Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Oui, Oui, Jerry Lewis!
Not a Labor Day goes by that I don’t at least think about Jerry Lewis. Not only because of all the wonderful work the comedian has done for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, but also because of the memories I have of being a kid and staying up late into the night to watch the Telethon every year. I remember watching all the acts in their tuxedos, performing song, dance and schtick through the wee hours and waking up to Jerry Lewis, bowtie now loosened, of course - still carrying the show.
I rarely get the chance to watch the Telethon anymore and when I do happen to tune in, I rarely see the comic. However, this weekend, one of the movie channels made a brilliant move – they had a Jerry Lewis marathon over the holiday. As difficult as it may be to sit through an Jerry Lewis film in its entirety, it is almost necessary to do so to catch all the phenomenal bits of comedy that are gently (and some would say, too rarely)woven throughout. For instance, in the film “The Patsy”, where Jerry plays a busboy who is groomed to be a mega-star comedian, there is a flashback to some sort of high-school dance (again, I was surfing, the television viewing equivalent to skimming) and Jerry is tripped by one of the bully classmates who has been chiding him. CUT TO: A DOORWAY – the camera is focused on the lower half of the door and the three feet of linoleum floor leading offscreen. Jerry comes sliiiiiiiding into the scene and thumps into the door, his body curled, arms and legs akimbo. It is only a brief shot, but one of sheer genius. The timing that went into the editing of the shot, the slide and the position of his body would be not only impossible to replicate, but could have only been pulled off by Jerry Lewis. The scene in the same movie where Jerry nearly breaks a half-dozen vases and artifacts by bumping them off tables only to catch them an instant before they hit the floor is worthy of Chaplin or Keaton.
And speaking of the silent clowns, some of Jerry Lewis’s best work in film is performed with no dialogue. The “Typewriter” scene in “Who’s Minding the Store” comes to mind, as does the pantomime scene in “The Errand Boy”, where Jerry pretends he’s the boss behind the desk to Count Basie’s “Blues in Hoss Flat”. “The Bellboy” has an excellent scene where Jerry conducts a non-existent orchestra and his tennis lesson from “The Big Mouth” is priceless. Look them up on YouTube – it’s worth your time and they will make your day.
Lots of things have been said about Jerry Lewis – he is an arrogant prick, he is overindulgent in his filmmaking and gives a heavy hand to the pathos. He is self-serving, self-righteous and self-aggrandizing. These may be indisputable facts, but I think that the French may be on to something when they give him medals and honors and free rooms at the best hotels. Maybe one day Jerry Lewis will be regarded as less of a punchline in his own country and more of the icon he probably deserves to be. His work with Muscular Dystrophy notwithstanding, the comedian has done some brilliant work that should be remembered, first in his nightclub years with Dean Martin (a tantalizing taste of which is available on their “Colgate Comedy Hour” clips), and then on his own – at one point being top box office draw in the country. He was an innovative director that changed the way comedy films were made, even pioneering the practice of shooting a scene on video as well as film, to get an instant view of the work as it was shot.
You can say a lot of things about Jerry Lewis, some of them disparaging, some admiring, but as Jerry would humbly insist, “please judge the whole fucking pie, Chicky, not just a slice…”