The Great Depression: Jerry Lewis’ Last Movies

By Christoph Huber

One of the highlights of the year was the great (35mm!) Jerry Lewis retrospective presented by the Viennale and the Austrian Film Museum, which confirmed him as one of modern cinema’s key auteurs. Still, there remains the great divide. By this I do not mean obvious, yet excruciatingly opaque distinctions (Jerry the actor vs. Jerry the director; how to differentiate Frank Tashlin from Jerry Lewis in their collaborations) or those that have devolved into useless clichés (French vs. American reception), but the very clear line that runs exactly halfway through his oeuvre. His first six films as a director, from The Bellboy (1960) to The Family Jewels (1965)—all made for Paramount Pictures, where Lewis had risen to major movie stardom the previous decade in a series of vehicles co-starring longtime stand-up partner Dean Martin, and seemed to enjoy remarkable creative freedom—by now have been enshrined as classics, and there is no reason to dispute their evident excellence. However, the subsequent six films—not counting the puzzling lacuna left by that notorious cause célèbre The Day the Crown Cried, shot in 1972, held up by litigation, and ever since having remained locked in Jerry’s vault—are neglected despite scattered endorsements. Seeing them again on the big screen (with one exception, noted below), often in astonishing prints that one never would have expected, confirmed that these half-dozen orphans are more than overdue for (re)consideration. So, a first attempt in six capsules…and one Lewisian question mark.

Three on a Couch (1966). “There couldn’t be two Christopher Prides,” is one of the first sentences with which Jerry’s character introduces himself. That Pride is an artist given to masquerade and manipulation for reasons of the heart once more underlines the prominence given by Jerry to parallels between his film incarnations and his real-life situation. Overall, Three on a Couch may not be Jerry’s greatest achievement, but the touching and even the dark parts of his shenanigans resonate. Despite a few quintessentially Lewisian detours into the crazy—for example, an incredible, incoherent monologue in entomologist disguise, consisting of perfectly timed rapid-fire half-sentences nervously delivered with utmost conviction—this is the first of his directorial efforts for which he takes no co-writing credit. The screenplay is essentially a typical farce, obliquely reflecting that boulevard theatre perennial Boeing Boeing, the film adaptation of which Jerry had co-starred in a year earlier. Three on a Couch follows Jerry’s deliberate divorce from the “kid” aspect of his persona, already announced in many ways with The Family Jewels. As Pride, he is the romantic lead, whose mounting hysteria is purposely more interesting than anything relating to the three dream-lover types (plus one’s sister) that he impersonates, which register almost as sarcastic self-parodies (cigar-chomping cowboy, nerd scientist, etc.). The film builds to a climax with an extended party scene, but Lewis replaces Blake Edwards’ elegance with his own impressive, increasingly oppressive and nightmarish arrangement of frenetic comedy via crisscrossing encounters. Also worth noting is that the multiplication of Jerry here is a ruse, just a series of performances, and not some surreal proliferation as elsewhere. Stalwart supporter Kathleen Freeman, usually suffering sensationally at the hands of Jerry’s slapstick, is even allowed to switch sides for once—while Buddy Lester climbs new peaks of inebriated inspiration, including an unforgettable cab-door slow-burn—then saves the day after Jerry’s trick has been exposed and only the threat of suicide remains. A work of disconcerting containment.

The Big Mouth (1967). If Thomas Pynchon were a filmmaker instead of a novelist and had directed only The Big Mouth, he might have understandably left it at that—so we should be grateful Jerry stepped in and continued. In the film, individual identity implodes (its arbitrariness, a key Lewis theme, becomes fully threatening) while paranoia is rampant, possibly even inevitable as the only sane reaction to an insane world governed by unspeakable forces—no wonder Jerry as Gary Clamson gives up speaking as the narrative progresses, amplifying the link to The Bellboy with its (almost-)mute Jerry and vacationland premises, this time San Diego in full colour and turned completely sour. Mild-mannered bank examiner Clamson’s annual fishing holiday disintegrates after he (literally) reels in his gangster double and is given a treasure map, which Fu Manchu-type enforcers (ridiculous fake beards included) try to retrieve, resulting in three nervous breakdowns, each hood frozen into an eternal stage of comedy: a dumb dog, a stooge (Larry Fine), and a Buddy Lester showcase of twitching nerves and garbled speech. Police are of no help, but suffer their own breakdown, sidetracked into debating the meaning of their own codes; an FBI agent turns out to have long retreated into mental collapse. Jerry disappears into disguises (Kabuki in Sea World?), but there is no refuge, only hysterical extension (as in the Möbius strip chase moment and the good ol’ leg-stretch gag) or elliptical reduction, as overall breakdown leads towards wanton aggression in all directions. (This is especially true of the finale, in which several protracted showdown possibilities—helicopter rescue; then Clamson cornered by gangsters on the shore only to be saved by the unlikely reappearance of his double—are telegraphed via a handful of quick shots.) Meanwhile, Robert Aldrich’s house composer Frank De Vol strolls around to intermittently interrupt the proceedings as narrator, madly dashing off in the end to expose that he’s not wearing trousers. Painfully funny indeed, The Big Mouth precedes Preminger’s Skidoo and Edwards’ The Party by a year, and like those films is a visionary splintered-society satire cutting through delusions. (What’s real? Advertising and Col. Sanders, who appears in an otherwise pointless cameo.) Only complaint: it should be longer.

One More Time (1970). Understandably, but unfortunately, neglected even by Jerry enthusiasts (and not included in the retrospective, but unearthed on an old VHS tape), this is the only film Jerry directed without starring in: a sequel to Salt and Pepper (1968) with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford as the eponymous groovy-guys duo drawn into a murder plot. Which brings us to the problem with the narrative (much more pronounced here than in Three on a Couch), which weighs down the film with exposition and weak comedic banter, filmed competently enough and allowing for occasional auteurist insights. (There’s a good reason why Jerry usually prefers a freewheeling structure.) But the interest lies elsewhere, in digressions like a butler serving a meal so slowly that inserts show Lawford growing a beard, flowers withering, and white streaks appearing in Davis’ hair, or a non-sequitur trip to the cellar leading to a monstrous line-up unique in horror history, as Davis’ Hammer pals Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing cameo unbilled in their signature roles. Sudden urges for punchy visualizations are welcome, but rare: at a funeral, the leg-parade of hot black-clad groupies sidetracks an assassin’s cross-haired gaze; a weird explanatory flashback while looking at the painting of a castle (the corresponding picture-postcard view on film comes with the end credits). But Jerry is always tickled by performance, notably Davis’ songs and comedy routines, which obviously cannot compare to the Jer. His actors put on acts for each other (a costume party included), and Jerry lavishes the insistent attention on them that he usually centres on himself. It is at times hard to bear, leaving the audience with a koan to contemplate: What’s Jerry without Jerry? (A bandleader’s voice.)

Which Way to the Front? (1970). Probably the most sustained demonstration of rhythmic brilliance in Jerry’s work. He starts out bored at a board meeting, sucking on a pacifier, as palpable exhaustion, even despair, hangs over his richest man in the world, Brendan Byers III, and his staff. These protracted silences are followed by an increasingly breathless movement to a pile-up of rat-a-tat pseudo-Teutonic gibberish, mostly—but not only—by Jerry himself, who is seen preparing by listening to “Music to Mein Kampf By.” Confronted with the draft board’s rejection (the one word that the supercapitalist cannot bear), Byers III insists on “every man’s right to be killed fighting for his country.” The year is supposedly 1943—the insert of the date itself a quiet joke in the opening scene, with decor, attire, haircuts, etc. undisguisedly contemporary, as are later stylistic choices like transition swish-pans and punch line freeze-frames. But how far can you be from Vietnam? The absolutely idiotic yet stroke-of-genius coda even continues (ending) the war in Asia, Jerry-trademarked buck teeth and all. Before that (and long before Tarantino), this Jewish retribution fantasy updates the old Nazi impersonation shtick to The Dirty Dozen (1967) times: buying his own army, Byers starts a private war, leading first to his German double Field Marshal Kesselring, with everybody in the platoon getting to strut their version of his silly walk, before Kesselring is captured in a surreally spasmodic scene, then abruptly replaced by Byers, causing a topsy-turvy confusion. (Soon after, Jerry-as-Byers-as-Kesselring mutilates/decorates a German soldier bearing Lewis’ own birth name, Levitch.) As a finale, there’s the uncanny meeting of finance and Führer, who first performs The Great Dictator (1940) ballet in slow motion, then does a satchel-with-a-bomb exchange pas de deux with Jerry. Which way to the Clown? The mind boggles. (It was screened in a superb British premiere print, thus even bettered by the UK release title Ja, ja, mein General! But Which Way to the Front?)

The Day the Clown Cried (1972/????). Who knows? Only Jerry…

Hardly Working (1980). What a comeback: “Jerry Lewis Is Hardly Working,” is the pun in the credits, and the shorter, lesser US cut is even front-loaded with a montage of signature moments from earlier films, set to the famous typewriter sketch accompaniment, as if Jerry needed a reintroduction after a decade of big-screen absence. Made on the cheap and on the spot in Florida (closing a circle with The Bellboy), this may be the most melancholic film in the Jerriad despite numerous uproarious bits like the Japanese chef assault. In The Family Jewels, Jerry’s classic clown make-up masked the bad, here it can no longer mask the sad: Bo Hopper, insecure circus performer, has his brief moment of affirmation, then the banks close down his tour. “There is no place for clowns in this world,” Bo later muses (except for politics, he adds: Hardly Working was released first in West Germany 11 days after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and over a year later in the US), and his attempts to gain employment are inevitably foiled by a natural penchant for disaster (demonstrations range from elaborate slapstick at a gas station to an off-screen symphony of shattering glass as he’s shown out of a mirror factory). Applying himself as a mishap-prone postal worker, Bo gradually manages to fit in, until he succeeds with a postal delivery tour de force of mechanical precision—he’s become a cog in the machine, but realizes it will cost him his soul. It’s the outsider’s fictional last stand in a real landscape of economic decline, still saturated by commercial content, with Jerry’s generally overemphasized product placement reaching the point of inversion: the world itself has become a billboard. It’s product as magic potion, as phrased in the opening narration of The Errand Boy (1961), whose depressive undertow has spread outwards from Hollywood to conquer the Earth. Down to Jerry’s disappearance into the landscape in an undistinguished last shot, this would have been a perfect final film.

Smorgasbord (The Movie) (aka Cracking Up, 1983). Thus, inevitably, he made another, making the ever-present concept of suicide in Jerry’s films (literally or artistic, attempted or accidental) the through-line for a last loose, soaring series of sketches, stripped down to essentials. Jerry—”Who else?” asks the credits, while Marcel Marceau beautifully sings the main theme—plays Warren Nefron, first seen failing to end his life (loose noose, etc.) until a gunshot is discharged into a TV set, which shoots back: the world reclaimed as stage for a final performance, including a bit of bank-robbing turned musical show for the surveillance camera, or minutes of meticulous slipping and sliding on squeaky furniture and a red studio floor in the office of a psychiatrist whom Warren regales with his grotesque family history reaching back to 15th-century France. There are further misguided suicide attempts: dousing himself in gasoline, Jerry casually searches his pockets only to realize he has forgotten a lighter, then stoically wanders off in wet defeat as the wind whistles. Ultimately redemption is glimpsed, although the rest of the world is instantly engulfed by chaos again. A tacked-on last scene shows Jerry leaving a screening, asked how the movie was: “It’s really good, you know!” The only possible shortcoming, as pointed out by Jerry expert Chris Fujiwara: “Too entertaining.” Huber Christoph