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Why Is Jerry Lewis Suddenly So Popular In Vienna?

Why Is Jerry Lewis Suddenly So Popular In Vienna?

Everybody loves a clown, but it’s hard for a guy who plays for laughs to be taken seriously — a dilemma worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.

But not so much in Vienna these days.

Like a Lewis character, Lewis and his work tend to be maligned for whatever reason happens to be out there: He was kids’ entertainment. He was a product, cloned by industry exec Hal Wallis, who made too much money. His entropic childish character made audiences feel uncomfortable. His telethons were sentimental spectacles that made you feel even more uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that interviewers during the 1980’s felt obliged to issue warnings about Lewis’ fundraising and suggest that there might be something unethical about it. His later work went downhill.

Oh, and the French loved him, the ultimate put-down. It was sort of like the comment made by the now-disgraced Tom Delay at the 2004 Republican National Convention: “Good evening, or as John Kerry would say, ‘Bonjour.'”

It’s not that Jerry Lewis is back. Go on the internet and you could find plenty of Lewis films to watch in their entirety. But at the annual Viennale underway in Vienna – the respected festival in Austria – Lewis is getting the kind of retrospective he deserves, in a series sandwiched in between tributes to the Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo and the Harvard “Sensory Ethnography Lab.”

Lewis’ films are being shown on film — a rarity these days — with the best projection quality. There’s the magisterial restored mega-documentary “Bonjour Mr. Lewis,” by the French critic Robert Benayoun, plus an anthology of assessments and interviews in a book published by the Vienna Film Museum – in German, for the locals to read.

The Austrians and Jerry Lewis? Austria is so far from the frame of reference of Americans that jokes can’t draw on the same knee-jerk contempt that fuels the endless automatic babble about the French loving him.

But the timing seems right.  

Timely?  As if it’s ever the wrong time for someone who can ridicule the self-importance of Hollywood or any other form of authority?

“It’s a completely surreal pop art world,”  said the critic Adrian Martin on a panel about Lewis that the Viennale organized free to the public (as all its panels were).  “I’m a fan of the TV show ‘Mad Men,'” he continued. “‘Mad Men’ is the sedate version of the 60’s fantasy that Jerry Lewis inhabited. It’s a gaudy world of wealth and affluence, of advertising and media imagery.  It’s world that he celebrates and denigrates at the same time.” 

Also intersecting in the zeitgeist today is male fashion,  which for several years (with the blessing of Prada) has accorded its imprimatur to the little boy look – tight trousers too short and fastidiously cuffed, jackets in too-small sizes that can’t be buttoned, and the bow tie. To be fair, Peewee Herman did it more than 20 years ago, but his look also drew from Lewis.

Watching Lewis dance — a surprise to those of us who hadn’t kept up dutifully with the early films —  you can’t help but see movements that you would find in hip hop decades later. (Let’s not forget that Richard Pryor, a star with his own kinesis, was a huge Lewis fan. Watch Pryor’s interview on the Merv Griffin Show, back in 1966.) Listening to Lewis, you also hear a kind of play on language that’s revered when you hear it from Beat poets.

This said, the Viennale audience wasn’t drinking the KoolAid, or wearing it.  The retrospective was accompanied by a book published by the Film Museum of Vienna, whose director, Alexander Horwath, co-organized the Lewis tribute with the Viennale’s director, Hans Hurch. Screenings weren’t Jerry Lewis versions of the look-alike costuming of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but filled with crowds that seemed to have discovered Lewis on the screen long ago. Lewis admiration didn’t tilt into Lewis snobbery, although the jargon of lit-crit theory seems to have caught up with the man who never went to college.

“When I was young, I was not a big Jerry Lewis fan,” said Hans Hurch, director of the Viennale, “because you could see the films on television in German versions [dubbed]. The language is very important, and then there’s the physical thing. If you get the one thing, you just have the impression that he’s very comic and it’s too much. When I saw the films in the original [format], I could see that he’s a great filmmaker, and a great actor, and that his films are a world in themselves.”

Lewis “remained a taste of hard-core cinephiles, so the normal bourgeois reviewers in the newspapers couldn’t be bothered,” said Alexander Horwath of the Vienna Film Museum. “That didn’t change over the decades, so our goal is to get a new generation of young critics interested, which seems to be the case.”

“It began with Jim Carrey and the Farrelly Brothers,” said Horwath, “I loved ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and many of Carrey’s earlier things, and that was the beginning of a debate where Jerry Lewis was brought back into play as the forefather of many of these filmmakers. It may not have been that correct in precise terms, but in general it was.” He added that Lewis’ talent was especially important to recognize in light of today’s movies. “Now those young critics are starting to say that directorial talent is somehow missing in current vulgar comedies,” he said. “The quality of the comedic performer might be there, but it’s not so similar to the Jerry Lewis moment because the mise en scene and the cinematic thinking seems to be missing often.”

Since Lewis can and does generate volumes of reactions, here are some highlights. 

Hollywood or Bust (1956, dir. Frank Tashlin) starts out as a mob comedy with Dean Martin as a marginal con-man, indebted to the mafia, who prints fake lottery tickets in a bid to win big and pay back his debts, before he gets both legs broken. There are plenty of gags about the awful things that an angry mobster can do to your body in all sorts of places.  It becomes a road movie after the uncontrollable Lewis wins a car in a raffle, and Martin shows up with another winning ticket. Nobody thought of the movie as a silly unintended simultaneous twist on “On the Road,” which was published in 1957, yet the sudden journey from a music hall in the East to Hollywood is a madcap recapitulation of the pace and improbability of what happened to Martin and Lewis.

In The Ladies Man (1961), when Herbert H. Hebert (Lewis) is rejected by the woman to whom he proposes – Lewis calls her Faith – the female-phobic loser gets a job at a house of would-be models. Lewis, who produced, directed, co-wrote and starred, also designed the set. The multi-level dollhouse motif, which covered two sound stages at Paramount, made for wide-angle choreography on the large screen as the camera moved through it vertically and horizontally. It was also a point of departure for Lewis in sound design. He placed microphones all over the set, averse to relying on the industry-standard boom mike which he viewed (and heard) as an anachronism. The film is a hybrid of the “old” Lewis in the tempestuously endearing eternal child role of Herbert, and the new Lewis who labored to master (and to improve, if he could) the mechanics of cinema. The title sequence is an ingeniously refined parody of a Richard Avedon photo spread for a fashion glossy – another industry standard of the time —  delivered image by image as a model turns page after page. The pictures would have been icons — expensive icons — if Avedon had shot them, but here they’re in the mix of gags.

Then there’s “The Bellboy” (1960). A year before “The Ladies Man,” Lewis’ experimental vacation vaudeville in modern Miami began as a studio movie, but was transformed into a self-financed independent film in black and white when its producers bailed. The bellboys at the Fontainebleau are Miami were a paramilitary unit in the service of guests suffering from an overabundance of wealth. Stanley (played by Lewis, who was classified as 4-K unfit to serve by the Army in World War II) doesn’t fit too well here, either. Lewis’ persistent failure is the point of departure for virtuosic physical comedy, but it’s also a conceptual joke. Stanley, at the center of attention, doesn’t speak – a silent movie. But part of the action of the film that doesn’t have a story or a plot – as announced by a “studio executive”  — involves a visit to the hotel by Lewis himself, who often played multiple roles in his films. We get a sense of the official condescension toward Lewis, written into the script by Lewis himself, when another bellboy says dismissively, “It’s Jerry Lewis – mother used to take me to see him when I was a kid.” Never mind that this bellboy looks 20 years older than Lewis.

The absurdist jokes in “The Bellboy” roll from one style into another in a seamless, elegant black and white. Lewis’ arrival at the Fontainebleau in a limousine turns into a clown car gag as 20 hangers-on in sunglasses emerge from the black vehicle. When Lewis himself appears, he has a coat draped over his shoulder like a cape, complete with the air of a self-centered star being filmed by Fellini. To complete the homage to Italy, the birthplace of Palladio, the camera ranges through what was then a novel work of modern architecture. The punchlines come when, in the style of backstage comedy, the camera pauses to witness the idiocies that actually happen in the palace. When Stanley finally speaks, we get a common-man sentimentality that could have come right from Chaplin, who isn’t scorned for that warmth. Lewis certainly is. 

If Lewis ever had a connoisseur’s tribute, it was from the French critic Robert Benayoun (d. 1996), who published a study, “Bonjour Mr. Lewis,” which he adapted into a six-part French television series in 1982; the series showed at the Vienalle. Calling it a Jerry Lewis goldmine is like saying that Dean martin was a guy who drank sometimes.

It’s hard to pick out memorable sections in a documentary where so much is memorable. We see selections from Lewis’ home movies from his early days; crazy satires like “Come Back, Little Shiksa,” with Janet Leigh (she and Tony Curtis were friends) that show spontaneously comic side to the actress – and might teach young filmmakers a thing or two. Showing clips from films at significant length, Benayoun reminds you of Scorsese’s keep-the-clips-long approach to documentary in “My Journey in Italy.” Besides the clips, Benayoun presents selections from “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in the early 1950’s – live television at its rawest. Even with the low value put on television footage then, it provides a reminder that few considered early Lewis worthy of preservation.

Critics and the public can disagree on Lewis. People like to quote George Patton and say that if we all think the same, then we’re not thinking. Yet in “Bonjour Mr. Lewis,” the strongest support for the actor/director comes from other filmmakers – Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, John Landis, Fellini, Ettore Scola, Franceso Rosi. Lewis knew about more than simply performing and directing comedy, they say, stressing his lifelong commitment to studying cinema.

It seems that there are so many potential rights disputes locked into “Bonjour Mr. Lewis” that the series is unshowable on television or cable. Festivals are another venue, however, and the series is perfect to accompany a Lewis retrospective of any length. It should also be shown in film schools – even though that wasn’t a place where the self-taught Lewis studied.

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