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Thursday, March 17, 2016

It's a Jerry Kind Of Week

You're Never Too Young (1955) A Best Of M&L?

Does anyone laugh at these boys anymore? Jerry Lewis, who just turned ninety, is being feted nationwide, mostly by those, I suspect, who remember his antics at a popular peak. In other words, old folks leading the claps. Jerry's last of the first momentum, that went an amazing twenty years, was Which Way To The Front? (1970), an agreed-upon dud. After that it was fitful comebacks, first old-style Hardly Working (1980), for those loyal still buying movie tickets, and then critic triumph King Of Comedy, title of which sounded like the ultimate Jerry Lewis vehicle, but was instead a grim takedown of celebrity obsessives, directed by Martin Scorsese. He was a Lewis-lover who adjudged The Nutty Professor a masterpiece, and I'm surprised JL didn't work again for Scorsese (he might have been great in Goodfellas, or more so, Casino). I remember Lewis lugging scrapbooks onto 80/90's talk shows to argue he'd once been the biggest and would be again. It didn't happen that way, but he was still fine at whatever guest-actor opportunity came knocking (especially in dramatic capacity of multi-part Wiseguy episodes).

Whatever you think of Jerry Lewis, he was never less than completely fascinating. He's like Mickey Rooney for always pushing at the gate, always ready to work. Unlike with Rooney however, it was not for the money. Jerry had his pile from early on, so persists for creative expression, admirable by anyone's measure. He recently donated the kit-caboodle of a personal archive to the Library Of Congress, which will surely keep their staff up late, for this is about the most extensive ongoing record of a career that anyone ever saved. There's even The Day The Clown Cried, for which a lot of folks will go on living just to finally see at post-dated time Jerry has stipulated, June 2024 according to Lou Lumenick of The New York Post. In the meantime, Lewis keeps blowing out candles, gives interviews, and does one-man shows where he says whatever heck he pleases to delight of those who attend for just that. I'd frankly be afraid to meet Jerry, for same reason I'd have shrunk from Groucho in an earlier day, but here's the question: Has JL mellowed in old age?

TCM is giving us the Jerry bounty this month, so many of his I can't keep up with, let alone watch. Seems like near-everything, save The Day The Clown Cried. Well, not really --- a number of Paramounts aren't included, there's but smattering from Columbia (I DVR'ed Three On A Couch from middle of last night --- dare I watch?), and what, no Way ... Way Out? (which I remember for Brian Keith using so many swear words, which shocked and delighted us in 1966). Best of benefits is fact most on TCM are playing HD, a first-time ever for many with enhanced format.  The one I was hottest for was You're Never Too Young, always a preferred of the Martin-Lewis group, and never part of what ran previous on the Retro-Plex HD channel. Like latter handful of M&L's for Paramount, it's a VistaVision paradise, a transport back to carpet in front of the 25-inch RCA for Saturday Night At The Movies on 60's NBC. I checked yesterday's recording for quality (great) and ended up watching the whole thing. And who was the funniest man in the show, at least for my money? That's right ... Raymond Burr.

Ray is fabulous in this. He might have found a whole new career as comic heavy if not for coming juggernaut that was Perry Mason (imagine Burr in any number of Disney live actions to come, for instance the Keenan Wynn flubber parts). You're Never Too Young doesn't linger long in backdrops, moving swift from hotel to train to girl's school where balance of action happens. I think it's loads better than Artists and Models, which tends to dawdle more and let routines linger past welcome (all of which puts Norman Taurog neatly on par with, if not ahead of, Tashlin). You're Never Too Young indulges Jerry as would-be choir director, march leader, the sort of stuff Lewis would glom onto as pantomime set-pieces and develop further in solo features. There is real menace here via Burr, and a degree of suspense maintained by the very best comedies. Some Like It Hot owes plenty to You're Never Too Young. I'd suggest Billy Wilder looked closely at this one, in part because it was a remake of his own The Major and The Minor, and also as partial inspiration for his 1959 set-up with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon pursued by baddie George Raft. Some Like It Hot and You're Never Too Young are, in that sense at least, two peas in a pod.


Blogger Dave K said...

Sharp observation about the Billy Wilder connection. I'm a fan of Tashlin, think several (not all) of his solo films with Lewis hold up well, but I, too, never cared for the two he made with Dean and Jerry. YOU'RE NEVER TOO YOUNG and LIVING IT UP were my favorites and, yes, it's hard to avoid nostalgia-overload re. those original NBC airings. Had to watch them in the basement on a repair bench TV, since I was virtually the only one of a nine member family unit who could stand the sight and/or sound of Jerry!

Love the reality-free ramblings of elder statesmen Jerry!!! Like you said, the guy will say just about any crazy-ass thing that flips off his brain pan now. Check out his version of Stan and Babe's backstory on the Laurel and Hardy box set from a few years ago.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Young folks may not even know who M&J were, but we boomers certainly do. Dino and Jer were the hottest act in all of show biz for a complete decade. They conquered it all...features, radio, TV, recordings, nightclubs and their personal appearances which caused more riots (the good kind) than a Trump rally. And add conducting, writing, producing and directing to the Lewis side of the aisle.

It is a shame Jerry didn't do more dramatic roles, as he is an incredible dramatic actor. The last thing I saw him do was a LAW and ORDER: SVU episode back in 2006 in which he played Belzer's bi-polar uncle.

I've always been drawn to the enigma of this person called Jerry Lewis, both positive and negative.

Like him or not, the man has and can do everything in his chosen profession, and not many can make such claim.

Bravo, Mr. Levitch.

11:15 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

I gotta wait til 2024 to see 'The Day the Clown Cried'? I better start taking care of myself.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I recommend "Funny Bones" from 1995, where Jerry plays a Las Vegas comedian whose son, played by Oliver Platt, tries desperately to join the family business. Should have been bigger than it was.

Jerry's an extraordinary guy, who, despite age and accolade, still has a hair-trigger temper. And his comedic p.o.v. seems to have stopped in 1957, when he and Dean split up. During one of his last telethon appearances, he was still making Helen Keller jokes and referencing Vic Tanny.

And yet he's the living bridge between "old" and "new" comedy, so respect must be paid. It's probably a shock to many people that Dean & Jerry were once the hippest comedy act around. I only wish Stan Laurel took Jerry up on his offer to make him his script advisor. Some creative people are at their best with a strong collaborator.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Billy Wilder offered Jerry the Jack Lemmon role in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Jerry said whenever he saw Wilder after, He had one word for Jerry - "SCHMUCK".

HARDLY WORKING was a hit among a younger, slapstick-deprived demo. He even edited a montage of his earlier hits to explain who he was. 'Course he blew any momentum with his follow-up, the surreal, narrative-free, and barely released CTACKING UP (SMORGASBORD).

1:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts supplies a correction and some deft observations regarding Jerry Lewis and his films:


Nice Jerry Lewis article, quick correction though, Lewis left his film archive to LOC, not MOMA.

YOU'RE NEVER TOO YOUNG is indeed one of the "best" of the Martin and Lewis's, and I'd add LIVING IT UP, PARDNERS, and HOLLYWOOD OR BUST to their top funny films list(they seemed to get better onscreen in the time when it was the less they liked each other offscreen), I always found ARTISTS AND MODELS overrated as well, as hot as Shirley MacLaine is in it, it meanders all over the place and really runs out of steam at the end.

As far as Lewis is concerned, I have never been anywhere near the French in the so-called admiration/worship of the guy as a great comic, he was always a lot of potential in which a large lack of discipline, coupled with an overabundance of ego, always got in the way of any real quality in his work. Solo, I can't name a single film of his that completely works, and many don't work at all. There are good gags on occasion, an idea here or there that head in the right direction, then the "wanna be Chaplin" brain cells take over, or Lewis just can't concentrate long enough on a comic thread to make something great of it. He's definitely better with a Frank Tashlin or Norman Taurog at the helm, no lover of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR here (in fact, I have gradually come to the conclusion that a Martin Scorcese rave about any so-called "classic" is a kiss of death, come to think of it, I don't like very many Martin Scorcese movies either). Auteurists have always credited Lewis with pioneering the use of video cameras while making a picture to be able to view rushes on video while in the midst of making a movie, seems to me that about the time that modus operandi was introduced to film production is when movies started going downhill big time, coupled with total storyboarding of a film rather than using a script and actually visualizing in ones mind while immersed in shooting unbroken-up to stare at a TV monitor, thanks to both these techniques, most movies now look more like comic books and TV shows.

Oddly enough, some of Lewis best film work are his "home movies" that litter his collection, actually professionally-shot experiments that he made in his spare time, many featuring major stars who were friends like Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, among others. We ran one solo short called "A SUITE AT THE RITZ" at Slapsticon a few years ago that was funnier and more solid as a comedy (and a SILENT comedy no less) than any feature of his I can name. though Lewis was cagey about allowing these to be shown publically as well, these really might open up some detractors eyes as to his talents, and make one wish more that he had approached his features the way he made his private short films.

Am I waiting with baited breath for the release of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED? Gee, not particularly, as unseeable, unfinished movies go, I'm hoping and waiting for Orson Welles OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, as far a CLOWN CRIED, why didn't Lewis make it FIFTY years after his death before allowing it to be released-----or a hundred-----or a hundred and fifty---------can we have it transferred to nitrate?


4:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reports from a last evening's viewing of "The Bellboy":

TCM showed "The Bellboy" last night, and my wife actually laughed aloud at a gag in it, the one where Milton Berle meets Jerry as "Jerry Lewis" and puts on a display of discomfiture at the resemblance between Jerry and Stanley, the bellboy, which Jerry then tops by going into convulsions when he meets a bellboy who looks just like Berle, no doubt because he is played by Berle.

I'm made of sterner stuff, however, and do not permit myself such indulgences.

During Ben Mankiewicz's introduction to the picture, he showed a clip from an interview he did with Jerry Lewis, with Jerry recounting how much Stan Laurel loved the screenplay for "The Bellboy" and the advice Laurel gave him, basically to have the courage of his comedic convictions.

I believe that the world would be a better place if Jerry had occasionally tempered that courage with discretion.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Jerry Lewis, to me, is a stream of conscience comedian with no consistent comedy style or character. He was a lot like Morey Amsterdam (who must have influenced Lewis' post 1968 hair style) any thing goes to get a laugh. I was not around during M&L's original success, so I watched their and Jerry's solo movies syndicated on TV in the late 60's and early 70's, but only the slapstick interludes interested me. Watching Lewis all tweaked out on his telethons I found very entertaining. There was a conventional wisdom in the 1970's going around that Lewis did the telethons to atone for comedically portraying a special needs person.

Around 1983 someone gave me an M&L VHS of their work on the Colgate Comedy Comedy Hour. I initially thought "I'll tape over this later." I watched it later to hoot at it and instead the tape was a revelation: M&L were a live act, movies just didn't capture them. I actually laughed out loud at this tape. The same goes for Abbott and Costello. I had previously dismissed Dean Martin as a comedy talent because I thought he was just playing himself, phoning it in. However on the CCH he was a superb straight man. Dean knew when to let go of the line with Jerry and when to reel him back in. Dean was the one who governed the rhythm of their live acts.

6:51 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Late boomer memories (b.1955) of being taken to "The Disorderly Orderly" and "Don't Give Up the Ship", as Lewis comedies were as safe a family brand as Disney. Somehow remember "The Family Jewels" as being the last of that breed; looking a bit less lavish but still emphatically an All-Jerry show.

After that he seemed get more conventional with "Three on a Couch" and "Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River". More films where he didn't write and direct himself. Old Lewis on TV, alone or with Dino, was still a moderately big deal. Caught some of "Way Way Out" on TCM a while back. You could almost imagine a slightly revised version with Bob Hope smirking the jokes.

Looking at vintage Lewis now, you're always aware of how hard he works and how thoroughly everything is prepared. Even if a joke flops, you have to give him an A for effort. In his own projects, did he ever calm down enough to hide the craftsmanship? (Mentor Stan Laurel was also a hard worker, but a lot of Laurel and Hardy comedy looks genuinely effortless)

7:25 PM  
Blogger Richard KImble said...

IMHO Jerry Lewis was a great comedian -- but not a great or even good comic filmmaker. As a result few of his films are satisfying as a whole. The Bellboy and Hollywood Or Bust -- that's really about it.

Otherwise to see Lewis at his best in movies you have to settle for individual scenes: prepping for the boxing match in Sailor Beware ("It was ten hundred dollas!"), calisthenics by radio in Money From Home (and the very similar cigarette commercial bit in Visit To A Small Planet), The "Gay Continental" number in The Caddy, sympathy pains in The Disorderly Orderly, etc. One of my favorite Martin and Lewis scenes isn't comic: the delightful "Every Street's A Boulevard" production number in Living It Up.

Lewis' best surviving work is probably the kinescopes of his appearances with Martin on The Colgate Comedy Hour, in which you see something of the impromptu wildness of their nightclub act, which Orson Welles described as "so funny you'd pee your pants".

6:28 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

Has any other major star so divided public taste? Personally, I think that's a good - even great - thing. He touched a nerve as all great comics do, but when that nerve fails to make a substantial section of the audience laugh your in trouble. I think it was perceived that he made fun of special needs and that his humour was unsophisticated, whatever that really means. I found him tiresome. Also, almost alone amongst the major stars he never made an effort to project a likeable off screen persona. Maybe that didn't help. He seems to be not a nice man to spend time with, in life, surely the kiss of death for a movie star. He's devoid of an impression of warmth. Angry.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Dang! I read this piece just AFTER "You're Never Too Young" played on Turner. Have to wait for the next time around.

To me, the two funniest sight gags from Jerry were when a pull-back in NUTTY PROF reveals his weight-elongated arms, and the following scene in bed where his hand come out from under the foot of the blanket and scratch hims feet!

9:18 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

My mother used to talk about skipping school to see Martin and Lewis live at the Paramount in NYC, staying all day to sit through the show multiple times. She remembered the audience as hysterical and "literally rolling in the aisles."

I think I became aware of him first through the Telethons and dismissing him as soon as I hit 13 or so as a hack. I've revised that impression to "hard-working hack."

Not fair, cause I don't think I've sat through more'n 4 or so Jerry or M&L movies start-to-finish (though I've tried). Watching the last 2/3 of The Bellboy the other night, I can appreciate the effort--even skill--setting up the gags, but most of the time, they don't seem worth the effort. It feels like he's always saying,"That's the joke. Now laugh."

Comments, here, though, make me want to seek out some of the early TV work, which I imagine being more genuinely funny.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"'Course he blew any momentum with his follow-up, the surreal, narrative-free, and barely released CTACKING UP (SMORGASBORD)."

Which is much better than Hardly Working, though. His most Tati-esque film. To this day, if one of my wife or I is traveling and the other asks what they're flying, we're sure to say "Jolly Fats Weehawken."

I think Artists & Models is pretty perfect, thanks to a candy-colored 50s Paramount look and the ideal girl foil for Jerry, the original manic pixie dream girl, young Shirley Maclaine.

So in my tour of LOC (posted at NitrateVille) I walked right by The Day the Clown Cried, in a shrink-wrapped palette. I'm fine if that's as close as I ever get.

12:57 PM  

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