Bright Lights Film Journal

Jerry Lewis and the Gender of Work

The Disorderly Orderly

The gender of work in the work films is a spectrum that includes both the neutered worker of The Bellboy and The Errand Boy and the feminized worker of Cinderfella, The Ladies Man, and The Disorderly Orderly. Tashlin further introduces themes of emasculation and masochism: in Who’s Minding the Store and The Disorderly Orderly, the Lewis character’s masculinity is threatened by matriarchy, whether indulgent or punitive; while work is consistently associated with masochism in Tashlin’s Lewis films in a way that destabilizes conventional notions about work and gender. In Rock-A-Bye Baby and Who’s Minding the Store, Tashlin attributes a kind of masculine dignity to the Lewis character’s low-status jobs, based on his sheer willingness to work, and work hard, and be independent; I call this dignity “masculine” because Tashlin contextualizes him within a matriarchy. It is, of course, a highly threatened and precarious masculinity. But hard work, in the Tashlin films, has the curious quality of tipping over into masochism, at which points all bets are off about its gender. Accordingly, the most interesting treatment of work and gender in relation to Lewis’s persona is by Tashlin, particularly in his first and final solo Lewis films, Rock-A-Bye Baby and The Disorderly Orderly.

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On the Colgate Comedy Hour, on a stage slippery with spilled food and drink, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin are trying to locate the wishbone of a turkey. They need it for the climactic gag in which they struggle to break it, and Lewis, in a typical early skit role as a loutish valet, tumbles backward onto the dinner table so that Martin, the host, can throw him out. However, Lewis has manhandled the turkey with such zest that, as he announces, they seem to have “lost the punchline of the whole skit.”

Colgate Comedy Hour: “This is not spit, we’re working!”

Characteristically, Lewis seizes this opportunity to break the fourth wall by letting the audience in on the behind-the-scenes logistics whose effects they’re witnessing. “You know how accidents sometimes happen on shows?” he begins, stepping forward as Martin continues to search. Shouts behind him reveal that the prop has been found, but Lewis goes on: “If we didn’t find the wishbone you people would be tuned in til 11:30.” The audience laughs uproariously, so Lewis insists: “This is no joke, if we didn’t find the wishbone.” He points to his face. “You see this sweat dripping down now? This is not spit, we’re working!” Causing the audience to burst into applause.

What does work mean to Jerry Lewis, the performer, the persona? For 44 years, from 1966 to 2010, while ordinary Americans celebrated the dignity and sacrifice of the worker on the Labor Day long weekend with an extra day of rest, Jerry Lewis sweated to entertain on a telethon for muscular dystrophy that broadcast for up to 21 1/2 hours, from Sunday evening through Monday afternoon. For Lewis, entertainment is work, and would be worthless otherwise: everything about the wishbone skit may be fake, predictable, trite, and television may remove the vast majority of audience members from the intimacy of the performers’ presence, but the sweat is real, the effort to please is real, and makes it all authentic.

Entertainment is work, but what is work? Work is a sacrifice, a titanic labor. It is to push yourself past the point of endurance. It is to attack your part with so much gusto that you obliterate the punchline: process swelling until it obscures the product. It is pain. It is suffering. It is giving up a part of yourself, maybe your whole self, to the audience. It is activity taken to such a degree of intensity that it becomes passivity and surrender.

Only when the Lewis persona is placed in the context of an extended narrative does this idea of work become entangled with the idea of gender. And when they do come into relation, the idea of work I’ve been outlining offers a challenge to conventional notions of gender: of masculinity as just active, of femininity as just passive. And, relatedly, of femininity as just masochistic, as associated with suffering, and masculinity as just sadistic, as associated with mastery. After all, the word “labor” brings to mind not only the working-class man, especially as represented by the manual laborer, but also childbirth, and, once we start thinking about women and labor, the drudgery of housework. In other words, labor is a concept associated with both extremes of the gender spectrum.

Scared Stiff: Jerry “working” as Carmen Miranda

Nevertheless, we much more readily associate work with activity and strength than with passivity and suffering. For that reason, Lewis’s emphasis on the passivity of work and the worker is subversive. It is one of the many contradictions or tensions contained within his comedic persona and one of the many ways in which that persona undermines the gender binary.

The Gender Spectrum of Work

Since not every film in which Jerry Lewis appears puts either gender or work at the forefront of its concerns, I should make clear which films I’m talking about. Although Lewis-as-worker seems to develop out of characters played by Lewis in his routines with Martin, the Martin and Lewis films are not much concerned with this aspect of Lewis’s persona. I would like to refer to Lewis-as-worker as Lewis’s “mature solo persona,” and to consider it the joint creation of Tashlin and Lewis. For my purposes here I will assume the noncontroversial viewpoint that the string of mature solo films, some of them masterpieces and all of them directed by Tashlin or Lewis, in which Lewis appears in the early 60s begins with The Bellboy and Cinderfella in 1960 and ends with The Pasty and The Disorderly Orderly in 1964 (the latter his final film with Tashlin), and that the self-directed films in which he appears afterwards, although not without interest or merit, are “late” and critically “problematic.”

If his relationship with Martin was the central fact of the Lewis persona up until their split, work is what takes its place. It doesn’t happen immediately, however. Once Lewis moves into the phase of films that were conceived for him as a solo performer, there is a brief transitional period (1958, to be precise) in which Tashlin pairs him with babies, children, and pets. And in The Ladies Man (1961), Lewis pairs himself with a boardinghouse full of beautiful women, a premise that seems to hold a great deal of smutty promise, but is in fact equally innocent, as though multiplying the romantic possibilities allows his character to escape any. By The Bellboy and The Errand Boy (1961), as the titles suggest, work is central to his characters’ identities. Lewis’s films with Tashlin, in contrast to his self-directed films, always provide him with a nominal heterosexual love interest (or two), but are also always actually more concerned with something else. In Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly, the Lewis persona’s relationship to work is that something else.

Who’s Minding the Store?

While previous critics have noted the importance of work to Lewis’s cinematic comedy, my conception of Lewis’s “work films” is narrower than, say, Dana Polan’s in “Working Hard Hardly Working.” For the purposes of this essay, Lewis’s “work films” are those in which he plays a working-class character, which excludes films like The Nutty Professor (1963) and The Family Jewels (1965), in which Lewis’s characters are defined by their professions, not their jobs, as well as The Geisha Boy (1958), in which Lewis’s character is an entertainer. And although Lewis’s character in The Patsy is, or starts out as, a bellboy who even has the same name as his character in The Bellboy, I would categorize it not as a “work film” but as a “makeover film,” like The Nutty Professor and Cinderfella (1960).

During his mature solo period, Lewis plays a working-class character in eight out of nine of the films directed by himself or Tashlin, which makes it safe to say that this is the basic solo Lewis persona. It is interesting, however, that in his most famous and critically respected film, The Nutty Professor, he does not play that character. Critics have seemingly warmed more easily to The Nutty Professor in part because it has a plot and a conventional narrative structure, however glaringly odd that may appear in the era of late David Lynch. The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, and all of the Tashlin-directed Lewis films struggle to find a compromise between conventional narrative structure and a comedic style based on visual/conceptual gags and sketches, sometimes grouped together as themed montages. In what I’m calling a “work film,” the subject of the sketches and montages is work.

These categories also prove useful in analyzing later Lewis films. In his two final features to date as a director, Hardly Working (1980) and Cracking Up (1983), Lewis returned to the idiom of his early ’60s films after the departures of the late ’60s films: Hardly Working is a work film and a sketches sequences film, but Cracking Up, although a sketches sequences film, is not a work film. It belongs to another mode of Lewis comedy: let’s call it the “psychiatric mode.” That mode is often implicit in his Tashlin films, informs the premise of The Ladies Man, and is explicit in The Disorderly Orderly; it then emerges as a major form of discourse in later self-directed films on which Lewis is not credited as a writer, like Three on a Couch (1966), The Big Mouth (1967), and Which Way to the Front? (1970). There is, further, overlap between the makeover film and this psychiatric mode: The Disorderly Orderly is a kind of makeover film, in which the Lewis character tries to achieve conventional masculinity, although his methods and the problems he faces are different than Julius Kelp’s; and Cinderfella, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy, dealing as they do with the Lewis character’s problems of social adjustment and self-esteem, can’t help but participate in the psychiatric mode. The precedent for investing the makeover film with the weight of psychiatric melodrama is, of course, the great Bette Davis woman’s picture Now, Voyager (1942); and The Disorderly Orderly makes the Lewisian comedy/weepie connection explicit by putting Lewis in a medical/psychiatric setting and making allusions to TV soaps.

The Disorderly Orderly: a kind of makeover film

I’ve now isolated and explained what I mean by a particular type of Lewis film, “the work film.” To summarize, it’s a type of film in which Lewis plays a working-class character and which is characterized by sequences of sketches that show him at work. In the self-directed work films, the character is a menial laborer; Tashlin may elevate him to semiskilled, or even skilled pink or blue collar like the department store sales clerk in Who’s Minding the Store or the TV repairman in Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) and It’s Only Money (1962). When Tashlin is directing, there’s a conventional romantic comedy plot in which Lewis is prevented from being with his love interest until he can overcome an internal or external obstacle, or in which he must choose between a right and a wrong love interest, or both. However, the orderly progression of that conventional narrative is at war with non sequitur gags and sketch sequences that are innocent of any knowledge of plot development or dramatic suspense. In Lewis’s auteur films The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, and The Errand Boy, that nod to convention is eschewed. In fact, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that plot itself, bringing shape, structure, and forward momentum to wayward picaresque or polymorphously perverse impulses, is what compels the heteronormatization of the Lewis character.

Gender introduces an additional element into certain of the work films. Lewis is much less interested in exploring this element than Tashlin is, the one self-directed work film that puts gender front and center being The Ladies Man, which develops ideas from Tashlin-directed Lewis films like Artists and Models, Rock-A-Bye Baby, and Cinderfella. Work first becomes central to the solo Lewis persona in Cinderfella, which links menial work and gender by casting Lewis as a fairy tale heroine who is forced to work as a servant. It is equally central in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy, but in these films being a menial laborer does not “feminizef” Lewis so much as “neuter” him: the “boy” in the title links Lewis’s eternal juvenile persona to classist contempt for menial laborers. Nor is this simply a matter of the ambiguous age of Lewis’s onscreen persona: The Bellboy explicitly, even didactically, calls attention to the class connotations of its title in the introductory voice-over narration by Walter Winchell, who, in a speech paying tribute to “the people who serve and work in order that you might pay, that is play,” calls the bellboys “the real unsung heroes of the hotel” and introduces the star with the words, “Yes ladies and gentlemen, I call them men, but everyone else calls for … The Bellboy.” Lewis-as-worker can never attain the mature masculine authority that is, interestingly, never associated with prime-of-life virility in his films (even Buddy Love is androgynous, or what we would now call, thanks to Mark Simpson, a “metrosexual”), but rather with hoary boss figures, like the kind imitated by Lewis in the famous pantomime scene in The Errand Boy.1

The Errand Boy

In The Bellboy and The Errand Boy, Lewis presents the working-class man stripped of the grim glamour of muscular manual labor or companionable familiarity with machines. Without the obfuscations of the masculine mystique, we are made to starkly confront the low status of such workers, which may unconsciously (or consciously) shape our response to Lewis’s “idiocy.” Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is outside of the social order, and as such has won a certain degree of freedom (as long as he can evade the cops); Lewis’s worker is at the very bottom of it and is therefore utterly in its thrall. As Steven Shaviro writes in The Cinematic Body, the Lewis character “is an anarchist not in spite of, but because of, his hyperconformism: he disseminates chaos in the course of earnestly trying to do exactly what bosses, psychoanalysts, media specialists, and other technicians of normalizing power want him to do” (110.1). Likewise, to answer the question of what is so funny about “the alienated world of work,” Dana Polan proposes that in many of his films, Lewis’s “comedy of laborious failure” creates an “unintentional challenge to the sway of figures of power,” citing Stanley’s “well-intentioned desire to follow orders coupled with his inability to follow through on that desire” in The Patsy (225-227). The Disorderly Orderly actually gets meta about this feature of the Lewis persona, effectively diagnosing him with it.2

The Ladies Man: Herbert, powerless

The gender of work in the work films, then, is a spectrum that includes both the neutered worker of The Bellboy and The Errand Boy and the feminized worker of Cinderfella, The Ladies Man, and The Disorderly Orderly. Tashlin further introduces themes of emasculation and masochism: in Who’s Minding the Store and The Disorderly Orderly, the Lewis character’s masculinity is threatened by matriarchy, whether indulgent or punitive; while work is consistently associated with masochism in Tashlin’s Lewis films in a way that destabilizes conventional notions about work and gender. In Rock-A-Bye Baby and Who’s Minding the Store, Tashlin attributes a kind of masculine dignity to the Lewis character’s low-status jobs, based on his sheer willingness to work, and work hard, and be independent; I call this dignity “masculine” because Tashlin contextualizes him within a matriarchy. It is, of course, a highly threatened and precarious masculinity. But hard work, in the Tashlin films, has the curious quality of tipping over into masochism, at which points all bets are off about its gender. Accordingly, the most interesting treatment of work and gender in relation to Lewis’s persona is by Tashlin, particularly in his first and final solo Lewis films, Rock-A-Bye Baby and The Disorderly Orderly.

Empathy, Masochism, and Gender in the Tashlin Films

As the unruly male in his partnership with Martin, the one with the freedom to not conform to constrictive gender expectations and the curse of being unable to live up to them, Lewis sometimes played effeminate characters in skits or had cross-dressing escapades in their movies, but there is no thorough exploration of the femininity of the Lewis persona until Rock-A-Bye Baby and The Geisha Boy. However, The Delicate Delinquent, which became Lewis’s first technical solo film when his partnership with Martin ended after it had been conceived for them, already plays with the masculine and feminine elements in his persona, as if as soon as Martin is gone, Lewis must embody both ends of the gender spectrum within himself: there’s no doubt that his socialization is a failure, but is the problem that he’s a dangerous roughneck (like the chaotic early persona featured in the wishbone skit) or that he’s a shrinking violet (or maybe a pansy)?

Rock-A-Bye Baby comes before the work films, but it is the boldest and most thorough exploration of the Lewis persona’s gender ambiguity of any of his solo films. The film is a loose adaptation of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) with Lewis playing both the Eddie Bracken and the Betty Hutton parts, a thought perhaps suggested to Tashlin by the one note of gender ambiguity in that film: tough and gruff William Demarest is a widowed single father who can’t control his two teenage daughters and who at home sometimes trades his police officer’s uniform for an apron. Lewis plays Clayton Poole, a small-town TV repairman who’s in love with a movie star, an idea that Tashlin used in the Martin and Lewis film Hollywood or Bust (1956). In this case, the movie star is also his former sweetheart, reproducing Eddie Bracken’s unrequited love for Betty Hutton, who’s out of his league until she becomes damaged goods by getting knocked up. In Rock-A-Bye Baby, Clayton helps the movie star avoid a scandal by agreeing to look after her child until she can adopt it. Instead of which Clayton finds himself responsible for three babies, and must fight to retain custody of them in court or they will be adopted before she returns.

At first it seems as though Tashlin has exchanged Sturges’ biting satire of American small-town mores for the satire of American celebrity culture for which he’s known, until it becomes evident that the movie is still about gender and conservative family values after all: for the scandal of Betty Hutton’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Tashlin has substituted the scandal of Clayton’s campaign to be recognized as competent to raise children as an unwed male. Just as Hutton has stepped out of line for her gender by having sex out of wedlock (or so it appears, since she can’t produce the husband and knows nothing about him), so Lewis steps out of line for his gender through his insistence on his fitness to perform a female role.

The maternal male is a figure that pops up regularly in movie comedy, from the bachelors of Three Men and a Baby (1987) (which inverts the ratio of Rock-A-Bye Baby while retaining the cutesy idea of an infant “love interest”: three men and one girl baby instead of three girl babies and one man) to the dad forced to become the primary caregiver when he loses his job and his wife returns to work in Mr. Mom (1983) to the pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger with children in Kindergarten Cop (1990) (and, for that matter, the following year in Terminator 2) and his impregnation in Junior (1994). Schwarzenegger, a larger-than-life movie persona like Lewis, further illustrates how we project our confusion about gender onto truly popular celebrities: there was little to distinguish Schwarzenegger’s bulbous bodybuilder’s muscles from the maternal curves of a Monroe or Ekberg. Or Pamela Anderson, Mark Simpson’s example in the 2008 article “Transexy Time!”, in which he proclaimed that in a world of widespread steroid use for men and cosmetic surgery for both genders, “We’re all becoming male-to-male and female-to-female transsexuals: transexy,a category that “transcends masculine and feminine and obliterates sexual difference.” Extremes of gender meet; and where they meet appears to be in the figure of the mother.

What Rock-A-Bye Baby uniquely contributes to the maternal male movie comedy is its fascinating pre-second-wave-feminism (and pre-trans-rights) insistence on the socially constructed nature of gender. The film climaxes in a series of courtroom scenes in which Tashlin makes it clear that what is at stake is not, as one might expect, whether a single father can adequately care for (female) children, but whether a man, and specifically Clayton, is capable of being a mother. Despite Clayton’s willingness to learn how to be a mother by taking a course in child care, however, and despite his much greater innate ability at it than the female students, the good citizens of the town continue to insist that there is an essence to being a mother. This isn’t, in other words, just the sentimentality of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), in which Robin Williams, driven to drag, tries to make a custody judge understand the depth of his need for his children even if he doesn’t have the reliable job expected of him as a man and father. Rock-A-Bye Baby isn’t just about the spiritual bond between (male) comedian and child that can sometimes manifest itself in the comedian’s maternal style of parenting. It’s something much more radical: an argument against the maternal mystique.

The Geisha Boy: challenging maternal mystique

Like Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), Lewis in Rock-A-Bye Baby and The Geisha Boy experiences no internal resistance to caring for children in the form of concern for either his masculinity or his lifestyle, and quickly proves capable at it. There is no moral lesson he needs to learn about the work that mothers do or about the benefits of being less selfish. He does have a certain machismo, and does want his freedom, but from marriage, not children: his commitment to bachelorhood expresses itself as an adolescent resistance to romance. In fact it’s from this place of “arrested development” that his quixotic quest to be recognized as a “mother” also issues. Clayton is a gender rebel who cannot be reconciled to the (socially imposed) realities of adult life. As in the Martin and Lewis film The Stooge (1952), Lewis is romantically paired with his female opposite number, an androgynous ingenue (here, cartoon-voiced Connie Stevens) who pursues him with boisterous “masculine” aggression, but whose interest in romance is in keeping with traditional theories about women’s quicker emotional maturation. In The Stooge, and in other Martin and Lewis films that follow its psychosexual model, the Lewis character is kept nominally normative, albeit incapable of action, through his unrequited crush on a mature adult woman, who instead responds to the mature adult Martin. In Artists and Models (1954), Tashlin’s first Martin and Lewis film, Lewis found a way to get the same effect without the Oedipal conflict and with a new object of pop culture satire by making the Lewis character only capable of responding to a fictional, objectified woman, in this case a comic book character, in later films a movie star.

In the first scene after Clayton has taken on the care of the infants, Tashlin dresses him in a pink shirt and purple slacks, as though the triplets’ gender has seeped into (infected?) Clayton despite the fact that he hasn’t discovered it yet. (As in The Ladies Man, femininity, represented by females in multiples, easily overwhelms the identity of the Lewis character.) On the contrary, as Clayton does something bizarre with the glass bottles of milk in preparation for feeding the infants, he sings to himself about getting “milk for the boy.” Clayton pulls a sterilized rubber glove out of a pot of water on the stove and fills it with milk, making for a nice Lewisian (or Tashlinian?) visual gag when he lifts it to reveal the extended “udders,” previously concealed behind the counter, that the fingers have become. We think that Clayton, who’s so clueless about child care that moments earlier, on the phone, he referred to the nipples on baby bottles as “faucets” (no doubt to get around saying “nipples,” an act of verbal cleanliness that ingeniously sets up a smutty association of women’s nipples with faucets), is fouling up the feeding process, Mr. Mom-style. Instead, he has merely calmly innovated, and remains in control of the situation. He stands over the triplets, dangling the leaking glove (whose fingers have been punctured) over them, as they (out of camera sight) suck loudly and aggressively: he has transformed himself into a literal androgyne, a male mother.

Rock-a-Bye Baby: Clayton as “male mother”

Clayton doesn’t have to innovate for long, though: in the next scene, Sandy (Connie Stevens), although not herself a mother, gives him some lessons that she picked up from home ec class. Later in the film we get a montage of Clayton caring for the babies that’s full of absurdist gags, but the humour doesn’t turn on gender-based incompetence, but rather on Jerry Lewis-esque incompetence, such as the absurdist gag of losing a child in a cloud of baby powder. This is followed by an even stranger gag, in which Clayton hands a giant stuffed panda to an offscreen baby in a playpen, and removes its severed head and headless body a few sobs and bar-shakes later. The babies of Rock-A-Bye -Baby are ready to become the Baby character of The Ladies Man: a symbol of the terror of being devoured by a voracious appetite that is here directly associated, through the children’s gender, with femininity.

The child care montage ends with a couple of gags that give us an indication of Clayton’s labor. We see him cheerfully pinning up endless cloth diapers on the clotheslines that have taken over his backyard: due to the extraordinary demands of the human body, as represented by the three infants, Clayton’s backyard has become an assembly line, and Clayton a machine, spitting out (as the climax of the gag) the clothespins he’s magically been invisibly storing in his mouth. Next, we see Clayton waking up at 2 am when his alarm goes off for the babies’ feeding. He checks on the infants, almost falls asleep slumped over the playpen, knocks some things over on his way to the fridge, and nearly falls asleep leaning on the door of the fridge, while we get a view of its contents: it is entirely filled with bottles of white milk, like the identical white cloths. With his eyes closed, practically sleepwalking, he manages to get three bottles out of the fridge and into the pot of water waiting on the stove. Meanwhile the infants, the ideal age for these antics, watch him and smile and laugh. However, things take a turn for the dangerous (and cartoonish, and Tashlinian) when the sleepwalking Clayton manages to set his finger aflame while lighting the stove. Becoming more awake, he runs water from the tap over it, which not only puts it out but washes the appearance of a burn right off, leaving the finger miraculously unharmed. Only once he becomes fully awake and realizes what just happened to him does he cry out in pain, causing the babies to cry as well.

Rock-a-Bye Baby: Clayton falling asleep at the fridge

In this first montage, the conceptual gags always favoured by Tashlin and Lewis are not especially related to the theme of child care, only using it as their context or setting. However, the problem of the gender of labor is raised explicitly starting in the next scene, in which a doctor pays a visit to check on the babies, who are in fine shape, and finds Clayton catatonic. In the following scene, Clayton is tucked into bed on the couch, a cloth on his forehead and thermometer in his mouth, as his boss paternally urges him to give up the care of the infants by telling him, “Women are built to take such punishment, but not men.” The remark, with its Wildean reversal of expectation, combines traditional associations of women with masochism and physiological dysfunction with an untraditional, although logical, consequent association of women with physical toughness and endurance. In the subtextual logic of the story, Clayton has been made ill by his defiance of his prescribed gender role, a psychoanalytical interpretation of the Lewis persona’s subversiveness that also informs The Disorderly Orderly, in which the Lewis character is an hysteric. Without putting too fine a point on it, the fact that the primary reason for the association of female physiology with psychological masochism, besides childbirth, is the female role in heterosexual intercourse, will become important when we come to a significantly placed anal penetration gag in The Disorderly Orderly.

Clayton ill from ‘women’s work”

In the same scene, Clayton’s boss refers to the children’s mother as a “mystery Stella Dallas.” This makes little sense, given that Stella Dallas does not have her child out of wedlock or abandon her, until we realize that the reference is there in order to associate Clayton with Stella: it’s Clayton who’s being branded an unfit single parent, Clayton who’s under pressure by conventional types to give up the children he adores. It’s Clayton who’s fallen ill, like the heroine of a typical weepie. Despite his reasoning from gender essentialism, however, his boss pays tribute to Clayton’s sacrifice of his health before he leaves by calling him “mother,” as though suffering enough to make yourself ill is an even greater qualification than being a woman, or perhaps makes you an honorary woman.

However, Clayton recovers, and we are treated to a second montage that does have work as its consistent theme. Here we see Clayton making superhuman efforts to support the infants in ways that go beyond “masculine” or “feminine,” such as repairing a TV antenna on a high roof while rocking the infants using a cord attached to his foot. One of his odd jobs, working at a Chinese laundry, presents us directly with a gender conundrum: Clayton is slaving at his low-status job, doing the “women’s work” of ironing the clothes (not by chance, a selection of businessmen’s white shirts), while simultaneously looking after the children for whom he’s doing all of this work, and babysitting the owner’s children as well. Is Clayton the manliest of men, or the most feminine? We don’t know, but we do know that either way, he’s hard-working. Clayton “also works on Sundays,” as the voice-over narration emphasizes, ringing the church bell, pulling on the rope until he’s pulled up into it in another image of being devoured.

Clayton irons in front of the infants

The court sequence begins with Clayton promising the judge that he will be “a mother, a real mother,” in accordance with the judge’s wishes, to which the judge indulgently replies, “by no stretch of the imagination can this court look upon you as a mother.” Clayton’s reiterates that he’ll “become a mother, a real mother, if you’ll only give me the chance.” We are left in suspense, wondering what Clayton can mean by being “a real mother,” and how he can turn himself into one: after all, only five years earlier Christine Jorgensen had become the first American transgender celebrity. Perhaps, however, Clayton is merely hinting at a magical capacity to become pregnant, as seems suggested by the fact that the film puts Clayton’s next actions in terms of going away and returning with proof of his maternity. In terms of the plot, this corresponds to Eddie Bracken’s quest to find “Ratzky-Watzky,” Betty Hutton’s mysterious missing husband: proof that Clayton is a “real mother” would seem to be as elusive as proof that Hutton’s children are legitimate. Sturges calls attention to the absurdity of the legal magic that can socially sanction a female sexual act and the children that are its product, even when the woman has only met the man once and can’t remember his name, as Tashlin calls attention to the social hoodoo of gender essentialism. Clayton’s fierce and earnest defiance of gender norms is given the normative framework of being in service of his love for the children’s mother, although even the masochistic overtone of that explanation is itself somewhat non-normative.

In any event, Clayton is doing something much more humdrum than getting sex reassignment surgery or giving birth in order to prove he’s a mother: he’s earning a diploma, Tashlin’s equivalent for the elusive marriage license of the original film. But while a marriage license is all that Hutton needs, Clayton really has no way of proving that he’s as much a mother as “any other woman,” as he puts it to the courtroom (to audible disapproval). We have seen him go beyond what any father or even mother would do, we’ve seen him suffer and sacrifice like twenty Stella Dallases, but the simple fact of being biologically female renders it all meaningless. In the meantime, however, the shot of Lewis sitting among rows of attractive, fashionable young women, the only man in the class, anticipates the visual gags of The Ladies Man while further commenting on gender, and changing gender roles, through a gender reversal: Tashlin was no doubt aware that it would be much more common for a woman to be the only representative of her gender in a higher-education classroom. When Lewis presents his diploma to the judge, commenting that he’s fulfilled all of the requirements of the course and placed first in overall child care, and is met with titters in the courtroom and the judge’s skepticism, it also works as a comment on the experiences of women who find that they are not accepted as the equals of men in male-dominated fields despite having the same or higher qualifications.

Clayton in child care class

In The Geisha Boy, Lewis is a magician in Japan with the USO, and as we might expect from this plot, he finds cross-cultural romance there. But as in Rock-A-Bye Baby, the romantic plot decidedly takes a backseat to the Lewis character’s “romance” with a little boy who’s the nephew of the woman he’s officially courting. And there is even more misdirection about genre and gender in the film than that. Suzanne Pleshette play a cool and efficient America military officer who is seemingly contrasted to the ultra-feminine traditional “Oriental” woman in such a way that we expect the latter to “unexpectedly” prove more appealing to our American male protagonist. However, when Pleshette makes a bitter speech on that theme toward the end of the film, the irony is that Lewis is pining not for a Japanese woman, but for a Japanese little boy. I suspect that there’s also a further layer to this meta-commentary, for as the film’s title makes clear, there is no geisha girl (with all of that figure’s supposedly tantalizing meanings for the erotic imagination of the American male) in this film, only a geisha boy: the star.3 When Pleshette says, “Believe me, the next man I meet I’m going to forget that so-called American emancipated woman type of independence and treat him just the way the girls in Japan do,” the subtextual reference, I would submit, is to Lewis’s own masochistic, decidedly dependent persona. Lewis doesn’t fall for the more feminine, “Oriental” woman; he is that woman. The American man and woman have swapped gender characteristics, the woman exploring a new kind of independence that only throws into relief the ways in which some men never were comfortable with conventional masculinity.

In “The Geisha Boy: Orientalizing the Jewish Man,” David Desser notes, “Although Mitsuo almost immediately asks if Wooley [Lewis] will be his father, Wooley is more like Mitsuo himself than he is a father figure: both were orphaned at a young age, both were raised by an unmarried aunt” (176). If we think of these first two Tashlin-directed post-Martin/Lewis films as experimenting with what can be done with the figure of a solo Lewis, the Wooley-Mitsuo relationship doesn’t so much reproduce the Martin and Lewis dynamic, as complicate and comment on it by putting Lewis somewhat in the Martin role simply by virtue of being as much older than Mitsuo as Martin often seemed than the Lewis character. And if Clayton is a proud bachelor who’s going to do it all himself, be an androgynous, self-sufficient being, Wooley represents another post-breakup mood: on the one hand, Lewis has once again found a soul mate (while evading adulthood and attendant heteronormative relationships), while on the other, through the pathos of the figure of the abandoned child, he gets to brood over his own solitariness.4 In other words, doubling himself through the figure of Mitsuo only serves to emphasize his solitude.

At the same time, this distorted version of the Martin and Lewis partnership has an additional layer, also noted by Desser, in which “far from behaving like Mitsuo’s father, Wooley often acts like his mother.” As Desser describes the most specifically maternal of Wooley’s “Japanese female” behaviors in the film, “From a side angle, we first see two Japanese women trudging up a flight of steps, babies held to their backs by blankets or long scarves. Next comes Wooley, similarly trudging up the steps and carrying Mitsuo; he stops to mop his brow, thus giving us an unimpeded view of a strictly maternal action” (176). What Desser does not note (because it is not part of his thesis) is this association of maternity with arduous labor, or the fact that it seemingly impacts only Wooley, not the women. Is this, again, because Wooley’s adoption of the female role is unnatural? Or is Tashlin using the Lewis figure as a way to empathize with women’s labor: to show that men are not in fact strong enough to do what women do? Could both of these meanings be operative?

The Geisha Boy: Wooley mops his brow

Flights of stairs serve as important a role in Tashlin’s version of the Lewis persona as they do in the personas of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, albeit in a very different way. Their first appearance is not in The Geisha Boy, but in Artists and Models, in a comic sequence in which Lewis races up and down them on orders from Martin that are delivered in calm, lordly fashion from the bathtub. The shtick is that Lewis is taking a phone message for Martin, his roommate, from the main floor hallway payphone of their apartment building, but Martin, reluctant to leave the tub, keeps asking him to get more information. The subtext is that the repressed homoerotic attraction evident in their interactions in the tub is sublimated into the energy that fuels Lewis’s trips and ultimately exhausts him, and the curious punch line is that at the end of the sequence, Lewis is so out of breath that he can’t speak and has to pantomime. The masochistic staircase is narratively central to Cinderfella, the urtext for the feminine gendering of labor in Lewis’s solo film work. Conveniently for my argument about the crucial nature of this theme to Lewis as both persona and performer (and it can’t be the former without being the latter, because work for Lewis is the seal of authenticity: “This is not spit”), Lewis famously put himself in the hospital with some kind of cardiac event at the age of 34 as the result of filming his dance down the stairs and his run up them each in one take. Fittingly, Lewis the performer seems equally eager to prove his athleticism and his infirmity.

“Cinderfella” on the stairs

The Disorderly Orderly has much in common with Rock-A-Bye Baby5: again, the Lewis character’s gender non-normative behavior causes social consternation (in contrast to Cinderfella and The Ladies Man, which have severed all ties with realism); again, he is unrequitedly in love with a beautiful blonde he knew in high school, which is affecting his relationship with a woman who does love him. Even the structure is similar, with a “work montage,” accompanied by voice-over narration by another of the film’s characters, introduced about 20 minutes from the end. Here, however, Tashlin has adopted the psychiatric mode: Lewis must overcome the psychological obstacles that are preventing him from achieving the masculine career and heterosexual relationship that are the conventional markers of maturity. As I’ve already noted, this treatment of the Lewis character makes the film a hybrid comedy/soap opera.

The closest connection between the two films is that the plot of The Disorderly Orderly grows out of the seed of that single scene in Rock-A-Bye Baby in which the association between female labor and masochism is clearest: when Clayton collapses, ill, from taking care of the triplets. Jerome Littlefield, in The Disorderly Orderly, has a psychological condition, “neurotic identification empathy,” where he empathizes so completely with the pain of others that he experiences it as his own, which is impeding him from becoming a doctor like his father. This condition associates Jerome with femininity in two ways: through the traditional notion that women are more empathetic than men; and through its resemblance to sympathetic pregnancy. It also associates femininity with pain, since it’s the patients’ physical suffering that Jerome takes on. Tonally, The Disorderly Orderly incorporates not only physical humor, conceptual humor, and even a touch of toilet humor, but also scenes that are supercharged with the hysteria of melodrama. The film embraces the Freudian concept of frustration in love causing neurosis; in this case it has also caused “Jerry Lewis,” who is at best a failure at masculinity, while at worst his strange behavior may signify not only neurosis but madness, as we see in the early scene in which he tries to get a comedian called Fat Jack into a straitjacket, but ends up in it himself.

The Disorderly Orderly: Jerome struggles with the laundry cart

We see Lewis do some impressive physical labor in this film, including pushing around a cart overflowing with heavy bags of laundry and hauling and shoving the bags into the already stuffed chute (which ultimately devours him just like the church bell in Rock-A-Bye Baby). As with many of his tasks in the Rock-A-Bye Baby work montage, it’s hard to know whether to characterize this type of labor as “masculine” or “feminine”: do we focus on the heavy lifting or the laundry? The later work montage, on the other hand, is linked to femininity through the psychiatrist’s voice-over narration and the preceding scene. First, the psychiatrist tells the woman for whom Jerome is secretly working that he’s about to tell her “a story about love, and loving,” which she greets, sarcastically and meta-fictionally, by asking if during this “love story” he’ll “break in with soap commercials,” and telling him to “start the organ music.” As the work montage begins, the psychiatrist continues the soap opera theme by describing Jerome as having “a heart of gold, housewives’ knees, and detergent hands.” The actual jobs done by Jerome in the sequence are a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” (mopping, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, painting), but the narration stamps them with a feminine meaning. The clinching moment that claims Jerome’s slaving for the woman he loves as feminine labor occurs when the psychiatrist asserts, “If he could have had children, he would have made some man a perfect wife,” over what appears to be a visual of Jerome discovering that the cord powering the vacuum cleaner he’s using is plugged into his ass.

Jerome discovers his power source

Needless to say, it’s distinctly strange that Tashlin goes out of his way to characterize Jerome as feminine in a sequence meant to show the depth of his love for the blonde cheerleader of his adolescent fantasies. The idea is, presumably, that selfless devotion is a feminine trait, but it’s also important that the tireless menial work of the housewife is made symbolic of that love. Moreover, the characterization of Jerome as “a perfect wife” suggests that whereas many women might very well object to this kind of punishing, demeaning labor, Jerome doesn’t mind at all. No matter how painful, work is a source of joy for him, especially work on behalf of someone he loves. And masochism in this film takes the form not only of tireless labor and unrequited love; there’s also a scene in which Susan Oliver, giving Ann Savage in Detour a run for her money as the nastiest shrew in cinematic history, takes out her frustration and her bitterness toward men on Jerome by cruelly taunting him in public after catching him sneaking out of her hospital room. (To be fair, Jerome, who had been watching her sleep, has been creepy, as we now say thanks to the internet, but it’s still hard to watch considering that he has just promised the head doctor that he will do whatever he has to do to pay the woman’s bills.)

Curiously, Jerome’s neurotic condition does not drive either the plot or the jokes of The Disorderly Orderly, other than one early joke involving an elderly patient who can’t stop talking about her weak kidneys. Rather, the film focuses on his relationship with Susan (the name of the character as well as the actress), the “love frustration” that is its cause. When Susan offers to start a relationship with him and he learns that he is not really in love with her, this proves to be the cure for both. He is freed of all of his feminine identifications: of his empathy condition, his masochism, his inability to form a relationship with a woman, and his inability to hold a manly, authoritative job. Note the contrast with Lewis-directed The Ladies Man: the cause of Herbert’s neurosis is almost identical to Jerome’s (he catches his college sweetheart kissing another, manlier, man), but while Herbert does overcome his gynophobia in the course of the film, he is not required to become manlier. Instead he accepts, and is accepted by, the all-female community. Yet although Tashlin gives Lewis a more conventional Hollywood movie ending, he undercuts the heteronormativity and gender conformism of the plot at every turn, such as in the flashback scene, which appears to allude to Lewis’s own past as a high school cheerleader, back before the activity was overtaken by women. Here, as in the classroom scene in Rock-A-Bye Baby, Lewis is emasculatingly surrounded by rows of young women, who cheer in the bleachers while Susan does a routine with pom poms on the field. Jerome is not only the only man, but also the only one waving around his own set of pom poms, as if the fervency of his feelings for her, evident in the vehemence of his cheering and pom pom manipulation, were based more on identification than on desire.

Jerome cheers along

Work is integral to the Lewis character’s identity, but it is seldom a route to manliness, and never an uncomplicated one. Lewis’s celebration of work as a performer and filmmaker doesn’t cause him to fall back on the masculine mystique: he acknowledges the economic unmanning of the low-wage worker. And the harder the Lewis character works, the more passive and masochistic he becomes. And yet that masochism itself becomes a route to heroism, of a sort that is, however, associated explicitly by Tashlin with femininity, with the mother, the housewife, the self-sacrificing and long-suffering soap opera heroine. The films remind us of the traditional work of women, often strategically unrecognized as such, even as they expose the “femininity” of the working-class male, never allowing us to feel complacent about the meaning of gender or work. In Lewis’s case, overwhelming popularity was not the result of offering bland reassurance about social roles and norms, but something like the opposite: electrically embodying American anxieties and ambivalence.

Works Cited

Desser, David. “The Geisha Boy: Orientalizing the Jewish Man.” Enfant Terrible!, Jerry Lewis in American Film, edited by Murray Pomerance, New York UP, 2002, pp.167-180.

Polan, Dana. “Working Hard Hardly Working: Labor and Leisure in the Films of Jerry Lewis.” Enfant Terrible!, edited by Murray Pomerance, New York UP, 2002, pp. 225-237.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. U of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Simpson, Mark. “Transexy Time!” Out Magazine, 18 Mar. 2008, www.out.com/2008/03/18/transexy-time.

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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the DVDs.

  1. This evasion of virility may of course have a lot to do with Lewis’s identity as a Jewish man. In “The Geisha Boy: Orientalizing the Jewish Man,” David Desser discusses the “alternative image of masculinity” afforded by “the effeminate Jewish man of antisemitic rhetoric” (179). []
  2. Polan takes into consideration the treatment of work in more of Lewis’s self-directed films than I do, but understanding the characterization of work even in the individual films is, of course, a matter of interpretation. For example, Polan thinks that the source of comedy in the Ladies Man gag in which Herbert accidentally smears the lipstick on the painting of his employer is Herbert’s incompetence as a worker (227). In fact, I think the gag is more subtle than this, as Lewis’s comedy usually is. First we see two lesser gags about Herbert’s incompetence: he climbs up on the mantel to reach the painting when his ladder proves too unwieldy, knocking a vase onto the floor in the process, and then drops the other vase, apparently deciding that since they go together, they should go together. All of this, however, is for the sake of going above and beyond to clean the portrait of Miss Wellenmellon, and the crowning gag of the lipstick smear is based not on Herbert’s incompetence, but on his environment acting in a chaotic, unpredictable way. Herbert is in the typical Lewis worker position of being a powerless person who does not understand the rules of the place that he’s in, and is in danger of being punished for it. We identify with him insofar as we understand what it feels like to be powerless; to be unable to master an incomprehensible environment; and to be in danger of being held responsible for things that are not our fault. If we laugh at the gag, it’s partly out of recognition of this nerve-racking situation and partly because of how silly he’s made the authority figure in the painting look. Again, the effect is as if he’s defied authority, although it’s the furthest thing from his conscious intention. Incidentally, I have always assumed that one of the sources of The Ladies Man is Hitchcock’s Rebecca. []
  3. This is not the first occasion on which a Lewis character was feminized through “Orientalization”: it has already happened in the Martin and Lewis film Money from Home (1953), in which Lewis ends up in harem concubine drag and is “comically” threatened with rape when his awkward performance of femininity proves irresistible to the sultan. Lewis’s irrepressible “queerness” as non-masculine, non-WASP chaotic comic forms pathways of connection with Otherness of all kinds. Nor should it be lost on us that the Lewis character is not simply feminized, but also blatantly sexualized, in these scenes. The source of that sexualization is as uncomfortable as the rest of these associations: the juvenile nature of his “boy” character. []
  4. Notably, prior to linking up with Mitsuo, Wooley has a relationship with the rabbit who’s his “partner,” in his own words, in the magic act. Wooley lives in perpetual fear of losing his slippery partner, which seems like a casting of Martin’s departure in terms of castration anxiety, except that Martin did play a certain kind of “phallic” role in the partnership, as its representative of virile masculinity. Which is to say that with Martin gone, Lewis really has lost his… rabbit. Castration anxiety always hovers around Tashlin’s Lewis, however: in the first scene of Artists and Models, Lewis is equally concerned about losing his “Bat Lady” to the voracious mechanical gullet of a painting of a blonde bombshell, and moments later just about gets swallowed by it himself. Bat Lady is of course going to morph into Miss Cartilage of The Ladies Man, the ultimate phallic/castrating woman. []
  5. The film’s other crystal-clear point of reference among Lewis’s past films is The Delicate Delinquent, in which Sydney evolves from aimless youth and potential delinquent to police officer, masculine enforcer of order. Just as Lewis doesn’t mind riffing on ideas introduced in Tashlin films, Tashlin doesn’t mind riffing on ideas introduced in films directed neither by himself nor by Lewis. Like all Hollywood star personas, and perhaps especially comedian star personas, which are always somewhat independent of narrative and often independent of medium, the Lewis persona transcends individual writers and directors: anyone may contribute to it who cares to meditate on it. And since Lewis often informally contributed behind the scenes to films in which he appeared, the degree of interconnectedness between certain of the films is unsurprising. []