“Comedy comes from pain, comedy comes from uncertainty.” — Jerry Lewis
Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1957, Jerry Lewis’s The Delicate Delinquent debuted as the first film released after his contentious split with Dean Martin. Directed by Don McGuire (co-writer of the previous Martin & Lewis comedy Artists and Models, directed by Frank Tashlin in 1955), it’s an often overlooked film in Jerry Lewis’s career which needs to be fairly reevaluated to properly understand the evolution of the King of Comedy.
Lewis’s solo debut film underscores the redemptive individualistic values that will constitute an essential aspect of his later auteur vision in the 1960s. Raymond Durgnat (The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image, 1970) cites two main themes in Lewis’s films, both of which manifest in The Delicate Delinquent: “Jerry’s desperate attempts to live up to his own ideal of benevolent toughness, and his equally desperate search to be worthy of—and be accepted by—a loving world.”
Embracing his new sentimentalized image, the next year Lewis starred in two films directed by his mentor Frank Tashlin: Rock-a-Bye Baby and The Geisha Boy (1958). An emotionally binary pattern emerges in these romantic comedies. In Rock-a-Bye Baby Clayton Poole (Lewis) feels an unrequited love for sex-symbol Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) while Carla’s more down-to-earth sister Sandy (Connie Stevens) tries to seduce him into normalcy. The same dichotomy is apparent in his last collaboration with Tashlin, The Disorderly Orderly (1964), where Jerome Littlefield (Lewis)—an over-empathetic orderly working at the Whitestone Sanatorium—feels torn between blonde suicidal patient Susan (Susan Oliver) and plain nurse Julie (Karen Sharpe).
Although Lewis’s diverse cinematic personas show a reluctance to grow up or even to accept the painful reality of adult relationships, usually these characters—no matter how clumsy or asocial—make the right (tangentially mature) choice in the end. Despite his abrasive schtick, there is sentimental vulnerability at the core of the Lewisian hero, very unusual for the 1950s—the height of his popularity in America.
The favorable acclaim that Lewis’s zany persona received during the 1960s by French academics, in comparison to an increasingly hostile response by their American counterparts, made Jerry Lewis the director sour and paranoid. Dana Polan noted in Being And Nuttiness (1984) that for the French people Lewis’s films “appear to combine the contradictory sides of America.” Also, the hysterical component of his humor was more easily accepted by European audiences who channeled through Lewis’s persona a critical vision of America.
In Lewis’s films we usually find a series of disconnected sketches unrelated to the main narrative. His longue durée gags became more destructured and surreal, especially in The Patsy (1964), my personal favorite next to The Nutty Professor (1963). The central theme in both films is a sublimated fear of becoming a malfunctioning automaton incapable of belonging. The transformation of Julius Kelp into Buddy Love is not only prodigious, Lewis—through Stella Purdy’s astonished eyes—makes the audience realize that unadulterated intellect is indeed sexy. However, as Lewis’s biographer Shawn Levy wrote: “America took The Nutty Professor for a fairy tale, not a confession.”
“Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation,” asserts Shawn Levy in his exhaustive biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (1997): “Along with the dissolution of the national consensus, came the marginalization of the Court Jester of Camelot. Jerry’s reflection of the national soul has been his blessing and his curse.” After detailing Lewis’s health ailments and professional disintegration during the 1970s, Levy concludes that his fragmented personality and mercurial temperament rendered Lewis at times unreachable even by those dearest to him.
Each year since 1954, Paramount had released a Jerry Lewis picture during the summer and another one at Christmas. Since Visit to a Small Planet was released in April 1960, Lewis had only a couple of months to prepare his first self-directed film (The Bellboy), which opened in July, and later Cinderfella premiered in December of that year. During the filming of The Bellboy, Lewis came upon the idea of mounting a small video camera beneath the regular film camera and connecting it to a closed circuit monitor, thus inventing the original “video assist.”
Cinderfella (1960) is a modern gender-reversed take on Cinderella, and Jerry Lewis’s most appropriate film for the Christmas season. The supporting cast (Ed Wynn, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Judith Anderson) perform around Fella (Lewis) like fairy-tale characters. The staircase dance scene (which caused Lewis’s collapse on the set after consecutive takes) is a magical moment where Lewis’s unexpected coordination and elegance transcend his chronic goofiness. His habitual spastic movements suddenly become graceful steps in search of his Charming Princess.
An almost ethereal attraction between Fella and the Princess is somehow similar to that of Herbert and Fay’s rapport in The Ladies’ Man (seemingly inspired by Lewis’s first crush Lonnie Brown). The same romantic deference is found in the relationship between Stanley (Lewis) and Ellen (Ina Balin) in The Patsy (1964), accentuated in the flashback scene happening at the prom dance ball.
By paying homage to Frank Tashlin’s use of the “clever gag” and enhancing it with deconstructive purpose, The Patsy actually is key to appreciating Jerry Lewis’s ambivalence towards his Hollywood career. Part of his deconstructivist game was rooted in his hidden sex appeal, since Lewis was a sex symbol beneath his constructed misfit façade. As Levy writes of The Patsy: “this was a mature man coming to grips with the fact that his career was built on ephemera and boosted by liars. It’s no wonder the film’s box office was among the softest yet for a Jerry Lewis picture.”
In her essay “A Look at Jerry Lewis: Comic Theory from a Feminist Perspective” (1993) Joanna E. Rapf identified Lewis as an “involuntary feminist” by analyzing of the roles of several female characters in Lewis’s comedies. In The Errand Boy (1961), filmed the same year as The Ladies Man, Magnolia the Ostrich—a female puppet—assures Morty (Lewis): “You believed what you liked,” broadening the scope of his imagination whilst projecting a romantic fantasy.
In Three on a Couch (1966), each of the three target women presents a challenge to Christopher Pride (Lewis) to adapt himself to become their respective male ideals. Three on a Couch is thematically the inverse of The Nutty Professor—here the protagonist (an atypical Lewis figure) is self-assured and beyond successful. “I’m just completely secure,” Chris tells Elizabeth (Janet Leigh), but instead of surpassing his limitations by ingesting a lab potion (The Nutty Professor), Chris is compelled to reinvent himself in more grotesque forms. “In that deception, it was survival,” Jerry Lewis affirmed of this strange story he co-wrote with Sam Taylor.
Cracking Up (1983) was the last film Lewis directed. Shot in Los Angeles, it featured a collection of bizarre sketches—full of non-PC humor—about the world of psychiatrists. Warner wanted to test the film before exhibiting it theatrically. On December 20, 1983, he felt a pain in his chest while editing the film. “I’m having a heart attack,” he cried to SanDee (his second wife), who drove him to Desert Springs Hospital. Jerry Lewis’s heart stopped beating and he was declared briefly clinically dead. He spent the Christmas holidays recovering in the hospital. “I had devastating nightmares,” Lewis recalled: “The tears poured like a faucet.” In January 1984, weeks after surgery, he attended a sneak preview of Cracking Up that went badly: Warner Brothers declared the film unreleasable, determining to premiere it only on cable.
In the wake of the 60th anniversary of Jerry Lewis’s first solo film, it’s time to commemorate the oeuvre of a giant of humor by revisiting some of his neglected gems (The Delicate Delinquent, The Bellboy, The Errand Boy), masterpieces (The Ladies’ Man, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy) and minor classics (Cinderfella, The Disorderly Orderly, Three on a Couch, Cracking Up). For those nostalgic for Martin & Lewis I recommend my favorites: That’s My Boy, The Stooge, Artists and Models, and Hollywood or Bust.