WEIRDLAND: Remembering Jerry Lewis (The King of Comedy)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Remembering Jerry Lewis (The King of Comedy)

In The Errand Boy (1961) we are presented with one of those introspective, sentimental parentheses, which Jerry Lewis has openly claimed as something that was 100% his own. More pointedly, we have a sincere openness to magic (hence to the fascination of the early Hollywood era), which is merely the complementary flip-side of escapism, a word that excellently defines a cinema which, as is the case with Lewis, is conceived as an unending succession of vanishing acts. Lewis is perfectly aware that the thread that links rhetoric and the comic is the discrepancy between an action and its own symbolic inscription. The spectacle is not the unmasking of illusion so as to claw back the truth: it is an irreducible indeterminacy, and this is why it is an inexhaustible fount of wonders.

It is decisive that the dialogue scene with Magnolia (a stuffed ostrich with a Southern accent) arrives a few minutes after an analogous scene in which Morty, in the same storage closet, watches the sweetly surreal dance of a dressed-up finger on a counter-top which–as everything suggests despite nothing being explicitly said–belongs to Morty, who, although he is visible on the other side of the counter, appears to have placed his arm underneath it. As such, Lewis initially tells us that this magic could be an illusion (even if he never says this explicitly). Then, soon afterwards (with Magnolia) he surprises us by saying that, no, the puppet’s strings are not being pulled by Morty after all. Unveiling the mechanism is not an explanation in the service of the truth, but a hypothesis (which is preserved as a hypothesis and never transfigured into a “fact”) in the service of magic. Source:

“Though it’s sometimes hard to remember, if not believe, Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation and one of the two or three most influential comedians born anywhere in this century. As a comedian, Lewis single-handedly created a style of humor that was half anarchy, half excruciation. Even comics who never took a pratfall in their careers owe something to the self-deprecation Jerry Lewis introduced into American show business.” —"King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis" (1997) by Shawn Levy

My movies would never drawn such big audiences without my wonderful leading ladies. There were so many, so talented in so many different ways—and so much better than the material they had to work with. Some of their names might surprise you: Did you know Dean and me appeared with Donna Reed? Agnes Moorehead? But the dozens of lesser-known actresses who acted in our films all added immeasurably to our work. However, to my vast regret, the one actress we never performed with was Marilyn Monroe—and how great she would have been in a Martin and Lewis picture. Dean and I first met her when we were receiving the Photoplay magazine award as Best Newcomers of the Year 1954 and Marilyn was the Best Female Newcomer. 

God, she was magnificent—perfect physically and in every other way. She was someone any man would just love to be with, not only for the obvious reasons but for her energy, perseverance and focus. She had the capacity to make you feel that she was totally engaged with whatever you were talking about. She was kind, she was beautiful, and the press took shots at her she didn’t deserve. In the late fall of 1954, Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio had just ended, and she badly needed friends—and laughs. Dean and I had seen her here and there over the years since the Photoplay awards, and when we invited her out for an after-work snack at Nate’n Al’s (the best deli in Beverly Hills), she accepted instantly. She had a delicious sense of humor—an ability not only to appreciate what was funny but to see the absurdity of things in general. The three of us huddled in a booth in a far corner of the restaurant. We laughed for a couple of hours, and then we drove her home in Dean’s blue Cadillac convertible. Marilyn was living in the Voltaire Apartments in West Hollywood and asked us to have a drink with her. She hated to be alone, especially late at night, when she couldn’t sleep. She mentioned Joe a couple of times, but I think Dean and I both saw that there was a lot she couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about, so we tried to keep it light.

On the way out, I asked Marilyn if she would consider going to dinner with Dean and me one night that week. “How about tonight?” she said. “Tonight is perfect!” we said in unison. Dean and I spent most of that day trying to figure out where the hell to take Marilyn Monroe for dinner. “I know!” I finally yelled. “Let’s go to Perino’s!” It was the most elegant restaurant in L.A., on Wilshire Boulevard not too far from Slapsy Maxie’s. We set the time for 8:30. Dean and I left the set after work, and Christ, did we dress that night. I won’t even go into how much cologne was applied. We stepped into Perino’s precisely at 8:30—and there at the waiting bar was Marilyn. Alone, sitting on a stool, and looking drop-dead, as always. Dean asked, “How come you’re alone? Where’s Milton?” It was well known that she had started seeing Milton Greene, the photographer. But Marilyn told us he had a family and had to be with them. We were seated in the center of this very open restaurant, with all eyes on her! How amazing it is to think that it was only seven years after that night that Dean was cast as Marilyn’s love interest in Something’s Got to Give, for 20th Century Fox. By that time, poor Marilyn was falling apart. Christ, what a loss!

We might have passed on MGM, but we didn’t overlook two of that studio’s loveliest young stars, June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven. June was the same age as Dean, an established screen presence, a sweet woman who specialized in wholesome, girl-next-door parts. The beautiful Gloria was, like me, in her early twenties, and playing mainly ingenue roles. Dean and June found each other almost as soon as we arrived in L.A. There was no stopping women once they’d set eyes on Dean! And since June and Gloria were best pals, it made sense—by the peculiar rules of Hollywood, and of up-and-coming young performers—that Ms. DeHaven and I would get together. What made a little less sense was that all four players in this little roundelay were married . . . to other people. June’s husband was the movie star Dick Powell (42nd Street). They had a little boy and a young daughter. Gloria was married to the movie star John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street). They had a little girl and a baby boy. Dean and I, of course, were married to Betty and Patti, with four children between us. Dean and I booked two suites at the Hampshire House on Central Park South. June and Gloria had come to New York, without husbands, to go on a shopping spree. It was the kind of thing that young actresses did then—a chance to kick up their heels and get some publicity at the same time. The MGM publicity department underwrote the whole trip, even their shopping bills. June and Gloria were dressed to the nines in Lord & Taylor clothes and mink stoles. For the five days they were staying in New York, the girls had ten or fifteen changes of clothes: dresses, skirts, blouses, ball gowns, riding habits—all of it provided by the humongous Metro wardrobe department, approved by L. B. Mayer himself. Dean had a suite on the twenty-third floor, and mine was on the twenty-fourth floor, with but one flight of stairs between us. The girls were staying together in a suite on the twenty-fifth floor and extended their stay another week. I must have lost five pounds, and I was only 124 to start with. Dean just basked in it all, looking like a cat with a mouth full of canary. 

Then came the telephone call. It was—of course—Patti. Hours later, with the Manhattan sky turning gray, I was still trying to explain to my wife. “Listen, you schmuck,” she said. “If you have to get your rocks off, why do it in Madison Square Garden?” “What do you mean?” I asked innocently. “It’s all over the papers about you, Dean, and the two chippies you’re with,” she said. “Didn’t you know that what you were up to would have consequences?” I pacified her as best I could. After Patti and I made the agonizing decision to bring our long and difficult marriage to an end, Sandra (SanDee) Pitnick and I became husband and wife in February 1983. —"Dean & Me" (2005) by Jerry Lewis

The Nutty Professor (1963), is the one Jerry Lewis film that has attained something like classic status among critics and film historians, presenting a more solid narrative. In this takeoff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Jekyll figure, Dr. Julius Kelp, is a clumsy, shy chemistry professor with buck teeth, thick glasses, and a frog voice; the Hyde into whom he transforms himself, Buddy Love, is a slick, vain, boorish lounge lizard. Mostly Lewis is spoofing the kind of macho man sold by the advertising industry, exposing the thin line between arousing the opposite sex and becoming a total creep. The biggest joke of the movie is that the “monster” in Lewis’ Jekyll/Hyde story is a smarmy entertainer. Buddy is Kelp’s overreaction to being bullied, and Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) sees something of the sweet, if befuddled, Kelp in Buddy. Stella is as Jekyll/Hyde as Kelp, prissy and pigtailed in class and vampish and dressed to kill at The Purple Pit.

"In an odd way I had trouble relating to control and to myself in The Nutty Professor. I had trouble coming out of the character of Buddy Love because I was playing a dirty, lousy bastard. I didn't like him. I didn't even like writing Buddy Love, the despicable, discourteous, uncouth rat, much less playing him. I asked myself: How do I know so well how to be a heel? Was I leaning to a side of me that really existed? Certainly I was. There was truth in him. It was also in me. So I hated him, and couldn't wait to play the alter-character, the nutty professor. Yet I had to relate to both of them and try to play them equally well."  —Jerry Lewis (The Total Film-Maker, 1971)

Lewis married his first wife Patti Palmer when he was only 18 and they had six sons. In the fall of 1963, when his wife was pregnant with their sixth child, Lewis was determined to have a daughter. Lewis met SanDee Pitnick, a 32-year-old dancer, while he performed in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, and, shortly after he got a divorce from Patti, the couple wed in Key Biscayne, Florida, on February 13, 1983. They adopted Danielle Sarah Lewis, who was born on March 23, 1992. “She’s the answer to my dreams,” Jerry told Joe Stabile: “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I've cried before out of sheer happiness, but never out of ecstasy. I'd wanted her for so long.” Lewis gushed endlessly about Danielle, named after Lewis’ stern and often disapproving vaudevillian father Daniel Levitch. “She’s the air in my lungs,” Lewis told CNN’s Larry King in 1996 when he was starring in Damn Yankees. “She’s the reason I’m here with you today. She brings me the energy to go on at 8 o’clock and try to be as good as I possibly can so she hears about it.”

Lewis often referred to Sandee Pitnick glowingly, on one occasion saying that she’s “the greatest audience I have ever had.” "I'm really not thick-skinned—my wife will tell you that I take sunsets personally—but I know that I've got the belly for whatever comes down the pike. I think it's tenacity. I say to everybody, love is what wakes you up in the morning, love is what makes you walk and love is what makes you hope,” he told The Guardian in 2016: “Love is what makes you dream and love is what makes you want to get up in the morning, love is something that you want to be a part of, because it makes you better. We’ve had 38 years and she’s my right arm, left arm, both legs, head, lips and eyes.” On his health, Lewis said: "From 1936 on, I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I've taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you're gonna have problems. I've never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965."

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin took their comedy double act into the movies, starting with My Friend Irma in 1949, and starred in 14 movies together. But the pair, once inseparable, fell into a bitter feud that lasted for decades and on only a few occasions did they see each other before Martin died of emphysema in 1995. Why didn’t they talk to each other for almost 20 years? “It was stupid,” Lewis said. “There was so much more that I wanted to do [in comedy]. And Dean wanted to sing more; and that was fine but when we got to that point we just didn’t talk. It was awful.” Lewis went his own way and made a string of highly successful solo films, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent and including The Sad Sack, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella,  The Bellboy, The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy. The Nutty Professor in 1963 was one of his last big hits and his popularity waned.

Jerry Lewis was a dedicated artisan of the cinema, pioneering the process of video playback on set, without which directing a movie is now quite unthinkable. He taught a directing class at USC for some years, where his students included Spielberg and Lucas. Jerry Lewis' many inheritors in modern Hollywood comedy lack his streak of sentimentality and need to be loved. "Comedy comes out of pain, comedy comes out of uncertainty. When you ask a comedian if he ever would do anything dramatic—he’s done it from the day he decided to make people laugh! He’s far more dramatic than any dramatic actor," explained Jerry Lewis. "You have to look at things that are negative and figure out why they happened and make sure they don't happen again. I keep negative out of my life." Then he can't resist a last bad joke. "Except for film negative." Source:

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