Jerry Lewis On Forward
Movement And Sight Gags
Color images by Georges Biard.
Hailed As A Genius In France, And Largely Forgotten In His Native U.S.A., Jerry Lewis Still Maintains He Won’t Soon Be Migrating, Mainly Because There Is No Good Egg Cream Available Across The Pond
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Nov. 17, 2014 — Long before their legendary and acrimonious split, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were paired together as one of the greatest comedy duos ever to tear up nightclubs – and then Hollywood.
In the years just after World War II and before television became a staple in homes all over America, Martin and Lewis’s unique brand of anarchic slapstick (what they could do with a seltzer bottle would make your head swim … usually in seltzer!), heckling and verbal jousting reduced audiences to uncontrollable fits of laughter.
Although the sheer pandemonium the duo incited in nightclubs was never and probably couldn’t ever be duplicated on the big screen, the chemistry Martin and Lewis shared as a team can be glimpsed in many of their films – especially the early movies they made under the auspices of producer Hal Wallis at Paramount Pictures.
This week, Warner Archive is releasing two volumes of Martin & Lewis’s classic Paramount comedies. The Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Collection, Volume One includes their first film, 1949's My Friend Irma, as well as 1950’s My Friend Irma Goes West; 1951's That My Boy" 1952's Sailor Beware, Jumping Jacks and The Stooge; and 1953's Scared Stiff and The Caddy.
The second volume includes 1954's Living It Up; 1955's You're Never Too Young and Artists and Models; and 1956's Pardners and Hollywood or Bust.
Dean Martin passed away in 1995. But Lewis, 88, despite being replaced as National Chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and losing his hosting duties for the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon, is still hanging in there with the tenacity of a pit bull.
“I’m very unique. You have to understand that,” Lewis told us during an interview we had with the comedian back in 1984. “There aren’t many comics who are SuperJews … Hello! …”
Although the consensus of opinion has, over the years, solidified concerning Lewis – you love him, you hate him, in all probability you change the television channel – what remains undeniable is that his movie career, while almost barren of verbal wit, contains sight gags that are memorable even today.
Lewis’s best moments were visual effects – Jerryatrics – choreographed to some kind of comic syncopation. His role as a buck-toothed nutty professor herking and jerking to the downbeat of a dance band or his pantomime typewriter scene in “Who’s Minding the Store?” are stuck in some moviegoer’s minds as firmly as the Jujyfruits that rolled under their theater seat.
Lewis told us that his own favorite moment from his films is a sight gag from The Bellboy where he takes a flashbulb picture of Miami at night and illuminates the whole city.
“You’re seeing too much cerebral comedy today,” Lewis told us. “I think young comics haven’t had vaudeville to look at and they don’t have places to be bad. Besides Vegas and Atlantic City all you have are comedy rooms and they’re begging for cerebral comics.
“There’s nothing wrong with Woody Allen because he’s cerebral and visual,” Lewis continued. “He’s one of the most brilliant comics working today. But the young guys I see standing up in one spot for 40 minutes are doing what I call ‘visual hi-fi.’ You can buy a record and stay home without putting on a tie. When I get on stage I don’t make a very good target because I’m moving all the time.”
As the peripatetic Lewis caps his eighth decade in show business, we could all take a lesson from him about how to stay active and engaged. About the only thing totally off the table then (as it is now), Lewis said, was the often-repeated rumor that he was ready to immigrate to France where he’s hailed by cinephiles as a genius.
“It ain’t gonna happen!” he cracked. “Everybody knows you can’t get a decent egg cream in France.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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