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)

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).

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jerry Lewis' Supercharged Fun-Loving Masculinity

Jerry Lewis was one of the most radical stars within mainstream Hollywood. His elevation of emotional trauma to the level of star status was an extraordinary innovation. While the norms of Hollywood storytelling and acting emphasize hierarchy and consistency, Lewis developed throughout his career a wildly unpredictable, volatile performance style, one that destabilized the notion of “character” as conceived by Hollywood and pointed to the innovations of experimental filmmakers like Jack Smith. In 1954, the Martin and Lewis tandem was on its last legs: the duo was squabbling openly, but managed to eke out three more films together, including Tashlin’s pair Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956), certainly among their best films. In Hollywood or Bust (1956) the naïf is Malcolm Smith (Jerry Lewis), a nebbish who wins honestly the car raffle. Through Steve Wiley's (Dean Martin's character) eventual redemption, the swindler (Martin) wins back the love of his girlfriend Terry (Pat Crowley) while Jerry nurses a crush for Anita (Ekberg). His story arc with Dean was so constant in their film adventures that Jerry complained to Modern Screen magazine in 1953: "I may be a box office attraction, but I never get the girls."

Yet our first impression of Malcolm as a lusty and somewhat dorky all-American boy is entirely misleading. Over the course of Hollywood or Bust, Malcolm’s hunger for Anita Ekberg blossoms into an almost fetishistic perversion. Malcolm obsesses about Ekberg’s “undies” hanging next to his own, while biting his knuckles, arching his eyebrows, and making guilty faces. Malcolm’s immediate response to Steve’s “last picture” comment is sexually oblivious, however: he launches into a detailed explanation of Ekberg’s last movie (The Lavender Tattooer, a dopey pun on The Rose Tattoo [1955]): 'It was produced by the Nathan Brothers and directed by William B. Hoffmeyer. The screenplay was by Willie Rachauer, Harry Jones and Florence Hershfield—that was for the woman’s touch—from a play by John and Betty Stetson, based on an incidental remark dropped by a waiter at Sardi’s (Nicholas Blaney), in Technicolor and VistaVision.' 

Malcolm follows this insanely nuanced description with a brief wince—as if exhausted by the level of erudition he’s exhibited—and then proceeds to demonstrate Anita Ekberg’s “Bali-Bali dance.” He ends the dance by grimacing and rubbing his head, a gesture that invokes Lewis’s usual “spastically” desperate performance style. If Malcolm in Hollywood or Bust changes personality on the slightest of whims, The Nutty Professor’s Julius Kelp is so self-contradictory that he fractures into two entirely different characters. Frank Krutnik sees a similar schizophrenia not only in the characters Lewis plays onscreen but also in the other, nonfilmic images that Lewis has cultivated throughout his career. According to Krutnik, there are at least three different Jerrys, all of whom clearly on display in Hollywood or Bust: the Idiot-Kid, the familiar Lewis-figure; the “successful” Jerry Lewis as Hollywood director; and Telethon Jerry, the persona that ascended with the decline of Lewis’s film career, but prefigured in the sentimental didacticisms of films like The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor.

In an article from Films in Review in 1953, critic Robert Kass provided a vivid description of Lewis’s Idiot persona as it had appeared in the half dozen Martin and Lewis films the team had already made: 'In appearance, Lewis is a freak—a shockingly immature, stringy six-footer with a crew hair cut, wide and expressionless eyes, and a face capable of astonishing grimaces. He hides behind an idiotic laugh. His speaking voice is a squawk, his singing voice a shattering screech. Despite unpredictable behavior, tantrums, fits of weeping, he is rather nice—because he is harmless. Men can look down with comfortable superiority upon his athletic failures; women feel a tender protectiveness as toward a retarded child… he is the neighborhood freak, the affection-starved moron... Like a child suffering from an extreme form of hyperactivity, the Idiot is incompetent, chaotic, and unruly, crashing around, sometimes teetering on the edge of violence but never quite going over that edge, never quite becoming dangerous.' Kass provides a good start, but Lewis’s screen persona is more complicated than this. Kass particularly objects to Lewis’s “supercharged lunacy” and is especially repelled by how Lewis makes a comic shtick out of mental dysfunction, characterized by lack of bodily coordination and a crazy, purposeless energy. 

The Stooge (1951) provides Lewis with his own love interest in the form of “Frecklehead” (Marion Marshall), a childlike, pigtail-wearing, lovestruck ditz, as prone to fits of lisping and pouting as Lewis is to whining and screeching. Frecklehead is Lewis’s female equivalent, an Idiot girl, awkward and incompetent like Lewis but not unlovable in her own way. Similarly, however ridiculous and imbecilic Lewis appears in The Stooge, he is always warm-hearted and affectionate, rather like a backward child who can be irritating at times but never annoying enough to become actively dislikable. Not only was the film a hit with audiences, but also remembered by Lewis with great fondness. 

Frank Krutnik explains how this disruptive behavior was notably emphasized in the Martin and Lewis comedies, where Jerry Lewis appears as Dean Martin’s “grotesquely deformed doppelganger,” adding: “Lewis developed his comic persona as a hysterical inversion of the cool and self-possessed handsome man.” Baffled by Lewis’s enormous popularity, critics attempted to rationalize audiences’ fascination with this bizarre aping of imbecility, complete with spastic gestures and emotional incompetence. The mentally ill thus became one group among many—beatniks, feminists, minories—suggesting the radical potential of a united counterculture against the gigantic, normalizing hegemony of capitalist consensus.

The secularization of psychoanalysis, the development of group therapy and counseling programs, and the public visibility of the mentally ill meant that those with mental difficulties were gradually ceasing to be “them” and rapidly becoming “us.” Today, only 2 percent of the mentally ill are in hospitals, and 93 percent are in the community, in group homes, or in comparable settings. Massachusetts, for example, had eleven state mental hospitals in 1950; now it has only four. Had the number of asylum patients kept pace with the state population, there would have been more than thirty-two thousand patients in Massachusetts hospitals today. Instead, there are slightly fewer than one thousand, the majority of whom will spend less than a year in an institution. This movement toward deinstitutionalization was both a result of a reaction to a major change in public attitudes toward mental illness. The development of new psychotropic medications often made mental illness virtually invisible; tics, twitches, and seizures were replaced by a sedated, zombie-like calm that allowed people to appear less peculiar, if also less expressive, in public. By the mid-1950s it was no longer necessary to see mental illness in terms of odd behavior, violence, and psychosis, indicating a movement toward increased acceptance of the mentally disabled.

What is the connection, then, between the enormous appeal of Jerry Lewis’s Idiot persona in the early 1950s and the new public exposure to former mental patients now living ordinary lives in the community? One might imagine that their new public presence would make audiences less predisposed to finding amusement in a comedian whose act involves what can be seen as an imitation of the mentally disabled. To understand fully the appeal of Jerry Lewis, we must first understand how laughter functions as an index of repression, how the audience’s warm reception of a comedian’s routine can be seen as an indication of the audience’s profound fear. It has been suggested that laughter is not so connected to humor as it's related to a nexus of deep emotions related to fear, aggression, shame, anxiety, and neurosis. The lack of a sustained and coherent relationship between laughter and feelings of “mirth” has been well testified (see Psychological Health and Sense of Humor by Thorson and Powell, 1991). According to psychoanalysis, only when the unconscious motives of the comedian are recognized as paramount can humor be understood at all. 

In this light, certain displays of humor can be seen to function as a somatic displacement, revealing bitter and hostile despair. The comic display constitutes a ritual form of protective cover, a socially sanctioned disguise. Most frequently, the comedian is using the form of comedy to exteriorize or “get rid of” unpleasant truths and experiences, and humor is a means by which he can “pass on the blow” and, in the process, slough off some anxiety onto his listeners. Later Freudian and Lacanian analysts have discussed how, in such typical vignettes, the clown comes to represent the self, whose embodiment as mature adult (Martin) is mocked by the childhood personality (Lewis). The adult is reduced, destabilized, and desexualized by the child, a process that articulates fears of regression and disintegration. In A Reclassification of Psychopathological States (1961) Joseph Levine regards the clown as expressing—in an appropriately controlled and yet uncontrolled form—the repressed aspects of a particular society. The public clown or comedian offers us an outlet for our anxieties about those events, situations, that we find most frightening. The comedian is thereby responsible for handling something that Levine describes as “embarrassing, astonishing and shocking.” In the case of Jerry Lewis, this shameful societal taboo is the dread of mental illness. 

At Paramutual Studios we find ourselves in a delightful but precarious dream state in which English as we knew it outside the theater is not spoken. Everyone we see seems to share Jerry Lewis’s fabled penchant for fractured speech. Further, a logical ground of sorts is provided for Morty’s infantilistic vocal stylings when we recall that he is an infant in the studio community. Is Morty attempting to pronounce the surname “Babewosental” in respectful imitation of hapless Miss Giles? In any case, he fails utterly, gargling hopelessly and self-deprecatingly, and with no serious attempt at a verbal skill he has no reason to believe he can master “Benvedbenten.” Then, with real optimism, he tries, “Ben-paybobo-pay-b’pay.” A 1965 piece by John Russell Taylor accurately addresses Lewis’s verbal comedy. “an entirely personal way of mangling English, with nouns turning into verbs, verbs into adjectives, notions duplicating themselves, twisting, turning, dividing and re- forming in a babble which stays always tantalisingly on the edge of comprehension, just this side of total disintegration into gibberish.” 

In making this beautifully articulated film about being cut off from honest and serious participation in the community/social scene, Jerry Lewis comments on exclusion and alienation in relation to social value. Morty is locked out of genuine participation in the world he is observing for his superiors. The Errand Boy can be seen as a statement about exclusion— a central concern of Jerry Lewis at the time this film was made. The “nuttiness” of his stage persona was gradually shifting from the nominal weirdness of an eccentric neurotic shackled to Dean Martin’s conventionality to an entirely different kind of isolation, an existential singularity and essential unrelatedness, a man enisled. Morty is confronted by some twenty secretaries, each at her own desk, and all working mum against the echoing crackle of their typewriters. Here the inability to recognize an appropriate moment for delicate silence reveals Morty’s disconnection. The swimming-pool scene is a handy exemplification of Morty’s overall detachment from studio life. It is also a profoundly comic moment, unique, as far as I can tell, in that it seems unrelated to any of the six categories of visual gags that Noël Carroll presents in his thesis On Jokes (1991).

The counterhegemonic authorial stance that leads Lewis to frame the story of a linguistic bumbler in—of all places—a film studio opens for us the possibility to see that studio in full exploitative swing as a site of capitalism. While some critics would suggest with Laura Mulvey that power is a reflection of masculinity, The Errand Boy suggests the reverse: that “masculinity” is an attribution of power and that our use of the label “male” is a production itself, not the natural outcome of an intrinsic force. That the studio environment—a model of capitalist society—is far from a utopia, The Errand Boy reminds us persistently, as we listen to Morty not fitting in as any proper employee should. Jerry Lewis arranged himself carefully for that bad fit, with some real awareness of the damage hierarchical social arrangements could do. In the face of the kind of disenfranchisement shown so clearly in The Errand Boy, indeed, the idea of society as a sanctuary is only a dream. —Sources: "Jerry Lewis and Screen Performance in Hollywood or Bust" by Craig Fischer and "The Errand Boy: Morty S. Tashman and the Powers of the Tongue" by Murray Pomerance (2002)

Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Intelligence showed a positive linear relationship with leadership, but this association flattened out and then reversed at an IQ of about 120. For leaders with higher intelligence than this, their scores in transformational and instrumental leadership were lower, on average, than less smart leaders; and beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant. The new findings can’t tell us why very smart people seem to make poorer leaders, but it’s possible leaders who stand intellectually apart are less inspiring, and they may find it difficult to reduce tasks to an appropriate level of simplicity. In a social world, even highly advantageous traits can come with some drawbacks. And they also give defensive managers an excuse for a poor performance review: “I’m too clever for these guys!” Source:

Jerry Lewis's alleged IQ was 145. As much as Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack had disdained the rise of the hippie movement, their early ethos of casual masculinity anticipated the late 1960s concerns around leisure, slacking off, tuning out, and freeing one’s mind. It is common to see Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor as Lewis’s commentary on Dean Martin, perhaps the ultimate incarnation of the slacker/worker. But in changing into Buddy Love, Professor Kelp physically became more like Jerry Lewis himself with his well honed sense of casual cool. The Ladies Man blurs vocation and avocation and signals a quite 1960s sense of man’s “work” as highly sexualized. Herbert charms in a guileless manner: it is even central to Lewis characters that they become sexy even as they’re geeky. The ending of The Nutty Professor—where Kelp combines features of both of his personalities (professor and playboy)—encapsulates this desire to capture 1960s masculine identity as a blend of cool suaveness and carefree spontaneity. This sexualization of a fun-loving masculinity is central to a 1960s ethos. Jerry Lewis’s sexual persona differed from that of Bob Hope’s in that, whereas Hope was wolfish but effeminate, Lewis was girl-crazy and immature. Lewis is not so much emasculated as he is underdeveloped, reduced to blabbering and extreme uncoördination by the mere presence of attractive women. By 1957, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent, the sexually immature man-child of films such as Artists and Models is gradually replaced by gentler, more normal characters who are genuinely interested in attaining romantic love.

Women want sex far more than we've been allowed to believe. So suggests a new book that shatters many of our most cherished myths about desire, including the widespread assumption that women's lust is inextricably bound up with emotional connection. In What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (2013) journalist Daniel Bergner suggests that when it comes to acknowledging just how much women lust, we've passed the point of no return (the phenomenon of the “swinging single” woman, as defined by Helen Gurley Brown). Women may want sex just as much as men do, and this drive is "not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety." When it comes to the craving for sexual variety, the research Bergner assembles suggests that women may be "even less well-suited for monogamy than men." Source:

Women are nearly five times more likely to show an automatic preference for their own gender than men are to show such favoritism for their own gender, according to a study in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 4), 2017. Both male and female participants associated the positive words--such as good, happy and sunshine--more often with women than with men, Laurie A. Rudman (PhD of Rutgers University) says. Moreover, men and women tended to show high implicit self-esteem and high gender identity; however, men showed low pro-male gender attitudes, according to the study. "A clear pattern shown in all four studies is that men do not like themselves automatically as much as women like themselves," Rudman says. "This contradicts a lot of theoretical thinking about implicit attitudes regarding status differences." 

Because men are implicitly more enthusiastic about sex, their dependence  on  women  for  sexual relations  may  lead  them  to automatically favor the opposite sex. "These results suggest that for men, pro-female bias is moderated by sexual gratification," Rudman says. Experiment  1  tested  and supported that only women have a balanced gender identity. Thus, women’s automatic in-group bias is stronger, in part, because they alone  possess  a  cognitive  mechanism that  promotes  own  group preference. Experiment 2 showed that people who implicitly preferred their mothers also favored women in general. Of course, because  of  early  (even  preverbal) attachment  to maternal caregivers, people’s mental machinery may be geared to automatically  favor  the  feminine  sex. Experiment 3 predicted automatic  pro-female  bias  for  both  men  and women. Thus, men’s greater proclivity for violence and aggression may bolster automatic preference for women. Experiment 4 showed the power of sex to predict heterosexuals’ gender attitudes. As expected, men reported greater liking for sex than  did  women, echoing past  research (Baumeister,  2000) and this enthusiasm  might  lead men  to  show pro-female  bias. The four experiments suggest that in the absence of specific power manipulations, women strongly implicitly prefer their own gender, whereas men do not. "If we treat each [gender] attitude as likely to be bonafide but influenced by different causes, we can begin to map the complexity of the human cognition," Rudman says. Source:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

"The Delicate Delinquent": Essential Jerry Lewis

“I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world of my own,” sings Sydney Pythias (Jerry Lewis) in The Delicate Delinquent (1957). This film, the first that Jerry Lewis made withouth Dean Martin, is an important, although largely neglected film in the Jerry Lewis canon—Leonard Maltin called it “an agreeable blend of sentiment and slapstick”—yet an appreciation of it does speak directly to what Gerald Mast called “The Problem of Jerry Lewis,” that is, “whether he should be taken seriously.” For The Delicate Delinquent, Lewis hired Don McGuire, a writer who had just directed his first film Johnny Concho (1956), starring Frank Sinatra. Lacking the stylistic influence of a strong director like Frank Tashlin or Norman Taurog, The Delicate Delinquent inevitably reveals much of its aspiring auteur, Jerry Lewis. In the story, a nebbishy apprentice janitor (Jerry Lewis) is mistaken for a young hoodlum by the cops, and a do-good patrolman (Darren McGavin) decides to take him under his wing and reform him. Jerry resists McGavin’s help at first, but pretty soon he wants to become a cop. 

The slim plot serves as a pretext for the redemptive value of niceness that would constitute an essential aspect of the Lewisian vision in later films. As Dana Polan noted in Being And Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French (1984): “There are two Jerry Lewises—the Id (short for Idiot but also suggesting the roots of comic idiocy in a primal unreason) and Jerry Lewis the Serious Man.” One of the reasons Lewis’s films were not so well regarded in North America is because The Idiot is simultaneously silly and sentimental—although, for the French, Lewis’s life and films “appear to combine the contradictory sides of America.” At the same time as Lewis’s Sydney is The Idiot, he is also an idiot savant, the wisest character in the film. Even as Sydney is silly enough to become involved in the scientist’s crackpot plan to evacuate all of Earth’s frogs in tiny spaceships with little toilets, he frequently drops pearls of moral wisdom, like a Shakespearean fool. For example, despite his tongue-tied embarrassment in the presence of his neighbor Patricia (Mary Webster), Sydney’s love interest, he articulately explains his shyness to her by observing, “You got to find out what you are before you can know what you want to be.”

Sydney confesses to Damon: “When I was a boy, I was jerky. And now, now I’m a man. And I’m empty.” In other words, Sydney is grown physically but not psychically. Damon says in defense of Sydney as a police candidate to the captain (Horace McMahon), “He’s honest, he’s got guts, and he’s a decent human being.” And as the film moves toward its climax, Sydney becomes “something,” now capable of standing up to Monk (Robert Ivers): when the cops scuffle with the boys in the alley, Sydney is shown exchanging punches blow for blow. A close-up at the end of the fight shows a dribble of blood at the side of Sydney’s mouth, his red badge of masculine courage. And Sydney’s conception of this better life (“There’s an awful lot of nice people in the world, Monk, and I just wanna be one of them”) marks him as the type of homo americanus that William H. Whyte Jr. had defined in the bestseller “The Organization Man” (1956).

The last scene shows Sydney in his new police uniform, embracing a suddenly proud Patricia, who describes him as “tall and handsome” and “respectable.” The Delicate Delinquent overlays the generic codes of the newly emergent family genre in postwar American cinema on the similarly emerging auteur Jerry Lewis, belonging to what Richard Staehling describes as “the fantasy sociology of the 1950s.” Raymond Durgnat cites two main themes in Lewis’s films, both of which are fully apparent in The Delicate Delinquent: “Jerry’s desperate attempts to live up to his own ideals of ‘benevolent toughness,’ and his equally desperate search to find, be worthy of, and be accepted by a loving world.” Perhaps these two versions of youth in the 1950s, the delicate and the delinquent, represent what Scott Bukatman sees as the juvenile and virile sides of Jerry Lewis’s personality, respectively.

Within the larger generic landscape, The Delicate Delinquent occupies a contradictory position. It is a movie in the venerable tradition of the postwar social problem film such as Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949), filtered through Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955) which present juvenile delinquency as a social problem. On the other hand, it is a comedy. Treating serious issues with humor is always a difficult aesthetic balancing act, so given its confusing mixture of tones it is no surprise that contemporary reviews of The Delicate Delinquent described the film as confusing, “neither fish nor fowl.” The film is Lewis’s attempt at making socially conscious comedy in the tradition of Charles Chaplin. At the conclusion of his musical number “By Myself,” Sydney moves two garbage cans from one side of the door to the other, a visual metaphor for the burden of his woes in the world. And when Monk confesses the truth about Artie’s gunshot wound in the climax, he explains that there “ain’t no reason for Sydney not to climb out of the garbage.” From scene to scene, The Delicate Delinquent veers between slapstick and social significance, just as Lewis lurches from stupid to smart. Where one scene is funny, the next is serious. The film’s very tone and style pull in two different directions, mirroring the tension within Sydney.

Beginning with shots of a city street complete with expressionist shadows and pools of water on the pavement, the film starts as film noir. Along with these images, jazzy percussion rises in volume on the soundtrack, the staccato rhythms connoting bohemianism, urban culture, and decadence. But when the delinquents begin to appear, their actions are expressionistic, stylized, like the gangster choreography of “The Girl Hunt Ballet” in The Band Wagon (1953). When three of the youths confront three others in the alley, they take out their weapons sequentially—first chain, then knife, then brass knuckles—with dramatic flair and in perfect time with nondiegetic musical accents. I wouldn’t agree that The Delicate Delinquent is “a minor work of American neorealism, a forgotten cousin of On the Waterfront (1954) or Marty (1955).” Lewis’s character challenges the typical representation of masculinity—here, delinquent adolescent masculinity—suggesting it is less monolithic than performative. 

Just as Sydney—as he himself tells Patricia—is a torn man, a nobody who wants to be a somebody, so Lewis is torn between the comic and the social critic in The Delicate Delinquent. Gerald Mast argues in The Comic Mind (1973) that his problem with Lewis is that he “contrives gags—many of them good ones. But the gags do not flow from any personal center.” But such a criticism is true only if we measure Lewis’s characters by realist criteria. Lewis’s films might more accurately be called “incoherent texts” by Robin Wood in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1999). For Wood, in certain fragmented films the fragmentation “becomes a structuring principle, resulting in works that reveal themselves as perfectly coherent once one has mastered their rules.” Jerry Lewis’s films, with all their inconsistencies of narrative, mise-en-scène, and style, speak to the difficulties of maintaining the kind of masculine ego ideal typically constructed by Hollywood movies and reveal it as constructed, rather than natural. Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema (1968), argues there is no “essential unity” to Jerry Lewis's personality. But as The Delicate Delinquent demonstrates, it is precisely this disunity (lack of unity) that is fundamental to Lewis’s vision—at war with itself—which is fully representative of Lewis’s cinema, built as it is on a number of tensions between auteur and genre. It is these tensions that reveal the ongoing attempt by “Jerry Lewis” to negotiate his place in “the world,” the Symbolic Order. Because of and not despite these tensions, The Delicate Delinquent emerges as an essential Jerry Lewis film.

As Frank Krutnik put it his critical analysis Inventing Jerry Lewis (2000), “American film and television reviewers routinely vilified his work before he even directed his first film.” There is indeed a smorgasbord of vilification laid out for Mr. Jerry Lewis, notwithstanding an important fact that Jean-Pierre Coursodon once emphasized: "Lewis was the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to “total filmmaker” during the sound era. The uniqueness of this achievement alone deserved sympathetic attention rather than the hostility or indifference it met with." Frank Krutnik identifies the Martin-Lewis split in 1956 as the origin of the sentimental dimension of the Lewis persona, and Lewis’s solo films, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent, do evince a pronounced sentimentality. Lewis himself has said, “At heart I really belong to the old school which believed that screen comedy is essentially a combination of situation, sadness and gracious humility.” As Krutnik astutely notes, some of the Martin and Lewis films feature a put-upon Jerry who commands our sympathy. Over the years, critics have sometimes found Lewis’s comic routines curiously disheartening, suggesting an implicit understanding of how humor can serve as a displacement for feelings that are more akin to hostility and despair. 

In his review of The Stooge for the New York Times in October 1953, Bosley Crowther described the film as “oddly depressing.” In 1961, in the Los Angeles Mirror, Al Capp described how he accidentally wandered into a movie theater showing The Ladies Man and he couldn’t stand the film, explaining: “It was painful: I felt it had been somehow indecent of me to peek at a grown man making an embarrassing, unentertaining fool of himself.” “It may well leave you in a state of depression,” read the Newsweek review of Hardly Working (1981), while the critic for Time magazine wrote of Lewis’s performance in the same film that “the only emotion he arouses is pity.” One of Jerry Lewis’s earliest forays into professional entertainment was with something known in the biz as a “dummy act,” in which he performed “outrageous mimes to phonographic records.” According to John Philip Sousa: “The phonograph is an extension and amplification of the voice that may well have diminished individual vocal activity.” Lewis’s dummy act looks like a significant example of the Sousa doctrine: the performer appears as an automaton whose movements and behavior are determined by the prerecorded status of the phonograph record. 

In You’re Never Too Young (1955), Jerry's character lipsynchs to a record by Dean Martin: in this ventriloquist act, an act of condensation, Dean is the voice, Jerry the dummy. This determinism is nowhere clearer than in the inevitable breakdown of phonographic technology as the record player winds down or the record skips or the wrong record is played. In The Patsy (1964), the staff of a dead comedian decide that they should use their combined talents to create a new star; their new “patsy” (Jerry) will be, in other words, programmed. Frank Krutnik describes one of the scenes when their big-hearted ex-bellboy patsy performs their material: “Stumbling onto the stage, he knocks the microphone off its stand and then proceeds to decimate the polished routines that have been taught to him. Stanley presents a spectacle of maladjustment.” Even the dummy act, perhaps a metaphor for this entire performance of middle-management ventriloquism, goes awry. Perhaps the performer of this dummy act is no dummy but a dialogic subject possessed of a new kind of self.

Jerry Lewis’s speech is characterized by free association, syncopated rhythms, and more than slightly Tourettic set of neologistically extended lines—a speech both smoothly improvised and stutteringly stuck. Like a ventriloquist, Lewis has multiple voices—his Donald Duck–like squawk, his high-pitched nasal drone, and the sober voice of the “adult Jerry Lewis.” Moved to laugh or not, we can see something startling and suggestive, even profound in some of his films. “Jerry” frequently seems intemperate and therefore asocial, even mortifying. He is strident, dysfunctional, uncoordinated, inarticulate, hyperactive (while at the same time paralyzed, as Scott Bukatman noted). Ed Sikov suggested that Lewis served postwar U.S. culture as “a jester in a court of sexual panic.” According to Andrew Sarris, “Martin and Lewis at their best had a marvelous tension between them. The great thing about them was their incomparable incompatibility, the persistent sexual hostility.” The appeal of Martin and Lewis was not a result of their closeness and cohesion but of the differences between them.

Jerry Lewis said, speaking to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1966: “One can talk about society, but in fact absolutely everyone is excluded.” In The Nutty Professor (1963) Julius Kelp says to Stella Purdy, “Whatever you see [in Buddy Love] is very well buried. Perhaps he chooses to keep the inner man locked up so no one steps on him.” A principal concern in the film, then, is the disentangling of the appealing, positive excitement but also the hurtful dominance that Buddy Love represents. One logic dictates that Kelp would learn positive excitement, confidence, and assertiveness from the “unleashing” of the Buddy Love within him, while retaining his gentle, kind demeanor to counter the hurtful dominance. But the film contradicts its own narrative trajectory. In the scene where Buddy Love transforms into Kelp in front of the college faculty and students, he says that the lesson he learned was to be himself—his insecure, submissive, but gentle self. —Sources: Shtick Meets Teenpic in The Delicate Delinquent (2000) by Barry Keith Grant and The Inner Man: Transformations of Masculinity in The Nutty Professor (2000) by Peter Lehman & Susan Hunt