I really like Jerry Lewis movies. My friend Thomas always made fun of me for it. He’d say I was the “only American who loved those films”. The first Jerry Lewis film I ever saw was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), one of Lewis’ films that Frank Tashlin directed, on Turner Classic Movies when I was in sixth grade. Not long after that my friend Dan and I saw Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982). From there we began digging up radio and commercial outtakes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the internet and nurturing a slightly unhealthy fixation on Jerry Lewis’ unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried (1972). So my exposure to Jerry Lewis was both sudden and immersive. It wasn’t hard to find Jerry Lewis’ influence on films that I already liked. Paul Flaherty’s underrated Clifford (1994) is unimaginable without Jerry Lewis having come first.
For me Jerry Lewis’ genius comes from his understanding of genre aesthetics and his ability to manipulate and subvert those aesthetics as well as from his many character iterations in his films which pinpoint the neuroses of masculine patriarchal culture (his persona always seemed born out of opposition to that of Dean Martin, a fact made even more clear in The Nutty Professor). Lewis’ criticism of our society is precisely what endeared him to filmmakers as renowned as Jean-Luc Godard (who would pay homage to Lewis in Tout va Bien and Keep Your Right Up). Lewis’ ability to satirize while always remaining silly, fun, childlike and escapist has never been equaled in this country since his heyday in the early sixties.
My two personal favorite Jerry Lewis films are Cinderfella and The Bellboy, both released in 1960. Tashlin and Lewis’ Cinderfella is as much a pastiche of MGM musicals of the fifties as it is an examination of male adolescence gone wildly out of control. The sense of design and of color in the film is breathtaking. Neither Tashlin nor Lewis ever made a film that looked more like a cartoon. In addition to being in black and white The Bellboy is far more minimal in its overall visual structure and framing than Cinderfella. Unlike Cinderfella, The Bellboy’s primary aesthetic interest is in silent film clowning. For a first time director such as Lewis The Bellboy is remarkably mature in how it handles the balance between “silent” and “sound” comedy.
It is more likely, however, that people my age know Jerry Lewis better for his Telethons or through some other form of media. I know the first time I was exposed to Jerry Lewis I didn’t even know it. It was on a John Lennon bootleg I had. There are a few tracks from Lennon’s appearance on a Jerry Lewis Telethon with Yoko Ono in 1972. Jerry Lewis was one of those truly versatile performers, he may even have been the very last of his kind. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that different generations of audiences know him for different works in different mediums.
Ninety-one is not young, and it is safe to say that Jerry Lewis accomplished much more than most people ever do in their lives. Still, it is saddening to know he is gone. There is no one I can think of working in the cinema today that could be considered a continuance of Lewis’ work.