Jerry Lewis by Frank Tashlin

Jerry Lewis by Frank Tashlin

Despite its storied and respectable history, a love of Jerry Lewis still often feels hard to justify. As a director he only once managed to make all his quirks and flaws align into what would traditionally be called a ‘great film’ in The Nutty Professor (1963), and in the rest of his work he’s bounced wildly from self-aggrandising to raw and from genius to incompetent, usually within the same film. The reason Jean-Luc Godard defending him by saying “even when he’s not funny, he’s more funny” is because the funny and the not funny are always so close, his best scenes sit right alongside his very very worst. Even more-so in his increasingly abject late period. It can seem like all the great stuff is increasingly a fluke, that you’re fooling yourself and in too deep with this this bizarre and by all account bad man to admit it; a Jerry fan wrestles with themselves as much as the films do. Even less intuitive than a defence of the films that he directed, is a defence of the films that he didn’t. After all, even a bad director can be an auteur, they can’t help but bleed into their films, as Jerry does in great volumes in The Errand Boy (1961) which has one of the most embarrassingly revealing scenes of all time where Jerry gets an Elia Kazan stand-in to talk about how much of a comedic genius and a special, brilliant person his ‘character’ is. But according to Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema an on-screen only comedian can still be an auteur, so pairing him up with another auteur, Frank Tashlin, could create the kind of interesting friction which all his work thrives on.

After Jerry started directing, his collaborations with Tashlin turned away from the sentimentality that had so defined them ever since Martin & Lewis broke up and doesn’t have as much of a place in the rest of Tashlin’s work, Jerry had that more than covered on his own anyway. It never brought them much more than mixed results, most indicatively in The Geisha Boy (1958) which has a truly insane set-up where a young Japanese boy falls in love—explicitly love, he says it over and over—with Jerry, a magician brought abroad to entertain the troops. He was the first person to ever make him the little boy laugh, or something. Even more bizarrely, this confession of love takes place in Jerry’s hotel room as the boy and his Mother followed him from the airport where they first saw his antics. But still it manages some quite effective moments, like when Jerry is being dragged back to America and has to push away this kid who can’t even understand him, and the mirrored sequences where each sneaks onto a plane to the others country are light and sweet. The only time Tashlin tried to fit Jerry into a more traditional leading man role was in their first post-Dean Martin film, Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), which only works as well as it does because it has so much other great stuff in it. Every time Jerry has to croon, or do a sentimental speech about his childhood best friend, it comes close to intolerable.

It's Only Money (1962)

It’s Only Money (1962) opens with the jazzy soundtrack and shadowy black and white photography of a noir, we follow a private investigator (Jesse White) as he walks shadily down a dimly lit street, until the thickly generic tone is broken by a huge explosion, caused, of course, by Jerry.  He's set up as a disruptor of genre, much like the Marx Brothers were for the institutions each of their films were set around the destruction of. Still, despite all the cartoony tangents, including one of the funniest scenes in any of their movies together or apart where Jerry puts on train sounds as romantic mood music and the whole room starts shaking, light flickers past through windows that weren’t there, and a conductor comes to check his tickets, it still roughly feels like a real movie. If one that plays out its genre archetypes aggressively and ironically. When a young woman comes into the PI’s office they don’t bother with the playful flirting and skip right to making out; this happens multiple times with multiple women. Though when Jerry’s love interest, who at first is only interested in him because of the fortune he doesn’t know he’s about to inherit, has to fall in love with him for real, Tashlin doesn’t make much of an effort to justify it. It just happens because that’s what’s supposed to happen in a movie.

It’s even less convincing that usual because nothing can overtake Jerry’s presence, like his character who is trying to play the part of a PI but simply can’t pull it off; he can’t be anything but himself, but Jerry Lewis. So Tashlin tries to bring other performances into his register, firstly with the villain’s henchman (Jack Weston) who has that same child-like mania but filtered through a passion for all types of murder—when you shake him, bear traps, knives and maces fall out—which is quite disturbing and dramatically effective (at least until he’s failed enough times to undermine it). It also suggests that the difference between Jerry and something from Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) is only a matter of degrees, in The Disorderly Orderly (1964) Tashlin goes as far as saying that he is only like this because of a literal mental illness. Jerry's performance style is mirrored to quite different ends by the wealthy widow whose fortune it is to give (Mae Questel). She has a similar lucidity about her limits but without the manic compensation, just a gentle sense of self-deprecation that defines so many older women who grew up in a time that constrantly patronised them. Both sides of Jerry are externalised, the cruel and the maudlin, the Buddy Love and the Professor Kelp; it’s the closest he’s ever come to fitting in; he doesn’t stand in such stark contrast to the world around him, even if he still does to the genre surrounding it.

Television has always been a big target for Tashlin—Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) pauses its story for an extensive interlude making fun of the inferior experience, cropping its beautiful, colourful cinemascope frame down to a tiny, blurry image so that television fans don’t feel left out—but now it feels a little like the fight is over, all those big period epics didn’t pull audiences away on spectacle alone and although there are many gags at TV’s expense in these film—sometimes for light parody, a doctors show about “the case of the missing kidney” drolly previews “now some scenes from next weeks show”, and sometimes for a big set piece, a character is crushed under a huge set in Who’s Minding the Store (1963)—but they all point to its omnipresence; sometimes the gag is simply that a rich family have one in their kitchen because you can never have too many, and even this seems as much aligned with the other wacky inventions in It’s Only Money than with anything else. Considering Jerry’s character is a TV repairman (and in Rock-a-Bye Baby too, funnily enough) you’d expect something a bit more pointed than the PI mocking his imitation of noir tropes as “idiot television talk”, especially since we’ve been shown the yellow page novels where he actually picked them up from.

Who's Minding the Store (1963)

Who’s Minding the Store could easily be the title of a Marx Brothers film, perhaps it could swap places with The Big Store (1941)—though I imagine Jerry would prefer to think of it more in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936)—and so the premise has much more room for social commentary: Jerry is told to sell people literal bugs as food and has to run laps around the store to show off the work-out gear in totally cruel and pointless labour, though Tashlin plays these scenes more broadly than Jerry would have with his interest in the slow pain of work (his sense of space would also have added a lot to the film, imagine if it was shot on a huge set like The Ladies Man (1961) rather than these studio-bound isolated rooms). The owners of the store, the Tuttle family, have a long lineage of powerful women with weak husbands, capitalism preceding the long entrenched gender roles, but as their opposition—symbolically, not personally—this turns Jerry into a reactionary force, someone who explicitly believes that men should go out and work and women should stay at home, the film quite often slips into misogyny, like in the obvious women-be-shopping gags.

But for all of Tashlin’s ribbing, it’s clear that he, at least on an aesthetic level, loves capitalist kitsch, in Rock-a-Bye Baby he takes the time to stage a tacky musical number from an in-universe movie that looks like an even more camp Samson & Delilah (1949) for no other reason that to luxuriate in its gaudy excesses. Criticism of it is almost always part of his films, if only for a few cursory lines jabbing at television, but it’s never structurally integrated, it’s just another element amongst many. Maybe it speaks to a lack of commitment to his ideas, or it’s simply a way of surviving—sometimes it’s really unclear, back in his Looney Tunes days he made The Chow Hound (1944) a short about a cow that believes he’s signing up to fight in the war but is actually going to be ground up into meat, which seems too extreme, too on the nose about the savagery of the war machine, not to be intentionally subversive, but considering it was commissioned by and for the military, it’s hard to believe he’d take any chances—though Tashlin is clearly an auteur, he’s still a studio filmmaker and ultimately has to play by their rules.

This strange balance is captured quite wonderfully in the climactic gag of Who’s Minding the Store where a vacuum that Jerry was trying to fix goes out of control and starts to suck up all the stupid products, destroying, but also consuming them, for any subversiveness it may contain, the film itself is a product of capitalism; something to be consumed, and so when Jerry runs around trying to stop it, the clients laugh at him as we do. Although it’s hard to argue with the image of it all exploding out as amorphous grey dust—a surprisingly similar ending to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970)—the plot still has to resolve. Jerry’s girlfriend had kept secret that she was a Tuttle, that she was rich, to break the cycle that she’s only continuing by being bold enough to try—maybe another self-critique—and by dating a loser like Jerry. When he finds out he at first rejects her but then, for reason we aren’t given any access to, changes his mind, even that’s not enough, the Tuttle parents have to resolve their relationship too, the cruel and distant Mother (Agnes Moorehead) has a change of heart—one scene after fuming—for equally elusive reasons. It’s an even more painfully contortion to try and fit within conventional form but one that suits Jerry who, unlike the Marx Brothers that were at best callous, if not actively hateful, toward the social order, has always wanted to fit in, all the destruction he causes is accidental, punctuated by endless apologies; in his directorial work from this time, he searched for sentiment and validation, often by putting words in the mouths of other characters, as if they were really other people.

The Disorderly Orderly (1964)

The Disorderly Orderly is much more relentless in its criticism maybe because it’s not of something Tashlin has any affection for, it isn’t fundamentally silly but deeply ugly and cruel: the medical industry. The owner of the hospital Jerry works at (Everett Sloane) decides to focus on mental, rather than physical illness because it’s more profitable, because he can more easily accrue a collection of celebrity clients (most of them from TV), his mantra of “no money, no bed” is a world harsher than the Mrs Tuttle’s confessions of insincerity, and the film takes much more pleasure in beating him around—even if Jerry doesn’t—there’s no chance for an arbitrary redemption. Jerry's character is more like something he'd come up with himself, suitable unhinged, self-serving and deeply revealing, his manic behaviour is caused by his mental illness: he is simply too empathetic. Trying to cure himself in order to become a better doctor might just be a benign truism of the profession—and finally some real development for one of his character, the maturation he was looking for—or it might suggest something darker, when he celebrates his recovery we’re invited to feel both ways at once; Jerry and Tashlin’s aims don’t exactly align, but they stay out of each others way enough for them both to get what they want .

The films flaws are distinct from the contradictions and compromises of their other collaborations.  The hospital's motherly boss (Glenda Farrell) has managed to increase earnings every year previously, profit and care could co-exist until her boss got too greedy. It makes it seem like the problem is only one of rotten apples and not a fundamental incompatibility. Jerry's characterisation can also be a bit sloppy, he gets caught brushing leaves under a rug which a character as pious as his would never do. But the ending doesn’t compromise, it pushes even further. After a long and consistently funny car chase finale, the cars suddenly crash into a supermarket and an endless stream of candy coloured cans pour out. By focusing so much on imagery that has had no place in the rest of the film, Tashlin creates link between that consumerist kitsch, and the medical industry. That they are all part of the same thing, all part of a grand and cruel capitalism. It’s no surprise with something so all-consuming hanging over Tashlin's interests—his loves and his hates—that it took him so long to see outside it and find a truly radical ending. Surely he wasn't helped by a leading actor who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by that system. Tashlin may be the great director of Jerry, but I'm not so sure that Jerry was the great star of Tashlin.