Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Jerry Lewis

As I've written previously, if you asked a few high-tone film critics to name their Top 5 comedy filmmakers, they probably would not mention Jerry Lewis.  However, he got praise from fellow filmmakers Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.  For us baby boomers, there was a period when we were really into Jerry Lewis.  That was when we were kids.  Then we grew out of him.  We rediscovered him in our college years and tuned into his celebrated annual telethons.  We'd gather at a TV in a dorm room to watch him sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" after having stayed up for hours bringing in money to fight Muscular Dystrophy.
The first time I ever witnessed Christian censorship in action was during the opening credits of a Jerry Lewis movie.  There was some special community event being held one weekend evening in the large auditorium of the grade school I attended, George Washington Carver Elementary in South Central L.A.  The community event would end with a screening of a Jerry Lewis movie, 1958's ROCK A BYE BABY.  This was a lively, Crayola crayon-colored loose remake of the Preston Sturges 1940s classic, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.
One of the girls in our class had a mother who always picked her up from school and was a Church Lady.  No matter what the topic was, she could relate it to or include a mention of Jesus.  If she went to the supermarket and asked a clerk, "Do you have pickles?" and the clerk answered, "Yes, in aisle 6," she 'dreply, "Just as Jesus intended!" -- because, as you know, there was a big bowl of dill pickles on the table during the Last Supper.
ROCK A BYE BABY opens with Jerry in a tux, standing before a red curtain, and singing the jazzy original title tune.  The opening credits set up an element of the movie.  It's a colorful montage of Jerry singing in different areas of a Hollywood sound stage.  It's like a music video.  At one point, a couple of lovely and long-legged showgirls in gorgeous outfits designed by Edith Head wheel out a rack of costumes.  Keep in mind that the most revealing thing about their costumes is their legs. BUT...our classmate's mother -- who must have been the inspiration for the Aunt Esther character years later on SANFORD & SON -- took the girl by the girl, stood up and marched her out of the auditorium showing that "filth."

The rest of us stayed.  I felt so sorry for that little girl.

When I was a kid, the Jerry Lewis Paramount comedies that he made early in his career were still making money.  Movie theaters had matinees on the weekends.  Parents could send the kids to the movies for a few hours of quiet time.  Paramount would re-release its Jerry Lewis library for weekend matinee screenings and those walk-in movie theaters would be packed with youngsters waiting to laugh at the goofy, manic, often child-like Jerry Lewis.

My favorite Jerry Lewis film is THE LADIES MAN.  I was fascinated to see him play a complicated dramatic character in Scorcese's 1982 film, THE KING OF COMEDY.  That was one of his best screen performances.  But those Paramount comedies with Dean Martin and Lewis' solo work as THE BELLBOY, GEISHA BOY, THE LADIES MAN, CINDERFELLA and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR have moments that still break me up laughing like I did when I was a youth.
When I had my VH1 talk show back in the late 80s, Shirley MacLaine was one of my favorite guests.  We just hit it off as soon as we met in the greenroom and it covered over to interview on set.  In the greenroom, I asked her about a piece of business in 1955's ARTISTS AND MODELS.  That's another comic book-colored Martin & Lewis comedy, a loose remake of a 1930s Paramount film of the same name.  Dorothy Malone played Dean's love interest and Shirley was the lovable kook who had a crush on Jerry's character.  Shirley MacLaine told me that ARTISTS AND MODELS had a very unhappy set.  Dean and Jerry were breaking up.  Shirley said they did a lot of yelling at each other off-camera.

The August 21 front page of The New York Times had a report on the life and death of Jerry Lewis right next to a similar one about Dick Gregory.  Gregory was a "Sly Wit, Humanizing a Struggle for Justice."  Lewis was "A Transcendent Jester, Both Silly and Stormy."

I've heard that he was Carol Burnett's least favorite star guest on her CBS variety show because he, reportedly, started acting like a boss instead of a guest.  In montages of special guests on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, you never see a clip of Jerry Lewis.

Three days before the news of Lewis' death broke, I happened to watch one of his last films.  Like THE KING OF COMEDY, he's in dramatic mode.  The 2013 movie is called MAX ROSE.  He's a grieving widower.  He was a jazz musician married to the love of his life for about 60 years.  But was he the only love of her life?  Max is old and his grown children worry about him being alone.  He's not always kind to his son.  Max can be caustic. We learn why.  The film is solemn and short.  It's only about 85 minutes long but it occasionally feels longer because it's so solemn.  However, it's a reminder of how effective Jerry Lewis could be with dramatic material.  It's great to see Claire Bloom, Dean Stockwell and Mort Sahl also in the cast. See Jerry Lewis as MAX ROSE on Netflix.



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