Friday 15 November 2019

Film: Genius or clown? The legacy of Jerry Lewis

Funny guy: Jerry Lewis with Robert De Niro in King of Comedy.
Funny guy: Jerry Lewis with Robert De Niro in King of Comedy.

When I was a child, Jerry Lewis films like The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor played in the afternoons on television all the time, to say nothing of his numerous hit movies with Dean Martin. Though not especially active in the 1970s, Lewis was still ubiquitous - a superstar, a comic genius, according to some, in the line of Keaton and Chaplin.

These days, however, his stock has fallen somewhat. His films are hardly ever shown, I doubt if most people under 40 would even know who he is, and those who do may assume he's dead. He's 89 but alive and kicking, as he proved last week when he made a rare public appearance at New York's Museum of the Moving Image.

Before a live audience, Lewis was inducted in the rather grand-sounding Comedy Hall of Fame by his old friend Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese was the perfect man for the job: he cast Lewis as a glib stand-up in his 1983 satire King of Comedy, and has spoken before about Lewis's importance as both funny man and film-maker.

Jerry was in feisty form, giving out about the sound system, fondly recalling his time with mentors like Chaplin and Billy Wilder, and dropping tantalising hints about how he had gone about his work. On several occasions he called his manic, man-child screen persona Jerry, a deliberate distinction he then explained.

"People sometimes think I sound schizo when I refer to 'Jerry'," he said, "but I put it in a box. I'm not sitting here going 'Haaayyeyyy!'

He joked about once sharing an editing facility with Stanley Kubrick, who he referred to as "the biggest nut in the house", and when asked about the rumour he'd slept with all his leading ladies, he said it was untrue and shouted, "I worked with Agnes Moorehead and I never touched her!" The formidable-looking Ms Moorehead was rumoured by some to have been gay.

That last joke betrays Lewis's origins as a very traditional New York Jewish comedian who earned his stripes performing in front of tough crowds on the Catskills circuit. His humour has roots in vaudeville, but most crucially in the balletic silent slapstick of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

"Comedy in visual terms is always preferable to verbal," he told Scorsese. "The visual gets to the brain faster - the eyes are faster than the ears."

To a whole generation of comics and actors, Lewis remains an inspiration and a god. Alec Baldwin has described him as "the Marlon Brando of comedy", and Jerry Seinfeld believes that "if you don't get Jerry Lewis, you don't really understand comedy".

Which is all fine and dandy, but many of Jerry's best films have not dated well. Modern audiences can find his pratfalls, face-pulling and impish persona grating, and might be forgiven for wondering if Lewis was really as good as they say. I think he was, but appreciating him at this remove isn't easy, and Mr Lewis's caustic personality hasn't exactly endeared him to everyone down the years either.

His real name was Joseph Levitch, and he was born into showbiz. Both his Russian Jewish parents were entertainers: his mother, Rachel, played piano, and his dad, Daniel, was a vaudeville MC. By the time he was five he was performing alongside them on the legendarily brutal Catskill club circuit, where he learnt that comedy was the best way to mollify a hostile audience. At 15 he developed his own act, which involved miming to records in hammy fashion.

It was funny, but not funny enough, and by 1946 the routine was wearing pretty thin. In July of that year Lewis had been booked to play the 500 Club in Atlantic City, but the mobsters who ran the joint didn't like him - he was Jewish, odd-looking and his dummy act was bombing.

In desperation, Jerry contacted Dean Martin, a slick Italian crooner he'd worked with briefly the previous year. Within a few days they put together an act that involved Lewis clowning around and interrupting Martin while he half-heartedly attempted to sing a love song.

Loosely scripted, their show was a kind of deliberate shambles, but straight away it worked.

The contract between the gangly, loose-limbed, fog-horn loud and semi-hysterical Lewis, and the cool, unflappable Martin, made their show compelling, and within weeks of getting together they'd swapped that mob club in Atlantic City for New York's Copacabana Club. They signed a movie deal, became regular hosts on TV's Colgate Comedy Hour, and the money started rolling in.

For over a decade, Lewis and Martin were the toast of Broadway, Hollywood and Vegas, making a fortune and starring in 16 films together (see panel). But over time Martin began to tire of playing the straight man to Lewis's clown, and grew weary, too, of the comic's egotism and relentless perfectionism.

They parted ways, rather acrimoniously by all accounts, and while Dean went on to become a rat-packer and best-selling singer, Jerry became more and more serious about the business of comedy. After making a series of solo films with producer Hal B Wallis, he struck out on his own in the early 1960s with a string of personal projects.

Lewis made his directing debut with The Bellboy (1960), a silent comedy set in a Miami hotel. He shot it during the day at Miami's Fontainebleau Hotel, where he was performing concerts every night. He plays Stanley, a hapless bellboy named in honour of Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted about the script. A knockabout farce, The Bellboy contains some of Jerry's finest slapstick moments.

He was hilarious as a timid young man who gets a job in a women's boarding house in The Ladies' Man (1961): his clowning was brilliant throughout, and a dance sequence in which he attempts the Nutcracker Suite is priceless.

But his biggest solo hit was undoubtedly The Nutty Professor (1963), a parody of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which demanded a lot of its co-writer, director and star. Jerry played Professor Julius Kelp, a nerdy, buck-toothed university professor who invents a love potion. When he takes it he's transformed into Buddy Love, a brash and handsome ladies' man, but the potion keeps wearing off at inopportune moments. The film proved the perfect vehicle for Lewis's extraordinary talents.

He continued writing and directing comedies through the 1960s, but by 1967 his broad slapstick had begin to look dated, and Paramount Studios dropped him. By this stage he was past 40 and no longer fit or slim enough for the rigours of physical comedy. He'd also become unstable, and was addicted to painkillers he'd begun taking for an old back injury he sustained jumping into an orchestra pit.

Jerry was a has-been, and for most of the 1970s no one wanted anything to do with him. His personal life spiralled out of control, and according to his biographer, Shawn Levy, Lewis added to his marital woes by installing hidden surveillance equipment in his Bel Air mansion so he could spy on his first wife and his children.

He made a revival of sorts in the 1980s, though more as serious actor than comedian. His portrayal of a sour talk-show host in King of Comedy was praised, and he was brilliant as an ageing stand-up in the 1995 Funny Bones.

In his later years, his main public appearance was on the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, an event he helped establish and hosted for more than 40 years. His attitude to disability was deemed patronising by some, but it should be remembered that his charity raised an estimated $2.6 billion.

Lewis, then, has never been an easy celebrity. He's fallen out with everyone, and also out of fashion. But at his best, he was as good a clown as we've ever seen.

Maybe entire films don't always stand up, but take a look at his peerless boss pantomime in The Errand Boy, the typewriter sketch in Who's Minding the Store? or the conducting sequence in The Bellboy, and you'll see something special at work.

As we've noted, there are shades of Keaton and Chaplin in Lewis's physical comedy, but also a strong dose of Harpo Marx anarchy, and the result - at its best - is unique, and sublime.

As Jerry himself once put it, "going unnoticed was never my strong suit".

Lewis and Martin

At the height of their fame in the early 1950s, the world couldn't get enough of Martin and Lewis, and their live shows created the kind of frenzy that would later be accorded the Beatles and Elvis Presley In 1951 alone, the pair made a staggering $11m. They were feted by the rich and famous, and Orson Welles declared they were so funny "you would piss your pants". But behind the scenes, things never ran smoothly. Thanks to Jerry's relentless ambition, Dean's movie parts gradually started shrinking. Martin saw what was going on, and grew weary of Lewis's aspirations to comic genius, which he referred to witheringly as that "Chaplin shit".

Lewis was a relentless micro-manager and control freak, and he and Martin began rowing on film sets. They separated for good on the 10th anniversary of their 500 Club debut after playing a farewell gig at the Copacabana.

After that, they didn't speak for 20 years, and though there was a certain rapprochement before Martin died in 1995, they never worked together again. Those who saw them live maintain the films never really captured their magic, but Lewis believes their 1952 comedy The Stooge came pretty close.

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