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Jerry Lewis, the Last Comic Actor

Why should we look at Jerry Lewis? There are a number of reasons. The decline of comic cinema is one. Even actors are in short supply: Peter Sellers in England; Sordi, Tognazzi, Manfredi, Valeri and the “foreign-born” Gassman in Italy; but already in France we need to go down to the level of Funès, Bourvil, Blanche, and Darry Cowl, while Hollywood – an inexhaustible breeding ground – survives only on the most astute character actors and Jack Lemmon. […] Authors, too, are few and far between. To say nothing of Italy, for pity’s sake. The concept behind Italian-style comedy is a paraphrase of Buster Keaton’s famous quip: why be vulgar when, with minimum effort, you can be scurrilous? Coprolalia is its rule, and there is no point explaining what its obsession, or rather its fixation, might be. We have some comedians and scriptwriters, but all of them work too much. We have no director-writers, except for Marco Ferreri (The Conjugal Bed, The Ape Woman), but here we are moving away from comic cinema and into the grotesque, into darker moods.

In France there is only Jacques Tati, but the rarity of his creative undertakings borders on sterility: Playtime, which is just about to come out, after almost a decade of nothingness, will show if he still has something to say. Like the late Preston Sturges, a talented man, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder are in the “hawks” category of film satire, though the former tends towards an oblique form of acceptance, and the latter towards virulent criticism of American social norms. Both of them, however, are old, and now adopt a more detached, and therefore more serene, vision of life. They have no time to be indignant.

In the “doves” category we find Richard Quine and Blake Edwards, as well as Frank Tashlin, who has often created a fusion of sophisticated sex comedy and frenzied slapstick, adopting a style derived from that of cartoons, which is where he made his debut. But he, too, is on a downward spiral, and it did him no good to shift from Jerry Lewis to Doris Day, who is fiercely determined to prolong her second youth as an actress. Tashlin’s comedy has its roots in all the most characteristic layers of North American society: in technology (It’s Only Money), comics (Artists and Models), cinema (Hollywood or Bust), light music (The Girl Can’t Help It), and advertising (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), but his irreverence towards the “mass media” and the “civilisation of machines” is anything but satire, for it is more of a tribute than a criticism. He does not need to distort or exaggerate the technological or comic-strip aspects of society, just showing them as they are is enough to make them look funny. While making fun of them, he accepts and adores them because they are part of his world.

So we need to look at Jerry Lewis, the James Dean of comedy, and the only film comic still on active duty with ingenuity, ideas and a vision of the world. His career can be divided into three phases: 1) the preparation of the character, from 1949 to 1956, with sixteen films together with Dean Martin; 2) the autonomous development of the character from 1957 to 1960; 3) the fully fledged character and creation of a world, with films personally written, acted, directed and produced from 1960: seven in all, from The Bellboy 1960) to Three on a Couch (1966). The division is convenient but it does not take into consideration the eight films directed by Frank Tashlin which, thanks to the director’s personality, constitute a homogeneous series: the first was Artists and Models (1955), which belongs to the first phase, while the last was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), which belongs to the third. What is more, when he made his debut as a director, Lewis continued to act in films with other directors. It is worth recalling the last two, Boeing Boeing (1965) and Way… Way Out (1966), both of them mediocre and yet interesting because they indirectly point to the beginning of a fourth phase, that of his maturity.

 

It is hard to cast doubt on Jerry Lewis’s qualities as an actor. While the first stage of his career was more a matter of repetition than of evolution, as Adriano Aprà has pointed out in a very insightful essay (“Il meraviglioso mondo di Jerry Lewis”, Filmcritica no. 141), this was due to the fact that for many years he tried to perfect a visual form of comedy, exploring the full potential of his pantomimic and phonic art.

It should be said that one of the reasons why Italian audiences and critics did not appreciate Jerry Lewis as much as he deserved, and still deserves, is the fact that his voice is dubbed. […] There is a scene in You’re Never Too Young in which Jerry Lewis takes control of a switchboard and imitates Nina Foch’s voice on the phone; his facial mimicry creates an eloquent image of his actions, but the comic effect is undermined by the dubbing, since the Italian version had to use the voice actress who played the part of Foch. Similarly, it is worth mentioning the scene in which Lewis suddenly switches from imitating the voice of a 14-year-old boy to that of a gangster, using his facial expression and tone of voice to imitate Humphrey Bogart.

Marilyn Monroe was once asked to draw up a list of the ten “sexiest” men in the world. She did just that, and one of the ten names was that of Jerry Lewis. What ever di poor M.M. find sexually attractive in this funny little man, who was monotonously and endlessly referred to by spectators and critics as being “monkey-like”? This was a comedian who after being labelled the “Id” (idiot) and then “Ug” (ugly) managed “with almost diabolical intelligence, to build a personal mythology, a comic style, and a small industrial empire on such offensive nicknames” (Robert Benayoun,Jerry Lewis, Man of the Year”, Positif, nos. 50-52).

For a very long time he was an adult who behaved in fiction with the mentality of a child, and a Yankee child at that: repressed, dissociated, and fearful. Despite the external differences, we can clearly see the similarities between him and Stan Laurel, for whom he had great admiration, calling him “the one and only Stan”.

Jerry Lewis, too, is quite unique. He is the last of the great expressionist comedians, those who think with their bodies and express themselves through spasmodic muscular acrobatics, from dizzying squints to the absurd movements of their legs. And, in terms of sound, his comedy is phonic rather than verbal in nature: he makes us laugh at the way he pronounces a joke, almost never for the actual joke itself. […]

“I like liking you” is his motto both as a character and as a showman. Here we find the roots of the danger that constantly hangs over his work: sentimentalism. Comedy and sentiment can indeed coexist, as Chaplin’s cinema clearly shows, but on condition that the latter does not diminish or weaken the former. Lewis’s constant temptation is to be loved as much for his amiability as for his tomfoolery. When he manages to dominate it, he will create the masterpiece he came so close to in The Nutty Professor and almost achieved in The Ladies Man and The Patsy.

Joseph Levitch, aka Jerry Lewis, turned 41 on 16 March. With Three on a Couch (1966), his seventh film, he made his definitive entry into the adult world. The main theme of the plot might suggest a comedy along the lines of a traditional commercial play, with some pretensions to psychological insight. A sort of Feydeau who has overheard some of Freud’s theories.

Christopher Pride is a painter who wins a competition that finally means he is able to marry Elizabeth Acord, a doctor of psychiatry, and to move to Paris for a year. But Elizabeth is undecided and would like to postpone the wedding yet again: she has three patients, all young and pretty, whom she does not feel she can leave in the hands of other doctors, for they are at a delicate moment in their treatment. The situation is a perfect example of a conflict between Hippocrates and Cupid, between professional duty and private feelings, but with the roles inverted.

The three patients suffer from the same misanthropy complex and, having just come out of amorous relationships that have gone bad, they all hate men. Their reaction is not without its logic: even though the dialogue in the Italian version is not very explicit on the matter, it seems that their boyfriends disappointed them by being of somewhat uncertain virility.

Christopher Pride has a brainwave: without his fiancée knowing, he decides to subject the three girls to a personal therapy of his own. He dates each of the three patients, embodying the ideal male partner of each one: Rutherford, a misogynist and passionate zoologist; Ringo Raintree, a rough cowboy from the Midwest; Warren, an avid athlete.

In Three on a Couch we again find the theme of the split personality that is common to all the films with Jerry Lewis as director […]. It appeared in Cinderfella (1960), a film in which Jerry Lewis wanted to make his debut as a director, but handed over to Frank Tashlin at the last moment, with an eloquent quip: “I’m going to be my reverse”. The French critic Jean-Louis Noames had this to say about it: “There is already this obsession with doubles, this uncontrollable desire to reverse one’s own nature and the fear it leads to. After the allure of opposites, which we also find in The Nutty Professor, here too Jerry panics and once again longs for a return to a primitive environment.”

There is a fundamental difference between Frank Tashlin’s films and those for which the actor takes full creative responsibility: […] once he reaches maturity, Jerry is already bewildered, hypersensitive and neurotic, but instead of adapting to the world, he tends to dominate it. […] We can see this in the story in which he establishes and controls the plot. And we can also see it in his choice of partner, Janet Leigh, who is almost his own age. With the partial exception of Stella Stevens in The Nutty Professor, no female character has ever been given such a huge space in his films, and in the opening credits, Leigh’s name is given the same prominence as his. For the first time, the woman is not seen as some idealised goal and something to be conquered, but rather as a person of equal standing, a fiancée from whom one is separated only by a ceremony, a legal act.

We have already seen how the subject matter of the film is not that dissimilar from that of a sophisticated comedy: the protagonist could well be a Cary Grant or a Tony Curtis. If you take away the character of Heather, the fake sister of Rutherford (who for some mysterious reason has been turned into his aunt in the Italian version) the theme of multiple personalities is approached here without any tricks or disguises: he relies solely on his own resources as an actor to play the parts of the three different characters. […] But is it really true that the part of Christopher Pride could be played by Cary Grant? Only on the face of it. Despite his move towards normality – and dignity – Jerry Lewis clearly cannot and does not wish to detach himself entirely from his roots as a buffoon. It is no coincidence that what his three male roles have in common is their incompetence: when he is thrown out of the door, the misfit, the “Id” and the “Ug” climbs back in through the window.

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