American-Japanese postwar rapprochement is fulfilled through antic and maudlin means in The Geisha Boy, an early Jerry Lewis solo comedy written and directed by his filmmaking mentor Frank Tashlin. His usual pre-adolescent persona given just a light push toward responsible adulthood, Lewis's barely employable magician Gilbert Wooley is booked on a USO tour of Japan, where he develops fatherly instincts toward a six-year-old orphan (Robert Hirano) and courts the boy's decorous young aunt (Nobu McCarthy). As always with Lewis vehicles from the star's prime, chaos reigns as his character's physical and verbal spasms remake his surroundings into Jerryville. He unwittingly mauls a snooty movie diva in front of paparazzi, outrages a blustering army major, and tells a sympathetic WAC (Suzanne Pleshette) that he forgoes the sawing-of-women trick because "I wouldn't know which half to throw away, hahaha!"
To the susceptible, Lewis's lantern-jawed mugging, splay-legged run, and careening falsetto have their manic fascinations, and even in this, one of the more ordinary of eight collaborations with former animation whiz Tashlin, Jerry's man-child scores in a handful of cartoonish set pieces that break up the sentimental orphan plotline. Wooley appears in tails and top hat, hauling his stage trunk, at a grizzled GI's fortification on the Korean DMZ just as a burst of shelling begins; his white rabbit gets sunburned, uses a morning-after icepack, and is equated with Dean Martin ("Don't break up the act," Lewis wails to him); and in the movie's most epic gag, a jealous, hulking baseball star's chase of Wooley through a bathhouse ends with a deluge in the streets of Tokyo. But unexpectedly, the pairing of Lewis with a child for many of the "straight" scenes has some payoff. The kid idolizes Wooley as a father figure, yet Lewis, beginning as an innocent but ugly American, is guided as an adult alien through a (completely California-shot) Japan of geisha houses, ballgames, and domestic family dinners, a relationship that offers the two figures as equals, something Tashlin emphasizes when the boy shadows the ambivalently departing American across an airport tarmac in a sweetly choreographed pursuit.
By 1958 standards, The Geisha Boy has relatively few embarrassments in cross-cultural stereotyping; the Japanese principals are dullish but respectfully drawn, even when a game Sessue Hayakawa parodies his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai. (Pleshette's jealous servicewoman gets the cringiest dialogue when she vows to be less "emancipated" and cater to a man's needs the way the Japanese girls do.) As Lewis grew into a more assured filmmaker over his subsequent work with Tashlin, they functioned as a sort of two-headed auteur, but even in this transitional entry, their mawkish narrative instincts don't squelch the giddiness of rolling up a Hollywood harpy in a red carpet, or Lewis's glee in appropriating the curtain line of his director's former protégé Porky Pig.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Aside from a few fleeting scratches on the interstitial stock footage of travel across the Pacific, the Technicolor images are sharp and impressively florid in the audience-pleasing Paramount '50s style. The mono soundtrack is clear but not particularly ambitious beyond capturing Walter Scharf's formulaic Hollywood-does-Japan score, plus the full range of Jerry Lewis's yelps and the roars and screams of his victims.
A supplement-free but reasonably spiffy presentation of a mid-career comedy star's effort to grow up just a little.