A Personal Failure

A Personal Failure
On the beauty, the tragedy and the patheticness of Jerry Lewis’ The Errand Boy

The Errand Boy (1961) is Jerry Lewis’ third film although it feels like his second. It takes a step back from the formal grandeur (and to an extent refinement) of The Ladies Man (1961) which preceded it and lines up much more closely to his debut The Bellboy (1960), both are a series of set pieces loosely framed by a sketched premise, in both cases, a job.

The Errand Boy’s premise is even flimsier: the studio head of Paramutual Pictures, played by Brian Donlevy finds that he’s losing money not at the box office (naturally) but within the studio, so he needs a spy to find out what’s going on. It can’t be him or any of his board room, they’re too famous, it has to be somebody no-one knows, somebody no-one would suspect, somebody too stupid to even realise they were a spy. Out the window, he sees Jerry Lewis as Morty S. Tashlin (named after his directing mentor Frank Tashlin) fumbling trying to put up a billboard and calls him in. After this opening scene this is close to never mentioned again, at best you could say it’s gestured towards, and we never find out one thing about where the money has gone.

The first half of the film then proceeds much as The Bellboy did, a collection of jokes based around working, in this case, in a film studio. From the obvious, the observational: there’s too many people in the lift, the water cooler doesn’t work, the boss who hates noise loves to shout; to the more inspired: the horrible cacophony of all the typewriters in the secretarial department, or a surprisingly effective moment where beautiful classical music playing on the radio clashes with Morty’s co-workers loudly and grotesquely eating their lunch.

Lewis starts to hit at things more beautiful and interesting within this structure, most notably the incredible scene where Morty sits in the empty office of the studio heads and play-acts as the boss whilst lip syncs to the instruments of a Count Basie song; each blow of the horn is the unquestioned words to his imagined underlings. Compare this to a very similar scene in Cinderfella (1960) where Lewis whimsically mimes playing the instruments of another Count Basie piece, and, whilst cute, is so lacking in depth both of concept and, of feeling. Here there’s a pathos, Morty can only find such joy in pure imagination, he can only pretend to have power, pretend to be respected in a world where he’s hardly even understood.

There’s an implicit melancholy to the ‘Jerry Lewis character’, Brian Donlevy calls him an “imitation of a human being”—literalised in a scene where Morty falls asleep hung up amongst the mannequins, mistaken for one the next morning, much to the shock of another worker—he’s someone who’s so tied up in himself he can hardly articulate a thing; he talks a lot but it’s all half-sentences and half-thoughts crossing over and crashing into each other.

There’s a great sequence around the middle of the film where Morty has to take over a candy shop for a few minutes whilst the clerk runs some errands. A group of precocious kids ask him for the jelly beans on the top shelf in the large glass jar and every time Morty carries them down a ladder and back up again only for the next kid to tell him they want the same thing, the trajectory of the joke seems inevitable; he’ll drop the jar, candy will fly everywhere and he’ll make a funny face. But that doesn’t happen, Morty has to laboriously do the work—the scene is hardly even funny, if anything it’s tedious and painful—until he loses his patience and chases the kids away. There’s a genuine sense of the weight of work, it’s not that he’s doing his job wrong, it’s just a bad job, and it gains a profundity by being scattered randomly amongst other scenes of work with wildly different tones; there’s no arc of joy or pain, it comes and goes, there are good days and there are bad days.

Even in Morty’s inability Lewis occasionally finds joy. He gets dragged into being an extra in a musical and he can’t stop himself from loudly, tonelessly singing along, he knows this impulse is untenable and slowly walks himself out, still singing, and there’s a sense that the other extras are laughing with, not at him.

This would all be quite beautiful if left to lay, but Lewis doesn’t do that; he can’t help himself and he pushes it much further, and more outwardly, than he has any ability to express, creating some truly ill-convinced and shockingly unsophisticated scenes. One involves Morty silently talking to a little clown finger puppet with the most sentimental music you’ve ever heard blaring underneath it. The little clown pulls out a bed and prays and then he, like Morty, struggles to get into the bed with his impossible body, but when he does the two of them fall asleep in some strange synchronicity.

In a later scene he goes looking for the little clown again and instead finds a mother goose puppet with a southern drawl, called Magnolia, “the little clown told me all about you” she says. After lamenting to her that he “wasn’t any closer [to Hollywood] than when [he] was in New Jersey” (Lewis’ real hometown) Magnolia tells Morty (or Lewis) that he’s a special little boy, that he can see her and the little clown because he doesn’t “stop to analyse”, he “liked what [he] saw and believed what [he] liked.”

By all accounts Lewis’ next film The Nutty Professor (1963) is the better film, he has much more control of these maudlin instincts, making a lot of that melancholy subtext text in a compelling and melodramatic way. But there is something so much more direct about The Errand Boy, because Lewis isn’t in control it becomes so much more personal, embarrassingly so; you almost want to look away.

The ending is one of the most shocking I’ve ever seen, Morty, through a string of convoluted circumstances gets filmed doing shtick, being wacky as a comically oversized champagne bottle shoots out everywhere. It’s probably one of the least funny bits in the movie but then we zoom out to it playing in a screening room and three directors laughing, amongst them is an Elia Kazan stand-in, a “New York method director”. They tell a confused Brian Donlevy that it was “the best comedy performance I’ve seen on screen in years”, that he has a goldmine on his hands. Even his lackey, who has spent the whole movie kissing his hand and calling him “the sultan of cinema” turns on on him and calls him and idiot for letting Morty get away.

And so the studio head goes off to beg Morty to come back and finally we see him as a big star, everyone on the lot waving in awe. This kind of personal wish fulfilment—that Jerry Lewis would not just be popular, but respected—is something most directors would find too embarrassing to put on film, especially in so obvious a way; it would be hard to interpret these scenes to be about the character Morty S Tashlin, but few things show a director so deeply and so intimately. If auteurism is a zero sum game, then this is a great film, if not, it’s still so personal as to be painful.

Originally posted on Substack on January 14th 2022