Over the course of the 50s and 60s Jerry Lewis was one of the most successful comedians in America. During his early years working with Dean Martin as part of the “Martin and Lewis” duo he rivaled Frank Sinatra as a nightclub draw, he had a popular radio show, he was a host in early television and he was a major draw at movie theaters. However, he was a rather divisive figures, especially later in his career when people kind of started to get sick of his shtick. A lot of people just found him annoying and we’ve all heard those jokes that cited his continuing popularity in France as proof of that nation’s questionable taste. Oddly enough, despite my usual interest in old Hollywood cinema I’ve managed to pretty much avoid ever one of his movies. I’ve seen him in his dramatic supporting role in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, I’ve seen clips of him on talk shows, and I’m sure I’ve seeing bits and pieces of his famous Muscular dystrophy telethons, but otherwise I’m completely unfamiliar with Lewis’ work, making him one of the most famous and successful people I’ve never even tried to look into. So, I’ve decided to do a quick crash course that looks at some of his work when he was at the height of his popularity both during the Martin and Lewis years and in the later your when he started directing his own work.
At War with the Army (1950)
Jerry Lewis began his career as a film star by making about twenty movies with Dean Martin while they were still part of the “Martin and Lewis” team. As a nightclub action “Martin and Lewis” shows were built around the contrast between the two performers’ styles. Martin would be a debonair future rat pack crooner and would play as a sort of straight man to Jerry Lewis, who would act like an almost inhumanly wacky class clown who would almost reach early Robin Williams levels of being “on” at all times. The two had appeared together in a supporting capacity in two films prior to this but At War with the Army was the first film where the duo headlined a film. It is not, however, considered to be a wildly successful debut and if I’m being honest the only reason I really picked it for this little Jerry Lewis marathon (aside from it representing an era I wanted to cover) was that it was really easy to find streaming. That kind of backfired as the main reason it was so easy to obtain was that it apparently fell into the public domain at some point and as such there are a lot of really crappy transfers floating around and the one I watched looked like it hadn’t been even a little bit restored, so in the interest of full disclosure this was something of a compromised viewing.
This is a pretty basic example of a “service comedy,” a comedy sub-genre built around poking light fun at the more mundane elements of military service and life on military bases. These were of course rather popular in the post-war years as a generation of men had some experience of military life and must have received these movies in much the way we watch office comedies today. In it Martin plays a sergeant who is hoping to get shipped off base to something more exciting while Lewis plays a new recruit who is unsuccessfully trying to get a leave of absence to visit his wife, who is having a child. The two of them were also apparently entertainers before entering the army, so they are also trying to rehearse for a camp talent show because, well, the movie needs to have some reason to have Dean Martin sing. I didn’t find it overly funny and I must say I’m a little worried that Jerry Lewis is going to be a bit grating on me during this marathon because he spent most of this movie talking in a very annoying voice. However, I will withhold judgement until I see some of his more highly regarded work.
** out of Five
Artists and Models (1955)
What a difference five years makes. Going from the slapdash At War With the Army to the large budget Artists and Models shows quite a jump in confidence in what people thought a Martin and Lewis comedy could be. This was something like the twelfth film the comedy duo made in five years… I have no idea how they found the time to make all those movies and also do their usual nightclub tours, but somehow they pulled it off and you can probably see how the two might have gotten a bit sick of one another’s company. Indeed this is close to being the last film the duo made together and you can sense hints of meta-commentary about the two splitting apart in the movie. The film is actually set in, of all things, the world of 1950s comic books and has Martin’s character chasing a comic book artist played by Dorothy Malone and Lewis chasing her roommate played by Shirley MacLaine. In this period comic books were almost exclusively a medium for children, but being the perpetual man-child that he is Lewis’ character is a big fan of comic books and is partly attracted to MacLaine’s character because she occasionally models for her roommate garbed as her signature character The Bat Lady. MacLaine is a standout here who is much hornier and more energetic than the MacLaine characters we’d see in Billy Wilder’s movies and seems like one of the few characters who could actually have been an understandable match for someone with Jerry Lewis’ comic persona.
The movie was directed by Frank Tashlin, who had previously worked as a writer and director on the Looney Tunes shorts, so he could probably relate somewhat to this world and he injects the movie with some absurdist physical comedy like a massage scene where Lewis’ legs are twisted and contorted unnaturally and the film also has some straight-up pop culture spoofs like a clear riff on Rear Window. Shot in technicolor and in the VistaVision format, the movie was clearly made with a lot of confidence and you can also see that the film’s madcap energy generally fits Jerry Lewis more than the laidback and cool personal of Dean Martin. It’s long been theorized that the reason the Martin and Lewis team ultimately broke up because Martin was sick of the louder Lewis getting more credit for the duo’s success and you can kind of see how he would have felt like this sort of thing wasn’t playing to his strengths. I’m also still not quite sure what to make of Jerry Lewis’ comic persona. He’s certain more enjoyable here in a well-made movie but his voice still grates a bit and he almost feels like a bit of a precursor to Adam Sandler and his manic comedy persona.
*** out of Five
The Ladies Man (1961)
The “Martin and Lewis” comedy team dissolved in 1956, possibly because Dean Martin felt Lewis was getting all the credit but neither of them spoke publically about the “split.” Both men landed on their feet however and Lewis quickly established himself as a solo performer both on stage and screen and eventually landed an extraordinarily lucrative contract with Paramount that also gave him a great deal of control over his movies and would also allow him to begin directing. His second directorial effort and one of the films for which he’s most remembered is 1961’s The Ladies Man, a comedy about a weird nerdy guy who swears off women forever after his girlfriend cheats on him only to then take a job as a handyman at a big high class all female boardinghouse. The film opens with a big “all events are fictional” disclaimer, which is itself a joke because almost everything that happens in this movie is outlandish and crazy. The basic premise of this, with the protagonist having serious issues with women over a single slight, is kind of misogynistic on the surface but everything in the movie is so cartoony that it’s hard to get too worked up about that. The film also isn’t overly plot heavy and almost plays like a series of sketches around a specific theme and location and some extremely wacky antics and fourth wall breaks ensue.
As a director Lewis is certainly trying to flex his creative muscles a lot here and borrows some from the cartoonish touch that Frank Tashlin had on Artists and Models. The film plays out on this gigantic dollhouse like set where you can see into various rooms from the outside and Lewis fills the film with some fairly inventive visual as well as some truly strange digressions. However, Jerry Lewis the actor impresses me less here than Jerry Lewis the director. I’ve tried to be patient with Lewis’ screen persona but man can he be loud and grating and that issue is even more pronounced given that he’s not sharing his screen time with the debonair straight man Dean Martin. His character is also so crazy that it can be a little hard to take him even a little seriously when the film tries to build anything resembling a story around him, especially in the second half where it tries to make him something of an object of sympathy. One of Lewis’ goals in this era was to inject his comedy with a little bit of pathos, and ones mileage with that will probably vary based on how inclined you are to enjoy his man-child characters in the first place. I can see why some people would really dig it though as there is definitely something rather auteur-like and adventurous about the whole thing, almost like an American Jaques Tati film, but for me that comedy persona just kind of undercut the whole operation too much to fully get behind it.
**1/2 out of Five
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Jerry Lewis’s most famous movie is almost certainly his 1963 effort The Nutty Professor. That was true before Eddie Murphy’s popular remake and it’s especially true after it. In fact most modern viewers watching the movie will instantly recognize that this movie was the inspiration for the voice of the Professor Frink character from “The Simpsons.” I saw the Eddie Murphy movie ages ago and am not a huge fan. The two movies have fairly different comedic outlooks but they do have the same basic concept: a scientist who is something of a “nerd” develops a potion that makes him into a sort of Mr. Hyde called Buddy Love whose more handsome and popular. In the remake the professor is obese and the potion makes him skinny but here it’s mostly just about the effect it has on his personality. It turns him from a shuddering weakling to this chain-smoking debonair singer who is the life of the party who doesn’t wear glasses and is unrecognizable in a sort of Clark Kent to Superman kind of way. One can kind of view this as sort of statement about Lewis being at war with his own comic persona, albeit one where he curiously places the kookier persona as the default and the “normal” one as the aberration.
It is also not hard to view Buddy Love as something of a subtweet of his old friend Dean Martin and the “rat pack” crew that he was now running with given that he is a chain-smoking singer and womanizer but he’s also made out to be a bully and a fool and is suggesting that being a kind-hearted goofball is preferable to being one of those “cool” people. Of course in a modern context a lot of this could be viewed as a bunch of “nice guy-ism” and the movie isn’t terribly concerned about the inner life of the woman that these two personas is going after (who’s also one of the professor’s students, which is also an issue that goes unaddressed), but as a simple comedic fable it’s interesting and it’s also interesting when you consider it within the context of Lewis’ career. Looking past that I’d say that this is one of the less abrasive Lewis comedies in part because his nutty professor voice amused me more than some of his other comedic voices and also because his outlandish personas are actually tied into the story rather than ancillary to it. That said, while I get what he’s trying to do with the Buddy Love stuff the movie does sort of just give up on being funny in those parts and frankly I’m not sure I was exactly laughing uproariously during much of it.
*** out of Five
Boeing Boeing (1965)
When I put my Jerry Lewis retrospective together I was kind of flying blind. I knew I wanted to look at Artists and Models, The Ladies Man, and The Nutty Professor but I wasn’t really sure what my first and final movies would be and ultimately made my choices based in part on availability. For my last movie I’m looking at Boeing Boeing, a movie that (based on the other four movies I looked at) isn’t very representative of the man’s comedy and in which he’s probably more of a co-star to Tony Curtis than the lead performer on. It does hold an important place in the man’s career as it was the last movie under his Paramount contract but it maybe wasn’t the best movie to place in a marathon… but I ended up quite liking the movie in part because rather than in spite of the fact that it isn’t very indicative of Lewis’ style. The film is set in Paris and concerns a pair of American bachelor foreign correspondents and specifically one played by Tony Curtis, who we come to learn has been juggling three separate fiancés who don’t know each other. These fiancés are each stewardesses for three different airlines and he often refers to them by their respective employers (British United, Air France, and Lufthansa), so the plan is that because they all have different flight schedules he can count on them never being in town at the same time. Essentially it’s an update to the sailor who has a girl in every port, but supercharged.
It’s incredibly caddish and sexist behavior and the movie is aware of this and eventually gives the guy some degree of comeuppance, but until then we get to have a certain vicarious thrill to watching this guy flail all over the place as his whole operation kind of falls apart when the women all find themselves back in Paris at the same time and he needs to find ways to keep them separated. Lewis plays his friend who arrives to discover all this craziness and has to try to help him with his various cover-ups. The whole thing is basically set over a weekend and largely in the Curtis character’s apartment, which sort of betrays its origins as a stage play and you could definitely picture the manic comedy here being particularly effective in that environment. It’s also notable that Jerry Lewis is not really acting in his usual persona here and isn’t even putting on some other character like he was as Buddy Love, really he’s just kind of giving a straightforward comedic performance without a weird voice or exaggerated mannerisms which blends in with what Tony Curtis is doing. So yeah, not a very Jerry Lewis-like performance or movie… and depending on how you feel about the guy that might be for the best.
***1/2 out of Five
So, that’s five Jerry Lewis movies to see if I liked the guy and I can’t exactly say that they left me a huge fan… but there were certain stretches here and there where I could certainly see the appeal. As a director the guy certainly had some inventive idea and I can also see why his comedic persona could be amusing, at least for short stretches, but for me it was often a bit grating to deal with for entire movies. It also isn’t hard to see why the public would turn on him eventually, no matter who you are comedic personas almost always get old eventually. I left the little marathon off before he really fell off with the American public and the “they like him in France” jokes really started to take over. I think that whole “French” thing combined with his sometimes erratic public behavior did ultimately hurt him. It’s a little surprising that he never really made any kind of come-back and his movies sort of never re-entered the public eye. The guy lived until 2017, you’d think at some point he would have tried to play the father in an Adam Sandler movie or something, but outside of his telethon he really toiled in obscurity in the last two decades of his life. I don’t think I’m going to be seeking out his other movies too diligently, but who knows, if one of them comes on TCM or something I might give it a look.