[Marxism] Jerry Lewis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 21 18:24:16 MDT 2017

(Written by a classmate of mine from Bard College who is regarded as a 
Marxist although with a strong postmodernist bent in my view.)

Cineaste. Spring 2010, Vol. 35 Issue 2, p78-79. 2p.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jerry Lewis
by Chris Fujiwara. Urbana/Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2009. 162 pp., illus.
Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $19.95.

I hope I can be forgiven for repeating an anecdote I recounted in these 
pages in 2004, while writing about Charlie Chaplin's films on DVD. In a 
Swiss documentary about Chaplin in Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin: The 
Forgotten Years, his daughter Geraldine noted that when he discovered 
that his invitation to accept an honorary Oscar in the United States in 
1972 came with a visa that allowed him to remain in the country for only 
two weeks, he was more delighted than indignant: "They're still afraid 
of me!," he said with pride--or words to that effect.

The curious process by which unreasoning love for Chaplin in the U.S. 
was transformed into unreasoning hatred is clearly matched by a 
comparable metamorphosis in the American psyche regarding Jerry Lewis. 
For me, the enduring mystery about Lewis isn't any alleged love of "the 
French" for his films--a factoid whose former (and always limited) 
relevance has by now been out of date for decades, ever since Woody 
Allen became far more revered in France than Lewis--but American denial 
about its own former Lewis infatuation, which was much larger than any 
French craze for the man could ever have been, and is even what made his 
French profile possible. (Just for starters, Martin and Lewis's 1954 
Living It Up made more money than Singin' in the Rain, On the 
Waterfront, or The African Queen, and three years earlier, their third 
feature and biggest hit, Sailor Beware, was seen by an estimated eighty 
million people.) So Americans' refusal to deal with Lewis having once 
been even bigger here than Elvis is the phenomenon that cries out for 
sociological inquiry, not the understandable respect and affection he 
continues to receive anywhere else in the world.

An interesting study could be written about why and how certain kinds of 
physical comedy can unleash such fear and loathing as well as 
infatuation, but this isn't the sort of project Chris Fujiwara has in 
mind. Nevertheless, it's hardly an exaggeration to say that his book, 
the twenty-first title to be published in James Naremore's Contemporary 
Film Directors series, is the first extended critical treatment of Lewis 
in English that Lewis deserves --including a thoughtful, sympathetic, 
and lucid (yet in no way sycophantic) thirty-two page interview that is 
conceivably the best one anyone has ever had with him. And considering 
that Lewis himself has already ordered a hundred copies of the book, it 
seems safe to assume that he probably agrees with me.

Why it's taken so long for a filmmaker of Lewis's stature to receive 
such treatment is a matter of some interest. But it's arguably one of 
the virtues of Fujiwara's compact study, rightly concluding that the 
important analytical work can begin only after the pseudo-controversy 
about Lewis's importance is "settled," to waste little of his space and 
time addressing this issue with any defensive polemics. Focusing on 
Lewis mainly as a director while retaining, as he puts it in his opening 
paragraph, "a sense of continuity in Lewis's work in all its stages," he 
never stoops to any form of defensiveness or special pleading while 
describing the unity and coherence of Lewis's vision with the same 
confidence and scholarly thoroughness that he brought to Jacques 
Tourneur in his first book a little over a decade ago.

His pithy handling of what might be termed The Opposition occurs early 
on, after he notes in passing that Lewis's films (as director and actor) 
in the early Sixties "were reviewed more or less indistinguishably by 
American film critics (except that since [the 1965] Boeing Boeing, the 
only insignificant film among them, is a straight farce rather than 
slapstick comedy, Lewis, cast in a supporting role behind Tony Curtis, 
received praise for his restraint)." Fujiwara then briefly notes the 
more respectful French criticism published during the same period (his 
other comments in this book suggest that he has been especially 
attentive to Robert Benayoun), before adding, "The enthusiasm of French 
intellectuals (shared by the general public) for Lewis has given rise, 
in the United States, to countless lazy and patronizing jokes at his 
expense and at that of France from unthinking, conformist 
pundits---gibes whose ideological nature has become unmistakable and 
more obnoxious than ever in a period of U.S. history that has witnessed 
the rebranding of 'Freedom Fries.'"

Afterwards, apart from a measured response to Andrew Sarris's charge of 
sanctimonious moralizing and sentimentality in Lewis's films, Fujiwara 
chooses to make his reply to Lewis's critical detractors implicit in his 
overall argument. And what emerges most forcefully from this argument is 
the conviction that almost all of Lewis's previous critics have erred by 
simplifying the work--trying to make it conform to diverse industrial 
norms relating to narrative, humor, and continuity that it meets only 
superficially and cursorily. Thus, "In discarding the surface logic of 
narrative and verisimilitude, Lewis's cinema foregrounds its own 
structural logic. The viewer of a Lewis film follows the unfolding and 
application of the rules of construction that belong to the film--rules 
that are independent of the demands of narrative. This is Lewis's 
formalist, materialist side."

This is an especially useful tip in approaching The Bellboy (1960) and 
The Ladies Man (1961), Lewis's first two features, although curiously 
enough, it's his fifth, The Patsy (1964), that Fujiwara identifies as 
"the most fully achieved of Lewis's films."

Halfway through his essay, while taking up the matter of "generic 
discontinuity," which he sees as "a constant feature of Lewis's work," 
Fujiwara registers his conviction that several portions of this oeuvre 
aren't especially funny (e.g., "the first half of Which Way to the 
Front?" [personally, I find the hysterical gibberish in the early scenes 
flat-out hilarious], "fairly long stretches of The Family Jewels and 
Hardly Working, and, perhaps, nearly all of One More Time"), adding that 
"One of my premises is that Lewis's work creates an impure, shifting 
context within which such a lack need not be accounted a flaw." This is 
a provocative assertion that warrants some elaboration, and I wish 
Fujiwara had gone further enough with it to reconcile this claim with my 
own feeling that some of the funniest moments in Lewis's cinema--such as 
his character's inability to cross the floor of his psychiatrist's 
office without falling, in the early stretches of Cracking Up --are 
central rather than incidental to his overall achievement. (I suspect 
Fujiwara would agree with me on this score, but even so, I would have 
preferred it if he had spelled out this portion of his argument a bit 
more fully.)

If the above quotations suggest that Fujiwara's case for Lewis is 
basically a formalist one, other portions of his essay (which is 
suggestively titled "An American Dream") move his analysis in a quite 
different direction, with very fruitful results: "'Home' does not exist 
in Lewis's world. His biography offers an explanation for this absence: 
his parents, vaudeville performers, were constantly on the road." 
(Although Fujiwara doesn't mention this, the fact that Lewis's parents 
failed to attend his bar mitzvah, as recounted in his 1982 book with 
Herb Gluck, Jerry Lewis in Person, is surely telling.)

And a page later: "Show business constitutes, for Lewis, an alternate 
psychoanalysis, a therapeutic sphere in which he acts out his obsessions 
in public and transcends them (see the confession scene in the prom in 
The Nutty Professor). In several films, Lewis depicts show business as 
an alternate family." As Fujiwara notes, Lewis seems to be fully aware 
of this factor himself; in Dean and Me (A Love Story)--his 2005 memoir 
written with James Kaplan, which Fujiwara rightly terms as the best 
account of his early career--he says of Dean Martin and himself, in 
their meteoric rise to success, "What we really were, in a Freudian age 
of self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id." So it's 
hardly surprising that the same comic who would later build elaborate 
gag sequences in Cracking Up (1983) derived from his near-brush with a 
suicide attempt and his open-heart surgery would in fact base most of 
his features on some of his most personal conflicts and issues.

It's my own conviction that Lewis's naked vulnerability as well as his 
courage in brandishing it partially accounts not only for his 
improvisational genius on live television at the onset of his career but 
also for the aforementioned fear and loathing in portions of his 
American audience more recently. Several years ago, during a period when 
he was appearing onstage as the Devil in Damn Yankees during its Chicago 
run, he graciously agreed to appear at an extended public Q&A at 
Columbia College--a session that lasted, if memory serves, for at least 
three hours. The sense of risk and danger in the auditorium that 
afternoon was palpable, and it came, I think, from the fact that Lewis 
stayed so close to the edge of his emotions, seemingly as a matter of 
both policy and temperament. The possibilities of being hurt, and of 
hurt being transformed into anger and rage, were never entirely absent, 
even though he managed to keep his cool on the few occasions when one of 
the questions betrayed some hostility--hostility that may have derived 
in part from some of the tension generated.

For those commentators who wrongly maintain that Buddy Love in The Nutty 
Professor (1963) derives from Dean Martin and not from Lewis himself, 
the giddy megalomania of the man who spread his remarkable boardinghouse 
set over two of Paramount's soundstages in The Ladies Man (1961) and 
then filled them with nubile actresses has never been reconciled with 
the fumbling and bumbling idiot as well as the sexual panic of Lewis's 
own persona within that space. Fujiwara has made a bracing start at 
mapping out the relationship between those two seemingly antithetical 
individuals, and better yet, has a pretty good idea of what these people 
might have to say to one another.


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