WEIRDLAND: Jerry Lewis: An American Prophecy

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Jerry Lewis: An American Prophecy

Jerry Lewis ('Make Me Smile') video, featuring photos and stills of Jerry Lewis and his co-stars Dean Martin, Stella Stevens, Janet Leigh, Marion Marshall, Connie Stevens, Anita Ekberg, Shirley McLaine, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Malone, Marie Wilson, Donna Reed, Marilyn Maxwell, Barbara Bates, Pat Crowley, Diana Lynn, Ina Balin, Susan Bay, Jeannine Riley, Jill St. John, Susan Oliver, Corinne Calvet, Mary Webster, Betty Hutton, etc. Soundtrack: "Crazy About My Baby" by Randy Newman, "Baby Be Mine" by The Jelly Beans, "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry, "You Can't Sit Down" by The Dovells, "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, "Ya Ya" by Lee Dorsey and "Make Me Smile" by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.

Norman Rockwell's portraits depicted boys and girls as clean and obedient with hardly a hint of mischief. Popular children's books stressed helping others and dutiful behavior. As child illiteracy fell to 1.5 percent, the major discipline problems were reported to be gum chewing and line cutting. As a whole, Silent high-school students earned higher educational achievement scores than any generation before or since. Their adolescent pathologies (suicide, accidents, illegitimacy, crime, substance abuse) reached the lowest levels ever recorded. The major challenge facing Silent teens was to emulate older G.I.s. The typical date-and-mate path was The Tender Trap: pairing off quickly, “tying the knot” after graduation, moving to the suburbs, and then blending in among G.I. neighbors. For the only time ever in U.S. history, college-educated women were more fertile than those who did not complete secondary school. In 1956, the median marriage age for men and women dipped to the youngest ever measured.

By age twenty, most of the Silents had exceeded their parents' lifetime education; by twenty-five, their parents' housing; by thirty, their incomes. From age twenty to forty, no other American generation ever attained such a steep rise in real per-capita income and household wealth—nor could any other generation even half believe in the credo that “eighty percent of life is just showing up.” The bounty spread far beyond the elite: As the income gap between high and low-achievers shrank, unskilled young workers were able to join the middle class and buy homes in suburban tracts. Young blacks who migrated North soon had higher incomes than their parents—buttressed by strong families and supportive communities in even the roughest urban neighborhoods. In the mid-1950s, sociologist David Riesman called the Silents the “Found Generation”—as benignly absorbed as the Lost Generation had been alienated.

Silent “juvenile delinquents” were less youths who did wrong than youths who did nothing, who inexplicably refused to buy into the High mood. When Pauline Kael saw Dean in East of Eden, she wrote of the “new image in American films, the young boy as beautiful, disturbed animal, so full of love he's defenseless.” “Few young Americans,” wrote Silent historian David Halberstam, “have looked so rebellious and been so polite.” The Silents excelled at arts and letters, infusing subversive life and feeling into every genre they touched. Once Elvis Presley was deemed acceptable by G.I. “minister of culture” Ed Sullivan, rock ‘n’ roll and other Silent crossover styles helped non-Anglo cultural currents join the mainstream. Silent “nonconformists” began convening at coffeehouses and listening to offbeat jazz, reading hip poetry, coyly deriding the G.I. “squaresville.” G.I.s (like columnist Herb Caen) found these “beatniks” more amusing than threatening.

Gore Vidal wrote the original play of Visit to a Small Planet in 1955 as a satire on the Cold War and the Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The 1960 film version displays Jerry Lewis’s nonsensical bumblings, culminating in some inspired moments as imitating the antics on a tv cigarette commercial, walking around the ceiling after drinking a glass of bourbon or interacting with local Beatniks, wowing the original hipsters with a nightclub performance. The cast play the nonsense with comparable deadpan, among which Joan Blackman provides a good deal of plain likeability. The film provides an amusing look in on the Beat Generation wherein Jerry Lewis’s absurdities—playing the bongos by remote control and levitating tables—are seen as even more mind-bending than the thought of rebellion. Encased in what Ken Kesey depicted as the “cuckoo's nest” sanitarium of High-era culture, the Silent bent the rules by cultivating refined naughtiness. By the decade's end, hip thinking moved out of coffeehouses and into the suburbs with a style John Updike called “half Door Store, half Design Research.” 

Apart from James Dean and Elvis Presley, the typical young-adult film stars were “goofballs” like Jerry Lewis or “sweethearts” like Debbie Reynolds, usually cast alongside confident G.I. “straight men.” Little Boomers grew up warmed by a strong sun of national optimism, blessed with what their chronicler Landon Jones dubbed 'Great Expectations.' From the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the average daily hours a household spent watching TV rose from 0 to 4.5. As the first Boomers filled colleges, Time magazine declared them “on the fringe of a golden era,” soon to “lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world.” In politics, the G.I.'s ascendance brought a shining opportunity for the rising Silent and their reformist goals. John Kennedy brought a bright new cast of Silent helpmates (Robert Kennedy, Pierre Salinger, Bill Moyers) into public prominence, challenging the rest to enlist in the Peace Corps or join the civil rights movement. Millions did, nearly all of them men. Thanks to greater affluence and so many stay-at-home mothers, Boomer children enjoyed the most secure family life in American history. —"The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy" (1997) by William Strauss and Neil Howe

When was the last time I had heard the name Jerry Lewis? Medtronic’s level of interest in working with the King of Comedy had increased considerably over the past few weeks, and it appeared that Jerry Lewis’s interests in working with us was high. The value of having Jerry Lewis as our spokesperson will never fully be known. The neurostimulator implanted in Jerry’s abdomen was delivering small electrical impulses to his spinal cord. The impulses diverted the pain signals from reaching the brain. After years of hibernating in Las Vegas he'd come out of his deep remorse only on Labor Day to host his annual Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Jerry Lewis's doctor Joe Schifini had been giving him spinal injections in an effort to treat the entertainer’s chronic back pain. It appeared the injections were having very little effect on Jerry anymore. Schifini now was trying to convince him that he needed to be implanted a neurostimulator. I found the doctor eager to discuss his famous patient with me. When I asked about the demeanor of Jerry Lewis, Schifini described him as typical of people who suffer with chronic pain. He told me that Jerry was despondent, short tempered, and moody. Again, much of his temperament was a result of the innumerable medications he was taking. Schifini was quick to point out, however, that Jerry Lewis was also a very sincerely nice man. Medtronic was the world’s largest medical device company, having invented the pacemaker in 1957.

I agreed to visit Jerry in Las Vegas. Piero’s restaurant reeked of the days of old Las Vegas with its dark wood paneling and elegant lighting. Jerry entered the main dining room accompanied by his wife SanDee. “We come here a couple of times a week,” he said. Jerry wanted people around him to be honest, sincere and above all else, loyal to him. We retrieved his red Lincoln Navigator from valet parking and SanDee drove us back to the Lewis residence. On the short drive I asked Jerry why he moved from Southern California to Las Vegas. “We’ve been here since the early 80s,” he said. “Southern California was becoming too congested. I started to hate going anyplace because of the traffic. So I thought, what the hell, let’s live in Vegas. But now the traffic here is becoming just as bad,” he said with a sigh. I realized that the life Jerry loved was becoming a distant memory to him. That’s why he clung on so tightly to places like Piero’s that helped him connect with the past life he loved so much. Jerry said. “I you saw an x-ray of my spine you would think it was a map to the road to Wilsbury. I’ve had open-heart surgery, I had spinal meningitis, I had prostate cancer, I have diabetes. The only thing I haven’t had is a cold sore.”

Both Jerry and SanDee loved to watch a good boxing fight on TV. They both rooted loudly for Lenox Lewis because of their dislike of Tyson. I had never followed boxing much at all, although I did find the match entertaining. Between one of the rounds Jerry rushed off the couch into the kitchen. “I’ve got some surprises for you,” he yelled. A few moments later he came back with some Popsicles. “These are sugar-free so I can have all I want,” he said as he handed me orange Popsicles. This created one of the more memorable moments of my career. There I was, sitting in Jerry Lewis’ living room of his Las Vegas home watching a heavy weight boxing match while eating an orange Popsicle! My life would never be the same. Employees were captivated by Jerry's wit and charm. In his speechs he started describing himself as someone with a high IQ who suffered from compulsive obsessive personality. “That’s me, boy,” he admitted. “On many of my movies I was both the director and the producer. So I was always having arguments with myself. One day I would shoot a scene as a director then send it up to the producer. The producer Jerry would look at it and send a memo to director Jerry telling him to re-shoot it. The director Jerry would read the memo and say 'screw him, the scene is fine as it is'.”

On the tour, Jerry seemed as giddy as a child on Christmas. He said: "I don’t read from a script, Pat. That’s amateur stuff when you’re in front of an audience. They deserve to hear you from the heart." Through the MDA, Jerry Lewis was by far the largest individual fundraiser for research of neuromuscular diseases. Sadly, the AAN (American Academy of Neurology) had never recognized Jerry for his efforts, although hundreds of their members were involved in research sponsored by the MDA. The most difficult task I had was convincing the ASPMN (American Society for Pain Management Nursing)’s board that indeed I was serious about bringing Jerry Lewis to Kansas City to speak to their members. They saw Jerry’s presence as a way to gain instant recognition and instant credibility. Jerry delivered big on both fronts. The nurses attending the meeting extended their hands to Jerry one after another. He made sure to once again thank each of them by their name. Jerry was entirely focused on this one woman he had met 60 seconds earlier. She recounted her story of chronic pain through tears, saying how afraid she was. Jerry reached up to her and gave her a hug. While we made our way back to the green room, the phrase that Jerry used so often in his talks came back to me like a kick in the chest, “If you save one person, you save the world.”

Jerry knew nothing of market share and sales growth. He was all about awareness, and he was delivering. Fortunately for Jerry nothing masked pain better than the adrenaline from being on stage. The problem was that his body was simply too tired and sick. He needed rest. On our last night in Dallas I escorted Jerry to what would be his last dinner with Medtronic customers. Half of the restaurant was reserved for this special occasion. The doctors and their wives were already seated. Dinner was served late, and I noticed Jerry checking his watch frequently. Jerry sarted well and seemed intent on delivering his message to the prominent audience, but the wife of one of the doctors started whooping and hollering during the presentation. She was obviously intoxicated, and Jerry stormed out of the restaurant as quickly as his 76 year-old body would let him, almost knocking over a birthday cake the restaurant had baked for him. What angered me, and what infuriated Jerry, was the way the company decided to part ways. There was no formal separation, no talk of ending the campaign, Medtronic just stopped calling. Even worse, they wouldn’t respond to Jerry’s calls. I’m sure that the Medtronic lawyers carefully mapped out how the split should occur. The lawyers wanted nothing documented; just stop all contact and hope he'd go away. Jerry did eventually go away, bitter about the whole experience. Like everything he had done in his career, Jerry just wanted to be appreciated. Instead of thanks, Jerry got ignored by the company he called his lifesaver.

The same way Jerry had parted ways with Dean Martin after a conversation when Jerry told Dean he considered him the brother he'd never had and Dean Martin mercilessly replied: “You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothing but a fucking dollar sign.”  In the end, Jerry was nothing but a fucking dollar sign to Medtronic. Once it no longer made sense to employ Jerry as a spokesperson, the ties were cut and the calls stopped. It wasn’t personal, it was just business. Many protested Jerry Lewis wouldn't adapt to modern times, but to quote Jerry, “If I’m still getting laughs, why change?” —"Jerry Lewis The Nutty Spokesperson" (2013) by Patrick Murphy

With the connection between avant-garde and feminist aesthetics in mind, Jerry Lewis's paradoxical mixture of surrealism and sentimentality, his flagrant rejection of standards of narrative expectation ask us to see through our eyes a better world. The first steps forward a feminist film, Laura Mulvey argues in her essay Film, Feminism and Avant-Garde (1978) must involve "dislocation between cinematic form and represented material, splitting open the closed space between screen and spectator, making their structures become visible." Just as in a Jerry Lewis film! For Mulvey, Surrealism and Feminism are on the same track. Although we should talk of Jerry Lewis in terms of involuntary feminism and involuntary surrealism in his approach. True to surrealist tenets, what Lewis gives us is inner reality, the world of imagination. His simplest message is that people should learn to treat each other better. Lewis argues for the audience's moral edification. But his films are often so surreal that the crux of their aesthetic reflects, as Paul Hammond calls in Surrealists Writings on Cinema (1978), "the contamination of the reality by the imaginary."

Hammond reminds us that true surreality is a 'point of the mind where contradictions cease to trouble us.' And Lewis's technique might also remind us of what feminist film theoretician Claire Johnston labelled as 'counter-cinema.' Lewis liked to refer to 'the nonsense I make.' Where the worlds of Keaton and Chaplin tend to have the impossible stuff occur only within dream sequences, Lewis creates a world capable of going topsy-turvey at any time, reminding us of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. Lewis's parodies of patriarchal ideals of womanhood may be seen as a critique of a socially constructed sexual fantasy more than an affirmation of it. Far from presenting idealized masculine images, Lewis often presents them as parodies, disarming the conventional patriarchal protocols, so in this light he is critiquing the patriarchy, not exalting it. —"A Look at Jerry Lewis: Comic Theory from a Feminist Perspective" (1993) by Joanna E. Rapf (this essay was praised by Jerry Lewis in Hollywood Comedians, The Film Reader 2003).


Anonymous said...

Jerry Lewis made such a generous contribution to the MDA and his movies hold up in 2017. Thanks for your dedication to defend his legacy. Keep your good work up!

Elena W said...

thank you very much, I am glad you like my posts, you are very welcome!