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

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

itsamadmad1It’s easy to forgive this sprawling comedy for a weak script because it does a wonderful job of playing to its strengths and delivering a hilarious payload of laughter. Stanley Kramer (known mostly for his social dramas) drops this raucous comedy full of bone-shattering slapstick and violently wild antics. It also assemblies arguably the greatest comic ensembles with some of the biggest names you could ever hope to see on the big screen. Everyone seems to come out for a who’s who of comedic talent in roles big and small. Half the fun is recognizing a familiar face on the screen for a quick cameo, giving a nod of approval, and then grabbing hold of this rip-roaring comedy once more as it hits breakneck speed. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and that’s part of its charm.

The film opens on a mountainous road when a car goes careening off the side of the cliff. Some onlookers go to see what they can do, but little do they know they’ve stumbled on to a gold mine. It’s not hidden under Jimmy Durante’s big nose, but a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. It’s all very suspect, and everybody gets ready to head their different ways. However, a little old-fashioned, All-American greed sets in and they begin to high-tail it down the coast. The prize of a $350,000 payoff is too much to disregard.

After a harrowing car chase the treasure-seekers break off as follows:

Sid Caesar and his wife Edie Adams charter a prehistoric bi-plane and wind up spending the majority of the film trying to escape the basement of a convenience store using any means possible. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney find a plane of their own, the only problem is that their pilot (Jim Bachus) gets a little tipsy mid-flight, leaving landing duties in their inept hands.The long-suffering Milton Berle constantly is being berated with the incessant babbling of loud-mouthed Ethel Merman. Poor Jonathan Winters is ditched by everyone else, then double-crossed by Phil Silvers, before he’s finally is able to hitch a ride. Berle finally loses all patience and teams up with buck-toothed Brit Terry Thomas. Spencer Tracy the wry police chief Culpepper watches all these events unfold with a play by play being fed his way. Meanwhile, his life begins to fall apart, but that pales in comparison to the gas station that Winters demolishes with his bare hands. That’s not the only destruction this gang leaves in their wake either. They total cars, destroy buildings, and do every type of damage you could ever expect. It’s great!

When everyone finally happens on the treasure they’ve picked up a couple cabbies played by the venerable Eddie “Rochester” Royal and Peter Falk. The mayhem leads to an excavating party and a final chase as Culpepper takes the money and runs with the gang hot on his heels. It all ends thrillingly from the top of a fire escape with a precariously situated ladder. The boys all end up in the hospital, but it’s still a laughing matter thanks to a stray banana peel.

Although the laughs slow down a bit in the second half, this film is a wonderfully good time. You have cameos from everybody like Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, William Demarest, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, and even The Three Stooges. Since there so many people who did make the cut I’ll be a glass half empty misanthrope and list off a few names who did not end up joining the film’s cast. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott, Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, and of course Don Rickles who never let Kramer live it down for not inviting him. Quite the list, but mind you I’m not complaining too much.

The film takes on a personal note too because my dad actually saw the movie being shot on highway 73 back in the 1960s, and he remembers it rather fondly. To me, the film takes on deeper significance due to the crisscrossed palm trees which also became the iconic symbol of Inn-N-Out Burger all across California. What’s not to love about such a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?

4/5 Stars

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

If you want a movie of comedy legends and who’s who, this film has practically everyone you want. Spencer Tracy is a police officer who is tipped off to where a great sum of money is. Close behind are a group of travelers including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams, and Jonathan Winters. Soon it becomes a mad dash as each group tries to reach the money first. Along the way are many hilarious antics and memorable cameos (including Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Don Knotts, and Buster Keaton). In the final scenes Tracy has the money but the others are still in pursuit. After some wild events everyone ends up in the hospital without any money. However, they are quickly reminded how madly funny the world is all the same. I really enjoyed this film because of the many great stars and hilarious scenarios. It really had me belly-laughing. This was also the favorite movie of the founder of Inn-N-Out Burger so what more could you want?

4.5/5 Stars