“At the same time, there is a contradiction because you don’t really think in terms of directing yourself. You refer and must refer to that ‘other being.’ He is another entity. He is called The Idiot or The Kid.”1

I saw Jerry Lewis in person twice. The first was 1971, the second forty years later in 2011. They were very different occasions which amplified the many sides of Lewis: the comedian, pantomime artist, nightclub performer, singer, recording artist, actor, radio and television star, film producer, screenwriter, film director, technical innovator (inventor of video assist), business man, teacher, author and charity fundraiser.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in May ’71. Word got around that Lewis would be appearing at a special afternoon screening at the Science Theatre at the University of NSW of his fourth solo directed feature, the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde comedy The Nutty Professor (produced, directed and co-written by Jerry Lewis, 1963). This unpublicised free event was packed. Lewis appeared dressed in a blue suit similar to the one worn by the narcissist alter ego Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor. He did a prat stumble onto the stage, some mugging and a few acrobatic drops of the microphone. He also spoke seriously about comedy and filmmaking. In the late 1960s Lewis had given a series of classes in the Cinema Department at the University of Southern California (USC) and here he was in Sydney being both comedian and teacher. An edited version of the 480 hours of the USC lectures (Lewis was known for recording almost everything) was published in his book the The Total Film-Maker the same year.

Jerry Lewis

Signed copy of The Total Film-Maker

By 1971 Lewis had acted in over 40 movies. He and partner Dean Martin had been enormously popular stars becoming icons in the 1950s. After developing a nightclub act they acted in 16 movies and appeared in over 200 television episodes of The Colgate Comedy Hour before they broke up after a decade in 1956. They both went on to have highly successful solo careers. Lewis, who asserted a lot of creative control, was interested in all aspects of the filmmaking process and made a number of contributions to the writing, directing and producing of his films prior to getting any screen credits. By 1971 he had acted in another 24 movies and had officially directed 10 of these as well as producing and co-writing many of them. It was, however, Lewis the exhibitor and businessman – not the performer – who had come to Australia. He was in Sydney to examine the feasibility of extending his franchise family theatres the “Jerry Lewis Cinemas” established in 1969 with the National Cinema Corporation (NCC). None, however, were set up outside the United States, and by 1980 Lewis and NCC filed for bankruptcy.

Prior to my first in-person encounter with Jerry Lewis I had seen reruns of the Martin and Lewis movies on television, as well as Lewis films in the cinema – sometimes traipsing to outer suburban matinees for kids. I was a member of a several film societies and one very hot summer night I, with a group of other young film buffs, watched Who’s Minding the Store? (Frank Tashlin, 1963) projected on the front of a Victorian Terrace in Glebe. At a WEA Film Study Group weekend on comedy Alan Finney came up from Melbourne and presented a session on Lewis. Dressed in red jeans with designer patches, a sweater, white socks and sneakers he emulated the “kid’s” style. Lewis had been a big star and was also championed by a number of French critics in the 1950s and ‘60s, particularly in the magazines Positif and Cahiers du Cinema. Jean-Luc Godard greatly admired Lewis and placed the Martin and Lewis vehicle Hollywood or Bust (1956), directed by Lewis mentor Frank Tashlin, and The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963) in his Cahiers du Cinema Top 10 lists of 1957 and 1963 respectively. Some of the American critics were less impressed. The first sentence in Andrew Sarris entry on Lewis in his late ‘60s auteur “bible” The American Cinema states “I choose to take a stand against Jerry Lewis.”2 He criticises Lewis, although his “anger” is also directed at the French critics for being “presumptuous to claim that Lewis’ screen experiences represent something profound about America.”3

Lewis career was rocky from the ‘70s onwards. In 1972 he directed the non-comic The Day the Clown Cried playing a washed-up German circus clown in a concentration camp entertaining Jewish kids on their way to the gas chamber. Lewis has asserted that it is a bad film and that he would never release it. He didn’t direct again for eight years and then made two films whose titles could be seen as ironically autobiographical: Hardly Working (1980) and Cracking Up (aka Smorgasbord, 1983). He continued to appear and act in television shows and occasional films, including his memorable performance as a kidnapped talk show host in The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983). He continued to perform and at 70 he was triumphant playing the devil in his first Broadway musical Damn Yankees (1996). He also wrote a touching memoir Dean & Me: (a Love Story).4

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis in Melbourne

In 2011 I was the General Manager at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) for its 60th year. Perfect Events, who organised MIFF’s Opening and Closing Nights, was also event-managing a charity function hosted by the alleged underworld figure Mick Gatto to support the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation Australia (MDFA) and Jerry Lewis was the main attraction. Lewis had been a guest on the American Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) telethon with Martin in the early 1950s and hosted The Jerry Lewis MDA Labour Day Telethon from 1966 to 2010. $2.6 billion was raised prior to his rift with MDA. Since 2009 Lewis was the MDFA’s International Patron in Australia.

I received two tickets a few days before the June MDFA fundraiser dinner for 1200 guests at Melbourne’s Docklands and went with my daughter Laura, who independent of me is a serious Lewis fan. She had written essays on Lewis in four different University subjects and had seen his Melbourne show two years earlier with her Dad. We couldn’t believe our luck when we were seated at the table behind Jerry. Laura took my old paperback copy of The Total Filmmaker (1973) that I had given her and we asked Mick Gatto if Jerry could sign it. OK we behaved like groupies!5 Jerry sat fairly quietly at the the table waiting to go on however he did sign the book and when he got on stage he performed a well-oiled show. Propped on a stool he presented a sort of personal history peppered with jokes, mugging, gags and film clips and for around an hour entertained the audience, 90% of whom were probably Mick Gatto’s “friends”. Lewis was 85 and now living in Las Vegas and still performing one-off shows.

Jerry Lewis

Mick Gatto with Jerry Lewis

I realise that some find Lewis, his comedy and films, lowbrow, infantile, embarrassing, smug and indulgently sentimental. Lewis and the Lewis persona is complex, and can be problematic and contradictory. He is however a master of physical comedy, timing and gags, improvisation and formal innovation in both sound and imagery. In the Lewis-directed films he is often less interested in traditional narratives, plot or resolutions than he is in the opportunities his often surreal worlds provide to express himself and encourage “being happy with who you are.”6 He takes pleasure in indulging his fantasies and personal obsessions in these worlds which have their own logic and are often full of anarchy and excess. Lewis can be viewed as a modernist, an avant-garde artist, an absurdist who focuses and deconstructs particularly the worlds of comedy, show business and Hollywood. In an interview with Chris Fujiwara, Lewis stated that the beauty of his kind of work was the opportunity for “daring and risk-taking”7 and that he loved “knocking down the fourth wall.”8 Lewis’ experimentation also created a space for social commentary about class, money and position, to critique societal conventions and mores and to share his sometimes stripped bare psychological insights into “persons and people”9 including himself.

Thanks to Laura and James Sabine for their insights and recollections.

Endnotes

  1. Jerry Lewis, The Total Film-maker (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 82.
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (New York: Dutton Paperback, 1968), p. 240.
  3. Ibid., p. 242.
  4. Jerry Lewis, Dean & Me (A Love Story) (New York, Broadway Books, 2005).
  5. Our Jack Russell dogs are named Dean and Jerry!
  6. “Might as well like yourself, just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you (…) if you don’t think too much of yourself how do you expect others to.” ­– Professor Kelp (Lewis) in The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963).
  7. Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Contemporary Film Directors) (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2009), p.120.
  8. Ibid., p.117.
  9. “I love persons and people”; “Persons are people who have made it, who are rich and famous. So that, of course makes them persons and they’re not people anymore.” – Fella (Lewis), Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1959). Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses this phrase in “The Lewis Contradiction”, an article written for the catalogue of the Viennale’s Jerry Lewis retrospective in 2013, and available in English online at http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2016/06/the-lewis-contradiction/