WEIRDLAND: Jerry Lewis' "The Patsy": the integrity of the kid

Friday, November 17, 2017

Jerry Lewis' "The Patsy": the integrity of the kid

We see Everett in The Family Jewels (1965) only backstage, in the act of removing his makeup and becoming the naked man, at a moment when he doesn’t know he’s being viewed by an audience (one of the “squealing brats”, who is dejected by the revelation of the clown’s misanthropy). This scene is the converse of the one near the end of The Nutty Professor (1963) in which Professor Kelp’s Buddy Love mask melts away: there, the audience’s presence is known to the performer and inescapable, forcing him to a confession, and the slipping of the mask inspires love. The Family Jewels is a moral film, and the morality is stated most clearly by the little heiress Donna (Donna Butterworth), speaking of the man she loves, Willard (Lewis): “He should be my father.” The right of the child to have the father she wants and needs is fundamental to Lewis’ view of the world, but it’s equally significant that in order to become this father, Willard must assume the disguise of the misanthropic Everett. Willard makes the same choice – of passing through his own opposite – that the timid Kelp in The Nutty Professor in becoming the aggressive Buddy Love and that the neurotic American millionaire Byers makes in Which Way to the Front? (1970) in becoming the Nazi general Kesselring. In Lewis’s work the conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, is aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry—a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy (1960), to his last Cracking Up (1983).

In The Errand Boy, Magnolia reaffirms the limitless power of (cinematic) imagination by explaining to Morty, “You believed what you liked” and validating his access to a private world in which imaginary creatures appear as fully real partners in a continuing conversation.  Morty’s melancholic insight introduces a new metaphor in a film full of metaphors, and a new master narrative for the film’s plot, suddenly revealing depths of loss and sadness beneath the relationship between the cinephile and the object of his love.  The extremism that marks Jerry Lewis's public reputation—as genius or embarrassment—began in the 1960s, when, following hot on the heels of the heretical politique des auteurs, French film critics launched their most devastating broadside yet against the fortress of traditional evaluative criteria. In 1967, for example, Jean-Luc Godard had the nerve to proclaim that "Jerry Lewis is the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn't falling in with the established categories, the norms... Lewis is the only one today who's making courageous films. And I think he's perfectly well aware of it. He's been able to do it because of his personal genius." In his 1968 book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris fired off a 12-pronged salvo against Jerry Lewis's value-as-an-artist, and against the French critics' fundamental error of taste and judgment. But Lewis had himself fanned the flames of the controversy by canonizing himself as a "total film-maker" and declaring that: "When you make a film yourself, write it, produce it, direct it, perhaps star in it... a piece of your heart enters the emulsion. It stays there the rest of your life, good film or bad."

Whereas the onscreen Jerry Lewis-figure lacked coordination and control, behind-the scenes he was an accomplished and ambitious achiever. This paradox irked Lewis critics no to end since his self-directed films not only subjected his familiar comic persona to some highly accented transmutations but they also displayed an idiosyncratic cinematic and narrative style that marked a significant departure both from Lewis's earlier work and from the generic norms of the comedy. In their cultivation of a personal style and voice, the self-directed films reveal an auteurist project and assert the victory of the Creative "Jerry Lewis" over the regimentation of the Hollywood "entertainment machine." With the widening gulf between the spasticity of the Idiot-Kid and his new aspirations as filmmaker, Lewis was attacked by established reviewers for his "betrayal" of comic innocence-especially for films like The Errand Boy (1961) and The Patsy (1964), which addressed the processes of stardom and the values of entertainment. In 1978, Leonard Maltin echoed the sentiments of the 1960s American reviewers when he berated Lewis for overextending himself. 

In such accounts, Lewis is persistently castigated for self-indulgence, for his refusal to be "simply funny." Moreover, his aspirations to totalizing authorship are attributed to an ego run riot. "There was no longer anyone to veto an idea," Leonard Maltin accused, "so Jerry allowed to milk gags far beyond endurance, and discarded conventional notions of continuity, and-oddly enough-humor." American critics like Maltin seem affronted by the way that the self-directed films upset the balance between creative individualism and conformity that normally exists in the comedy. By disrupting structural conventions of continuity and humor, and by offending standards of tasteful self-effacement, Lewis could no longer be so easily contained within the acceptable province of the comedian-as-jester. But the "problem" with Lewis pre-exists his directorial work: in many ways the extremism of his auteurist films is an extension of the excesses of his performance style. In a review of the comedian's first screen appearance in the 1949 film My Friend Irma, Bosley Crowther wrote that: "The swift eccentricity of his movements, the harrowing features of his face and the squeak of his vocal protestations, which are many and varied, have flair. His idiocy constitutes a burlesque of an idiot."

Bosley Crowther identifies here a key feature of Jerry Lewis's style: the complex relations he establishes with both the conventional figure of the misfit and the conventions of comic performance. "Idiocy" is "burlesqued," not presented directly; and Lewis is perceived to be moving beyond the basic requirements of the comic spectacle. Underlying this complaint is the idea that comic effectiveness depends upon restraint. Lewis quite clearly commits offenses against the desired decorum of comic delivery-his performance ensures that gags and comic reactions are far from precise and contained. Restraint and precision play a crucial role in enabling the spectator to escape from potentially disconcerting ramifications of the comic spectacle. In an integrated film narrative, gags operate as moments of potential rupture. They halt, and throw into comparative disarray, procedures of logic and communication. But the rupturous effect tends to be trammeled: like narrative in general, gags have their own conventions of order-of elaboration and containment. What is important to the process of the gag is not the disruptive event in itself, but how it is made over as a controlled and contained moment of "disorder"-so it can "cleanly" generate laughter. But if the film lingers upon the victim of the pratfall and his injuries, then pain or embarrassment can intrude. The gag allows potentially serious events to be transformed through disavowal-it simultaneously displays yet pulls away from the serious consequences of the action. But if the balance is upset, and the "machinery" of comic disavowal is thrown out of alignment, then the carefully hidden "other face" of the gag may be revealed. 

Jerry Lewis's films are especially interesting for the way that linguistic deformations are accompanied by a pervasive deformation of familiar principles of gag structure and articulation. As director-performer, Lewis repeatedly diverts the gag from its ostensibly-signalled direction: many of his gags refuse to build to conclusions-they frequently lack a conventional pay-off climax or finish with an expressly weak one. Jean-Pierre Coursodon suggests that Lewis specializes in the "eluded" or "eliminated" gag, the gag that provides, instead of the expected mechanism of disruption and reordering, a process of deformation through which, paradoxically, the "gagness" of the gag is itself frustrated, dissipated, or gagged. While American critics like Leonard Maltin tend to regard Lewis as failing to provide the conventional pleasure in gag-comedy, Coursodon implies that Lewis's comedy operates as a "second order" process of "gagging." The raw material of many Lewisian gags consists of already familiar gags, or of recognizable gag-situations. They are, in essence, "metagags." Where comic play is generally set in motion by the disruption of rules, procedures, and discursive registers-if only to reinstate them-Lewis's films themselves play with the conventional forms and procedures of comic play. As Coursodon remarks, "these fascinating films are not always very funny, but their originality lies precisely in the fact that, while nominally slapstick routines, they so transcend categories that laughter in their case ceases to be the test of success or failure." 

The process of gag-deformation finds its most symptomatic articulation when, as comic performer, Lewis himself serves as its vehicle. A characteristic example occurs near the beginning of The Patsy. The entourage of recently deceased comedian Wally Brandford hit upon the idea of training "some nobody" (The Lewisian bellboy) to take his place. Whereas Bob Hope's controlled wisecracks served to wrap up and seal off the threat to the ego, but when the Lewis-figure is faced with an intimidating situation he offers not verbal mastery but linguistic breakdown. Stuttering, stammering, physically contorting, Lewis's misfits lose control over both body and language. Whereas Hope's characters can overcome the threatening situation quickly, the Lewis-figure seems branded by it. In his performance, the mouth becomes disconnected from the mind-in order to turn the speech act into an expressive vehicle for the unruly body. And this is made all the more excruciating for the spectator when, as in The Patsy, the situation is not inherently threatening. This kind of deforming strategy permits the film to make an exhibition of the Lewis-figure's inability to deal at all adequately with the external world. Scott Bukatman observes that these films foreground structural "inarticulacy"-in the form of hesitancy, fragmentation, and obsessive repetition: The carefully delineated narrative, situations and conflicts which constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure.

Lewis's gags and performative routines slide away from their anticipated trajectory, persistently deform conventions of narrative structure. The insistence of such structural deformations of the gag, of language-may invite the temptation to enthrone Lewis as some kind of (post)modernist 'roi du crazy.' But the motivation behind Lewis's drive to assert himself as "total film-maker" merits closer attention. Once more, the opening sequence of The Patsy provides a useful starting point. After Stanley makes a spectacle of himself in the doorway, he is approached by Brandford's staff. He backs away as they advance, spluttering and squirming, until he finds himself against an open window-and falls out. When his "persecutors" begin to peer out of the window, the film cuts to a view of the hotel's exterior. Stanley, facing the camera, starts to descend through the center of the image. But this is a still-photographic image of Stanley-his figure is frozen in movement, suspended in midair. This still-image is then pushed over to one side by the appearance of large blue letters announcing the name "Jerry Lewis"-the beginning of the film's credits. Stanley Belt, the fictional Lewis-figure, is halted in his descent by the intrusion, from outside the diegesis, the name of the performer turned Author. The ending of the film rhymes with this sequence. After a triumphant appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" boosts Stanley to immediate stardom, he makes a brash proposal of marriage to Ellen Betts (Ina Balin) in his hotel room. Ellen then advances towards him, and Stanley retreats from her nervously, backing out onto the patio. He reaches the balcony wall-and topples over it. Hands covering her face in sorrow, Ellen turns around to face the camera. But Lewis then reenters from the side. Lewis steps out of the fictional guise of Stanley Belt to present himself as "Jerry Lewis," addressing Ina Balin by her real name, rather than "Ellen," and announces that they're standing on a studio set. 

The Patsy, the most conceptual of Lewis’ films, first presents the ascendancy of the Lewis-figure as a comic performer, and then moves beyond this-to provide apotheosis to a more elevated status. Out of the "death" of Stanley Belt-the conventional Lewis misfit turned showbiz success-comes the "birth" of the "total film-maker." A self-willed metaphor for Lewis's career, this film presents Lewis as a totalizing presence who exceeds both his familiar space as star-comedian and the "entertainment machinery" of Hollywood. The Patsy demonstrates how Lewis's deformations of structure and performance are motivated by the desire to validate his own differentiated space within the Hollywood system, and to flaunt his newfound enunciative power. But this amounts to more than a simple case of self-promotion, for the auteurist films produce a series of contradictory representations of "Jerry Lewis." Although Michael Stem sees Lewis seeking within these films to come to terms with "the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy-or extraordinary genius," the Lewis-problem exceeds such a simple dualism. His self-directed films open up a complex series of schisms within the subjective and discursive presence "Jerry Lewis." These films are especially fascinating-or, to some tastes, infuriating-for the degree to which Lewis defines himself not by means of the conventional cultural machinery of Oedipal narrative but in relation to different facets of "Jerry Lewis"-as famous star, as comedian, as enunciator. He flamboyantly hijacks the Hollywood comedian-film and reroutes it in the process, transforming it into a nontraditional vehicle for the construction of a discourse of the self. Although-as The Patsy shows-the concept of control is crucial to this discourse, his films offer a more radical splitting of Lewis-not simply into performer and auteur, but into multiple personae. The manipulative and self-obsessed Buddy Love is also a monstrous incarnation, implying that Jerry Lewis has "consumed" his former partner Dean Martin.

The Nutty Professor explicitly pinpoints how Lewis's self-directed work is engaged in a process of rewriting its subject's "history." It is The Patsy, however, that provides Lewis's most sustained and polemical discourse on his "art" and career. Like The Errand Boy, which is set in a Hollywood studio, The Patsy propagandizes for entertainment that comes from the heart-more specifically, from Lewis's heart. The uncoordinated misfit Stanley Belt is taken in hand by Brandfords' executive committee, who seek remorselessly to shape him into an all-round entertainer, a showbiz machine. Out of the unpromising raw material presented by Stanley, the Brandford team seek to manufacture a star who is a puppet to their collective dictates. In their view, individual talent can be shaped, and even created. Just as The Nutty Professor uses the narrative framework of the Jekyll and Hyde story, The Patsy invokes the Frankenstein myth. At the start of their corporate adventure, Chic Wyman (Everett Sloane), the leader of Brandford's retinue, declares that "This kid can and will be whatever we want him to be." What they demand is "some nobody," a will-less automaton who can be programmed and controlled. Within this paradigm, that star is nothing but a designed personality whose distinguishing traits are the well-worn tricks of showbiz experts. The committee relentlessly drills him for a stand-up comedy act, but at his debut at the Copa Cafe Stanley is overwhelmed with stagefright. He stumbles onstage, knocking the microphone over, and instead of delivering prepackaged verbal gags, he offers a characteristically Lewisian-yet uncommonly discomfiting-spectacle of maladjustment. Stanley presents his jokes in the wrong order, turning them inside-out. The extent to which this scene cannibalizes and deforms a familiar comic performance mode qualifies it as the most emphatic and extended "second-order" gagging sequence in Lewis's films.

It offers simultaneously the "gagging" of a conventional process of gag-delivery and a persuasive representation of the characters' pain: as with the opening scenes of the film, the spectator is made acutely aware of Stanley's suffering (of Jerry Lewis's suffering for extension). The ambivalent feelings raised here make it difficult for both the club-audience and the film-spectator to accept this as "funny" in anything like a conventional sense. This calamitous outing contrasts with Stanley's solo performance after the Brandford team have deserted their misbegotten star. Determined to show his would-be puppet-masters what he can offer on his own, Stanley replaces the stand-up routine with a sketch entitled "A Big Night in Hollywood." He casts himself as a movie-struck kid-similar to the Lewis figures in Hollywood or Bust (1956) and The Errand Boy-who gazes on in fascination at the movie stars attending a swank Hollywood premiere. When he looks the part, he strolls jauntily off to the theater, and is allowed to enter-and the sketch ends. As in The Errand Boy, Lewis/Stanley plays the eternal fan who, through his innate talent, realizes his ambition to become part of the magical (Hollywood) world. Although outwardly he must conform, inside he retains the integrity of the kid. For Stanley, the sketch is the articulation of his own ideal of stardom-and, indeed, he becomes an immediate success as a result of it. But the sketch also functions as an allegory of Lewis's own rise to power. In the circuit of subjective overdetermination, "A Big Night in Hollywood," is itself an extended version of a sketch Lewis had performed on one of his TV specials in 1957, when he was attempting to consolidate a solo career.

Although Stanley directly turns the tables on Brandford's men, a different tactic is required for Ellen Betts. The only two people in the film who, from early on, recognize and encourage Stanley's natural talent are women: Ellen, and gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper. At a promotional party, Stanley takes one look at a ludicrous umbrella hat worn by Hopper and is unable to restrain his desire to collapse into hysterical laughter. But instead of feeling affronted, Hopper says to Stanley's PR agent: "You've come across someone who hasn't learned to be phony. He thought something, and he said it-which was real and honest." Ellen also recognizes Stanley's worth; she is guided by an idealistic and familial agenda that contrasts with the mercenary motives of the men in the Brandford team. She beseeches: "Let's have an understanding as to why we're going to do this. Are we going to do this because we're spoiled-and used to a comfortable, well-oiled machine? Or is it simply because we've been happy working as a family, and we hate the thought of breaking up?" It is revealing, though, that Stanley is not merely incorporated into the "family" at the end of The Patsy, but he secures the central position of power. This suggests that the driving motive behind Stanley's success is not really the finding of a place among others-a sense of belonging-so much as the achieving of dominance over them. This receives a somewhat ambivalent representation. Stanley's humanizing of the machinery of professional entertainment coincides with his total control, but in the process Stanley is himself transformed. As he fires off instructions to his newly appointed staff, the business-suited Stanley Belt acts with the polished self-assurance (and implicit self-regard) of Buddy Love. However, once the danger of corruptive egomania is introduced as a possible consequence of stardom, and after Stanley has brusquely commanded Ellen to marry him, he's immediately killed off. 

The most acutely self-mythologizing of Lewis's films, The Patsy postulates that the self can be destroyed and reformulated at will, and that the creation of the self is precisely the responsibility of the "creative self." Throughout most of the film, Ellen's principal function is to serve as a maternal presence: she provides emotional and psychological support, nurturing Stanley's fragile ego in his moments of dejection. But where Stanley disappears from the screen for his miraculous rebirth as "Jerry Lewis," the mask of "Ellen" is stripped from Ina Balin onscreen-and at the command of her director. The ending of The Patsy suggests how Lewis simultaneously exploits and reorders the Hollywood cinema's capacity for heightened illusionism, for fantasy-making. For Lewis, film is expressly a vehicle for magic-it makes possible a reformulation of the world, of the self.  More pointedly, by giving expression to the "kid" within him, Stanley Belt proves his superiority to the group of manipulative adults who had tried to make him conform to their wishes. Lewis's films repeatedly enact such childlike fantasies of revolt against the demands of the adult world. —Sources: "Jerry Lewis: The Deformation of The Comic" (1994) by Frank Krutnik and "Deconstructing Jerry Lewis as Director" (2016) by Chris Fujiwara  (Senses of  Cinema  Issue 79)

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