by Patrick Bromley
Jerry Lewis passed away this week at the age of 91. While it's not a shock, it's always sad when people pass (sometimes it's less sad) because they have family that love them, and, in the case of Jerry Lewis (and, for the purposes of this site, a few other recent artist deaths), had a massive impact on this thing that we love and which brings us to this site every day. Jerry Lewis helped change the movies.
From the moment it was announced, news of his death became a contest to see who could be the fastest to ask when we would get to see The Day the Clown Cried (stay classy, internet), or to mention that he could often be a cantankerous sonuvabitch who said terrible things about female comedians, or who could make the first "Flavin!" joke, or who could reference the fact that he was beloved by the French. The more good-hearted movie fans -- the people I tend to follow and pay attention to online -- brought up his years of dedication to charity or his role in The King of Comedy, presumably the most significant entry point in Lewis' career for a certain generation of film lovers. Some critics and writers told stories of the times they interviewed him, unsure of which Jerry they would be meeting. What I did not see many of were appreciations of his 1960s comedies -- the ones made after he split from longtime stage and screen partner Dean Martin. So I've spent the last day or two asking myself: why is that?
Today I rewatched The Ladies Man, Lewis' comedy from 1961 and the second feature he directed following The Bellboy. Whereas that movie was something of a low-budget quickie, heavily improvised and shot in a hurry so that Paramount would have a Jerry Lewis film for the summer of 1960, The Ladies Man is a much more ambitious outing. Lewis actually speaks, for one, here playing brokenhearted doofus Herbert H. Heebert. The middle H. stands for Herbert. I don't care what Roger Ebert said about funny names; I will never not laugh at Herbert Herbert Heebert. On the day Herbert graduates from college, he catches his girlfriend with another man. Devastated, he swears off women forever and commits to a lifetime of bachelorhood -- a commitment that is tested when he's hired to work as an errand boy in a women's boarding house.
Mugging aside, The Ladies Man deserves to be recognized for its terrific construction. From the opening sequence, a long take in which a single noise sets off a chain reaction of physical comedy right out of a Buster Keaton movie, to the extended dance number that nearly ends the film, The Ladies Man is the rare comedy that manages to be both gag-driven and formalist -- it gets laughs not just from what happens on screen, but from the way that Lewis chooses to frame it. The movie's most impressive achievement is its set design: a massive mansion with multiple levels but the fourth wall removed, just as you might see in live theater. Lewis had the gorgeous set built to the tune of $350,000 but uses it to brilliant effect, with the camera moving from room to room and even up and down floors on a crane. It's almost impossible to watch certain sequences in The Ladies Man and not think that they inspired the filmmaking and aesthetics of Wes Anderson.
If nothing else, Lewis deserves to be recognized for helping to pioneer the use of video playback so that he could see himself while he was performing on camera. Though he has taken credit for inventing the technique, a reporter for CNET discovered that patents for similar technology were filed as early as the 1940s, though it continued to be refined over time. So while he wasn't the originator of the practice, it was Lewis who helped popularize the video assist and eventually made it more commonplace on movie sets. He was an innovator and a filmmaker who thought big, as evidenced by the set and the production design of The Ladies Man. Despite already being a huge star by the time he began his solo film career, Lewis didn't coast on his success. He wasn't lazy when he easily could have been. Because of his reputation as the mouth breather's comedian of choice, it's a misconception that his output of this period is slapdash -- the 1960s equivalent of contemporary Adam Sandler comedies. You may not find him funny, but few comedians worked harder or were more dedicated to filmmaking.