Jerry Lewis: Puerile Clown or Comic Genius?

In his homeland Jerry Lewis was long considered lowbrow and unsophisticated, but in France he was hailed as a unique talent. A review of his career shows the French were right

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Jerry Lewis getting his hair cut during his telethon in aid of muscular dystrophy in 1977.
Jerry Lewis getting his hair cut during his telethon in aid of muscular dystrophy in 1977.Credit: Phil Sandlin/AP
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday at the age of 91, was for many years considered a marker in the culture war between the United States and France. The Americans, who love to mock French pretentiousness, scoffed that they couldn’t possibly be a refined and sophisticated nation if they admired Lewis and saw him as a comic genius while in America he is considered a puerile clown.

The Franco-American war did not begin with Lewis. But it reached its peak with him. The U.S. cultural establishment had finally accepted the idea – established in the postwar years by young French critics associated with the rival film publications Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif – that American directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and others, most of whom were not particularly admired in their own country at the time, were actually among the best film directors ever.

But the admiration this generation of French film critics expressed for Lewis – especially beginning in 1960, when he started directing his own movies – was always perplexing to Americans. They simply could not understand the French admiration for him.

Positif, in particular, nurtured the cult of Lewis, led by the late critic Robert Benayoun. In 1972, Benayoun published a book entitled “Bonjour Monsieur Lewis” and directed a six-part television series about him (some of which can be found on YouTube). For Benayoun, what looked to the Americans like childishness was in fact the exposure of America’s subconscious, which was often grotesque and sometimes crazy.

Until recently, there were many in the United States who continued to look down their noses at the French admiration for Lewis. In addition to the hostility aroused by the comedian’s art in his own country, he was also known as an egomaniac and from the schmaltz that marked his annual telethons to combat muscular dystrophy. His intentions were good, said the critics – indeed, his only Academy Award was for humanitarian activity – but the execution was pitiful, they believed.

But this attitude toward Lewis began to change in recent times, when a new generation of comedians in the United States started to recognize his importance in the history of U.S. comedy.

Indeed, I believe Lewis was the greatest comedian in the history of Hollywood (post-silent movies), and that some of the films he directed definitely had an experimental element – contrary to the prevailing perception that he made popular, unsophisticated comedies aimed at a lowbrow audience.

A disturbed child

Lewis was born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, as Jerome Joseph Levitch. His father performed in vaudeville under the name Danny Lewis, while his mother played piano at various radio stations. His parents sometimes performed together and Lewis joined them at the age of 5, captivating audiences with his onstage antics. He dropped out of high school and was exempted from military service during World War II because of a heart murmur.

He began performing in clubs, with little success, until one night in 1945 when he met fellow performer Dean Martin, a singer who had not enjoyed much success either. In his autobiography, “Jerry Lewis: In Person,” Lewis claimed it was his idea to start the double act with Martin. But some say the idea was actually conceived by a sharp impresario but that Lewis, because of his personality, could not let someone else take credit for this.

The Lewis-Martin double act was soon a big hit, with club performances attracting hundreds of fans. The duo also appeared several times on the new medium of television before signing with Paramount Pictures in the late 1940s. They first appeared together in “My Friend Irma” (1949), which was a hit and led to a sequel the following year, “My Friend Irma Goes West,” which saw them being rewarded with more prominent roles. It was another hit. By 1956, the duo had starred in 14 more films – all of them hits.

The secret of the Lewis and Martin double act lay in the difference between the imperturbable Martin and Lewis, who buzzed around him like an annoying mosquito without managing to disturb him. Martin – of Italian origin – was a strong, handsome character, as manifested by his smooth and seductive crooning. He sang in all their films together, with Lewis always trying to steal the show whenever Martin performed his romantic songs.

In contrast to Martin, Lewis had the persona of a clear antihero. This combination – which created both constant conflict and togetherness between them – shaped a portrait of a masculinity rife with contradictions, one characterized by constant presentation of a false front.

It was common to describe Lewis’ performances as those of a man who is a disturbed child. But there was much more in them, sometimes including an element of male perversion.

End of the love story

In 1956, after starring in one of their best films together – the Frank Tashlin-directed “Hollywood or Bust” – Martin decided to break up the relationship. He embarked on a solo career, reportedly because he was fed up with Lewis’ caprices and of playing second fiddle to him.

This was the greatest crisis in Lewis’ life – not because he had concerns about his career, but because he believed what he had with Martin was a love story, and he felt that Martin had betrayed him.

It would take more psychological knowledge than I possess to elucidate the origins of this love story. The books Lewis penned – one was even called “Dean and Me (A Love Story)” – and interviews with him touching upon the breakup with Martin never got to the bottom of things. Did the love Lewis felt for Martin stem from his attraction to the latter’s masculine image? Or was it the Jewish nebbish’s attraction to the Gentile heartthrob?

The rift between the two was never healed, even if on one occasion, during one of Lewis’ telethons, there was a seemingly touching but in fact stilted reunion between the two at the initiative of Frank Sinatra – a good friend of Martin’s who had rescued his film career following the breakup with Lewis.

Tashlin, who had started out as a cartoonist, directed some of the best films Lewis and Martin made together. His influence on Lewis’ work was considerable, especially with regard to the shaping of cartoonish film characters. Tashlin also directed Lewis in a number of films after the breakup, including “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “The Geisha Boy” (both 1958), “Cinderfella” (1960) and “The Disorderly Orderly” (1964).

The films without Martin were so successful that Paramount offered Lewis a unique contract that granted him complete creative freedom without studio intervention. In these flattering circumstances, Lewis decided to try his hand at directing and in 1960 helmed his first film, “The Bellboy.”

Like the Marx Brothers and other comedians before him, he injected his zaniness into respected institutions in his films with Tashlin and the films where he directed himself. Hotels, hospitals, department stores – nothing was immune from the anarchy that Lewis’ presence guaranteed. This reached its peak in Lewis’ second film as director, “The Ladies Man” (1961). In it, he is the only male in a building otherwise inhabited completely by women; everything happens on one multistory setting, showing us what happens in all of the rooms there.

The experimental nature of some of Lewis’ films as director was already apparent in “The Ladies’ Man,” through his recognition of the power of comedy to burst the illusion that cinema had always tried to create. This pricking of the cinematic illusion was one of the reasons Lewis became a creative figure admired by French New Wave directors and Modernist directors who shared that interest.

In 1963, Lewis directed his masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (not to be confused with Eddie Murphy’s pitiful 1996 version of the film), in which he used Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” to settle the score with Dean Martin. In the film, Lewis played nerdy chemist Prof. Julius Kelp, who, with the help of a magic potion, becomes Buddy Love – a handsome heartthrob, like Martin.

Lewis directed other films in the 1960s, including “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965”) and “The Big Mouth” (1967), but then his career began to wane. The war comedy “Which Way to the Front?” (1970) was a box-office flop, like all his later films.

The next big crisis came in 1972 when Lewis directed a film called “The Day the Clown Cried,” in which he portrayed a clown who is sent to Auschwitz. However, he decided to shelve the film, which was never screened publicly. When asked why, he would say it was simply a terrible film.

Lewis continued to perform, starred on Broadway and cut a few records on which he sang standards – maybe as competition to Martin, but with less ability. He garnered critical praise in 1982 after starring in Martin Scorsese’s drama “The King of Comedy.” Demonstrating cool restraint, he played Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-esque talk show host who is threatened by a crazed fan called Rupert Pupkin (played by Robert De Niro), who dreams of hosting a show of his own.

Another excellent film in which Lewis appeared was Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream” (1993), starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.

The other films in which he acted from time to time were unimportant – including the sentimental melodrama “Max Rose” (2013) and the crime pic “The Trust” (2016), in which he played a small role as Nicolas Cage’s character’s father.

Following his death, will Jerry Lewis be remembered as one of the greatest comedians and filmmakers in the history of American cinema? Will he become the legend he always was? Perhaps the first sign that this is already happening can be found on the IMDb website, whose report of his death defines him as a “comedy icon.” However, this doesn’t really matter to those of us who have always admired Lewis and will continue to watch his films and enjoy clips of his performances, which can readily be found online.

Jerry Lewis posing for a photocall at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2013.
Jerry Lewis posing for a photocall at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2013.Credit: Regis Duvignau/REUTERS