Sunday, April 1, 2012
Getting acquainted with ... Jerry Lewis
This is the latest in my monthly series Getting Acquainted, in which I catch up with three movies by renowned film personalities whose work is generally unfamiliar to me.
Everyone knows who Jerry Lewis is.
If you didn't know him from his movies, you'd know him from his telethons.
Turns out, though, I know him more from his telethons than from his movies.
Turns out, in fact, that I had not seen a single movie in which Jerry Lewis appeared. And as it turns out, that's a lot of movies. IMDB says he's appeared as an actor in 71 different titles, though some of those are TV shows, and some of them are as himself. Still, I should have gotten over my bias that he's a no-talent goofball, and watched at least one thing he was in, before now.
In fact, I'd say I know Lewis from two primary things about him: 1) His eye-crossing, goofball form of comedy is looked down upon by serious people, and 2) The French love him. The French loving Jerry Lewis is almost as famous as people hating anchovies on their pizza. Maybe that seems like a strange comparison, but consider the thing you know most about anchovies. It's that people don't want them on their pizza, right? I'd say the French loving Jerry Lewis, and being considered suspect because of it, has almost risen to become the primary thing people know about him -- at least among young people discovering him after his prime. It has far exceeded its status as trivia and become a defining part of what we know about Lewis. Here is what his wikipedia entry has to say about it:
"Lewis has long remained popular in Europe: he was consistently praised by some French critics in the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema for his absurd comedy, in part because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture awarded Lewis the Legion d'honneur, calling him the 'French people's favorite clown.' Liking Lewis has long been a common stereotype about the French in the minds of many English-speakers, and is often the object of jokes in Anglosphere pop culture."
Since I'm not the type of guy to kneejerk bash the French -- in fact, quite the opposite -- I decided to see if they were on to something.
At War With the Army (1950, Hal Walker)
Watched: Wednesday, March 7th
One sentence plot synopsis: A pair of old friends find themselves at odds and involved in a series of military base shenanigans when they enlist in the army and one is promoted above the other.
My thoughts on the film: It's no coincidence that I synopsized this as "a series of shenanigans." At War With the Army is so episodic in nature that I found it to be like a hurried season of a television show. And not a very good television show. This is one of the first Martin & Lewis movies, following only the two Irma movies (My Friend Irma and Irma Goes West), and it's considered to be their first starring vehicle. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised they were still trying to work out the kinks, or that the production design, photography, and everything else about this was so cheap, it seems like it should have been made at least ten years and probably more like 20 years earlier than it actually was. On the other hand, you could say it was the success of At War With the Army that allowed the pair to become box office stars (before Lewis eventually eclipsed the soused crooner in popularity and went off on his own). Still, this is Lewis at his most Lewis-like -- that awful, grating, high-pitched voice, those crossed eyes, those silly pratfalls. I'm glad Lewis matured, because I really hated this version of him. In fact, my favorite parts of the film involved the velvet-voiced Martin singing a couple of his beautiful standards from the time. Indeed, the film seems to exist primarily as a platform for his singing and takes on the structure of a variety hour for most of its 75-minute running time, before a bunch of loose threads abruptly coalesce in the third act. (Or perhaps I just wasn't paying close enough attention.) It was appropriate that I saw one Martin & Lewis movie for my Jerry Lewis month, but I'm glad I didn't choose to sit through another.
The Bellboy (1960, Jerry Lewis)
Watched: Sunday, March 11th
One sentence plot synopsis: Plot? What plot? A studio executive tells the viewer at the start that there is no plot, that this is just a series of silly happenings at a Miami hotel over the course of two weeks. (Sorry, that was three sentences, or four if you include this parenthetical statement.)
My thoughts on the film: Not unlike At War With the Army, this is also a highly episodic film that could also be described as Lewis at his most Lewis-like. However, this one I liked a lot better, in part because it indulges in a charming self-awareness that narrowly avoids being too cute for its own good. Ten years on from the first film I watched, Lewis has forged out on his own and become such a star that they are compelled to have some fun with his stardom in this movie. That's right, in addition to being a goofy bellboy named Stanley who never says anything (also a blessing), he also plays himself as a guest in the hotel, followed by a ridiculous team of handlers -- some 30 or 40 -- who all pile into the same elevator. (There are so many that Lewis gets to be first in as himself, and then last in as Stanley.) The scenes making fun of Lewis' stardom are hilarious, and there's also a guest appearance by Milton Berle playing himself -- and also playing a bellboy, which leads to a lot of nudging and winking. For the most part, though, the movie plays like a Hanna Barbera cartoon, with Stanley involved in a bunch of physical, dialogue-free shenanigans (there's that word again), some of which work and some of which don't. You can see where all those old cartoons got their ideas and vice versa -- one bit I'm thinking of in particular has Stanley being practical joked by a couple other bellboys, asked to go set up a massive room full of chairs for movie night, and improbably completing the task in about five minutes. You could totally see Bugs Bunny or The Road Runner doing that very same thing. Oh, and the hotel where it was shot -- the Fountainbleu on Miami Beach -- is wonderfully opulent and grandiose, making me feel nostalgic for an era of fancy hotels that I never got to experience myself. (Oh, and sorry to screw those of you who may have been watching along -- I said last month that I was going to watch The Nutty Professor, but had to switch it up to this when I saw Nutty Professor listed as "very long wait" on Netflix.)
The King of Comedy (1983, Martin Scorsese)
Watched: Saturday, March 24th
One sentence plot synopsis: An unhinged struggling comedian (Robert DeNiro) tries to gain his big break by kidnapping a popular host of a nighttime talk show (Jerry Lewis) and demanding an appearance on the show in exchange for the host's safe return.
My thoughts on the film: I'm surprised I haven't encountered The King of Comedy before, if only because Martin Scorsese directed it. (Then again, looking at Scorsese's resume, I see I've missed more of his features than I would have thought.) This film completes kind of the perfect career arc for a person in this series: While At War displayed his early work, and Bellboy was at his mid-career height, Comedy shows him in late career, when he's graduated to the phase of stunt casting. However, this is the Lewis I like best. As a Johnny Carson-type host, he's caustic and acerbic -- yet one can't blame him for his responses to these unusual set of stimuli, because DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin is essentially the jester version of Travis Bickle. Seriously, for a movie that has the word "comedy" in the title and is generally categorized as a comedy-drama, The King of Comedy is disarmingly disturbing from time to time -- Pupkin is pretty much as insane as Bickle, and you could say this film helped solidify the sense we have that DeNiro might actually be more scary when he's smiling. (Never mind that there's also a truly weird performance from Sandra Bernhardt as his conspirator.) Overall I find the film uneven, and there would be little doubt that it qualifies as "lesser Scorsese." Still, there are some great moments that really make it a sharp satire. Lewis in particular is a great strength of the film, totally underplaying every scene (which was a relief given the previous films I'd seen) and demonstrating a real knack for genuine dramatic acting. Maybe I need to seek out more late-career Lewis, when he only wanted to play against type.
Conclusion: Jerry Lewis is alright by me. In addition to being a really good person, he's had a dynamic career that includes both funny and not-so funny moments.
Favorite of the three: The King of Comedy
Okay, on to April. If you've thought my previous two Getting Aquainted subjects -- Preston Sturges before Lewis -- were a tad frivolous, I'll be getting back to some pretty serious territory next month, watching the films of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. I'll start with The Passion of Joan of Arc and then expect to watch Day of Wrath and Ordet. It's tough to exclude Vampyr, but that comes only three years after The Passion of Joan of Arc, while the others are spread out later in his career. Besides, I feel like I've watched a lot of vampire movies during this series, especially last fall when I watched Horror of Dracula and The Vampire Lovers.
Maybe if I really love him I'll go back and watch Vampyr later. Hey, there's nothing to say I can't eventually watch a fourth movie by these folks.