Friday, March 29, 2024

Cult Corner: THE BELLBOY

 by Anthony King

The Undisputed King of Comedy.

Directed by: Jerry Lewis
Written by: Jerry Lewis
Starring: Jerry Lewis, Alex Gerry, Bob Clayton
Released: July 20, 1960
Hotel/Motel-based cult movies: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022), Infinity Pool (2023), The Night Porter (1974), Psycho (1998) The Shining (1980)
Pairing recommendation: Four Rooms (1995)

“Most gags fall flat, none are hilarious; still, overall film is amusing.” This quote, from Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic, about Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy, is a perfect example of an opinion I whole-heartedly dispute while still loving the author. Danny and I disagree nearly half the time on movies. What he finds boring, I find enthralling; what he finds annoying, I find to be riotously hysterical. A lot of the time I wonder if he and I watched the same movie. But this is why he is my favorite film writer. He never calls a movie bad or boring without expanding further on it. He always finds something positive to say. And the movies he loves, he loves enthusiastically. But Danny, you're wrong about The Bellboy. It's a work of early genius.
Jerry Lewis is the funniest man to have ever walked this planet. Almost every comedian or comedic actor owes at least part of their career to Lewis. Larry David's whole career is Lewis-based comedy including Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards; Seth MacFarlane's television empire is based in Lewis' comedy; Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and countless other SNL cast members owe a debt of gratitude. Tim Allen and the most obvious person, Jim Carrey, who began his career as Jerry Lewis but if he had snorted a bannister of cocaine. If you read through interviews or asked these people who inspired them, Jerry Lewis would be on that list. As for Lewis himself, look at silent comedians like Harpo Marx and Stan Laurel and you'll see where Lewis' career came from.

Jerry met Dean Martin in the '40s and the two partnered up to become one of the most popular comedy duos of the 20th century. The two began as a stage act before moving to TV appearances, and finally breaking into Hollywood, headlining over a dozen films. After their split, Martin dedicated himself to music while Lewis stuck with the movies. After directing a short and a couple episodes of television, Lewis struck out to make his first feature. Lewis had recently completed shooting Cinderfella (1960) for Paramount, but wanted it to be a holiday release. The studio agreed, as long as Lewis came up with another movie for a summer release prior to the release of Cinderfella. Lewis conjured up the idea of a series of vignettes based in a hotel centered around the antics of a bellhop. Having decided his character would be a silent character, Lewis turned to his friend and mentor, Stan Laurel, for tips. Lewis had a previous engagement at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and decided he would shoot the film during the day while performing on stage at night. This was Lewis' first foray into the world of a Hollywood multi-hyphenate.
The Bellboy is a live action cartoon. Along with Harpo and Laurel, Lewis is clearly inspired by Warner Bros. animated series Looney Tunes, which debuted in 1930. Set up just like a Looney Tunes compilation, The Bellboy is a series of loosely-related gags. Each gag lasts no more than five minutes, and it whips through about three dozen gags in less than 80 minutes. For an adult such as myself who still finds solace and humor in childish cartoons, The Bellboy is suited for me. For those of you who seemed to have lost touch with your inner child, one: I'm sorry; and two: go find them! Counter to Danny's opinion that, “In subsequent films Lewis would learn that his character works best in an otherwise orderly world.” I think that the studios learned that in order to pull in more adults, Jerry would need to be a part of an orderly world. In The Bellboy, Jerry proves that he could do it both ways. I think it's a shame we didn't get another vignette-style Jerry Lewis movie.

It's such a rare occasion any more that I find myself laughing out loud at a movie or television show. I don't need to laugh at every joke or piece of slapstick that the film offers up. In his review of the film, The New York Times' Eugene Archer said this: “To the comedian's credit, he has kept his energetic demeanor in reasonable check, and not tried for a belly-laugh response in every scene. A generous—some might even say gratuitous—proportion of the anecdotes are devoted to mild shaggy dog jokes, with a subdued audience chuckle as the kindest response.” But I for one never tire of the dozen-or-so faces Lewis makes while in uncomfortable situations. For instance, while waiting for the service elevator as his bell captain looks on, Lewis anxiously waits for the doors to open. It becomes almost instantly excruciating for his character so in a matter of 30 seconds he bangs the door or presses the button while looking back at his superior (the camera) at least 15 times. Each time he mugs to the audience he contorts his face as if a sculptor has re-shaped him. Finally, when the door opens without him noticing, he falls into the car. Not only am I close to the point of tears from laughing so hard, Bob Clayton, the Bell Captain, is also laughing, an unintentional moment that I'm glad was left in the film.
I don't agree with those that say (maybe jokingly?) plot is overrated. Plot is good. Stories are good. If Kevin Costner wants to tell an 11-hour story broken into four parts (Horizon: An American Saga), I will be there for it. I'd be equally excited for a 76-minute tale of two Czech girls named Marie who run amok (Daisies). Let go every now and then and allow yourself to be silly. It's a very serious world with very serious things happening constantly. We shouldn't have to be so serious all the time. I certainly can't live like that. And in this writer's opinion, there's no one better to get you to that silly place than Jerry Lewis.

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