The Stooge (1952): A Martin & Lewis Biopic?

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If the story holds, Jerry Lewis named The Stooge among his favorites of the work he did during his famed partnership with Dean Martin. This was the sole reason for watching it and this is probably the most effective lens in considering what to make of it.

The plot itself follows a show business narrative and draws up a fictitious story about how they needed each other or how they managed to perfectly complement one another’s talents. Except that’s not entirely right because it’s really about how Bill Miller (Martin) is a bit of an arrogant control freak, using someone else’s talents to bolster his own career. He somehow carries this dissonant belief Ted Rogers (Lewis) is the secret weapon of his act and still of secondary importance. He, Bill Miller, is the real draw.

To provide some context, Miller has recently wed his best girl (Polly Bergen), who foregoes her own career as a performer to sit in the cheering section of her husband, so he can make a go at the big time. It’s the all-absorbing preoccupation of his entire life as he works with his agent (Leo Lyman) to become a star. Despite others giving him advice to the contrary, he wants to be a single. And even when he finds his missing piece, he still considers himself a solo act.

Lewis gets his opening in a hash house giving the man behind the counter real grief. Then, he pays off a cynical cabby with crumpled up bills hidden all across his person. It only gets more outrageous.

Obviously, it’s toying with the dynamic integral to the Lewis & Martin formula with Lewis making a racket from the balcony in his attempt at song, only to start up the patter between Dean down on the stage with his skimmer and accordion. It feels like they were meant to do together. The perfect counterpoints to each other’s images and strengths.

However, there are all these perfectly manufactured moments and thus nothing feels truly spontaneous, like catching lightning in the bottle. With the gags being set up, we have a sense of what is going to happen before they actually occur. One exception and somehow an immaculately hilarious image (not that it was ad-libbed,) is Martin bouncing Lewis continuously on the bedspread like a human pogo stick. The mental picture it conjures up is enough.

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It’s true Dino does feel like a bit of a tyrant. One can only surmise the picture was held out of circulation for a time so he could build an initial rapport with the audience. They released two other features before sending The Stooge off the assembly line.

All told, the most gratifying moment might be right at the end for the simple reason the picture no longer has to make a pretense of the drama because it’s just been resolved. The one zany off-the-wall man-child runs his crazy interference while Martin looks on with mild befuddlement, and they find some wry equilibrium in there somewhere. There’s no element of Miller’s colossal ego getting in the way so we go to straight to the heart of what made Martin and Lewis a lasting comedy team.

It’s a shame the film was plagued by a plot gumming up their routines. Not only was Dean Martin intermittently unlikable, it really dices up the film. The saccharine moments of applied drama are mostly throwaway. The comedy works slightly better. Though I must admit my personal preference for Dean over Jerry.

As a very subjective observer, I am drawn to consider The Caddy instead. Not only does the premise feel more conducive to gags, but the chemistry also allowed for our stars, as characters, to feel richer. They are part of a close-knit community and when their world includes Donna Reed and a snappy rendition of “That’s Amore,” it’s hard to ask for much more with already meager expectations in place. It’s the simple pleasures and, for me, The Caddy offers more of them.

In hindsight, The Stooge feels harrowingly close to loose biography. This is not to suggest the two men were their characters, but we have Dean’s drunkenness and Lewis’s own persona upstaging any and every bit of Martin’s talent. We could even wager a guess these are portentous moments, given their own eventual breakup. Certainly being the insane energizer bunny bouncing all over the stage has its drawbacks, but you do get a great deal of attention.

Most of the other Martin and Lewis pictures during their prolific run brought genre and camaraderie together. This was their charm bottled up so easily and then delivered to the masses. The Stooge doesn’t always employ the same brand of simplistic comedic commoditization, probably to its detriment.

In truth, it suggests my own reluctance to parse through the reality of the men behind the characterizations. A typical Paramount vehicle for the pair might be the perfect portrait of 1950s idyllic America on the outside and yet underneath there were festering issues. The country’s most beloved comedy duo was plagued by discord just like everyone else.  No fabricated sitcom setup can completely smooth over reality.

3/5 Stars

The Nutty Professor (1963): Jerry Lewis is Jekyll and Hyde

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I can bemusedly remember more than a few trips out to the high school football fields as our designated evacuation point for fire drills. The other times we ended up out there was more likely than not due to the chemistry department setting them off with some supernal explosion of their own devising. You can only imagine it being a giddy badge of honor among these grown-up nerds.

In full disclosure, I must admit being indebted to Disney’s Absent-Minded Professor for creating my paradigm for the mad scientist. Jerry Lewis takes this readily available archetype to set up an analogous comic cocktail — albeit to the utmost extremes — marrying it with one of his own creations: Julius Kelp.

The Nutty Professor‘s gloriously campy color schemes are all the better for this wonky Jekyll and Hyde riff. Rooms look like they’re all but made out of cardboard and as such, every interior and visible prop feels expendable. School officials (Del Moore) and secretaries (Kathleen Freeman) are either high-strung or chatty cartoon characters.

In one exemplary moment, Lewis all but railroads the usually fastidious chancellor into doing an impromptu rendition of Hamlet on his office table. A modicum amount of ego-schmoozing effectively makes a complete mockery of the man with typical Lewis lampoonery.

Likewise, the interminable supply of handsomely-clothed, virile male co-eds all look like they either play quarterback or shooting guard for their respective sports teams. And all the pert young women are a similar picture of All-American, bright-eyed ideals.

Considering these elements, The Nutty Professor is derived mostly from performances more than being gag-driven; the jokes come organically out of character. I’ll fall back on my normal diagnosis of Lewis comedies, namely, the plot too often gets in the way.

Kelp is a walking stereotype, but he’s also an endearing Jerry Lewis creation, complete with outrageous buck-teeth, googly glasses, a lexical vault full of spoonerisms, and probably the worst excuse for a haircut in the history of the movies. If we can risk being facetious momentarily, these are all very calculated decisions. It’s a visual statement made all too obvious; this man is a loser.

The childishly simple premise digs into these same themes. Although there might only be one or two isolated occurrences we can think of, Kelp attempts to combat a bully in his class who pushes him around. Since it’s not altogether overwhelming conflict, we must consider this to be partially his own inferiority complex speaking.

It doesn’t help a pretty student like Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) simply reinforces all of his inadequacies. Because she is yet another paradigm with her hairbows and schoolgirl charms.  She is caught between the dorky loser and the vain, devilishly handsome lady killer. The question remains: Where do her values lie?

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If I haven’t spoiled the punchline already, there is an obvious road the zany tale must traverse. Around his new fitness regimen, Julius acquires a carload of books from the library; his results spawn a most curious potion. One would think he’s transforming into a werewolf or something. Actually, it’s far worse: Enter Buddy Love (also played by Lewis).

If you don’t hear the imaginary notes of “Love Potion No. 9” performed by The Coasters or The Searchers (depending on your preference), then your brain isn’t as formulaic as mine.

Regardless, Kelp’s alter ego soon finds himself waltzing into the local collegiate watering hole, the aptly christened Purple Pit. There Buddy Love makes his self-assured debut, hair plastered down, smoking a cigarette, and owning his outrageous duds. He catches everyone gawking on the street, and it’s much the same on the inside — showcasing a Lewis POV shot allowing us inside his conceited head.

It’s easy to consider The Nutty Professor a vanity project on a cursory level. Because Jerry Lewis is always at the center of this universe. Take the moment he’s supposed to be the devilishly handsome Love and literally, the whole club comes to the standstill. It’s absolute absurdity.

But in some ways, this perspective just doesn’t take because although Lewis is at the center of everything, he’s willing to look like a dorky, bumbling, idiot just as much if not more so. Someone who can do that has to be at least somewhat comfortable in their skin or at least content with putting on the charade of an utter doofus.

It relies completely on his dual role and Lewis’s own capacity — having the world constantly revolve around him — self-promoting himself and simultaneously tearing himself down. The tightrope walk is a compelling one.

Some have posited Buddy Love is a not-too-subtle shot at Dean Martin as the former compadres were still broken up after a fairly acrimonious split. Lewis instead denied these assertions by suggesting it was a knock on all the vainglorious phonies he had met on his long stint in show business. It seems just as likely The Nutty Professor could even function as a dialectic to examine Lewis’s own persona.

One can only imagine, in some outrageous universe, where the fulcrum between Lewis’s own worst and best selves would fall along the spectrum of his two cinematic creations. On one side, he has this image as a klutzy uncouth man-child and yet we must reconcile this with his authoritative vision as a director and a subsequent product of the same show business machine.

He was the one who could brazenly claim so much fame, success, and accomplishment at such an early age. It’s difficult to envision a world where circumstances didn’t go to his head even a little bit. And if there is not already a piece of Love in him, then at least we can acknowledge there is a risk of such a persona cropping up.

If The Bellboy had a family-friendly moral tacked on at the end, then The Nutty Professor is much the same with a few more lines devoted to a theme. Because the inevitable happens and the worlds collide — Jerry or Love or Kelp is ousted as his true self, after masquerading in front of all these people. What a horrible ordeal to slog through.

However, he finds some words. They go like this: “You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you. If you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?”

It’s a compelling message even if the preceding content is all over the spectrum. Along with the science-fiction, we have the audience-appointed fairy tale ending with the guy getting the girl. There need not be more explanation. The Nutty Professor rumbles through all our expectations.

I do find it strangely compelling having all the main players bow in the end credits. It’s like the curtain call in a play where everything is far more intimate. Of course, Jerry Lewis puts his lasting mark on this one by falling into the camera and shattering it. We would expect nothing less.

3/5 Stars

The Bellboy (1960) and Jerry Lewis The Goofball Auteur

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The Bellboy is introduced by a witty disclaimer as a studio executive (a cameo by Jack Kruschen) explains this is a film based on fun. There is no story. No plot. Instead, it acts as a visual diary in the week of a real nut! He subsequently reels about in his chair laughing hysterically.

It breaks the normal precedence in a move Lewis may have learned from Frank Tashlin and yet it also is a clever mode of conditioning the audience. With their expectations tempered, The Bellboy is allowed to excel on its own merit as something entirely unique. That it is.

What becomes evident is that we are witnessing the beginning of the next stage of Lewis’s artistic career, effectively blurring the accepted lines between major goofball and auteur. Paramount was bucking for his next picture to be released for the summer crowds.

Being the consummate professional and insanely efficient, Lewis needed only 4 weeks (26 days of filming) to crank out the movie, while simultaneously playing the stand-up circuit. He would get the movie out in time for the summer rush, and it would continue his successes at the top of the box office.

His inspiration was the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, conveniently located in the vicinity of his current nightclub act. It proved a ready-made environment ripe for gags of all sorts. One must only remember the red-hats in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or the shenanigans at The Hotel Del Coronado in Some Like it Hot to see the obvious potential for comedy. Lewis even asked Billy Wilder to direct at one point. Wilder fired back with the advice that Lewis should do it himself. The rest was proverbial history.

One creative element of the palette missing: color though Lewis would rectify the situation with his next movie, The Ladies Man. For now, he has exorbitant amounts of fun with the freedom afforded him, designing a character who is a none too subtle nod to the titans of yesteryear.

His mute (and dumb) bellboy Stanley muddles his way through work at the hotel, getting pulled into all sorts of tasks. In one moment, he’s tricked into setting up a giant ballroom full of chairs. There’s one dizzying unbroken shot of Lewis charging across the floor disappearing for a solitary moment to bring back two chairs to begin filling up the space at a snail’s pace.

His colleagues are cackling at his gullibility only to peek in on his progress. The punchline being the chairs all set up immaculately. They are gobsmacked but we know better. It shows the power of a cut, where separate images are given so much meaning by even a brief disassociation. Lewis has gladly leaned into a sense of surrealism to augment his usual dopey slapstick shtick.

Another vignette follows the movie star Jerry Lewis (played by none other than Jerry Lewis) whose envoy is met at the hotel entrance by a host of gawking onlookers. His absurdly large entourage files out of his limousine and nearly suffocates him with their well-wishing. He’s had it with their constant hovering. The scene is capped with everyone cramming into the elevator together with similar absurd results. This gag might easily be a nod to The Marx Brothers and Wilder as well.

Milton Berle does his pal a favor by turning up in an isolated sequence. A moment is traded between Milton and Stanley only for the real Lewis to bump into Milton and send him for a loop. The final twist is Berle has a bellboy doppelganger of his own.

As the picture is never beholden to a plot, these loose and free situations keep on coming. Stanley might be trying to go on a dog walking detail only to get tangled up by a plethora of constricting leashes. Maybe he’s on phone duty, and it’s a bit like playing whack a mole where the call is never coming from the telephone he expects.

All the bellboys become unhinged at the sight of pretty girls, and Stanley finds himself all but maimed by an arguing couple who find a point of resolution when they join forces to beat the crud out of him. He conducts an unseen, but very raucous orchestra a la Bugs Bunny created entirely through the merits of sound design and Lewis’s own physical abilities.

My favorite sequence might be when he all but mutilates a sculpture, still wet, sitting out in the lobby for an art exhibition. Don’t ask why it was there. This is the wrong question. Just know the results are riotous.

The same might be said of Lewis all of a sudden showing up at a major golf classic just in time to flashbulb Cary Middlecoff as he’s trying to sink his climactic putt. Or he finds himself airborne and causing quite the stir after commandeering a plane.

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These digressions are nonsensical but since it’s not faulty advertising, the scenarios succeed quite spectacularly. Because Lewis has leaned into this conceit and let his zany brain run wild with all the harebrained bits he can dream up. It does feel like the Marx Brothers at their best — at least in the sense we never go to their movie for a plot. It only exists as something the gags can hang their hat on. But foregoing the normal premises for pure comedy is to Lewis’s benefit.

The legend goes Jerry Lewis asked one of his idols for advice on the script, naming his protagonist as a nod to him and even having a shuffling, bowler-wearing doppelganger appear throughout his movie. The mentor was, of course, Stan Laurel, who had all but stopped performing since the death of his inseparable partner Oliver Hardy. Lewis, for all intent and purposes, had died to his partner, Dean Martin, but reimagined himself bigger and better.

At its best, The Bellboy is an audacious experimental pantomime accentuated by surrealism liberally borrowing from the tradition of Stan Laurel and Jacques Tati. Sound plays such an important role in the comedy as do these continually incidental encounters. They become the origins of genuine laughs.

But there’s also this element of outrageous even impossible scenarios being played straight.  It probably has as much in debt to the animated logic of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as it does to the aforementioned comedians. However, at the end of the day, this can only be Jerry Lewis. If I only had a modicum amount of respect for him before, my esteem for him only grows with every effort. I might relish his forefathers more, but Lewis still has some claim at comic immortality in his own right.

3/5 Stars

The Ladies Man (1961): Herbert H. Heebert

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The French (and Europe in general) have unparalleled esteem for Jerry Lewis.  It no doubt allows them to put him in conversations with their own beloved Jacques Tati as the true heirs to the Chaplins and the Keatons of comedy.

It’s no major revelation most Americans, flagged from the general populous, might scoff at such pronouncements. Because Jerry Lewis was just the comic with that obnoxious voice doing bits with Dean Martin and screwing around. Admittedly, this is my own bias acting out. He’s undoubtedly wildly popular with many.

Still, his type of comedies and routines feel like a dime a dozen. His most renowned picture, after all, is The Nutty Professor, and then his string of comedies with Martin, while successful, were never critically reputed.

What our friends across the pond take into account is how Lewis made himself into a holistic artist capable of many things — not simply performing. We saw this goofball. Whereas they rightfully recognized a visionary director, a prolific writer of material, who simultaneously helped to expand the language of film. It hardly seems like we’re talking about the same person, and yet we are.

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What he manages to accomplish starts with taking comedy back to its purest roots, making it into a totally visual experience. There’s no better example than his stark departure with Frank Tashlin: The Bellboy. The Ladies Man builds off these ideas further, nevertheless, developing them with the same persona some adored since childhood and many, like me, will grow weary of after a couple of minutes.

However, this reaction easily clouds what Lewis is actually doing. He effectively turns the American Dream into a satirical, at times, surrealist fantasy playing upon his already solidified persona and allowing himself greater verisimilitude to explore ideas around the slapstick. At its core, The Ladies Man (with no apostrophe s) is an absurd tale of emasculation.

The inciting incident occurs in a small town where Herbert H. Heebert sees his best girl kissing a mostly unseen suitor following their junior college graduation. It’s a devastating blow. He takes this as a sign he must shrug off girls forever and try and find an occupation as far away from them as possible.

Of course, there’s then nowhere else for him to end up but a giant dollhouse full to the brim with attractive, young women of all shapes and sizes. It’s inevitable. Sure enough, Herbert is hired on by a housekeeper named Katie (Kathleen Freeman) who takes all his foibles in stride. Freeman is also one of the few characters who can stand up to the antics of her leading man. The indelible image occurs when he jumps into her arms out of fright. She’s there to be a foil emblematic of all things maternal and sunshiny.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the female tenants, unbeknownst to the slumbering Herbert, plays out as an intricate morning ritual complete with a jazzy accompaniment and of course, a whole host of alluring women.

This is our first taste of the film’s obvious choreography, and it is executed on a grand scale. The dizzying set made up of rooms upon rooms, multiple stories, and spiral staircases is a veritable jungle gym for Lewis to play with. This pertains both to the actor and the director, realizing elaborate crane shots as his hapless hero is put up against this colorful, campy backdrop.

The glut of the film, by one means or another, follows his daily duties. Of course, they’re only an excuse for a range of gags. They involve a butterfly collection,  passing out the mail, and being the in-house doorman. His most daunting task is taking care of “Baby.” One minute he’s sloshing milk through the living room in a bucket, the next minute dragging a huge slab of meat to feed the beast his breakfast.

Herbert has his own breakfast sloppily fed to him in a high chair by Katie. Yes, it’s strange. It is soon overshadowed by the film’s finest cameo by George Raft, who proves his authenticity to Herbert by showing off his dancing prowess — cheek-to-cheek.

The next extended aside is the picture’s most surreal moment when Herbert enters a “forbidden room” only to encounter a willowy woman suspended from the ceiling. He starts fleeing the slinking woman in black only for Harry James’ Orchestra and a dance floor to appear, facilitating their game of cat and mouse. Any meaning is oblique at best, but that makes it no less of a mesmerizing diversion. After all, things slip back into the status quo like nothing at all.

In the last act, the house gets invaded by a television crew and even more madness commences for Herbert as he is all but forgotten amid the tumult. Everyone is just happy he’s stayed around so long to keep up on their chores. It’s one girl named Fay (Pat Stanley) who actually has concerns for him as a fellow human being. This is rare.

In the dining room one morning, she decries her housemates’ manipulative behavior because they’re selfishly thinking about what they can say to keep him constantly doing their bidding. They have no concept of his thoughts or feelings, only his usefulness to them.

However, this indictment has telling implications. If this is a film about emasculation, what do we call the underappreciated place of traditional womanhood? How is this a critique of husbands and boyfriends who spend their evenings thinking of their significant others as nothing more than objects to cater to their whims?

It’s a toxic and quite damning scenario. While the ideal might be well-meaning it only stands up to scrutiny if both partners have symbiotic, multi-faceted roles meant to support one another. In other words, there needs to be some give-and-take, some form of interpersonal connection, and autonomy.

These observations alone make it necessary for me to eat my own words and my dismissal of Jerry Lewis. Because it’s initially difficult to acknowledge Lewis as an artisan and yet watching something like The Ladies Man, it’s impossible not to acknowledge its visual strengths. Yes, a lot of it’s not altogether funny, the gags are at times downright awful, and if you don’t relish Lewis’s own persona, you’re not going to be bucking for him to do his usual shtick.

But as a social commentary, there’s a surprisingly large pool of insights. Likewise, for its visual and physical feats, Ladies Man is a minor marvel even an extraordinary one, though it loses some weight thanks to all the mediocre elements.

Still, there are a handful of scenes with visual expressions and choreographies of a truly unique caliber. It’s as if in another life with a little touch-up, this might be the Marx Brothers mixed with Tati. Likewise, Tashlin’s own cartoon-like, visual wackiness has already been nodded to out of necessity.

Admittedly, my own greatest flaw is being an American. My impressions are already unflinching. When I look at Jerry Lewis I see a multi-talented performer who nevertheless, is more of a tiresome icon than a comic delight. To paraphrase a famous axiom, a comic is never appreciated in his own country. Thankfully, Jerry has the French (and everyone else). It’s the intellectual with the absurd: a match made in heaven.

3/5 Stars