Don’t be wary of Jerry…
OK. I understand that Jerry Lewis is a bit like horseradish. He’s an acquired taste. In other words, he takes some getting used to. But those of us with a tolerant palate know full well that, even though his best films were released over a relatively short period of time, Jerry Lewis made some truly great comedies. And in fact at least one of them is a genuine classic. So let’s take a look at the solo films of the one and only Jerry Lewis…
The Sad Sack (1957) was originally concocted for Dean Martin and Lewis, but their sudden break-up transformed it into Jerry’s initial solo effort. Based on the famous comic strip, Dean and Jerry were old hands at comedy in a military setting. Fortunately, The Sad Sack is as good as the best of them. Jerry plays an inept army private who, even after 17 weeks, can’t get out of basic training! Somehow, his nonsense brings him to Morocco where he becomes the hostage of a suspiciously Teutonic Arab sheik! And who portrays the sheik? Why, none other than the hilarious Peter Lorre! Recommended.
The Delicate Delinquent (1957) was also originally intended for Dean and Jerry. Unfortunately, even though Jerry gives it the good ol’ college try, his character is much too child-like to be taken seriously as a supposed “delinquent” (I guess that’s why he’s “delicate”). Moreover, his apparently serious transformation later in the film is just as hard to accept for the same reason. Skip it.
Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) offers Jerry as a small town handyman who finds himself suddenly caring for newborn triplets! The comedy involves multiple baby bottles, a movie queen with questionable morals, and a desperate young woman who is inexplicably attracted to Jerry! Recommended.
The Geisha Boy (1958) presents Jerry as a less than talented stage magician who gets involved in the life of a forlorn little boy in Japan. The film has its moments but it features the late Suzanne Pleshette as an American stewardess who spouts some vaguely anti-Asian dialogue. Skip it.
Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959) is a much better film with Jerry in uniform once again. This time he’s a naval officer who seems to have misplaced the battleship (or was it a destroyer…?) he briefly commanded! It’s all the result of unlikely circumstances that leads to some reasonably decent comedy. Recommended.
Visit to a Small Planet (1960) is one of my all-time favorite Jerry Lewis vehicles. After all, it’s easy to imagine Jerry as an alien from another planet! Jerry is Kreton (“cretin,” get it…?), an alien who visits the Earth to observe our social rituals. While here, he just can’t help but disrupt the love life of a young couple! Recommended.
Cinderfella (1960) offers a gender change for the “Cinderella” story in the form of Jerry Lewis! The film matches the children’s fairy tale quite well, all the way down to the appearance of a “fairy godfather!” I must say that I enjoy Cinderfella very much. It’s a fun, entertaining film that is often quite touching. Recommended.
The Bellboy (1960) is clearly tipping its hat to the silent film era. Unfortunately, Jerry Lewis is no Charlie Chaplin. Jerry plays a bellboy in a large Miami Beach hotel who just won’t talk! Ever! At all! It’s not that he’s mute. He simply can’t think of anything to say! As a result, all the dialogue in the film comes from the people around him. Since Jerry’s comedy is entirely physical, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Rather than pass sentence on this film, I think it best to simply leave it up to you… (According to Jerry, he wrote the script for The Bellboy in a few days as he was performing in the hotel. He then filmed it over several weeks during his off hours.)
The Ladies’ Man (1961) is what Jerry becomes when his girlfriend gives him the boot! After swearing off the opposite sex, Jerry naturally takes a job as a maintenance man in a small hotel filled with young, attractive women! The film features an amazingly huge break-away set of the hotel interior, but is otherwise forgettable. Skip it.
The Errand Boy (1961) is something of a sequel to The Bellboy set in a major film studio. Despite Jerry’s limited dialogue, the film largely mimics the comedy of the silent film era. For me, The Errand Boy is more satisfying than The Bellboy, especially Jerry’s musical pantomime. For this reason it is Recommended.
It’s Only Money (1962) is a hilarious film that offers Jerry as a TV repairman who learns that he’s the long lost son of a dead millionaire. Of course, certain unsavory people are determined to eliminate Jerry for his money! The climactic chase involving Jerry and numerous robotic, self-propelled lawn mowers is priceless! Recommended.
Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) gave Jerry the opportunity to wreak havoc in a large department store. With bouncing television sets, a scary female hunter with an elephant gun, and chocolate covered ants, there’s plenty of comedy to go around. Recommended.
The Nutty Professor (1963) is a genuine classic. Even though Eddie Murphy headlined a popular remake, the Lewis original remains the better film. That’s because Murphy was nearly unrecognizable under tons of make-up, while Jerry created two very distinct characters primarily through attitude and body language. Jerry portrays a nerdy chemistry professor who, much like “Jekyll and Hyde,” drinks a formula he concocted to change his outlook on life. Instead, it turns him into a self-centered jerk! But he’s a jerk with no small amount of charm! It all hits the fan for the professor when his formula wears off at the most inopportune moment (and you will LOVE the big-band version of “Stella By Starlight” that opens the film!)! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Patsy (1964) vaguely recalls an earlier Martin and Lewis film called The Stooge. When a world famous comedian suddenly dies in a tragic accident, his many employees decide to maintain their lifestyles by grooming a replacement. Enter: Silly, accident prone, extremely destructive bellboy, Jerry! Recommended.
The Disorderly Orderly (1964) fully describes Jerry as an employee of a private hospital. It has some very good moments but a primary female character in the film is decidedly unsympathetic. As a result, the attempt at pathos falls somewhat flat. Skip it.
From this point on, Lewis never made another film that was truly worth watching. I think it may have something to do with the fact that his style of comedy had become redundantly repetitive and ultimately, passe’ (something akin to what may well be happening to Jerry Lewis doppelganger Jim Carrey right now…). Therefore, I shall simply gloss over what’s left…
The Family Jewels (1965): Jerry plays lots of characters, none of them funny!
Boeing, Boeing (1965): Boring! Boring!
Three on a Couch (1966): Misogyny on parade!
The Big Mouth (1967) Movies are your best entertainment, but not THIS movie!
Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968): Don’t cross this bridge when you come to it!
Hook, Line, and Sinker (1969): Throw it back!
Which Way to the Front? (1970): I actually like this film, but YOU won’t!
Eleven years interim…
Hardly Working (1981): Hardly worth watching!
The King of Comedy (1983): A strange, incomprehensible drama.
Cracking Up (1983): Intellectually distasteful!
Slapstick of Another Kind (1984): Wasted film stock!
Ten years interim…
Arizona Dream (1994): Annoyingly pretentious.
Funny Bones (1995): Dem bones! Dem Bones! Dem EXTREMELY dry bones!
So…it’s very clear that Jerry Lewis is man of his time. And that time wasn’t very long. But hey…just remember this… if you hold on to the good films, the bad ones don’t matter. Fortunately, the genuinely good Jerry Lewis comedies remain very good indeed!
Blair Kramer is a widely published writer for various publications, including “Velocity: Chicago,” “A Guide to Art in Chicago,” “Comic Book Collector Magazine,” “American Metal Magazine,” and the “Jewish American Historical Society.” He also dabbles in screenplays and comic books. There are only two things in his life that he loves more than good movies. They are his wife and family.