Jerry Lewis’s The Bellboy opens with a comically defensive apologia-cum-defense of the film’s alleged “plotless” nature via Jackie Mulchen (actually character actor Jack Kruschen), the “executive producer in charge of all productions” at Paramount, who describes the film as nothing more complicated than “the diary of a few weeks in the life of a real nut.” In retrospect, the nod toward modesty that kicks off Lewis’s career as a director is probably a punchline in itself, as The Bellboy clearly sets a standard of self-involvement and examination in Lewis’s work that is so successfully hermetic that it scarcely needs the approval of the audience. (In fact, the film’s centerpiece scene portrays Lewis conducting an imaginary orchestra in front of a vast ballroom of empty chairs, in effect suggesting that all the cinema of Jerry Lewis needs is Jerry Lewis.)
The Bellboy is nearly silent, in what could easily be taken as a nod toward French comedy titan Jacques Tati, though Lewis centralizes and foregrounds his cinematic alter ego (the bumbling, premasculine social misfit) whereas Tati spent his career trying to move himself back into the fabric of society. It could more likely be that the silent schematic is merely one characteristic of a cinematic work by a man intent on stripping away all elements that might distract from his more immediate themes: celebrity solipsism, as well as the havoc wreaked on solipsism by the intrusion of an alter ego. (It’s a theme that would eventually be refined and partially sterilized in The Nutty Professor.)
The titular bellboy is Stanley (with that unlucky number 13 on his uniform), who fumbles his way through his subservient job at the swanky Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Lewis plays his insistent individuality off masterfully against the job’s necessary anonymity and interchangeability, and one of the film’s first moments of genuine anarchic glee comes when the entire flock of the Fontainebleau’s bellboys can’t discern whether the gruff concierge is gesturing to them or the next guy down, as some 30 odd guys eagerly step forward at random only to hastily fall back in line and then repeat the action. The rest of the bellboys can’t understand what makes Stanley tick, as he really seems to love his job, and takes abuse without saying a word, only whistling.
If it’s established early on that Lewis, as Stanley, is the film’s central axis (best demonstrated in the scene where, in about a minute flat, he sets up some 800 or so chairs in rows), it doesn’t take very long for the arrival of Lewis as a confident, henpecked version of himself to throw Stanley’s equilibrium off-kilter. Almost immediately, Milton Berle also arrives as himself, and, compounding the joke, eventually shows up as another of the hotel’s bellboys. There’s a fascinating and seemingly throwaway gag that hints at the essence of Lewis’s celeb-tweaking joke involving Stanley being asked to deliver a telegram to Berle. His first instinct is to give the slip of paper to a cardboard cutout of Berle, which is entirely appropriate as the hotel’s false representation of the actor mirrors that of Bellboy’s false representation of celebrity.
Having Jerry Lewis the performer juxtaposed against Jerry Lewis the star isn’t the only way The Bellboy satirizes the film medium’s inherently sealed-off, aquarium qualities, and how they are conducive to nourishing the star-making phenomenon. At one point, the concierge calls for Stanley and is asked to clarify. “Which Stanley? The only Stanley in the world!” As though tearing through the edge of the frame, another half of a famous comedy duo steps into the film: Stan Laurel (played by Lewis collaborator Bill Richmond, in a performance whose unnervingly accurate imitation of the real Laurel adds even one further level of celebrity-Xerox paranoia).
Laurel’s infringement on the film’s universe disrupts The Bellboy’s very mise-en-scène, to the point that when, later in the film, Lewis is shown eating next to a window that turns out to be a view into the bottom of the hotel pool that Laurel happens to be strolling by, it’s unclear who is the initiator of the “joke,” such that it is, and who is the victim—in essence, who is doing the watching and who is being watched. Lewis as Stanley doesn’t take control of the film, nor does he own up to being the center of its universe, until the brilliantly surreal moment when he uses a camera flashbulb and a jump cut to literally turn night into day. It’s a magical, iconic moment that illuminates how, with The Bellboy, Lewis understands and subverts his own formal omniscience.