From Time Out (London), June 4-10, 1976. I’ve always had very mixed feelings about this commissioned cover-story piece, especially about its stupid and offensive title (not mine) as well as what I now regard as a certain conformist pandering to what I regarded as mainstream taste. As I recall, the whole piece was written very quickly, following the capricious whim of the magazine’s editor. I especially regret the way I fell into some of the mindless consensus of condemning The Day the Clown Cried without having seen any part of it, which by now has become a standard reflex in Anglo-American Lewis-bashing. I’ve corrected a couple of factual errors. -– J.R.
Who is Jerry Lewis?
A comedian who has acted in over three dozen films, eight of which he’s directed, himself. I became a fan back in 1949, when he first appeared as secondary comic relief in ‘My Friend Irma’, and followed him religiously through his countless vehicles with Dean Martin in the 50s. As I grew older, critics began to warn me that he was childish and self-indulgent, friends groaned whenever his name cropped up, and I discovered that he usually came across as a sanctimonious prig whenever he made personal appearances on TV. Then I read a few French critics about him, went to see some of his films in the 60s, and reconsidered the whole question again.
What is a Jerry Lewis movie?
A disconcerting collection of grimaces, tics, impersonations, self-glorifications, deformations of body and language, sentimental slogans, and nearly non-stop gags, many of them funny. Ever since he split with Dean Martin 20 years ago, his movies have become even more extreme in style as well as subject matter. His last film, for instance, ‘Which Way to the Front?’ (1970), presents him as the richest man in the world — an hysterical neurotic who counters his rejection from the draft during World War II by launching an expensive European campaign of his own, manned by other draft rejects, which succeeds in destroying Hitler.
His last completed film [sic] – the non- comic and still unreleased ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ — has a subject, given Lewis’ sentimentality, which may well make it the most obnoxious in the history of the cinema: a clown in a concentration camp entertaining children on their way to the gas ovens.
His influence — and that of his mentor, the late Frank Tashlin, who directed half the films in the Electric‘s season – can be traced through a great deal of the modern French cinema: his wild comic- book fantasies in ‘Artists and Models’ were a major inspiration on Jacques Rivette’s extraordinary ‘Celine et Julie vont en bateau (visible at NFT-1 on June 12), his make-up in ‘The Nutty Professor’ recurs in Chabrol’s recent ‘Scoundrel in White’, while his vast ensemble set in ‘The Ladies Man’ was imitated by Godard and Gorin in ‘Tout va bien’. Yet outside of France, his critical reputation seems almost non-existent, apart from the enthusiasm of a few critics like Raymond Durgnat.
How has his style as a filmmaker developed?
In his control of the medium, Lewis my be a giant next to Mel Brooks or Woody Allen -– or a pygmy next to Jacques Tati — but this counts for little in a climate where comics are almost invariably judged as performers. Nevertheless, as Jean-Pierre Coursodon points out, ‘Once all the necessary reservations have been duly entered,’ Lewis remains ‘the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to (in his own, quite accurate phrase) “total filmmaker” during the sound era.’ And any description of this development must take Frank Tashlin into account.
A social satirist fascinated by the quirks and excesses of American consumption, Tashlin drew heavily on his former experience as an animator in creating an unreal world of bright, loud colours and sleek, plastic settings that converted America into a vulgar Surrealist dream. When this became conjugated with Lewis’ childish manias, the usual result was a giddy display of adolescent neuroses the size of billboards. But when Lewis struck out on his own as a director, the social interests tended to figure more as diverse aspects of his own megalomania, and in the grand tradition of Chaplin, his films veered increasingly in the direction of self-referential myth and personal obsession. Interestingly enough, the Electric’s programming lets us see this contrast within a time-span of only three years (1962-65): the first double-bill is directed only by Lewis, the third only by Tashlin, while the second is a contrasting mixture.
Why do French critics love Lewis?
Or, conversely, why are English and American critics so hostile towards him? ‘Lewis the only one making courageous films in Hollywood today,’ Godard remarked in 1967, shortly after completing ‘La Chinoise’, ‘and I think he’s perfectly aware of it.’ Most Anglo-Americans would regard this as aberrant, just as many French critics consider it aberrant that Lewis is treated with such contempt by their English-speaking counterparts.
Nearly everyone seems to agree that Lewis is aberrant , and the rift may derive from the fact that each culture evaluates aberration differently –- a factor that has also governed the receptions of such figures as Sade, Poe, Artaud, Faulkner, and Bataille.
Does Lewis belong in such company?
Probably not. But to approach his films profitably, one has to welcome the challenge of being embarrassed – an exercise easier for kids that for uptight adults. Clearly Lewis belongs to a tradition of shameless assault, a mode shared by Skolimowski’s ‘King, Queen, Knave’, Chabrol’s ‘The Way to Pleasure’, Preminger’s bleak/black trilogy of ‘Skidoo’, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon’ and ‘Such Good Friends’, and Iris Owens;’ recent novel ‘After Claude’ -– slick works of loathing and horror that rather suggest throwing up expensive meals at the Ritz, and are all equally embarrassing.
For the French, who already tend to see America as a contorted fantasy, Lewis remains a provocative symbol and nightmarish embodiment of that country’s manias. There are two sides to his image, the gangling adolescent and the smug VIP; this becomes a conscious dialectic in ‘The Nutty Professor’ (probably his best film, and featured in the Electric Season) where he plays both parts, but the same divisions are implied in his other films -– even in ‘The Family Jewels’ (also in the season) where he takes on seven different roles. If he comes on more like a VIP his public appearances, there is a good reason for this: the whole point of ‘The Nutty Professor’ is that everyone prefers the brutal egotist.
Jerry Lewis Season: Late nights on weekends falling between June 14 and 20. See Film Club listings for dates and times at the Electric Cinema Club, 191 Portobello Road, W11.