I have an article in last week’s issue, “The Real Shame About Jerry Lewis,” in which I argue that though Lewis is getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at this year’s Academy Awards, what he really deserves is a special Oscar for his movie work. Lewis was never anywhere near as popular in France as he was in America in the ‘40s, ’50s and ‘60s. In the ‘60s, when he was writing and directing many of his own movies, he was one of the few people in America or the world making interesting comedies with great physical humour and visual innovation in the tradition of the silent classics.
Here are four movies worth watching if you want to understand why America – not France, America – loved Jerry Lewis.
Artists and Models (1955) – Lewis’s best movie with Dean Martin and his first with Frank Tashlin, the former Looney Tunes cartoon director who became his mentor. This comedy classic features hyper-saturated Technicolor, beautiful women (including Anita Ekberg, Dorothy Malone, and a young Shirley MacLaine as Jerry’s most plausible love interest ever), cartoony slapstick, and satire of violent comic books, the Cold War, publishers, juvenile delinquency and the movie Rear Window. In other words, it has more to say about ‘50s America than a thousand boring versions of Revolutionary Road. In this great scene, Lewis goes to a massage therapist and winds up getting himself tied up like a pretzel; you also get to hear Lewis let loose with his trademark cry of “lady!”
The Ladies’ Man (1961) – Co-written and directed by Lewis, this is about a guy who lands a job at an all-girl boarding house even though a bad relationship has left him distrustful of women. For this movie, Lewis was responsible for several innovations in design and audio; he commissioned a huge multi-story set (one of the biggest in Paramount’s history) and then created a system of hidden microphones, so he could move the camera without worrying about picking up the shadow of a boom mike. Moving the actors around the set with ballet-like precision, Lewis created a movie similar to Jaques Tati’s Mr. Hulot films, but in some ways funnier and certainly weirder.
The Nutty Professor (1963) – Many people assumed that Buddy Love, Lewis’s obnoxiously suave alter-ego in his most famous film, is a parody of his ex-partner Dean Martin, but Lewis has denied this, and rightly so: this movie is really about the two sides of Lewis himself, the nerdy figure of fun and the slick showbiz phony. It’s a very self-critical movie and pretty dark for a light comedy; Lewis brings out the pain not only of being the awkward, unattractive Professor Kelp, but of being Buddy Love, who doesn’t seem to like himself any more than we do. That’s what gives this movie an edge that the various remakes and ripoffs have completely lost.
Who’s Minding the Store? – In this 1963 film, written and directed by Tashlin and executive-produced by Lewis, Jerry is a well-meaning doofus who’s over his head in a job at a big department store. That more or less describes Paul Blart: Mall Cop as well, the difference being that Lewis’s screw-ups are actually funny, and even have something to say about the age of mechanization and mass-production that was the early ’60s. But the most famous routine in the movie is one that Lewis had been doing for years before, and would do for years afterward: typing on an imaginary typewriter to the tune of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter.” People who grew up in the ’90s may recognize this scene because it was copied beat-for-beat on the show Animaniacs.