When six showbiz managers find themselves out of work after their main attraction dies in a plane crash, they hatch up a scheme to use their collective talents to gerrymander a star of their own. Unfortunately, their choice is Stanley, the hotel bellboy (very possibly the same character Jerry Lewis played in his directorial debut). The Patsy plays a little bit like the Kelp/Love dialectic, where half of the film takes the empathetic baton from the thrilling climax of The Nutty Professor and the other half engages in the sort of distanced deconstruction of the entertainment business that marked the most effective sequences of The Errand Boy. Indeed, one of the most surprising elements of The Patsy is that Lewis and co-scenarist Bill Richmond (who makes his cameo appearance here as a rehearsal pianist who Lewis lassoes with his own hair) found enough in their reserves to essentially remake Errand Boy merely two films down the pike. However, while Errand Boy seemed to be making the argument that any schlub can be plucked from the most random of places and groomed and tamed and promoted to the mass audience and become a star, The Patsy‘s essential modification is that it presents the antithetical case wherein no amount of physical training, cosmetic aid or underground whisper campaigns can hide the true nature and limitations of a would-be. (This plays awfully well to anyone who considers the unexamined ego to be an ego not worth lauding.)
The film is steeped in this notion right down to the most minute sight gag, such as when Lewis glances over at his backup singers at a recording session and sees three versions of himself dressed in drag, which is decidedly an extreme case of failed sartorial effort as all three women exude dashed dreams and embittered resignation. Stanley’s sputtering, abortive path to showbiz success is peppered with moments like this, with misguided singing lessons ending in shattered houses (when Jerry Lewis transfers his protagonist’s embarrassment to inanimate objects, he doesn’t do so half-assed) and ill-advised test run stand-up performances at the hostile Copa Café leading up to his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Realizing that Stanley will founder, his managers (well, the five old men of the group, excluding the sweet young thing played by Ina Balin that Stanley has the hots for) write him a farewell letter in anticipation of dreadful reviews. Stanley receives the letter moments before his performance and, miraculously, his publicity emancipation leads him (and the film) into a magical pantomime routine that garners him the breakthrough that manager-imposed restrictions had been curtailing (a performance that is so elaborate—and one that depends on a trove of film tricks such as film speed variations—that it leaps straight out of the film’s narrative and becomes, like Errand Boy‘s puppet confessional interludes, a quasi-Gnostic brand of cinematic self-fulfillment.)
Also, while Errand Boy occasionally comes off a tad caustic in its view of behind-the-scenes drones, The Patsy reflects a genuine affection for the artisans and jacks-of-all-trades that make careers like his possible. (Indeed, without them, he could easily be back at the Copa Café, sweating out dud sets to dead crowds.) When Stanley is at a department store being fitted for a new suit of clothes and the scene fades from the fitting crew entering the fitting room to what would presumably be the transformative reveal, Lewis riffs on the expectation by not having himself step out, but the proud tailor, who is cheerfully oblivious and so proud of his work (yet unseen) to realize that he’s blocking the future star’s entrance. (When Lewis finally steps down and gazes at his new look in the mirror, the designer greases his wheels exclaiming “This is you.” To which Lewis replies, appropriately enough, “What, do you expect another fella?” Yes. Yes they do.) Of course, Lewis’s compassion is far from saccharine. When the film comes to its daring, illusion-killing non-conclusion—Lewis revealing that the seeming 10th floor balcony is really just a backdrop and then walking off The Patsy‘s soundstage set with his ingénue—he jests “Crew, that’s lunch. One hour for the actors and seven days for the technicians,” which brings to mind Homer Simpson’s epic slouch-off with a group of Teamsters. With The Patsy, Lewis is generous enough to give the whole Dream Factory credit for the gags.