Bright Lights Film Journal

Jerry Lewis: b. Joseph Levitch, Newark, New Jersey, 1926-2017, res. Hollywood

Note: Love him or hate him, Jerry Lewis was a unique talent. In honor of his passing today (August 20, 2017), we reprint Michael Stern’s (of ROADFOOD fame) fine analysis of his film persona and work.

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“The major point of convergence between Cassavetes and the Dogme movement is an oppositional realist form that blurs the boundaries between being and performing.”

Note: For the purposes of this article, a list of films directed by Jerry Lewis, with an indication of the characters he plays in the films, will be helpful.

1960: The Bellboy: Stanley (Jerry Lewis); Jerry Lewis (“Joe Levitch”)
1961: The Ladies’ Man: Herbert Heebert, Mrs. Heebert
1961: The Errand Boy: Morty Tashman, Man on Billboard
1962: The Nutty Professor: Julius Kelp, Buddy Love
1964: The Patsy: Stanley Belt, Singing Trio, Jerry Lewis
1965: The Family Jewels: Willard Woodward, Everitt Payton, James Payton, Bugs Payton, Julius Payton, Shylock Payton, Eddie Payton
1965: Three on a Couch: Christopher Price; also masquerades as Miss Heather, Warren, Rutherford, and Ringo
1967: The Big Mouth: Gerald Clamson, Sid Valentine; also masquerades as a Julius Kelp-like character
1968: One More Time (director only)
1970: Which Way to the Front: Brendan Byers, Field Marshall Kesserling

Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.

A clear picture of directorial authorship in the Tashlin and Taurog films is fogged by Jerry Lewis’ participation often as writer and/or producer in addition to the necessarily dominant creative role of his routines as star. Also, behind the scenes in the 1950s is Jerry Lewis the compulsive learner, teaching himself technical and creative nuances of filmmaking, and thereby molding in immeasurable ways the style and meanings of films that are not strictly his own. Nonetheless, as a matter of principle and for the sake of critical clarity, this analysis will concentrate on the work of film director Jerry Lewis, and his handling of film star Jerry Lewis.

Because he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis’ most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff or Jumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin’s duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin’s hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin’s surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry’s increased consciousness serves to reveal the world’s (Dean Martin’s) hypocrisy.

Tashlin’s structure for the myth of the manchild in a devouring. plastic world is vitally different from the principles that determine the tours de force of The Patsy and The Nutty Professor. Whereas Jerry Lewis, as we shall see further on, gives this myth a personal, psychological structure, the primary focus being a penetration into the ordinary/extraordinary manchild himself). Tashlin tends toward a more linear and socially oriented approach. Jerry is no more or less grotesque than anyone else in Artists and Models. In his child-like personality, he is holier than the Machiavellian adults around him, and his innocence (a basic principle carried over into his own films) in Tashlin’s hands is pure and simple — all the better foil to reflect the films’ caricature of mass culture.

In Artists and Models, Jerry demonstrates the phoniness of the world around him with the same idiotic innocence displayed by Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. The visual distortion of Tashlin’s Technicolor-Cinemascope/Vistavision style here applies equally to his conception of character — stretched far beyond possibility into surreal caricature. In both Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, Jerry is fanatically beyond the ordinary. He is an archetypal consumer of popular culture. The extremism of his devotion to comic books or movies makes him not a typical, but rather an “ideal” ordinary man, into whom comic book tycoons and Hollywood studios can funnel anything. Here was the ultimate Tashlinesque male, reduced to total infantilism in the face of the giant bosom cult and an overwhelming plastic culture.

Tashlin’s own status as a promulgator of these cultural abnormalities and a creator of the kind of feeblemindedness evidenced by both Gene Fullstack (Artists and Models) and Malcom Smith (Hollywood or Bust) remains unquestioned. His perspective on the grotesqueries perpetrated in his own films is bemused and somewhat ironic, but with little sense of detachment from the material. Tashlin seems to be not uncomfortably aware of the outrageous, plastic, dehumanized nature of his own vision. He is a product of and a commentator on show-biz consumer hype. These two potentially contradictory attitudes are homogenized into a structure that flattens satire onto its object, leaving no space for shifts in perspective from irony to acceptance or from identification to alienation.

Tashlin’s films, therefore, not unexpectedly assume the form of a fairy tale. Balanced by the slick visual plasticity of the film are sentimental stories about innocence and honesty adrift in a commercial world of blatant corruption. The clear fairy tale form later evident in Cinderfella or The Geisha Boy are nascent in Hollywood or Bust, which is structured precisely along a classic quest motif: the ultimate movie fan sets out with his trusty steed (in this case splintered into the prize car and Mr. Bascomb, the Great Dane), accompanied by his own Sancho Panza (Dean Martin, the no-nonsense crook), to find the holy vessel (Anita Ekberg) in the land of dreams (Hollywood). As in all the Tashlin vehicles, Jerry is not so much the object of directorial scrutiny, but a freak incarnating simplicity and averageness. He is the ultimate moviegoer — Joe Schmoe taken to his logical, spectatorial conclusion. But because the film is so much a part of the world it portrays, and because Tashlin’s sensibility is so satirical, complex character development is eliminated for the sake of a social vision. Tashlin’s films are therefore most interesting for their kinetic, plastic sensibility, or as artifacts of swan-song Hollywood comedy.

It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin’s films succeed where Jerry Lewis’ personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis’ movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d’etre of his own films.

The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character’s attempted “normalization.” Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry’s uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man’s grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.

The central works are The Nutty Professor and The Patsy — coming midway in Lewis’ decade-long creative output of features between 1960 and 1970. They are at the vortex of the swirling personality conflict that informs the decade. They are also a turning point in Jerry Lewis’ development as a director. In his first three films, The Bellboy, The Ladies’ Man, and The Errand Boy, the character he plays is basically the idiot. A carryover from the Martin-Lewis days and the early Tashlin films, his essential quality is his infantilism.

But in The Nutty Professor, quite literally a transformation takes place. The Buddy Love who emerges from the depths of Julius Kelp’s personality is a complex figure — partly Dean Martin, partly Jerry Lewis the ultimate nightclub personality; a character invested with a confusing mixture of ambivalent feeling. One thing that is clear about Buddy Love is his self-assured command of the world. No ordinary fellow is he. Buddy Love is the first character in a Jerry Lewis film to fully (if only temporarily — until the serum wears off) escape the absolute ordinariness and banality that characterizes the lives of Stanley The Bellboy, Herbert Heebert The Ladies’ Man, and Morty Tashman The Errand Boy.

The process is even more complete and direct in The Patsy, where Stanley Belt escapes his bellboy’s existence and shows the world that he is a genius. The spectacularly Pirandellian ending of The Patsy allows Jerry Lewis himself to supersede Stanley. That is, Jerry Lewis the director — clearly shown to be in command of his actors and a mammoth Hollywood set. If The Nutty Professor reflects the emergent birth pangs of Jerry Lewis’ personality into central thematic focus. The Patsy celebrates this birth by showing not only “Stanley Belt,” but Jerry Lewis himself as being a master of his world — a far cry from the ordinary (and hence victimized) characters of his first three films.

Hereafter, in The Family Jewels, Three on a Couch, and The Big Mouth, Jerry Lewis often chooses to play the fool. But his “real” personality has been redefined. He is in the later films no longer the infantile pseudo-man. These films (and One More Time and Which Way to the Front?, as well) are slicker, more homogenized, and clearer in their point of view than The Patsy and before. But in the earlier films, in grappling on screen with a definition of his own self and with the problem of being an ordinary/extraordinary man with a special calling in the extraordinary world of Hollywood, Jerry Lewis produced one of cinema’s most incisive and fascinating autobiographies.

One senses a powerful self-consciousness at work in Jerry Lewis’ official directorial debut in The Bellboy. With the film deprived of plot and its main character deprived of words, The Bellboy seems made for comparison with classic comedy. Its insistence on routines, the complete isolation of its hero, and the obvious references to another Stanley (Laurel) mark Lewis’ debut within a tradition of film comedy. The hero’s psychological isolation — a constant in every one of the films — concentrates focus on his uniqueness. It is a paradoxical self-image, completely anti-populist in its scope (Jerry Lewis doesn’t represent anyone but himself); and yet, in relation to the world and other people in it, the main character is pointedly average, outside the chosen circle of wealth, fame and power.

On the one hand, Stanley is an extraordinary, superhuman fellow. In the comedy tradition of Keaton, he performs astonishing feats, such as perfectly arranging a thousand seats in an empty room in record time — in a perfectly matter-of-fact way. He is also revealed as too delicate to even speak, apparently recoiling in ultra-sensitive Chaplinesque silence from the Fontainebleau phoniness of his world.

An amazing occurrence in The Bellboy, however, suggests a different perspective on Stanley and his world. That is the appearance in the film of “the great star,” Jerry Lewis. At once the point of view shifts. Anticipating Buddy Love of The Nutty Professor, Mr. Lewis epitomizes the power and fame of a Hollywood star. With his entourage and haughty manner, he is larger than life, superhuman, decidedly important. At the moment of the star’s confrontation with Stanley The Bellboy, Jerry Lewis has established a motif that is consistently reworked through The Patsy. We are forced here to confront a paradoxical schism between two viable self-portraits: “Jerry Lewis,” the epitome of uniqueness and stardom, the Hollywood star, and Stanley the average guy, the kid from New Jersey.

In this confrontation, Jerry Lewis the director has allowed himself to step out of “Hollywood” and look upon himself. In Stanley he has fashioned a character who is so ordinary that his affinity for mundane tasks gives him near-magical powers to perform them. Stanley is far outside the world of slick, dehumanized stardom that is personified by “Jerry Lewis.” The vision of himself as the archetypal star and the quintessentially ordinary person — momentarily played out in a simple scene of The Bellboy — is the thematic drive behind The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy.

But first, to preserve a vitally important chronological sense, let us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies’ Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies’ Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely “Lewisian” in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.

The Ladies’ Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon’s house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it. The Errand Boy, Jerry Lewis’ next film, directly addresses the same issue. For Morty Tashman, the errand boy, Hollywood is a frustrating, frightening place to be. Constructed like The Bellboy around a series of gags, the plot of The Errand Boy tells the story of Morty Tashman’s “rise” to stardom. The film is bracketed by two scenes that assure us of who Jerry Lewis thinks Morty Tashman is. At the beginning of the film, Morty is seen plastering up Jerry Lewis’ directorial credit for the film, i.e., Morty is outside Jerry and the world of stardom; he is too mediocre for Hollywood. At the end of the film, a new “clod” is plastering up a poster for the new Paramutual (Paramount) star, Morty Tashman, starring in “It Could Happen To You,” a film written by someone named Joseph Levitch.

Leaving aside the resemblance of “Tashman” to “Tashlin,” we can see in these Pirandellian brackets a clear-cut statement that the director is talking about his experience in Hollywood. Lewis’ concern with representing his impression (however fanciful) of a real Hollywood stands in sharp contrast to the utterly fantastic goings-on in Hollywood or Bust. For Tashlin, Hollywood, like everything else about popular culture of the 1950s, is grotesque grist for the mill of satire. It is the public Hollywood that is ridiculed in his film. And even at the end, when Malcom Smith finally does penetrate to the inner sanctum of the set, it is to get to his favorite movie star. And with typically dirty-minded Tashlinesque irony, it is his dog, not he, who enjoys sharing Ms. Ekberg’s bed.

The Errand Boy takes us into Paramutual/Paramount studios to see the “reality” — Jerry Lewis’ comic vision of the reality — of Hollywood’s private, behind-the-scenes life. Jerry Lewis, the director-star, a major powerful figure of the very studio he is ridiculing, allows himself to indulge in playing the outsider, Morty Tashman, an ordinary person alien to the halls of power. The bracketing scenes tell us that Jerry Lewis believes he once was a Morty Tashman (Joseph Levitch?) and, in fact, that he still is (in part).

That Jerry Lewis the big shot still lays claim to the personality of the star-struck kid is evident in Joseph Levitch’s being given credit for the screenplay of Morty Tashman’s autobiography — “It Could Happen To You”/The Errand Boy. Further evidence of Jerry Lewis’ distanced view of his own Hollywood image may be found in the sentimental final one-third of the movie where, in confiding to his puppet-friend, Morty the clod becomes Morty the sensitive. In forcing such a deliberate shift in tone from slapstick comedy to out-of-character sentiment, Jerry Lewis reveals his need to step out of character — to play neither the great star nor the clumsy idiot, but rather to be directly honest; to play no roles; to be the original, untainted, ordinary and therefore honest and sensitive — Joseph Levitch. That is, Jerry Lewis before/without Hollywood.

What is traditionally condemned as sentimental self-indulgence is Jerry Lewis’ compulsive need to “be himself.” First surfacing clearly here in the discordant last part of The Errand Boy, the compulsion makes for cataclysmic ruptures of tone in The Nutty Professor and The Patsy, surreal fragmentations of character in The Family Jewels and Three on a Couch and, to a lesser extent, a diffusion of personality in The Big Mouth and Which Way to the Front. It is as if no role — not even a double role (The Nutty Professor) or a quadruple role (Three on a Couch) or a septuple role (The Family Jewels) provides enough basis in reality to makes its director happy. Feeling forbidden to play himself — condemned by a Hollywood (of which he is an integral part, we must remember) to play the fool or the slick comedian — Jerry Lewis structures his two key films, The Nutty Professor and The Patsy, around this personal dilemma.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Lewis’ films are particularly remarkable for their injection of masculine sentiment, emotional ambivalence, and sexual self-doubt into a decade when masculinity was defined by the completely vicarious machismo of James Bond’s adventures. The unsteadiness of Lewis’ image — his compulsion to present himself as both the world’s greatest genius/lover/filmmaker and, at the same time, as merely an ordinary guy (or worse) — is an ambivalence that forges The Nutty Professor into a uniquely Lewisian structure: the myth of the ordinary man confronting the extraordinary specter of his own creativity and, implicitly, confronting the power of his Hollywood image to eat him alive.

The place to begin an examination of The Nutty Professor is that part of the film that seems all wrong. It may appear paradoxical to suggest that the technical virtuosity of The Nutty Professor is a necessary foil for those portions of the film that appear completely artless, but if one thinks of mid-1960s Godard (Pierrot Le Fou) or Fuller (The Naked Kiss) in comparison to this 1963 Lewis film, the juxtaposition of virtuosity and didacticism may seem more viable. On one level, Lewis’ directorial muscle flexing is clearly a facet of his own ego trip, of his need to display his mastery of the medium in a way that makes it clear he’s no clown.

But it is in those moments when The Nutty Professor seems embarrassingly clumsy that the true thrust of the film becomes clear. Just such a moment occurs during the climactic scene at the prom in The Nutty Professor. Buddy Love changes back to Julius Kelp in front of a dumb, static audience; and then Jerry Lewis steps out of Professor Kelp to give the message of the movie: “You might as well like yourself. Think how long you’re going to have to life with you.” As a narrative unity, the film sputters to a halt. As a character portrait, the scene goes beyond the aesthetic bounds of the film. If the film is defined as a schizophrenic, surreal nightmare (as much of it is), this incursion of didactic sentiment utterly destroys its plastic gothic horror mood. Subtlety? Organic unity? His speech denies these values in favor of something far more important, as Jerry Lewis sees it — the presentation of the “real” Jerry Lewis.

His is an artistic sensibility that feels itself too complex to resolve the issues within a harmonious aesthetic form. There are formally brilliant passages within the film — the comic montage at Vic Tanny’s; the appearance of Buddy Love; the mise en scene in every confrontation with the school principal. But these tableaux, and the generally complete technical control Lewis exercises throughout most of the film, stand out even more in light of the “mundane” technique employed in the scene at the prom.

At this moment we are watching a film and seeing not “some Jerry Lewis character” but, rather, a man — Jerry Lewis — talking directly to the audience in the cinema. This is as “anti-Hollywood” a moment as one could find in a Hollywood film. The real Jerry Lewis bursts through his image to talk to the audience; and when he does so, his words are simple, clear, and ordinary. Lewis had broken the “rules” by stepping out of the picture; creating a moment in each viewer’s life when we are forced to confront Jerry Lewis — not Julius Kelp or Buddy Love — but Jerry Lewis. Whether one thinks him smug or humble, hideously, Hollywoodiously slick or disarmingly honest, this moment in the film forces us to consider something outside the normal bounds set by a Hollywood fiction film. That is the existence of Jerry Lewis as a performer, a director, and an ordinary man.

In all his films, there is no more ambivalent, and hence no more revealing, self-image than the monstrous performer-genius Buddy Love who emerges from the depths of the banal soul of Professor Julius Kelp. The obvious Jekyll-Hyde analogy, with Julius Kelp the gentle scientist and Buddy Love all the base elements of his character, breaks down when one considers Buddy’s supposed charm and magnetism and, more importantly, the attitudes of fascination, admiration, and pity which Jerry Lewis. director, displays toward his creation. Like Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Buddy is too much the film’s central figure to represent simply “the bad side,” or just an alter-ego.

The birth of Buddy Love occurs in an ultra-traditional gothic horror situation. Julius Kelp, the plodding scientist, develops Buddy out of a traditionally questionable and banal combination of motives — curiosity and revenge. The standard horror elements — the Igor-like raven, the diary, the bubbling chemicals, even the black cat and lightning — suggest the creation of something deformed and horrible. On the other hand, the comic overstatement of these elements suggests (a la Young Frankenstein) the creation of something laughable. Buddy Love, of course, is both. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this virtuoso scene is Lewis’ sustained creation of a complex of attitudes toward what is happening.

On the one hand, we are taken through this scene with Julius Kelp via subjective camera and point-of-view close-ups. On the other hand, we view the scene from above, away from the action. Lewis’ crane takes the audience above the professor to a bird’s-eye view of the whole lab. As Kelp writhes on the floor in the changing color mix of chemicals (which until now have been neatly separated in test tubes), we objectively witness the destruction of his character and the creation of another. The long pull-back at the end of the sequence, from a monster in agony on the floor to a totally unreal overview of the lab, is the first visual suggestion that Buddy Love will be something more than just a monster. This last crane shot (again reminiscent of Orson Welles) suggests something metaphysical and universal. What will emerge, the cosmic point-of-view suggests, will be something awfully significant.

Lewis sustains a complex point-of-view in the next scene when, as Buddy walks into the Purple Pit, we experience his movement by means of a completely “subjective” camera. This creates a remarkable combination of identification (people are looking at us), alienation (who are we? — we haven’t yet seen), paranoia (why are they staring?), and power (they move aside as we pass). We are of course the pinnacle of stardom, the ultimate nightclub personality — Buddy Love. The momentary sense of identification with him (via his subjectively seen paranoia/power) is broken by Lewis’ climactic zoom into close-up. This shot — actually two shots, one zoom immediately after another — is a beautifully cinematic expression of optical and psychic alienation. It represents a distance from Buddy Love shared at this moment by Jerry Lewis the director with his audience.

But, as the epilogue of the film suggests, Buddy Love is not that dismissable. Let us remember that Buddy does all those things the professor would like to do. He is every average guy’s power trip, the ultimate Hollywood star. Everyone in town considers him to be one of the world’s great men. Let us look closely at Jerry Lewis’ presentation of his Buddy, his Love. It is an agonizing overload of hate, fascination, love, and pity.

In the horror tradition, the monster goes berserk and invades Julius Kelp’s life, just as Julius intrudes on Buddy to humiliate him at the Purple Pit. As the two personalities become confused and start to overlap, Buddy Love takes on (at least in director Jerry Lewis’ eyes) a certain humanity. He drinks, we learn, because he has problems. He is a phony because that’s his defense against a cruel world. His last appearance in the Purple Pit is the depressing scene that begins on a surrealist picture of a lonely entertainer and pulls back to reveal a lonely entertainer — Buddy Love. “I’m tired” are his only words; then he stumbles alone out of the club.

But who is this pitiful monster? He does exactly what Jerry Lewis does. In a specific sense, he plays the piano, sings, does shtick comedy, nightclub humor — exactly what Jerry Lewis does in “real life.” In a more general sense, Buddy is the entertainer that people love (and pay) to see, the kind of star on which Hollywood has been built. Thus all the pity and hate and fascination Jerry Lewis feels toward Buddy Love is what he feels about himself — or at least about a significant part of himself. So when we hear that Buddy is one of the world’s great men, we hear what Jerry Lewis thinks about himself. And when we see that Buddy is a lonely. pitiful man who feels trapped by his audience, by his act, we see how Jerry Lewis sees himself. And when we are told that Buddy Love is a jerk — a rude, self-centered egomaniac — we are told that by Jerry Lewis, too.

It is in the scene at the prom that Jerry Lewis most clearly (and most embarrassingly) emerges. Whether or not one believes this “character” to be the real Jerry Lewis is beside the important point — that Jerry Lewis presents himself as being so honest as a director that he must step out of character and speak directly to his audience. No matter how that audience reacts, it is Jerry Lewis the man to whom they are directly reacting.

But the speech at the prom is not the end. He won’t let us rest with this scene, because he wants to remind us what he believes his display of honesty entails — rejection, loneliness, pity — all gracefully and sentimentally expressed in a smooth camera track to Jerry sitting alone, backstage. In this sentiment, Lewis’ affinities with Chaplin as director-star become clear. Both see themselves as archetypal ordinary men; as the objects toward which all human emotions gravitate — hate, fascination, love, and an agonizing sense of pity.

But were even this the end, it would suggest, as the rest of the movie clearly denies, that plain Julius Kelp is a total being and Hollywood-mutant Buddy Love is something alien to him that has now been banished. Buddy Love is part of Julius, as Julius is part of Buddy, and both facets of Jerry Lewis are far more inseparably one than Jekyll and Hyde or ego and alter-ego. Seen in terms of Jerry Lewis’ vision of himself as a great star, Edgar Morin’s speculation on stardom seems to apply: “the screen mythology extends itself behind the screen and beyond it. The star is drawn into a dialectic of division and reunification of the personality.”1

Lewis himself noted, “In an odd way, I had trouble relating to control and myself in The Nutty Professor. I had trouble coming out of the character of Buddy Love because I was playing a dirty, lousy bastard. I didn’t like him. I didn’t even like writing Buddy Love, the despicable, discourteous, uncouth rat, much less playing him. I asked myself: How do I know so well how to be a heel? Was I leaning to a side of me that really existed? Certainly I was. There was truth in him. It was also in me. So I hated him, and couldn’t wait to play the alter-character, the nutty professor.”2

If Jerry Lewis needed to play the nutty professor to escape the tyranny of Buddy Love, the epilogue suggests he will play the role at least one more time — perhaps willingly — on his wedding night. As he walks off with Stella, her glance calls our attention to two bottles of “Kelp’s Cool Tonic” in her pockets. If only on our wedding night, or in bed, there is a Buddy Love fantasy in every ordinary man. Buddy will return because people want him back, because movie audiences demand him back. And so The Nutty Professor doesn’t really end — or at least doesn’t resolve the issues that erupt within it. The end title says it’s the beginning, and we are left with a sense of cataclysmic battles to come — battles waged between alien personalities for control of that mysterious entity known as Jerry Lewis. Of the final, last scene in the film (it is amazing how many endings there are, as if no resolution is possible), Marty Rubin noted, “Lewis brings up the rear of the cast reprise by stumbling forward and ripping the film from the screen. ‘Let me out of here,’ says Lewis, trapped in his alien image . . .”3

As a companion film to The Nutty Professor, The Patsy even more directly tackles the problem of Jerry Lewis’ troublesome image. Paralleling the transformation from Julius Kelp to Buddy Love is the gradual transformation of Stanley Belt, bellboy, to Stanley Belt, the great comedian. More harmonious in tone than The Nutty Professor, The Patsy is surely no more comforting to watch than its predecessor. What it lacks in ambivalent feelings, it makes up for in a clearly expressed bitterness toward the world of show business. Is it any accident that the supporting characters of Jerry’s rags-to-riches-and-fame story are played with appropriate ghoulishness by horror and gangster film veterans Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Everett Sloane, George Raft, and Phil Harris? Clearly, The Patsy is a horror story. But whereas the transformation of character in The Nutty Professor occurred within a traditional horror plot (Jekyll and Hyde) in a traditional horror location (a scientific laboratory in a university), here the plot is more Imitation of Life and the settings are the Beverly Hilton and the sound stages in Hollywood. Peter Lorre, playing the film director, says at the beginning of the film, “This scene has all the makings of a great melodrama.” And for Jerry Lewis, the Hollywood melodrama is a horror story — his horror story.

It is a story handled in terms that seem almost archetypal, like Sirk’s Imitation of Life as opposed to Stahl’s. The symbolic structuring of events supersedes their specific detail and meaning. In The Patsy, the myth of Mr. Ordinary somehow attaining stardom is spelled out at the beginning. The manipulative showbiz entourage convinces a star-struck Stanley to sign up with them by offering him the world: “beautiful women, fame, sharp cars, night spots, wine, women and song all the way, kid!” “Yes!” screams out Stanley, as would any ordinary guy. Jerry Lewis’ version of the myth of the making of a star has begun.

Thus also begins his willing victimization, which, like much humor, would be horrible if it weren’t funny. His hair falls out at the barber; he destroys his voice teacher’s house; and, finally. he bombs at the Copa in a nightmare vision of failure and inadequacy. At last he gets his big chance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Ed reminding the audience that this is where Martin and Lewis got their start. Deserted by all the leeches who have tried to make him into something other than Stanley Belt, he seems to invent an act that, in itself, recapitulates the structure of the film. A comedian dresses up. It’s a big night in Hollywood. Lights flash. Spotlights turn. The crowd cheers. He walks onto the stage and into success, fame, and fortune.

Everyone loves him. He is a huge Hollywood success. He has proved — as Julius Kelp proved, and as Jerry Lewis compulsively proves — that he isn’t an idiot. Upon his success, the question arises of how deliberate were his earlier failures. One suspects that Stanley may have played the fool purposely — to expose the insincerity and opportunism of his promoters. Apparently, judging by his “success” on Ed Sullivan, Stanley can turn on his act when he has to — when he wants to — but at nobody’s command.

This attitude is the protest of an ordinary man against the constraints of his stardom. He is obstinate with his promoters in order to retain an identity outside of the image they want him to become. In the early 1970s, David Susskind had a TV talk show on which Jerry Lewis was the only guest. Susskind kept asking Lewis to act foolish and stupid, “like you do in your movies.” Angered by Susskind’s simplistic notion of his work, Jerry became ultra-serious and began to speak in intellectual terms that left Susskind far behind. As he tried to catch up, becoming solemn and pretentious, all of a sudden his guest became the manic Jerry Lewis, running amok in the studio. Throughout the program, Jerry Lewis thus remained three steps ahead of his host’s galloping pigeonhole-images.

Similarly, at the end of The Patsy, after his success, Stanley Belt has become a new person. The old, charming, bumbling kid has become slick and self-assured. In one expressive, low-angle shot, we see that he has been made over; his innocence is lost. But, as if this transformation from well-meaning clod to powerful star is too much to take (as it was inThe Nutty Professor), the new Stanley falls off the balcony to his death. Are we to read this as a lament for the old, lost Stanley? Apparently so. Ina Balin starts to cry. The average guy has climbed to the heights and fallen. And unlike his fall at the beginning of the film (when, as in The Bellboy, he had special, Chaplinesque powers to overcome impossible situations), he can’t bounce back. Lost with his innocence is the magic invested in his being a symbolic nobody. But a new magic enters the picture along with what looks like a third Stanley Belt. Jerry Lewis the director suddenly appears to tell us that everything is fine and under control. It’s only a movie.

This is another move of psychic desperation. Jerry Lewis’ relentless self-criticism has boxed him into a corner. The appearance of “Jerry Lewis” in front of the camera does not clear up the unsolved questions of what happened to the old, original Stanley, or from where the new Stanley emerged. Instead, the Pirandellian ploy underlines the nightmare quality of the two Stanleys and their inexplicable appearance/disappearance. Because both the clumsy and slick character are so close to the “real” Jerry Lewis, it is impossible not to believe that these phantoms still exist, ready to emerge when that third Stanley decides to unleash them To say it s only a movie at the end of a film that has shown the movie business in such a frightening light is hardly reassuring. Our final image is one of Jerry Lewis the director, a controlling, powerful part of the Hollywood he has just dissected.

The Patsy is the last Jerry Lewis film to deal so directly with the director-star’s ambivalent feelings about his relationship as an ordinary man to his alternately or concurrently idiotic and gargantuan screen image. In The Family Jewels, Three on a Couch, The Big Mouth, and Which Way to the Front?, there is always a constant Jerry Lewis character. Even when other roles must be played, never again does the director allow the “other characters” to vie for center stage, as they did inThe Patsy and The Nutty Professor. It is as if, in the course of the first five films, Jerry Lewis was able to reconcile his self-image with his screen image, to fight the battle of Stanley, Herbert, Julius, etc. vs. Hollywood and emerge, as he does at the end of The Patsy, as Jerry Lewis, Hollywood movie maker.

In these later films there is a clearer distinction between the actor and director. There is a greater sense of Jerry Lewis acting; that is, playing a role other than Jerry Lewis filmmaker. The assumption of his first five films — that he is an ordinary guy — isn’t true in Three on a Couch, where he is an artist, or in Which Way to the Front?, where he is a wealthy businessman. When the ordinary guy is lost, so is the notion of Hollywood being a voracious monster ready to eat him up.

Made one year after The Patsy, The Family Jewels is unique (to 1965) in that no personality change takes place. There is no sense of alienation from one’s self that characterizes the compulsively played-out myth of rising to fame and Hollywood-style omnipotence. For the first time, the character Jerry Lewis plays is relatively happy being who he is. But as if to compensate for the comparative banality of Willard’s well-meaning personality, Jerry Lewis has created six alternative personalities, each providing a comic resonance or thematic thrust that may be read as Willard s potential alter-egos. These characters are certainly more “entertaining” than Willard, who must too often bear the burden of the straight-faced story. Each “uncle” is allowed to do what Willard — who must remain responsible in order to get the girl — never can do. That is, they can let loose, go crazy; they can wildly and unreservedly Jerry Lewis-like.

This is particularly true of Uncle Julius, the photographer, and Skylock, the detective — both of whom are the beloved Julius Kelp character (see also The Big Mouth), and both of whom are crazily free of responsibilities. The scene with Julius introduces another Pirandellian motif that runs strongly through The Family Jewels. Not only does he tinker with the lens in a camera point-of-view shot (reminding us that the tinkerer really did create the shot we are looking at), but in a general sense Julius is shown manipulating with utter chaos/creativity the lights and colors of the film. (The same colors which, as Marty Rubin noted in reference to the test tubes i n The Nutty Professor, are “nothing but the bright reds and blues out of which Lewis characteristically fashions the settings of his movies.”4) Willard’s drab uniform and staid, black auto pale in comparison to Julius’ wild studio antics.

A similar reference to the director outside the film is the in-flight movie, Sustenance, shown on Uncle Eddie s rattle-trap plane. Preceded by Gary Lewis’ musical overture emanating from the closet (a family snapshot cum Pirandellian ploy), the in-flight movie uses an old gag (when the plane moves, the characters in Sustenance react) to remind us again that this film — like the film within the film — was made by a nutty guy named Jerry Lewis.

As one might expect, the nuttiness is balanced in The Family Jewels by an alter-ego who is there to remind us of another facet of the director’s self-image. Everitt, the mean and nasty clown, the hypocritical entertainer, is clearly an extension of Buddy Love. Interestingly enough, the one masquerade indulged in by Willard is his imitation of Everitt, which he must do in order to get the girl. That he must play the calculating entertainer in order to give the film a happy ending recalls the appearance of Jerry Lewis at the end of The Patsy, and gives the “happy” ending of The Family Jewels a peculiarly icy tone, reflected also in the cold, flat, and uninviting corridor down which little Donna and the clown must walk.

The whole film, in fact, like the corridor, has an especially fake look about it (even in contrast to other Lewis films, none of which, to be sure, are grittily realistic), especially in its set-piece construction and its minimal use of extras and establishing shots. This is the look of a fairy tale or fable, where the symbolic structure of the story is brought into sharp focus by its lack of realistic continuity details (see for comparison Rancho Notorious, A King in New York, Jet Pilot). The dispassionate nature of this form allows Jerry Lewis to fashion The Family Jewels into a far more cerebral vision of his own self-image, lacking the emotional hysteria of The Nutty Professor or the bitterness of The Patsy. It therefore lacks as well the sense of process that characterizes Jerry Lewis’ entrenched struggle with his own screen image through The Patsy. The dialectic between humility and egocentricity, between ordinary Joseph Levitch and extraordinary Jerry Lewis, between the man from New Jersey and the man from Hollywood reaches uneasy synthesis in The Family Jewels, permitting a film of formal unity in which the aesthetically disruptive intrusions of Jerry Lewis’ self-analysis have been coolly schematized into seven characters and a few Pirandellian in-jokes.

In the four features that follow, the same issue arises but with decreasing urgency. Within the slick aesthetic precision of Three on a Couch, the appearance of alter-egos Warren, Rutherford, Ringo, and Heather seem positively therapeutic in contrast to the compulsive personality shifts in the earlier films. Christopher Pride, far more than any previous Jerry Lewis character, is not only normal, but, as his name suggests in contrast to Heebert, Stanley, Gerald, etc., is an integrated heroic character. In a comic style reminiscent more of Lubitsch than of Keaton or Chaplin, Three on a Couch for the first time presents Jerry Lewis the actor playing a character quite distant from the clods or clowns or egomaniacs who populate the worlds of his earlier films. A character who might easily have been played by Cary Grant, Christopher Pride is a smooth operator who plays his roles with a full consciousness of logical purpose. Of course, in these roles are remnants of the other Jerry Lewises — aesthetically synthesized into the story and emotionally integrated into the clear conception of the main character.

The Big Mouth is probably the most assured of Jerry Lewis’ films where, once again, role playing is a conscious and healthy way for Gerald Clamson to reach his goals. The omniscient observer who appears throughout the film constantly reminds the audience of Clamson’s ordinary nature — which, of course, his bumbling/spectacular escapes deny. But the attitude of The Big Mouth toward its hero is affectionate, and the narrator’s watching over him provides a beautiful endistancing device that allows the audience — even more than in Three on a Couch — to relax and enjoy the comedy, as opposed to becoming enmeshed in the torturous dialectic. Lacking that sense of personal urgency, The Big Mouth ends with the narrator — significantly not Jerry Lewis — stepping slightly out of character to go crazy, strip off his pants, and run into the water hollering “Movies are your best entertainment!” How far this zany bit is from Jerry Lewis’ desperate words at the end of The Patsy: “Hollywood: it’s a dumb city . . . I’m Jerry Lewis. This is a film set. I’m going to make another film. The film’s over . . .” In The Big Mouth, rather than revealing the falseness of Hollywood and his complicity in it (as he does in The Patsy), Jerry Lewis strays only slightly from the reality context of the film’s narrator; and most importantly, has the narrator celebrating with good-natured idiocy the falseness of the medium. This is a comic ploy not unusual in the comedies of Keaton and later seen in the ending of Blazing Saddles or in What’s Up. Tiger Lily?

It is at this point in his career that Jerry Lewis made One More Time, his only film to that time in which he doesn’t appear. The scenario was prepared and the film was cut as well outside of Lewis’ jurisdiction. It is interesting to see the craftsmanship in direction applied, as in Countess from Hong Kong, entirely from behind the camera — particularly in the nuances of gesture Lewis elicits from his friend Sammy Davis, Jr., and in several bravura scenes of slow disclosure. But in spite of its eccentric and uniquely Lewisian elements — including a typically Pirandellian ending — the film seems peripheral to his career and to a consideration of his relationship to Hollywood — especially since it was made in England.

Like The Bellboy, Which Way to the Front? is infused with aspiration toward classic comedy. Here the reference is clearly to The Great Dictator, as Jerry impersonates Field Marshall Kesserling as he and “Hitler” enjoy a modern slow-motion ballet version of Chaplin’s dance with the globe. In fact, the significant difference between the classic pretension of The Bellboy and Which Way to the Front? is that the latter film, like Chaplin’s, adds to the director’s oeuvre a social consciousness lacking in the earlier, more self-centered efforts. The symbolic, fable-like rarification of the world in earlier Lewis films (see especially The Family Jewels) recedes in Which Way to the Front?, becoming a distanced and hard-nosed vision of just such aestheticism. The self-criticism that characterizes his whole career is here integrated into a story about a very powerful man who tries to live a self-created fairy tale.

From his name to his haughty manner, Brendan Byers incarnates acquisitiveness. Leaving aside the direct social commentary that informs Jerry Lewis’ portrait of Byers, for purposes of this discussion let us note the similarity of Byers to Jerry Lewis the director. First, the obvious parallel of Byers’ ostentation to Lewis’ well-known public display of his own wealth. In effect, too, Byers is a director, creating his own army (how many directors have compared their craft to the work of a general?) and employing his limitless resources (which we may read as an analog for both Lewis’ wealth and, perhaps more importantly, for his conception of his own limitless, creative resources as a film artist) to fight his own battles according to his own plan with what is in effect his own production company (Which Way to the Front? is a Jerry Lewis production).

The unique significance of Jerry Lewis’ conception of this character is Byers’ base of power. The film takes a distanced point-of-view toward him, revealing without ambivalence his materialism. his unearned wealth, and his rejection complex. Like Buddy Love. Byers incarnates power. But unlike The Nutty Professor, his source of power isn’t psychological or psychic — it’s money. And he’s bored and wants to do something worthwhile, i.e., fight Hitler. He does this by creating his own army — in effect, his own war and his own world. Like the director of The Family Jewels, Byers creates a perfect projection for his fantasies. But here, the director’s perspective on his character leaves room to contemplate his megalomania.

Jerry Lewis has created in Byers a character who, after taking care of Europe, moves on to Japan at the end of the film. Lewis’ conception of Byers as the ultimate expression of American acquisitiveness around the globe merits a thorough analysis of Which Way to the Front? beyond the scope of this piece. For our purposes, it is Byers as a coolly created projection of Jerry Lewis that marks Which Way to the Front? as a logical evolution in the essential structure of Jerry Lewis’ films. No longer self-consciously ordinary, no longer torturously grappling with the conflict between the “real” Jerry Lewis and his Hollywood image, the director-star of Which Way to the Front? has found a balance within his self-image and an apparently secure and finely distanced perception of his own power.

  1. Edgar Morin, The Stars (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 67. []
  2. Jerry Lewis, The Total Film-Maker (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 62. []
  3. Martin Rubin, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince-Fool,” in The Village Voice, December 28, 1972, p. 64. []
  4. Ibid. []