Structure, defined as coherent form or organization, is the base of any story ever written. It involves plot, conflict, purpose, secondary stories, and character arcs. It’s the first thing they teach you about screenwriting in film school, whether it’s the older outline of the Hero’s Journey or more modern templates such as Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Without these elements you’re showing nothing but a collection of “silly sequences” dedicated to pointless dialogue until your audience tunes out and studio heads get talked off the ledge because they greenlighted a career ending box office flop! Or do you?
Jerry Lewis written/produced/starred/directed comedy gem The Bellboy defies the odds by becoming one of Paramount’s biggest hits of the year 1960.
“From an artistic standpoint, The Bellboy is minor-league screen comedy, the victim of its energetic star’s limited craftsmanship.” – Variety
This seems a bit harsh considering Mr. Lewis solely took on the most important filmmaking duties to meet the summer deadline that was thrust upon him by the studio. In seven months he completed all three phases of film production and produced a low budget film that went on to rake in an estimated $10 million domestically.
So what makes this film the exception to every screenwriting rule ever written? The easy answer would be the comedic genius of Jerry Lewis. That he provides the perfect blend of charisma, charm, and timing to genuinely funny scenes sans speaking a la Charlie Chaplin. But that’s not it. For me the answer clearly presents itself in the form of expectation, or lack of for that matter.
Months ago I saw Car Wash (1976). With Richard Pryor and George Carlin billed as the top cast members, I fully expected to see a hysterical comedy with two legendary funnymen sharing the screen for a majority of the film. What I got was about 40 minutes into the film before I turned it off. At the 20-minute mark I realized that nothing happened and the movie severely lacked purpose. Pryor still hadn’t made an appearance and when he finally did it disappointed greatly. I would have felt similar about The Bellboy if not for the studio head mocking opening scene literally explaining not to expect anything except the series of “silly sequences” I alluded to earlier.
I questioned whether or not that would be true. Could it really be? Expectation evaporated and my desire to change the channel paused just long enough to watch the film, enjoy it, and ultimately, recommend it. Of all the outstanding accolades Jerry Lewis achieved throughout his career, producing this simple, single scene truly exemplifies his creative genius. It transformed this pessimistic movie fan into a believer.
Craig Joseph Pisani, an avid moviegoer, graduated from The College of Staten Island with Bachelor’s degrees in both Cinema Studies and English. He is also the screenwriter/producer for the upcoming independent film Bottle in the Smoke starring three-time Emmy winner Martha Byrne.