Jerry Lewis

November 15th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

This weekend past Barb and I traveled to St. Louis to spend some time with son Nate, daughter-in-law Abby and grandson Sam (16 months). In part this was an experiment to see how I’d do on a trip like this, post-surgery, and the answer is not bad, although lots of naps were required.

The other occasion for the trip was a one-man show, “An Evening With Jerry Lewis,” at the Family Center in St. Charles. Since Jerry is 90, this would not be a wild, screaming, song-and-dance performance – in recent years, Jerry has been reminiscing and showing film clips while seated in a center-stage director’s chair.

I am an unrepentant Jerry Lewis fan. At 68, I grew up first on the Martin & Lewis movies and then on Jerry’s solo cinematic efforts. I also saw Martin & Lewis on television, and later Lewis alone, countless times. My adoration stopped at sitting through entire MDA telethons, but I did usually catch some of each one and often watched Jerry’s melodramatic rendering of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which always managed to be both stirring and embarrassing.

The late Bruce Peters, my musical collaborator with the Daybreakers and Crusin’, said more than once, “The only thing funnier than Jerry Lewis at his best is Jerry Lewis at his worst.” There’s some truth in that. In the ‘60s Jerry often tried to sound erudite and educated, and that way lay madness. He seemed at war with the unruly child that made him famous. Wanted us to know that the “kid” wasn’t the real him…though the opposite was obvious.

For those of us who were unruly children ourselves in those years, we were entranced by Jerry’s depiction of a big kid in such films as Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), The Disorderly Orderly (1964), The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), Cinderfella (1960), The Bellboy (1960), The Geisha Boy (1958), and Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958). Then there were the sixteen Martin & Lewis films between 1949 and 1956 including, notably, Scared Stiff (1953), Hollywood or Bust (1956), and Artists and Models (1956). That latter film had young Jerry corrupted by comic books – heaven.

Martin & Lewis were the comedy Beatles. I never got over it when they broke up. I’m still not over it. And there isn’t even a Yoko to blame, though Jerry remains a prime suspect. I always recall what Martin himself said: “The two best things that ever happened to me were teaming up with Jerry Lewis, and breaking up with Jerry Lewis.”

Jerry directed many of his own best films – The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man, for instance. For the latter he developed “video assist,” a tool found indispensable by directors ever since. His tome The Total Filmmaker (1971) was developed from almost 500 hours of Jerry teaching at USC, and is one of the best books on the subject ever written.

This is not to say that Jerry did not make some terrible films. By the late ‘60s, despite his youthful appearance, he finally had to abandon his “kid” persona on film. With The Nutty Professor (1963), that was no problem, and it proved to be his masterpiece. With such misguided films as Way…Way Out (1966), Three on a Couch (1966), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front? (1970), he lost his way, often delving uncomfortably into sex farce. But all of these misfires have moments of hilarity. Even the last film cited, Jerry’s notorious, barely-released Nazi spoof, has an extended sequence late in the film where the star/director takes on Hitler in an outrageously comic way that rivals Mel Brooks in The Producers.

You’ll note that for the most part here I refer to Jerry Lewis as “Jerry.” I think most Baby Boomers who grew up laughing at his films think of him that way. Some Baby Boomers came to loathe this man they grew up with, seeing him (like the Rat Pack) as representative of phony show biz at its worst. On SCTV, a fairly unrelenting take on the Lewis’ pretensions as a filmmaker became the subject of a Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy) sketch. But also on SCTV, Martin Short revealed his love for Lewis in “Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs Elysees,” which celebrated its subject even as it somewhat acidly spoofed him. Jerry was apparently not offended, nor should he have been.

The live performance in St. Louis found Jerry, not surprisingly, in a reflective mood. Seated before a large audience in his director’s chair, a big projection screen looming above, Jerry nonetheless created an intimate atmosphere as he shared stories and an eclectic series of clips from his career, often showcasing others (Milton Berle, Sammy Davis, Henny Youngman, Totie Fields) more than himself. Plenty of Martin & Lewis clips were interspersed, as well as such famous sequences from his films as the staircase dance from Cinderfella and the mimed boardroom sequence from The Errand Boy. The musical typewriter bit, a Lewis favorite, he performed live. Throughout the evening he peppered his presentation with one-liners, some mildly politically incorrect by today’s standards, and while the expected clips from Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man were absent, he presented a number of obscure, hilarious pieces from MDA shows that would be lost to time if Jerry Lewis weren’t his own dedicated librarian.

Among the funniest moments were Jerry in the ‘50s doing a “Be My Love” pantomime and his unscheduled appearance as a clueless member of a male chorus on an ‘80s MDA telethon; among the most moving was a pair of late ‘50s renditions of “Sonny Boy,” first with his father Danny and then with his ten year-old son (and rock-star-to-be) Gary. Of course he presented the Sinatra-arranged reunion of Martin and Lewis on the 1976 MDA telethon.

The show was a quick hour-and-a-half, and lacked the promised audience Q and A. But for this Baby Boomer, the chance to spend one last evening with Jerry Lewis was not to be missed.

Giants once walked the earth. This one is still with us, for now, if seated in a director’s chair.

* * *

Check out this wonderful review of the expanded novel version of Road to Perdition from the always interesting Bookgasm.

Here’s the Hollywood Reporter on Quarry.

And here’s a review of the novel The Last Quarry.

Here’s a nice review of Dan John Miller’s reading of Better Dead, the latest Nate Heller novel.

Finally, HBO is readying Quarry for blu-ray release (probably DVD as well).


10 Responses to “Jerry Lewis”

  1. Tim Field says:

    Didn’t know you were a Jerry Lewis fan, but it does make sense giving your love of 50’s and 60’s performers and your filmmaking interests. It seems like shows like this Evening With Jerry Lewis often go to smaller metro markets (like Muscatine) and not the larger cities. I remember a similar career review show with Mickey Rooney that I would have attended, but only heard about after the fact due to only regional publicity. Seems to me that Cary Grant died in Iowa while touring with one of these kinds of shows.

    What other shows like this have come your way?

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Yes, Cary Grant died in Iowa. He was being shown around town by Doug Miller, associate producer of MOMMY.

    This is the first of these kind of shows I’ve seen.

  3. Bill Crider says:

    I agree that The Nutty Professor is his masterpiece. I’ve seen it many times. When it opened, I went to see it two nights in a row. I’ve been a fan of Martin & Lewis since hearing them on the radio when I was a kid, and some of their radio and early TV appearances were among the funniest things I’ve experienced.

  4. Max Allan Collins says:

    Bill Crider — a man of taste and perception!

    The anarchy of the Martin & Lewis live TV performances is something I’ll never forget. In a very staid era, they were a primal scream of comedy.

  5. Gerard Saylor says:

    I did not know Gary Lewis was his son.

  6. Stephen Mertz says:

    So glad to hear you getting out and about, dear friend!

  7. Annabell Williams-Blegen says:

    How wonderful it must have been for you. Can you post time schedules for Jerry or the Venue please? I have been trying for seems like years to get ahold of him. For a quick conversation about my late Uncle Tim “Kingfish” Moore of TV Amos and Andy Show. Jerry as it was posted in Uncle Tim’s obituary attended. And I wanted to speak to Jerry about him.
    Happy, you are feeling better.
    Take care.

  8. Annabell Williams-Blegen says:

    Whoops!!! I got so excited reading and thinking ahead. I see where you were at for the Program. I do so hope to meet Jerry for not only because of who he is, but for those personal questions.

  9. Lou Mougin says:

    Nice! I take it Jerry showed the Hitler satire at the show?

  10. Max Allan Collins says:

    Annabell, I believe Jerry Lewis lives in Las Vegas and you may be able to track him down that way He’s appeared lately at the South Point casino hotel — perhaps a letter addressed to him there. I am sure he remains a big fan of Tim Moore. I’m of the opinion that Tim Moore is one of the funniest men who ever lived, and the banning of the AMOS ‘N’ ANDY TV show is a terrible mistake, consigning all of those wonderful performances by gifted black artists to politically correct limbo.

    Lou, no Hitler clip. Are were you kidding? Surprisingly few flip clips, nothing from NUTTY PROFESSOR or THE LADIES MAN, but a rewarding show nonetheless.