être and its greatest virtue.

Lebel:

The comic film has no reason to work within the limits of a dramatic line, to wear the yoke of a pre-established, rigid, dramatic action. Let us note in passing that if, as it has been said, “The Marx Brothers never found themselves the right director”, the reason for that is, more often than not, because they were condemned to conform to scenarios. A Night at the Opera [Sam Wood, 1935], for instance, is a badly constructed burlesque film precisely because it tries too hard to be a well “constructed” one, and elements totally alien to the Marx Brothers are constantly coming in to try pulling the thing into shape.”

J.P. Coursodon:

The masters of the silents knew that the more developed the plot became the more difficult it became to introduce gags into it, the number of gags capable of being adapted to it without interfering with its progress being in inverse ratio to its complexity. The talkies, from this point of view, offered many an easy way out; if their advent coincides with the decline of the burlesque cinema, this is not, as has often been claimed, because the word killed the genre nor that the comic’s inspiration suddenly dried up. We should look rather for the cause in the stranglehold the scriptwriter held over the production of the comic film. The directors were convinced that the answer to the problem of revivifying the form lay in the enrichment of their plots, without taking into consideration the fact that every complexity added to the plot eliminated possible gags and forced them to surround each gag they used with a greater abundance of preparation and justification.

Harold Lloyd:

People say that sound hurt silent pictures; it should have helped them tremendously. There was more to play with. The trouble is that most people talk too much. They talked because they had dialogue and they have been talking ever since.

Leutrat and Simonci, in their book on Lewis, see The Bellboy as the first battleground on which the various components and contestants of Lewis’ œuvre are assembled.

The actor is, in The Bellboy, motivated by an idea which is none other than the birth of a new Jerry, the director. Stanley wishes to affirm for himself at the same time, that his director is concerned not to become divorced from the old Jerry Lewis. From this there comes a certain imbalance felt in the film, which without being silly, we could describe thus: an unknown director in his film, plays the role of a weak character unable to express himself. Then one encounters a great start, Jerry Lewis, who despite all can not express himself in the film or for that matter in life. The unknown director senses the necessity of being the big star in his next films. The pathetic actor, the director and the star are however still facets of the same person. The Bellboy is at the same time a death and a birth.

With The Ladies Man, the union of these three personalities in quest of unity will be realised – this is the reason for the theme of duality being absent from this film. Only The Bellboy presents a Jerry Lewis (star) exterior to the action, contemplated by a Jerry Lewis acting in his own film. It is like a surprised look at the way he has been up till then. Nothing like this obtrudes in The Ladies Man to disrupt the balance.

The Ladies Man reveals the personality of the character having triumphed. He now enters the realm of feelings and will be faced by a problem only suggested in The Bellboy, that of his sexuality.

All of Lewis’ films reveal a structure involving a series of sketches showing the exploitation of a decor or of a situation. Each physical setting is stripped down by the events which is based on the presence of the comic character as a force and not only resulting from the application of a mechanical attitude to the exhausting of all possible gag situations. The world that the character finds himself in is a very self-contained one. We sense the notion of a journey, a mission very much like that of Captain Kirk and the crew of The Enterprise in Star Trek when they find themselves on a strange planet where they must play a strange game of survival instigated by a psychopathic ruler.

Jerry finds himself either in a dream, or often on a journey into another world and unable to get out. This universe is the hotel in The Bellboy, the boarding house of The Ladies Man and the studios of Paramutual in The Errand Boy.

Jerry Lewis

The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961)

The moral of The Errand Boy is nothing else than a glorification of the politique des auteurs. As in The Family Jewels, Lewis’ object is to construct a series of independent sequences, annihilating the progressive exposition of the action. His material is an absurd scenario which he converts into a succession of gags without any continuing logic. The Errand Boy continues the enquiry. Now that the need to explain and express himself has been presented, we see how the star became as he is. Morty of The Errand Boy is an innocent (though like all of Lewis’ heroes, he possesses a childlike wickedness), who attains stardom, but in doing so mistreats his fans. Morty at the end of The Errand Boy observes another young man who is putting up posters – a second Morty. The Nutty Professor traces the humbling of egoistical Morty in the person of Buddy Love and the triumph of the second Morty through Julius Kelp, though not without some magic cross-breeding from Kelp tonic which the Professor’s new love Stella takes on their honeymoon.

The Patsy re-introduces us to Stanley from The Bellboy but in fact it reworks the theme of The Errand Boy in which Morty made the journey from man to star. In The Patsy we see that the transition is not effect from one identity to another, but from one attitude to a new attitude – from dependence to freedom.

Jerry Lewis

The Family Jewels (Jerry Lewis, 1965)

The Family Jewels is the third excursion of Jerry into the realm of “cool humour” (after The Bellboy and The Errand Boy). The creator of the film forces us, the spectator, to take a particular attitude to what occurs, using the knowledge we have of the conventions of the cinema and the world he is presenting. This deals with the nature of the gags and the quality of the connections which we must make between them in order that appreciate their “point”.

Robert Benayoun:

Just as Jerry Lewis, the most recent representative of great American burlesque, is evolving towards the technique of the slow burn and plays on the knowledge of the public in order to give away a scene which does not even appear on the screen so the Three Musketeers of Warner Bros., Jonse, Freling and McKimpson, no longer hesitate to exploit the knowledge of their regular spectators.

This is a gag, they say, which you have already seen a thousand times, we will not be so discourteous as to insist. Coyote, as he topples over a precipice, brandishes before our eyes a little notice which says “Encore”, and waves his hand like a traveller on railway platform. Then his fall takes place from such a great height that most of it is invisible; it has to be guessed by the pause which precedes the appearance at the bottom of the ravine of a tiny mushroom of dust. Nothing could be more “cool”. When the gag is taken this far it becomes a kind of understanding between the author and his spectators whom he considers henceforth as his accomplice.11

Certainly The Family Jewels is one of those films at which one laughs infrequently, and in its uncompromising disintegration of the uncles played by Lewis, it foreshadows Three on a Couch in which the comic characters are aborted or sabotaged. In both films gag situations are delayed, laboured and concealed as if Lewis is stretching the gag structure to its utmost limits and going into some vague territory beyond.

The Big Mouth, in style and structure, is a return to The Ladies Man, and links this earlier examination of Jerry’s sexuality with the therapeutic experiences in Three on a Couch.

Jerry Lewis

The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964)

The pre-occupations of Jerry Lewis as revealed in these films are present in some in the films on which he collaborated with Frank Tashlin. The Disorderly Orderly and Who’s Minding the Store? are a strange blend of Lewis – his gracefulness, his inattention, his tenderness, his propensity to search for happiness at any cost, and Tashlin – his sharp, bitter style that sometimes goes as far as spitefulness, his logic, his lifeless, indifferent gags, his misogyny, his love of destruction.

Lewis obviously learnt a great deal from Tashlin during the years they worked together and Lewis acknowledges Tashlin as a gifted exponent of “the gag”. Whilst we may still see traces of Tashlin’s style in Lewis’ films, it is to the complete auteur of these films that we must look to in the future for the journeys of the fool actor.

The above text was originally printed as part of a special issue of the Melbourne Film Bulletin (no. 12, April 1970) on Jerry Lewis, edited by Alan Finney. We reproduce it here with the kind permission of Alan Finney, and with special thanks to Geoff Gardner.

 

References

Jean-Louis Leutrat and Paul Simonci, “Jerry Lewis”, Premier Plan no. 36.

Jean-Patrick Lebel, Buster Keaton (International Film Guide Series).

Larry Wilde, The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy (New York: The Citadel Press).

 

Endnotes

  1. Peter Bogdanovich, “Mr. Lewis is a Pussycat”, Esquire, November 1962.
  2. Cahiers du cinéma no. 175.
  3. Cahiers du cinéma no. 197.
  4. Cahiers du cinéma no. 197, p. 63.
  5. Harold Lloyd, Films and Filming, January 1964.
  6. Cahiers du cinéma no. 197.
  7. Esquire; Peter Bogdanovich quoting Jack Keller.
  8. Films in Review, March 1959.
  9. Film Comment vol. 5 no. 3.
  10. Cahiers du cinéma no. 86, p. 27.
  11. Robert Benayoun, Cambridge Opinion no. 35.

About The Author

The Melbourne Film Bulletin was a magazine published by the University Film Group at the University of Melbourne in the late 1960s and 1970s.