Lewis vs. Paramount --- Was Jerry Right?
It’s never a surprise to hear about Jerry Lewis popping off , losing his temper, storming away from the dais. All of that is what makes him Jerry, and even if you can’t stand him, or don’t even remember the last time you sat through one of his movies, there’s something about the man that reminds us of hidden potential we all share to make an absolute, cringing, horrific fool of ourselves in public. It’s happened lots to Jerry over the years. You’d think age would soften him, but no. He’s as combative today as ever. Only a few weeks ago, a couple of wags in the audience pushed him over the edge at a promotional event for the new Dean and Jerry bio he’s written, and the guy turned into a live-action Donald Duck right there on stage. He never lets us down. We can always walk away from a Jerry moment secure in the knowledge that, no matter how moody, impolite, or impatient we may be at times, we can never be as bad as Jerry. But what about those isolated moments in time, few in number it’s true, when Jerry is right? Those occasions when someone else really was at fault, leaving an entirely innocent Jerry to bear weight of an injustice not of his own making. Well, here's an example I'd propose, and for sake of rehabbing Jerry’s admittedly battered image, here's the summary:
The article attached is dated May 16, 1966, a date from which one might chart the rapid decline of Jerry Lewis as a major boxoffice attraction. Some could argue a slippage further back (his last three for Paramount reflect that). You could say it started when Jerry’s extravagance first manifested on Cinderfella and The Ladies Man. Or maybe he went on skids that day he was horsing around in the commissary and launched a football that almost knocked Paramount founder Adolph Zukor’s head off. For the sake of hypothesis, however, I'll maintain it began here, with the filing of Jerry Lewis vs. Paramount. What was it all about? Well, check out the double-feature ad for an idea. Seems Jerry had been making comedies for Paramount, at a rate of two or so a year, since 1949. They were almost all hits too. In fact, they were bigger than almost anything else the company had. Surely tears were copious (among Paramount bookkeepers) the day he and Dean split, but Jerry showed them all when his solo pics kept batting them right out of the park (check out the still above of Dean and Jer signing a contract with producer Hal Wallis). The trouble started innocently enough with a 1958 reissue combo of Scared Stiff and Jumping Jacks, M&L oldies that did $477,000 and $489,000 respectively in domestic rentals. Those are stout reissue figures, especially when you compare them with what other Paramount revivals were getting --- $261,000 for The Country Girl, $257,000 for The Naked Jungle, etc. The problem was that Jerry was beginning to compete with himself, and it would get worse. His new comedies were maintaining a domestic rentals average of around $2.7 million. A few of the early ones spiked --- The Sad Sack took a resounding $3.2 --- Don’t Give Up The Ship brought back $3.1 --- generally speaking, the Jerrys were a predictable, if profitable, franchise. There was Rock-A-Bye-Baby ($2.6), The Geisha Boy ($2.8), Visit To A Small Planet ($2.6), and biggest of all, The Bellboy ( a whopping $3.4), fantastically profitable because it cost so little to make. It’s right after this that complications set in, because Cinderfella, a big-budget 1960 Christmas opener, was back down to $2.6, a figure that actually surpassed the norm for the remaining Paramount Lewises (there was only one more big hit with The Nutty Professor at $3.3). Unfortunately for Jerry, it was around this period that the studio began it’s Lewis re-issue program in earnest. 1962 brought a combo of The Delicate Delinquent ($685,000) and The Sad Sack ($687,000), by far the biggest return for any of these packages. Drive-ins were playing the things by the pallet-load, and hardtops were saving film rental by using the oldies for kiddie shows they could book for as little as $20. So why go to the expense of paying percentage for a new Jerry Lewis when the audience was making little distinction between the old and the new? Rental numbers for the star reflected a glut of Lewis product. The Errand Boy and It’s Only Money fell to $2.3, while The Patsy took a further dip to $2.0. Meanwhile, costs were up, and Lewis was taking a bigger fee each time out. With so many of his pictures, old and new, floating around, even the re-issues now began to suffer --- Visit To A Small Planet ($179,000) and The Bellboy ($186,00), a 1966 pairing, put the writing on the wall, while a 1968 duo, The Nutty Professor ($174,000) and The Patsy ($136,000), finished off the reissue program for good. Jerry’s claim before the court was a valid one. Paramount had wrung him dry. To add insult to injury, they were beginning to dump his product onto network television, where the home audience far surpassed the numbers he’d seen lately in theatres. Could he continue making new comedies? Columbia thought so, but Three On A Couch was good for only $2.5, pretty much what the Paramounts were yielding, and they’d gotten fed up with numbers like that. A side trip to Fox produced a crushing flop, Way Way Out, with it’s reckless negative cost of $2.8 million, puny domestic rentals of $1.3 (foreign $1.0), and an overall loss of $855,000. It only took a few more like this to finish Jerry, with Warners supplying the final blow-off of Which Way To The Front (an appalling $729,000 in domestic rentals). Maybe Jerry was his own worst enemy in a lot of ways, but for a comedian who’d been a top-liner in movies for twenty years (who’s done it since?), Jerry got a pretty raw deal. It would be interesting to know how that claim against Paramount turned out. I hope Jerry won.