Among Hollywood auteurs, perhaps only Hitchcock ever retained a public persona as identifiable and ubiquitous as that of the hep-cat jester and perpetually awkward Jerry Lewis. Also like Hitchcock, Lewis’s freewheeling, exquisitely diverting films were often undercut by sinister elements and personal neuroses. And, like Vertigo and The Birds, practically every Lewis film outside of The Nutty Professor proved to be tremendously popular with audiences and absolutely under the radar of most contemporary critics, who were blind to Lewis’s self-referential complexities, his formal experimentalism, and his astringent critiques of the state of masculinity on the cusp of feminism, the false façades of the Dream Factory, and, most of all, himself.
The thematic elements of Lewis’s work are as relevant today as ever, but sadly there’s a whole generation of fresh-faced, dedicated young postmodernists to whom The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart’s frequent pinched-off vocal expressions of befuddlement might as well be a reference to The Simpsons’s Dr. Frink, and not Lewis’s own Dr. Kelp. (Never mind that the Simpsons character that owes the biggest debt to Lewis is Krusty the Clown.) And, to them, the only recognizable contribution Lewis has brought to the world of entertainment is preempting network television every Labor Day in order to stage his annual telethon on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Hopefully, a mammoth chunk of Paramount DVDs released on October 12, 2004 will help to bring a new generation up to speed on Lewis’s Hollywood-through-the-looking-glass cinema.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark on March 16, 1926, Lewis’s parents were vaudevillians, and, following an expulsion from high school that Lewis claims was fuelled by anti-Semitism, Lewis embarked on his own showbiz career in the lounge spotlight. He never hit it big until he teamed up with the debonair and alcohol-pickled Dean Martin, who became the indolently sexy yin to Lewis’s emotionally and physically stunted yang. Moving from the stage to the radio airwaves, the Martin and Lewis team became popular enough to break into movies, and while making 13 films together before rancorously splitting ways, Lewis came under the tutelage of the brassy, anarchic director (and one-time Warner Bros. ’toon auteur) Frank Tashlin.
Tashlin directed some of Lewis’s best early outings (Artists and Models, Rock-a-Bye-Baby), but eventually Lewis grew restless with raking in unprecedented profit shares (six on the dime) from his films and itched to take his comedic theories to the next level, to become, as the title of his later film theory text read, a “total filmmaker.” From that first self-directed showcase, the nearly dialogue-free collection of blackout sketches and celebrity-dissection The Bellboy, right through his own late-inning comeback (Hardly Working, Cracking Up) following the notorious The Day the Clown Cried debacle (the film is still probably the most famous of unviewable films), Lewis has indeed been the example of auteurism-the sculptor of a body of works whose collective personality enhances the individual pieces.