In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women’s function in the general scheme of things “as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn’t so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies’ Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.
Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown (“a very nervous little community”) magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet “pervert”). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can’t be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis’s one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)
So where does he find his first job? In a women’s boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert’s mistrust of women by having the boarding house’s owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert’s “job interview,” which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It’s worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn’t threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn’t until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film’s on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon’s mansion.
Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn’t meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert’s entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as “off-screen space,” the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep “Baby,” a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a “Miss Cartilage” that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.
Herbert is introduced, more or less, to the house’s inhabitants when he delivers their mail. The extended, comic-strip nature of his mail route is an effective way to showcase what Herbert would consider myriad examples of exaggerated feminine flirtatiousness. There’s the exotic suth’n guhl and her carmelly drawl, the bobby-soxer’s explosive libido, the aggressively erotic tango dancer (“Thanks for the mail, now baby let’s wail!”). His routine brings him to the latter of the two forbidden rooms, which he doesn’t return to until the end of the film. Having connected with one of the ingénues (the only one, it would seem, that’s needy in an isolated way that Herbert understands), he works up the courage to enter the, umm, portal, where he discovers a gothically sensual woman who he shares a dance within a fantasy space totally removed from the clearly defined dimensions of the rest of the house.
The sexual implications of the scene are all too clear. Especially given that only a scene or two earlier revealed the culmination of Herbert’s comic subservience: when, during the live television uplink for “Up Your Street,” his cufflink is caught on Miss Wellenmellon’s corsage, bringing him down to his knees next to her as she reclines in her throne-like chair, his limp wrist pointed in toward his chest in the definitive social and theatrical image of houseboy demasculinization. The Ladies’ Man is a wild, exuberant reflection of Lewis’s diverse comic tones (slapstick, absurdism, blackout sketches), but it is also perhaps Lewis’s definitive take on his cinematic alter ego’s perpetually thwarted priapism.