Read an Excerpt
By Chris Fujiwara
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2009 Chris Fujiwara
All right reserved.
Chapter One An American Dream
Of Jerry Lewis's beginnings as a comedian; of his fateful first encounter with Dean Martin in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1946; of the overnight success of their nightclub act; of their rise to stardom in films and on television; of the mounting tensions between them that led, after sixteen films together, to their breakup in 1956; of Lewis's smooth transition to solo stardom; and of his ascent to the status of "total filmmaker" (director-producer-writer-actor) the chronicle has been told in so many books (of which Lewis's own Dean and Me, co-written with James Kaplan, is the best) that it is pointless to recite it again. For the purposes of this book, I wish only to retain a sense of the continuity of Lewis's work in all its stages. The original impulse of his comedy, to which he has remained faithful throughout his career, was to define his comic persona in opposition to social and cultural values embodied by another—usually a partner (Martin) or authority figure. Such a structure is traditional in American comedy: star comedians have generally played characters more inept, more innocent, more resourceful, or more downtrodden than those around them. The peculiarly modern tension that the structure takes on in Lewis's work arises from two factors. The first is a profound ambivalence: the Lewis figure may be incapable of matching the standards of the other, or he may be in an implicit revolt against them, but the other is also what the Lewis figure already is or may become. Second, in Lewis's work, the encounter between the two counterparts (or two parts of the same personality) always takes place within a context defined by the mass media and their protocols and technologies.
Before teaming with Martin, Lewis toured the vaudeville circuit with a "record act" in which he played back the recorded voices of popular and operatic singers and accompanied them with his own exaggerated pantomime. These performances undoubtedly not only parodied the sentiments the songs were meant to evoke but revealed the constructed, performed, and artificial nature of the person who was supposed to be exteriorizing these sentiments (thereby subverting the ideology of individuality). In these "Satirical Impressions in Pantomimicry," Lewis presented himself as a partial or composite being—a personality that existed because of, and through a difference from, another personality (Lewis and Kaplan 14). Foregrounding this difference exposed the fictive nature of both personalities.
The partnership with Martin—"a handsome man and a monkey"—enabled Lewis to explore this dualistic structure more anarchically and more dialectically than in his previous solo performances. In their performances together, Martin personified the male ideal, in comparison with which Lewis embodied various kinds of default and deviance. The difference between them was not merely one of quantity (as if Lewis's character merely stood lower than Martin's on a scale of masculinity and competency), nor was it a clear-cut binary opposition. As Frank Krutnik writes, Lewis, with his perpetually shifting identities, "encompasses not simply an alternative 'voice' to Martin but an alternative mode of being, a splintering multiplicity that contends with the handsome man's singularity" (Krutnik, "Sex and Slapstick" 113). I wish to explore the relationship between these two modes of being and its structural role in Lewis's work.
Paramount brought Martin and Lewis to Hollywood and put them into a variety of standard comedy-team feature-film formats: service comedies, haunted-house comedies, Western spoofs, and so on. As Lewis later wrote, the structures required by the conventional feature-length film made it "damn near impossible" for the duo to sustain the spontaneity and the communication of their pleasure in each other's performances that made their live shows so popular: "Three acts—that structure is as old as the hills. But there are parts of the human spirit that three acts can leave out.... Even in the best of conditions, the joy and wildness got freeze-dried. Between the script, the makeup, setups, lighting, and multiple takes, the spontaneity (which was the essence of our work) tended to wither" (Lewis and Kaplan 77, 267). The Hollywood experts who guided the Martin and Lewis films—on whom Lewis would later take satirical revenge in The Errand Boy (1961) and The Patsy (1964)—demanded only that he step in front of the camera to make his funny faces and talk in his funny voices. Enthralled by the apparatus and the techniques of cinema, Lewis took advantage of his stardom to learn about all aspects of filmmaking on the sets of his films and on the Paramount lot. (Lewis traces this fascination back to his wartime stint as an usher at the Paramount Theater in New York, when he saw studio promotional films that showed "the stars on the lot, the sound stages, the art department, the camera department, the wardrobe and makeup departments, the stars' dressing rooms, the commissary, and—most fascinating to me—the editing room" [Lewis and Kaplan 76].) On his days off from Paramount, he recruited friends to work with him on his amateur sixteen-millimeter films.
From the start, Lewis took an active part in shaping his films with Martin: on their first film, George Marshall's My Friend Irma (1949), he reworked the story (based on a well-known radio comedy series) with the writer, Cy Howard, to make room for a new character, to be played by Lewis (Lewis and Kaplan 85). Lewis collaborated on the scripts of several films, such as Hal Walker's That's My Boy (1951), without credit, and made suggestions on staging and camera coverage to the directors. He received a special credit for staging "special material in song numbers" in Marshall's Money from Home (1953). For an explanation of Lewis's claim to have codirected several of the Martin and Lewis films—including Norman Taurog's Living It Up (1954)—the reader should consult my interview with him in this volume. Despite Lewis's input and his increasing artistic ambitions, he constantly found himself frustrated by the producer Hal Wallis's insistence on sticking with established formulas. "If you want to know what kept us from blossoming and finding our highest comic potential onscreen," Lewis wrote, "I can tell you the answer in two words: Hal Wallis" (Lewis and Kaplan 157).
Though the Martin and Lewis films fail to give an adequate documentation of the partnership, even the most mediocre of them contains thematic elements or bits of material that Lewis would develop in his solo films. The best Martin and Lewis films, Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956), were made by their best director, Frank Tashlin, whom Lewis acknowledged as his mentor (and who made "a strategic decision to let [Lewis] in on the technical aspects" of filmmaking [Lewis and Kaplan 232–33]): the two films clearly belong more to Tashlin's thematic and stylistic universe than to Lewis's (though it is more difficult to say the same of the later films in which Tashlin directed Lewis).
After the breakup of the team in 1956 (prior to the release of Hollywood or Bust, their final film together), Lewis produced, for Paramount, his first film without Martin, The Delicate Delinquent (directed and written by Don McGuire), filmed in 1956 and released in 1957. For the next three years, Lewis alternated between starring in potboilers produced by his nemesis, Hal Wallis, and directed by George Marshall (The Sad Sack, 1957) or Norman Taurog (Don't Give Up the Ship, 1959; and Visit to a Small Planet, 1959, loosely adapted from but not much elevated by its connection with Gore Vidal's hit Broadway play) and starring in his own superior productions under Tashlin's direction: Rock-a-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy (both 1958), and Cinderfella (1960). The last of these was a pivotal film for Lewis in its presentation of the metamorphosis of the put-upon, incompetent "Fella" (a typical rendition by Lewis of the figure he had come to call "the Idiot") into a suave and masterful prince—a metamorphosis whose profound resonances with his own career Lewis would continue to explore in his subsequent work.
In 1960, before the release of Cinderfella, Lewis wrote, directed, produced, and starred in The Bellboy, the first film on which he received credit as director. The Bellboy represented a risk for Lewis and Paramount: the title character, Stanley (Lewis), does not speak until the end, and the film has no plot, depicting an unconnected series of the hero's misadventures at and around the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where the film was largely shot. The studio's trepidation over the film's plotlessness is reflected in the prologue, in which the fictional Paramount executive Jack Emulsion [Jack Kruschen] gamely tries to explain the unusual nature of the film. Partly funding the film himself, Lewis shot it on a fast schedule and in black-and-white (at that time, still a commercial option for Jerry Lewis comedies: The Delicate Delinquent, The Sad Sack, Don't Give Up the Ship, and Visit to a Small Planet were all in black-and-white, as would be The Errand Boy and It's Only Money). This original, experimental film was a great success.
Over the next five years, Lewis directed five more films for Paramount. For The Ladies Man (1961), he built a vast set (occupying two Paramount soundstages) to represent the Hollywood boarding house for aspiring actresses at which the woman-fearing Herbert (Lewis) gets a job as a houseboy. Lewis's exuberant mise-en-scène of this incredible set, in color, shows his expanding directorial confidence and ambition (see fig. 1).
In The Errand Boy, Lewis satirizes Hollywood filmmaking, casting himself as Morty Tashman (in an homage to his cinematic mentor, Frank Tashlin), a poster-hanger who is recruited as a studio spy and, after a series of mishaps, is made a star. Like The Ladies Man and The Bellboy, The Errand Boy is structured as a loose succession of gags. The Nutty Professor (1963), the one Lewis film that has attained something like classic status among mainstream American critics and film historians, presents a more solid narrative. In this takeoff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Jekyll figure, Dr. Julius Kelp, is a clumsy, shy chemistry professor with buck teeth, thick glasses, and a frog voice; the Hyde into whom he transforms himself, Buddy Love, is a slick, vain, boorish lounge lizard. The Patsy (1964), another show-business satire, focuses on the business of manufacturing celebrity, with Lewis as the bellboy Stanley Belt, who is "discovered" and made into a star by the staff of a recently deceased comedian. In The Family Jewels (1965), Lewis plays seven roles; six are the uncles of the nine-year-old heiress Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth), who, under the terms of her late father's will, must choose her new guardian from among them: a boat captain, a circus clown, a photographer, an airline pilot, a detective, and a gangster. The seventh role is the family chauffeur, Willard, whom Donna resolutely prefers.
During the same period in which he made these masterpieces, Lewis also starred in three films produced by his production company but directed by Tashlin—the entertaining It's Only Money (1962), the savage Who's Minding the Store? (1963), and the delirious Disorderly Orderly (1964)—and, reluctantly, one last film for Wallis, Boeing Boeing (dir. John Rich, 1965), with which Lewis ended his long Paramount tenure. All these films were reviewed more or less indistinguishably by American film critics (except that since Boeing Boeing, the only insignificant film among them, is a straight farce rather than slapstick comedy, Lewis, cast in a supporting role behind Tony Curtis, received praise for his restraint). On the other hand, a number of French critics, including writers for the two leading film magazines, Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, heralded Lewis as an original and important filmmaker. (The two magazines had already championed Tashlin in the 1950s.) The most tireless of Lewis's French supporters, the Positif and France-Observateur critic Robert Benayoun, would publish a major book on Lewis, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, in 1972, by which time three other books had already appeared in French: Jean-Louis Leutrat and Paul Simonci's Jerry Lewis (1964), Noël Simsolo's Le monde de Jerry Lewis (1969), and Gérard Recacens's Jerry Lewis (1970). The enthusiasm of French intellectuals (shared by the general public) for Lewis has given rise, in the United States, to countless lazy and patronizing jokes at his expense and at that of France from unthinking, conformist pundits—gibes whose ideological nature has become unmistakable and more obnoxious than ever in a period of U.S. history that has witnessed the rebranding of "Freedom Fries."
Lewis's departure from Paramount in 1965 marked a drastic change in his fortunes as a director and star. He found a temporary home at Columbia, for which he directed Three on a Couch (1966), from a script by Sam Taylor that was not written for him. Attempting to modify his image, Lewis cast himself as Chris Pride, a successful artist who is offered a commission that includes an extended stay in Paris. When his psychiatrist fiancée, Elizabeth (Janet Leigh), declines to accompany him out of concern for three female patients who have an aversion to men, Chris undertakes to "cure" the three women by befriending them under different disguises. The strain of working against a conventional and limiting structure is apparent throughout the early scenes (Lewis said, "It was a challenge for me and I had to work terribly hard to adjust myself to the comedian. I needed a long time, two and a half reels, before I could let him loose" [Benayoun 180]), but Lewis's triumph over the script becomes total with the first sequence in which Chris appears in the guise of the rodeo king Ringo Raintree.
In his next film for Columbia, The Big Mouth (1967), Lewis plays an accountant named Gerald Clamson, who, while on vacation in San Diego, becomes the target of criminals through his resemblance to gangster Sid Valentine, who has apparently been killed after absconding with some diamonds. Though based on a routine premise, The Big Mouth reaffirms Lewis's commitment to the absurd and his independence from Hollywood norms of narrative and characterization. Lewis reined himself in to star in Way ... Way Out (dir. Gordon Douglas, 1966) for Twentieth Century–Fox and in Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (dir. Jerry Paris, 1968) and Hook, Line, and Sinker (dir. George Marshall, 1969) for Columbia. The last of these three is by far the best, because of Lewis's obvious (though uncredited) participation as codirector (he also produced the film). In Hook, Line, and Sinker, Lewis's character, after going on a spending spree beyond his means when his physician tells him he has only a short time to live, decides to fake his own death to avoid paying the credit-card bills. The grimness of the plot is symptomatic of the darkening of Lewis's tone and concerns at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies.
In 1970, he made, for United Artists, the only feature film he directed in which he did not star, One More Time, a sequel to Richard Donner's Salt and Pepper (1968), with the stars (Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr.) of the earlier film re-creating their roles of the London nightclub owners Chris Pepper (Lawford) and Charlie Salt (Davis). In One More Time, the impecunious Chris feigns his own death while assuming the identity of his wealthy, titled identical-twin brother, who has been mysteriously murdered. Next, Lewis directed Which Way to the Front? (1970), in which he stars as Brendan Byers, a multimillionaire who, after being drafted but excused from service as 4-F (the film is set in 1943), forms a small private army with three other rejects and sets off with them to Europe, where he impersonates the German field marshal Kesselring, a confidant of Hitler (Sidney Miller). Warner Bros., the distributor, buried the film on its U.S. release, and its commercial failure brought an end to the twenty-one-year period during which Lewis was regularly on movie screens and to the ten-year period in which he flourished as a director. His attempt at an independent production, The Day the Clown Cried, which he directed in Europe in 1972, with himself in the lead role of a clown in Nazi Germany who is ordered to accompany a convoy of children to the gas chambers, ran into difficulties, including the failure of the producer, Nat Wachsberger, to meet his financial commitments. Lewis completed filming by investing his own money, but postproduction was never finished, and because of legal complications the film has not been released.
Excerpted from Jerry Lewis by Chris Fujiwara Copyright © 2009 by Chris Fujiwara. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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