As a general rule, I’m not a fan of cinematic litmus tests; the way we respond to movies is too personal and too subjective to make assumptions about someone based on their love or hate for any particular film or filmmaker. The only exception I make to this rule has to do with actor, writer, producer, and director Jerry Lewis. Basically, anytime I hear someone make a snide remark about the fact that the French love Lewis – making that remark in a way that's meant to cast aspersions on the French, Jerry Lewis, or both – I know one thing about that person. I know that that person is an idiot. Because Jerry Lewis is, quite simply, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, a philosopher and innovator whose complexity and audacity are especially remarkable considering the fact that he worked in the least respected of all genres: comedy. Even more remarkable is the fact that he created his most revolutionary works not as a Cassavetes-style outside-the-system maverick, but with the full resources and protection of Paramount Pictures. He bent the studio to his will and milked it for all it was worth, and just in time, too – only a few years after his extraordinary run at Paramount, the system that supported him would be gone forever.
Between 1960 and 1965, Lewis co-wrote, directed and starred in six masterpieces for Paramount: The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, and The Family Jewels. They are films of ambitious visual and narrative experimentation, provocative and sometimes conflicted commentaries on masculinity in post-war America, and unsettling self-critiques and analyses of the performer’s neuroses. They are also wildly, spectacularly funny, and were massive hits as a result – just one of the many reasons I’ve always found the notion of making fun of the French for liking Jerry to be a bit peculiar (after all, we liked him first). It was Lewis’ enormous popularity, first as part of a comedy team with Dean Martin and then as a solo performer, that led Paramount to give him the keys to the kingdom; his built-in audience meant that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with the camera as long as he aimed it at himself, and he took this freedom and ran with it to reinvent both the language and technology of cinema.
His willingness to play with form is evident in the first scene of his first movie, The Bellboy, which opens with a fake studio executive addressing the camera to inform the audience that this is no ordinary film – it is, in fact, a movie without a plot. Lewis then goes on to make good on that promise for over an hour with a series of episodes, set pieces, and gags linked not by story or theme but by a location (the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach) and the title character, who is played by Lewis himself in a nearly wordless performance. It's a remarkable piece of work that looks both forward and back; in its purity of visual expression and episodic structure the movie owes something to the silent cinema of Chaplin and Keaton, but Lewis takes Keaton’s experiments with cinematic space to a whole new level. Whereas most comic filmmakers, even today, just come up with jokes and comic situations and then photograph them from the most advantageous (or, to put it less generously, pedestrian) angle, in Lewis’ work the way the scene is photographed is an integral part of the joke. His purposeful selection of lenses, for example, expands and contracts space to generate laughs that aren’t necessarily inherent in the material, and he often achieves his biggest effects via what he leaves off screen, not just visually but structurally – as a writer, Lewis pays zero attention to the rules of traditional dramaturgy, except to obliterate them.
In his next and possibly best film, The Ladies Man, Lewis extends this idea to destroy not only literary boundaries but architectural ones – virtually the entire movie, in which Lewis plays a houseboy working in a sort of dormitory for aspiring actresses and models, takes place in an elaborate set in which the camera traverses space with abandon. The choreography between the camera, the performers, and the set itself, which was meticulously designed to accommodate Lewis’ long takes and fourth-wall-shattering compositions, is executed with a steady precision that would make Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher jealous – yet I can think of no director whose work exhibits a greater sense of freedom and liberation. Lewis’ cinema represents the logical extension of the lessons he learned performing with Dean Martin; their routines were largely built around the juxtaposition of Martin’s solid professionalism as a crooner and Lewis’ gleeful love of disorder and willingness to wreak havoc on everything and everyone in his path. In his post-Martin movies as both actor and director, Lewis embodies both of these impulses. Behind the camera, he’s the consummate pro, a man capable of impeccably smooth camera moves and orderly compositions; in front of it, he’s an idiot man-child who carelessly dismantles everything the craftsman on the other side of the lens has worked so hard to construct. One of the simplest and funniest examples of this idea comes early on in The Ladies Man during a graduation ceremony: Lewis the director establishes a gorgeously symmetrical composition of a graduating class only to obliterate it by having Lewis the actor jump out from within it like a deranged jack-in-the-box.
If The Ladies Man has competition in the Lewis canon, it comes from The Nutty Professor, a movie which takes this duality on as its very subject – it’s a Jekyll and Hyde tale about a nerdy science professor who discovers a substance that turns him into a suave, womanizing jerk named Buddy Love. Many critics have posited a theory that nightclub crooner Buddy Love is a stand-in for Dean Martin, but I think that’s a misreading of the film; Love isn’t Martin, but Lewis himself – or at least the side of Lewis that Lewis fears, the self-absorbed, egomaniacal Hollywood jerk. This was not a casual preoccupation of the director’s - several of his movies, including The Errand Boy and The Patsy, explicitly address and portray show business, and to say that they’re ambivalent on the topic would be the understatement of the decade. Lewis is brilliant, particularly in The Patsy, at satirizing the ridiculousness and hypocrisies of the Hollywood system – and yet his very movies themselves are celebrations of that system. Where else could extravaganzas of luxurious color, wardrobe and set design like one finds in The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor exist but in big-budget studio movies? Lewis had his peers in the 1960s and early 70s – Godard was conducting similar experiments with space and structure and Cassavetes would dig even deeper into male identity and neurosis – but no one combined the best of old Hollywood with the breakthroughs of the new the way Jerry did.
In a sense this is why I think Lewis is still undervalued as a director – like many great artists, he existed a bit outside his time. His Paramount output represents the last grand gasp of the classical studio era in terms of its production value and professionalism, but the movies are unruly and unresolved in a manner that looks forward to the films of a maverick like Martin Scorsese, for whom Lewis would give an extraordinary performance in The King of Comedy in 1981. He’s a writer and director obsessed with boundaries – the boundaries of polite society, the boundaries between childhood and maturity, the boundaries between men and women – but he never quite determines where those boundaries begin and end and whether or not they’re good or bad. There’s a reason why his sets aren’t built like anyone else’s – in their missing walls and elaborate vertical spaces, his ambivalent feelings about boundaries become manifest.
The fluidity of his world view places him alongside another great American auteur of the 1970s, Robert Altman, and in fact Lewis was responsible for an innovation often wrongly credited to Altman, the employment of multiple lavalier microphones for recording sound. He was also responsible for an even more important innovation, without which modern set practice would be unthinkable: in 1960, he invented video assist. For Lewis, it was a practical problem that needed a solution: how would he direct himself as an actor if he couldn’t see himself through the camera lens? Because he was Paramount’s golden boy at the time, he convinced the studio to fork over $900,000 to design and manufacture a video assist system that, for all practical purposes, has now become an essential part of the filmmaking process. It just goes to show how much history can be changed by a fluke, since The Bellboy itself came into being almost by accident when Jerry urged Paramount to hold his comedy Cinderfella (directed by Frank Tashlin) for release until the Christmas holiday season. This left them with a hole in their summer schedule, and Jerry put The Bellboy together in a rush to have something that would plug the gap. The pressure to complete the film quickly (which presumably forced Lewis to operate on pure instinct), combined with Jerry’s singular voice and ability to express it on celluloid, changed the movies forever – and introduced a director who the French were right to acclaim as a master.
Jim Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.