“Going unnoticed has never been my strong suit.” — Jerry Lewis, 1926-2017
Since the news first broke of Jerry Lewis’s passing, many have taken the time to look back on the life and career of a man who for over sixty years was a giant of film, television, radio, and stage. Olive Films joins the countless fans, critics, and film historians the world over who wish to reflect on and celebrate Mr. Lewis’s life and storied legacy.
Born on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey to a comedian father and pianist mother, it was clear from an early age that Lewis’s knack for performance was in his blood. From the age of five, Jerry could often be seen performing in the family act, chewing the scenery and wreaking havoc as a clown and mime. It was in those early days that he honed his stagecraft and persona to include the exaggerated facial expressions and gesticulations that we’ve now dubbed the “Jerry Lewis brand of comedy.” Known early on as a prankster and cut-up, over the years these perfected techniques would see their apotheosis in films such as The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), and Who’s Minding the Store? (1962).
The excitement and prosperity of the post-war period was a time that paralleled a boom in American comedy. After the war, Americans yearned to laugh and feel good about themselves, and the numerous new entertainments that abounded afforded them such luxuries. The continued popularity of radio and nightclubs along with the ascendancy of television media offered new comic acts ample avenues and opportunities to make a name. This was the case for the young Lewis, who began to rise to national prominence after teaming up with Dean Martin. The crooning, debonair Martin would play straight man to Jerry’s goofball kinetic energy. Using their improvisational skills, the pair delighted audiences with their banter and organic interplay. The legendary duo would go on to have many successes including The Martin and Lewis Show and around sixteen motion pictures including Jumping Jacks (1952), The Stooge (1952), Money from Home (1953), 3 Ring Circus (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955), and the last of their partnership Hollywood or Bust (1956). One of our favorite moments to capture their partnership comes in Money from Home, in which Jerry’s character tries to impress a woman (Marjie Millar) by singing to her outside of her window. Only, it’s not him singing — he lip-syncs as Dean Martin, standing out of view, sings “I Only Have Eyes for You.” It’s a sweet and funny moment in their partnership that turns hilarious as she tunes the radio to different stations while Martin is chased away. Jerry is forced to frantically lip-sync to quick opera music, an exercise instruction program, and a drug store advertisement.
As both stars’ fame grew, the team reached a point of irreconcilable differences and decided to go their separate ways, breaking up on July 24, 1956. Though each went on to have distinguished solo careers, some fans would describe the work they did during their partnered years as among their favorite.
Lewis took time to find himself as a solo artist. Without Martin to play off of, Lewis was forced to reestablish his comedic bonafides and his own confidence. Like riding a bike, this all came rushing back to him as he toured the Las Vegas night club circuit telling jokes and even finding his unique singing voice. With the void left by Dean Martin’s absence, fans of Lewis will attest that Lewis’s best new comedic partner was… none other than Jerry Lewis. He fully infused his new solo act with even more classic Lewis, making both he and his act more zany, bawdy, and louder than ever before.
This new Lewis, as seen in films such as The Delicate Delinquent (1957) and Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958), had his detractors, but for those who loved his comedic hijinks, these new films became something of a revelation. His winning formula of jokes and sentimentality connected with the post-war filmgoing public who longed for movies that were equal parts laughs and pathos. This heart is on full display in Rock-A-Bye Baby, as Lewis performs a beautiful rendition of “Dormi-Dormi-Dormi” for three sleeping babies.
Adding to his frenzied, animated style was his partnership with director Frank Tashlin. Tashlin, a former animation director at Warner Brothers, began a long comedic partnership with Lewis with Hollywood or Bust (1956). His cartoon-like style of directing brought the perfect absurd flavor to Lewis’s slapstick style. All told, they made eight films together, including It’s Only Money (1962), Rock-A-Bye Baby, and The Geisha Boy (1958). Our favorite film to come out of their partnership is Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), which functions almost as a series of wacky vignettes taking place in and around a fancy department store, featuring Jerry Lewis as his classic endearing klutz and Jill St. John as the heiress helplessly in love with him. The film features many now-iconic Jerry moments, such as a rogue vacuum cleaner sucking up an entire room (even a yapping poodle), his mimed typewriter gag, and an encounter with Nancy Kulp as a renowned big game hunter.
Exacting extreme control over his creative output, Lewis grew into one of Hollywood’s most polarizing auteurs. Perhaps most appreciated by the French, Lewis came to symbolize for many non-Americans everything that American comedy could and should be: big, fast, and boisterous. Another quintessentially loony film from this period is It’s Only Money, an overlooked gem of a comedy that showcases Jerry at his zany best as a TV repairman who dreams of becoming a private detective. In due time, hilarity ensues (as it always does) as Lewis finds himself in the throes of a madcap adventure where he is suddenly thrust into his own mystery in need of solving.
Apart from his signature zany comic stylings, his films also developed some consistent themes that proved him as a wholly unique artist and further strengthened the bond his fans felt to him. A thread seen running through films like Pardners (1956), The Delicate Delinquent (1957), The Geisha Boy, and The Patsy (1964) is the importance of finding your own voice. These movies advocated standing up to the big guy and discovering your purpose and potential for good. The Geisha Boy features Jerry Lewis as a magician on a USO tour of Japan and Korea. Alongside Lewis’s trademark antics is the truly heartwarming story of a man who draws an orphaned Japanese boy out of his shell through humor and love. It’s the kind of touching theme that endeared so much of his 1960s output to fans.
Though his antic-filled roles started to simmer down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his star continued to shine bright. He took less caricatured but equally funny and interesting roles in movies like Boeing, Boeing (1965) and Way… Way Out (1966). Later still was what some consider to be his crowning accomplishment, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Showcasing a more serious side of the beloved Jerry Lewis persona, the film may cut as close to the real man as any of his films.
A tally of Lewis’s notable achievements as a filmmaker (in both credited and uncredited directorial roles) would be incomplete without also mentioning his pioneering efforts in the field of motion picture science and engineering. Often incorrectly said to have invented on-set video assist, he was among the first to perfect and popularize the technology. This allowed directors to view what was being filmed via video monitor.
But performing was not his only passion. Lewis devoted much of his time to raising awareness and billions of dollars for Muscular Dystrophy. For 44 years, he served as the national chairman and host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. The famed weekend-long entertainment would for years be a source of great joy and comfort to those passionate about both Hollywood and the cause of fighting the illness. The Rogers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” became an anthem for him as he would sing it at the close of the Labor Day telethons. The song was representative not only of those with the illness, but of the performer himself who would “walk on, walk on” every year in an effort to help those less fortunate. Over the years, Lewis and his efforts raised over $2.6 billion in donations for the worthy cause.
Olive Films joins his many fans both domestically and abroad who were saddened by his passing. He holds a special place in our catalog as one of our favorite stars and a special place in our hearts as an honorary member of our Olive Films family. Often parodied but always inimitable, sometimes criticized but never wavering, Jerry, you will be missed.
August 23, 2017