The King of Comedy

Wresting order from disorder in Jerry Lewis's adventures in multiplicity
by Chris Fujiwara  posted November 17, 2008
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The Museum of the Moving Image will present "The King of Comedy: Jerry Lewis in Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich" on Saturday, November 22, 7:00 p.m. at The Times Center in Manhattan.

Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.

Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor (1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis's understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look ("You'll have a face full of fingers," he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie's sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).

In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp's out-of-focus look in the bowling alley in The Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961's The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis's work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964's The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970's Which Way to the Front?).

The most extreme reversal in Lewis's work is the ending of The Patsy, in which the reverse field of every film shot—the field that contains the camera—is finally revealed. Parrying actress Ina Balin's calling him "a complete nut," director Lewis remembers he's having "nuts and whipped cream for lunch" and leads the cast and crew off the set, as his remarks trail off rather than reaching a neat period. In its tossed-off quality, this ending admits the impossibility of ending: the autobiographical subject of this implicitly autobiographical film being still alive, the film cannot close (as Lewis says, "The people in the theater know I ain't gonna die.
. . . I'm gonna make more movies, so I couldn't die"—the latter sentence is also a statement of the endlessness of art). This ultimate reverse field of The Patsy appears less real than the space that its unveiling shows to have been fictional; nothing can stay in place here (the stakes of the narrative having already been denied several times), so Lewis erases the space in the act of showing it: a way of remaining discreet about his own activity as director.

Lewis's films are adventures in multiplicity: things happen at the same time, and in the same space, that couldn't or shouldn't so happen (like the multiple Herberts rushing upstairs in panic in The Ladies Man). He loves to work with segmentation, to divide the frame into separate compartments (the line between stage and backstage in the prom scene of The Nutty Professor, the recording studio scene in The Patsy), to divide the narrative into blocks (the episodic structures of The Family Jewels and Hardly Working [1980]). Lewis's great originality as a filmmaker lies in his art of multiplying segmentation or segmenting multiplicity so as to produce a spiraling disorder that leads miraculously to a reassertion of order (as in the endings of The Family Jewels, Which Way to the Front?, and Cracking Up [1983]). His films take place in zones of indeterminacy and combinatorial freedom.

Sound often fills in for or covers an absent image, as in the glass-factory scene in Hardly Working (an example of the extreme compression of the gag, as prolonged sounds of breaking glass are heard over a shot of the company sign). In The Bellboy, a rambling monologue spoken by arriving hotel guest "Jerry Lewis" continues at length, after he disappears into an elevator, as the elevator fills up with members of his staff, until, at the end of the single take, Stanley (also Lewis) appears in the foreground in his bellboy costume. Conversely, the onscreen can produce immediate, improbable changes in the offscreen. In The Bellboy, Jerry Lewis mimes pulling down an imaginary curtain from the top of the screen and obtains immediate silence from his entourage, who have been annoying him by laughing at everything he says. Music disappears from the soundtrack when a girl disappears around a corner with her transistor radio in The Ladies Man.

Lewis's work with sound and image, making them substitute for each other or take over from each other, supports a radical conception of character. A person in a Lewis film is a collection of traits (rather than a "subject"). Since one must "be somebody" (as the ending of The Nutty Professor confirms), adopt some personality, play some role, Lewis chooses, arbitrarily, this one, or that one. Why, to attract Mary Lou (Leslie Parrish) in Three on a Couch (1966), does Chris (Lewis) become, precisely, the prissy entomologist Rutherford and, before that, Rutherford's flamboyant sister, Heather, rather than some other character? Why do they have Southern accents? Similar questions could be asked about Cracking Up: the bank robber, the country sheriff—what are these persons? Since we have to be somebody, Lewis seems to say, let's be somebody special.

In Lewis's work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft's claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just "only" an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis's direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves. The social world of Lewis's films is a world of luxuriant stylization peopled with exceptional beings: Helen Traubel as the fulsome boarding-house proprietor Miss Wellenmellon in The Ladies Man; Bob Clayton as the smooth bell captain in The Bellboy; the Jewish bellboys (and dog-track aficionados) in The Bellboy; Howard McNear as the groveling Mr. Sneak in The Errand Boy; the overplaying actors in the parody "movie" scenes of The Errand Boy; Del Moore's tetchy, aghast Dr. Warfield in The Nutty Professor; Stanley Belt's team of overbearing handlers in The Patsy, striding, pacing, and gesticulating up and down their split-level hotel suite.

Personality can become a kind of infection, as characters adopt one another's mannerisms: Howard Morris as Kelp's transformed father at the end of The Nutty Professor becomes a new version of Buddy Love (Kelp's devastating alter ego), and even Stella (Stella Stevens), in the backstage scene, becomes Love-like, silencing Kelp with a curt "Tch!" and a raised open palm. Character is never a consistent guise but a multilevel assembly of poses, postures, and signature actions.

Each of Lewis's films is a flight through forms and states. The fluidity (or emptiness) of character becomes especially apparent when people respond to unexpected, inexplicable events. In The Big Mouth (1967), when the supposed FBI man on whom he relied for help is suddenly whisked away by medical attendants, Clamson (Lewis), left alone, has a discombobulated, dazed reaction. He regresses. He crumples paper, climbs onto the table, talks into the candleholder as if it were bugged ("Send up some help"), gibbers, shakes the table, laughs. Life is speed and transformation; the immediate pretext for movement and change (like the diamond-theft plot in The Big Mouth) matters little.

Lewis calls the pattern formed by the comic performer "an erratic pattern" (The Total Film-Maker). The Lewisian person is not just inconsistent, he is discontinuous: "I'm always conscious of the three factors—done to, doing to self, and doing to someone else by accident or design . . . but they are not in acute focus. They swim in and out at any given moment." In The Ladies Man, Herbert in the high chair as Katie (Kathleen Freeman) feeds him is self-assertive and aggressive, unlike the shy, terrified Herbert seen in other scenes. In the restaurant where he takes Ellen (Ina Balin) in The Patsy, the gentle and inept Stanley Belt (Lewis), put on the defensive when the headwaiter (Fritz Feld) kisses Ellen's hand, suddenly breaks into Buddy Love voice and attitude. Lewis's parody of social niceness at a Hollywood cocktail party in The Patsy, letting loose with an unexpected showbiz "sweetie," implies a consciousness of modes of speech that the Belt character has not previously demonstrated and that his characterization has not accounted for. At the end of The Errand Boy, Morty (Lewis) suddenly acquires a new vocal timbre and a new vocabulary ("Love ya"). In Three on a Couch, the seemingly involuntary verbal reactions elicited from Chris when a line of female models files past him in a clothes store involve a mixing of voices explicable neither in terms of Chris's psychology nor in terms of his attempt to make his "Ringo Raintree" disguise plausible, as he slips out of his "Western" accent into other Lewisian vocal mannerisms.

Lewis as director doesn't thematize these changes or recuperate them within a structure that explains the character as a contradictory person—which would be to let the audience know that the apparent inconsistencies of behavior are intended as a complex characterization and that they will be (and therefore already are in advance) resolved somehow. Lewis refuses to resolve. An apparent exception is the end of The Nutty Professor, which implies the possibility for Kelp and Love to become synthesized. But synthesis never occurs: there is nothing but conflict, reversal. This is clear at the end of The Errand Boy, in which Morty and his double confront each other: they shake hands, and are in some sense united, but they are two different people.

If the confessional aspect of The Nutty Professor and the self-reflexivity of films such as The Errand Boy and The Patsy have often encouraged viewers to see Lewis's work as a distorted autobiography, a set of mirror fictions in which he externalizes various aspects of himself and sends them colliding against one another, his films make an equally strong demand to be read as the most vivid and emotionally wrenching American show-business hallucinations ever put on film: representations of a modern world in part naturalistic and plausible, in part fantastic and implausible, partly real, partly staged. The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, Three and a Couch, and The Big Mouth are comic masterpieces that propose a rich and haunting combination of realms of seeing and experiencing, of values that denounce each other without ceasing to coexist within a single frame. These films do not, and are not made to, offer the reassurance of a cohesive narrative controlled by a stable authorial agency. They set up, instead, a liberating and exhilarating confusion of roles and realms, in which the author, too, is one of the figures that swim in and out of focus.

This essay is adapted, in part, by the author from his forthcoming book Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press). 


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Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

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