On August 20, 2017, Hollywood lost a comedic screen icon when Jerry Lewis passed away at age 91 due to cardiac disease. Lewis was an active entertainer for over 70 years, with a long career spanning stage, screen and television. Lewis first rose to prominence as one half of the Martin & Lewis comedy duo with Dean Martin, making audiences laughs with no less than 14 movies until they broke up in 1956. These films included ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955), HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (1956), SCARED STIFF (1953), AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950) and THE CADDY (1953). From there, Lewis went solo not only as an actor but as a writer, producer and director as well. He successfully helmed many box office winners features including THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963), THE LADIES MAN (1961), THE BELLBOY (1960), THE PATSY (1964) and THE ERRAND BOY (1961). Among his many directorial efforts there is also the mysterious THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, a film that Lewis considered so awful he would not release it to the general public, and to this day has only been seen by a select few number of people. After that his appearances on film became few and far between, focusing mostly on his charitable work with Muscular Distrophy, though he did make the occasional film, most notably in Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY (1982). His last film was 2016 heist film THE TRUST, starring alongside Elijah Wood and Nicholas Cage. What follows is a list of his most notable work that should be considered essential viewing.
I've had great success being a total idiot.
1955 • Frank Tashlin
Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, Eddie Mayehoff
Screenplay: Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker, Hal Kanter
Rick and Eugene are two consistently out-of-work roommates. Rick (Martin) is a painter and a smooth-talking con man, while Eugene (Lewis) is a bumbling man-child who aspires to be a children's author. Eugene is obsessed with a comic book called "The Bat Lady", and that obsession leads to vivid nightmares of which wackily he narrates out loud in his sleep, much to Rick's chagrin. As luck would have the two friends just happen to live one apartment down from the Bat Lady's creator Abby Parker (Mallone) and her model Bessie (Shirley MacLaine). Rick falls for Abby and tries to seduce her while simultaneously conning her out of her job as writer/artist of the comic, using Eugene's crazy dreams as new, more sensational plot lines. Eugene, while infatuated with The Bat Lady, spends the majority of the film ducking the man-crazy advances of Bessie, whom he met earlier in the story dressed as Bat Lady herself. Confused? Convoluted? Well, throw in a Soviet espionage plot that comes out of left field and an elaborate musical number that doesn't really make any sense within the context of the story, and you've got yourself a classic Martin and Lewis film. Admittedly, this is my first introduction to Lewis' brand of slapstick comedy and his chemistry with Dean Martin. While this comedy style is very broad and an acquired taste, there are a few moments that stand out: particulary a sequence where Lewis, his bottom half replaced by a dummy, is massaged into impossible positions by an unwitting nurse. She is soon joined by Rick and several other nurse and all parties involved get stuck in a giant knot. The other notable gag is one where Eugene keeps running up and down 2 flights of stairs to deliver phone messages to Rick who is in the bath. Martin and Lewis have undeniable comedic chemistry, and it's a shame that the duo broke up a year later under unfriendly circumstances. Also noteworthy in this film is Shirley MacLaine who is absolutely up for slapstick hijinks as the love interest to Jerry Lewis.
They wanted to have me drowned when I was born, but the SPCA stopped them.
1960 • Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Alex Gerry, Bob Clayton, Milton Berle
Screenplay: Jerry Lewis
This film would mark Lewis' directorial debut. The film basically has no real plot, but instead is series of gags set in one set piece, a Miami hotel. It's quite a unique concept for the time, one that needed to be introduced by a "studio executive" at the open of the picture, but one that Lewis would reuse several times throughout his career. Lewis puts in a mostly silent performance as Stanley, a bumbling bellboy whose heart is in the right place, always willing to help, but always being berated by his superiors or managing to make a mess out of any situation. This type of short-form "set-up, punchline gag" is really where Lewis excels. He also is able, through his silent performance, able to generate a good deal of empathy for his character. Lewis also appears as an obnoxious version of himself during the film as well. Lewis came up for the idea for the film while he was already staying at the hotel, contracted as a nightclub act. Paramount pressured him for a new film, so he used his surroundings as inspiration. He filmed during the day and performed at night. Lewis' friend, silent screen icon Stan Laurel, was consulted on the film and it shows in Lewis' performance.
1960 • Frank Tashlin
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Ed Wynn, Judith Anderson, Anna Maria Alberghetti
Screenplay: Frank Tashlin
Jerry Lewis stars as Fella, in this gender-swapped parody of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. When his father dies, Fella continues to live with his wicked stepmother and his two good-for-nothing stepbrothers. In an update of the fairy tale, he's reduced to being their butler, while they scheme for a way to steal his inheritance. A beautiful princess is visiting, and the evil stepmother decides to throw a ball in order to marry off one of her two sons. Of course, this plan is interrupted by Fella, made handsome and dashing by his fairy GodFATHER (played by Ed Wynn). The film plays out exactly as you think it would, with Fella falling in love with the beautiful princess and living happily ever after. Lewis ups the slapstick in possibly the wackiest film on this list.
Cinderfella: Hey, isn't he holding the future wife just a little too close?
Fairy Godfather: Oh, ho-ho! Stop worrying. She's all yours, every bit of her.
Cinderfella: Yeah, but I'd like to have the bits he's holding!
1961 • Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Lillian Briggs, Helen Traubel, Kathleen Freeman, Buddy Lester, George Raft
Writer: Jerry Lewis
Lewis plays the unlikely named Herbert H. Heebert, a man who was scorned by love and swears off romance who unknowingly takes a job as the caretaker for an all-women boarding house. Because of course he does. Once again, not much plot to this and follows the formula THE BELLBOY started, with Lewis using the setting as an excuse for unrelated sight gags. What is striking about the film is that it does away with any pretense and celebrates its artificiality, at one point zooming out the camera so far that the audience can see the massive boarding school house is clearly a manufactured doll-house set. The set was a massive construction, at $350,000, the most expensive set ever designed for a comedy at the time. The "Hey, Lady!" line that is most often associated with Lewis comes from this film.
1961 • Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Brian Donlevy, Howard McNear, Dick Wesson
Writer: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
IT'S A NUT AT HIS NUTTIEST!
Another set-up much like THE BELLBOY, in which the setting is just an excuse for a series of unrelated sight gags. In this film, the studio heads of "Paramutal Pictures" want to spy on their actors and employees, and they hire Morty Tashman (Lewis) as the man for the job. He has a job as an errand boy, and comes in contact with all the inner workings of the studio, reporting back what he sees. Kind of a meta film for Lewis as he pokes fun at the behind the scenes of Hollywood and what "really goes on" when the cameras are off. Studio executives do not come off very well in this film, and the fact that by the end of the film Morty himself is an executive, speaks volumes of what Lewis thinks of the studio system. Subversion through absurdity.
1963 • Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens, Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman
Writer: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
WHAT DOES HE BECOME? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER?
Perhaps the most famous of all Jerry Lewis roles. A break from his usual sketch films, Lewis returns to a narrative as he stars as Professor Kelp in this parody of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Kelp is the stereotypical (and perhaps archetypal) nerd: thick glasses, mussed hair, buck teeth, bow-tie... the works. Sick of being bullied and not getting the girl, he creates a formula to make him a more alpha male. The serum works and transforms him into the smooth-talking, handsome and charming Buddy Love. The serum only lasts a few hours, however, and Professor Kelp always transforms back. This sets up a series of gags of Lewis alternating between the two personalities and having them crossover as he transitions from one to the other. This is my second Lewis performance on this list, as it really showcases his range in comedic styles. Though there are similarities, Lewis has always vehemently denied that Buddy Love was based on his old partner Dean Martin. The film remains his most iconic and spawned a remake in 1996 with Eddie Murphy in the title role. The film was included on AFI's list of 100 funniest comedies and was inducted into the National Film Registry as a culturally important and significant film. "Simpsons" fans should also note that Professor Frink is heavily inspired by Professor Kelp.
You're crazy about me, right? And I can understand it. Only this morning, looking in the mirror before shaving, I enjoyed seeing what I saw so much I couldn't tear myself away.
1964 • Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Ina Balin, Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine
Writer: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
When a famous comedian dies, his parasitic management team fear for their job security. So they decide to manufacture a new comedy star out of their bumbling bellboy, Stanley. Yes, another bellboy named Stanley. This is no coincidence as the film was originally planned as sequel to the 1960 hit. Stanley is clearly untalented: he can't act, he can't sing, he can't dance and he's only funny by accident. Yet, they continue to pull strings for him to get him national attention. Eventually, the managers lose faith in him and to save themselves the embarrassment, fire him right before he takes the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show. And of course, he becomes a star. The film is notable for the amount of contemporary celebrities that make cameos in the film including George Raft, Hedda Hopper, Ed Sullivan, Ed Wynn and Mel Tormé. Not his best film by far, but features a decent amount of gags including montage of sequences of failed singing and acting lessons. Lewis always had a knack for casting strong supporting players and this film is no different, teeming with character actors Everett Sloane, Keenan Wynn and in his last film appearance, Peter Lorre. Another interesting skewering of the entertainment business by Lewis.
1964 • Frank Tashlin
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Susan Oliver, Glenda Farrell, Kathleen Freeman, Karen Sharpe
Writers: Norm Liebermann, Ed Haas
Another set-up like THE BELLBOY and THE ERRAND BOY, with Lewis playing a hospital orderly with psychosomatic empathy for his patients. While most of the film is just set-ups for various gags, there is a thin narrative of Jerome (Lewis) falling for an old high school crush of his. This is where the film takes a bit of a left turn from other wacky Lewis comedies. The crush, played by Susan Oliver, was admitted to the psychiatric wing for an attempted suicide. It treats the suicide narrative seriously, and Oliver's scenes are mostly played for drama, not for laughs. And here Lewis brings out the empathy from the audience through the eyes of his clownish character. It's quite a feat in an otherwise slapstick comedy. The grand finale goes full hijinks, however, with Jerome stealing an ambulance in pursuit of his true love, Julie the nurse.
- Can you drive an ambulance?
- Well, in the Army I drove a tank...
1982 • Martin Scorsese
20th Century Fox
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
NOBODY KNOWS RUPERT PUPKIN, BUT BY 11:30 TONIGHT, THE WHOLE WORLD WILL KNOW HE'S THE KING OF COMEDY
Jerry Lewis plays a supporting role to Robert De Niro in this Martin Scorsese black comedy about celebrity obsession. De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a deranged and mentally unstable aspiring stand up comedian who is looking for his next big break. He thinks he's made it big when he meets a Johnny Carson-esque talk show host Jerry Langford (Lewis), and tries to get booked on his show, without any luck. All the while, Rupert continually lives out a fantasy where he and Langford are friends and is constant presence on the talk show. His mania leads him to kidnap Langford, with the ransom being he gets to perform the opening monologue on Langford's show. The FBI grant him his request, and what follows is a masterful blending of reality by Scorsese, that the audience must decide what is real and what is Rupert's fantasy. While Johnny Carson (who refused), Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were all considered for the role of Langford, it finally went to Lewis. Lewis wasn't in the Rat Pack, but he was Rat Pack adjacent, which lent him that show business vibe on top of his street cred as a comic to play a Carson-like role. It's actually perfect casting. The film premiered at Cannes, and Scorsese picked up a nomination for Best Director. Scorsese also picked up a BAFTA for the film. The film was well received by critics, but was a massive box office failure. This is a forgotten Scorsese masterpiece and, despite continuing to work into his 90s, a perfect bookend to Lewis' career. He should have picked up an Oscar for a Supporting role.
Better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime.
Other Notable Performances:
- AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950)
- SCARED STIFF (1953)
- THE CADDY (1953)
- HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (1956)
- ROCK-A-BYE BABY (1958)
- THE GEISHA BOYS (1958)
- WHO'S MINDING THE STORE? (1963)
- THE FAMILY JEWELS (1965)
- 3 ON A COUCH (1966)
- MAX ROSE (2013)