Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up
If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be devastated by Jerry Lewis’ death, I’d have asked you to give me a drag off that before you throw it away. Just a month ago, it was easy to write Jerry off. The cranky attitude, the hubris, the outrageous statements (like “women aren’t funny”) whether he actually believed them or not, and as far as we were concerned, the ultimate betrayal: the Trump endorsement … Hell, I think we even resented Jerry’s longevity! And it got to the point where we swore that, if he ever told that goddamn parrot joke just one more time, we’d run out of the room screaming.
But Jerry Lewis passing away on Sunday, Aug. 20, was a shock and cause of sorrow for millions of people, myself included. As beaten-to-death as the cliché is, Jerry Lewis’ demise was indeed “the end of an era.” He was one of the very last survivors of a show business tradition that stretched from Vaudeville to movies, radio, and television. I suspect that it was my fellow Baby Boomers that took Jerry’s shuffling off this mortal coil the hardest. After all, he was our comedian! Oh, sure, we also loved Keaton, Fields, Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Marxes, and the Stooges, but Jerry Lewis was the only one making brand new comedies for us to look forward to. And the fact that our parents vehemently hated Jerry only endeared him to us all the more. (Hey, our parents also hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles!)
And love him or hate him, as even his severest critics had to admit, Jerry was an accomplished and innovative filmmaker with an unmistakable visual style. He was also a master of film technology. It was Jerry Lewis who invented and held the patent on what is now known as “the video assist.” This allows film directors to look at whatever they’d just shot right there on the set, rather than waiting to see “the rushes” the next morning. It is now an established asset used by most modern-day filmmakers.
Most of Jerry’s obits dutifully mentioned the usual film highlights: Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry’s first solo film after breaking up with Dean Martin), The Bellboy (the first feature film Lewis directed himself), The Patsy, and, of course, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But, as fans of World Cinema Paradise probably (or hopefully) know, I write a series of articles titled The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of. The purpose of that series is to draw film buffs’ attention to great little-known cinematic gems that have escaped from or fallen out of public consciousness. In the spirit of that series, I’ve decided to concentrate this appreciation of his work on three of Jerry’s lesser-known pictures. (Interestingly, all three of these films are black comedies about death, something I hadn’t even considered when selecting them.)
Poster for Living It Up
Living It Up (Paramount, 1954)
My nomination for the best of the 16 movies starring the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is Living It Up, which had the most notable pedigree of all their pictures together. It was the film version of a 1953 Broadway musical titled Hazel Flagg, with songs by composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. That musical was, in turn, based on William Wellman’s classic 1937 screwball black comedy Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The source for both previous versions was a short story by James Street titled Letter to the Editor and both scripts were written by the great Ben Hecht. Fortunately, Living It Up’s screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson had the good sense to stay as faithful to Hecht’s scripts as possible (albeit with some comedy routines specifically created for Dean and Jerry), and even retained a good percentage of Hecht’s original dialogue.
Most contemporary film scholars usually opt for Artists and Models (1955) as Martin & Lewis’ most notable picture, mainly because it was the first and best of the two of their movies written and directed by former cartoon animator Frank Tashlin. I, however, have major problems with that film, not the least of which that Tashlin endorsed the idiotic theory promoted by quack psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertheim in his anti-comic book screed The Seduction of the Innocent that comic books were the main cause of juvenile delinquency. (Wertheim’s book has long since been debunked by scholars.) And while Tashlin’s visual style and use of cartoon-like sight gags undoubtedly influenced Jerry as a director, he was also guilty of encouraging Lewis’ least attractive trait: the maudlin overuse of pathos and sentimentality. (“Chaplin shit,” as Dean once referred to it.)
Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis in Living It Up
Directed by veteran comedy director Norman Taurog, Living It Up begins with Dean and Jerry stuck in a decrepit shithole out in the Midwestern desert appropriately named Desert Hole. Homer Flagg (Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) dreams of leaving Desert Hole in his dust and seeing the big city, specifically New York. His opportunity presents itself when the town’s only physician Dr. Steve Harris (Dean in the Charles Winninger role) accidentally diagnoses Homer as dying of radiation poisoning. (The glow Steve saw on Homer’s x-ray was his radium watch.) Meanwhile, back in NYC, perpetually scheming newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh, looking particularly gorgeous in eye-popping Technicolor, in the Fredric March role) proposes to her Machiavellian editor Oliver Stone (Fred Clark, far better cast than Walter Connolly who played the role in the original) that they give the dying boy an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Big Apple and exploit the story for publicity purposes. When Wally shows up in Desert Hole to make the paper’s offer, both Steve (who immediately develops a crush on Wally) and Homer (who’ll do anything to see Manhattan) decide to continue the ruse that Homer is living on borrowed time.
The dark humor and Ben Hecht’s caustic dialogue gives Living It Up a bite that is missing from the other Martin & Lewis vehicles. The single best line from Hecht’s Nothing Sacred script is beautifully delivered by Fred Clark to Janet Leigh: “I am sitting here, seriously considering removing your heart and stuffing it… like an olive!” And when Wally bursts out laughing at the karma of a couple of rubes taking the city slickers for a ride, Oliver smugly responds with a line provided by scenarists Rose and Shavelson that might be the most suggestive line ever to be heard in a Jerry Lewis picture: “You were going to marry [Homer]. He would’ve done to you what he did to this paper.” Apart from Clark’s performance, one of the reasons that the role of Oliver Stone is funnier in this film than in the original is that Rose and Shavelson made the character more ghoulish, constantly looking for ways to hasten Homer’s demise. When Homer passes out in a nightclub (he’s just surreptitiously downed a quart of vodka), Oliver, looking like he’s about to burst out in crocodile tears, says to Steve, “Doctor, I want to know the worst… We go to press in fifteen minutes!” (At one point, Living It Up becomes relevant to today’s political climate when Oliver assures Steve that his newspaper will reward him with a series of editorials denouncing “socialized medicine.”)
Fred Clark, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in Living It Up
Another reason Living It Up outshines most other Martin & Lewis pictures is that, at long last, Dean was given several opportunities to show off his comedy chops. Most of the screenwriters assigned to the team’s movies treated Dean like a necessary evil: let him sing a few songs and just give him straight lines to feed to Jerry. Impersonating an accomplished member of the medical profession, Dean as Steve has a running gag where, whenever he wants to sound scientific, he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and drops his voice a couple of octaves. Jerry has his own solo comic highlight when he’s scheduled to be examined by an international trio of renowned experts, Dr. Emile Egelhofer (Sig Ruman, the only holdover from the cast of Nothing Sacred ) from Germany, Dr. Lee (Richard Loo) from China, and Dr. Nassau (Eduard Franz) from France. Homer confounds the three doctors by taking turns impersonating each of them, spouting gibberish to approximate their native languages. (And, yes, when Jerry impersonates Lee, he does his traditional cringe-inducing Oriental stereotype complete with big buck teeth.)
Although Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard wrote two new songs for Dean, most notably “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” which became a minor hit for him, the film’s best musical moments are the three songs retained from the stage version. In the aforementioned nightclub scene, Dean gets to serenade Janet Leigh with one of Styne’s loveliest romantic ballads “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” In the same scene, Jerry gives the best demonstration of his gift for eccentric dancing ever when he joins Sheree North (the only holdover from the stage cast in her film debut) in the rollicking jitterbug number “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby.” (Biographer Shawn Levy in his book King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis described Jerry’s dancing in this scene as looking like “a chimpanzee on amphetamines.”) And, last but not least, Dean and Jerry have their shining moment on film when they do the song-and-dance number “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” as they stroll through those same streets.
Spanish poster for Cracking Up with the title Jerry’s Crazy World
Cracking Up (Warner Brothers, 1983)
Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits covered his filmmaking downfall in the late 60s when Paramount unceremoniously dumped him just as the studio had done to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the 1930s. He tried working at other studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Warner Brothers), but those efforts only accelerated his decline. And then in 1972, Jerry disastrously attempted to make a stark Holocaust drama called The Day the Clown Cried. Concerning a circus clown imprisoned in Dachau who forced to entertain the child prisoners and eventually lead them a la the Pied Piper into the gas ovens, the never-finished The Day the Crown Cried has since become the butt of a thousand snide putdowns from Lewis’ detractors.
But then in 1980, Jerry made a directorial comeback with Hardly Working, a box office hit that nevertheless remains sheer torture to sit through thanks to Lewis smothering the humor underneath a nauseating level of pathos. The bright side of the renewed interest in Jerry Lewis was not only his acting triumph as late night talk show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy The King of Comedy (1982), basically a comic variation on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Langford being stalked by unfunny comedian wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), but Jerry also had the opportunity to take a final bite of the filmmaking apple in 1983 when Warner Brothers gave him the green light to co-write (with Bill Richmond, his collaborator on The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy), direct, and star in Cracking Up. This time around, Lewis avoided pathos altogether and proved that he had one last comic gem up his sleeve.
Jerry Lewis as Warren Nefron in Cracking Up
Cracking Up (filmed under the title Smorgasbord) was Lewis’ return to the episodic approach of The Bellboy and The Ladies Man with a series of unrelated self-contained comedy routines and skits. The frame on which these sketches were hung was Warren Nefron (Lewis) consulting Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman), a psychiatrist, after a series of bungled suicide attempts, the flashbacks and family genealogy stories he relates to Dr. Pletchick being the basis for the various comic episodes. Unlike Hardly Working, Cracking Up didn’t even have the chance to either succeed or fail financially because Warner Brothers, the studio which had similarly botched the release of Lewis’ 1970 World War II comedy Which Way to the Front?, gave it just a limited release in France before dumping it on basic cable TV in the US. Which was a shame because Cracking Up demonstrated that Jerry Lewis’ comic instinct and timing was just as impeccable as ever.
Jerry Lewis’ credit title in Cracking Up
This becomes apparent in the film’s opening scene when Warren attempts to make his way to a chair in Pletchick’s office while doing pratfall after pratfall on the floor’s over-polished surface, with the credits superimposed over the footage. (In a nod to audiences’ familiarity with the veteran comic, his name is billed before the title as “Jerry—Who Else?”) All the expected tropes are there: the stylized use of Technicolor, the physical adroitness, the perfect timing, the swinging big band music playing underneath the credits.
Herb Edelman & Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up
The film’s most hilarious skits involve Warren trying to order breakfast in a restaurant and encountering The Waitress From Hell (comedienne Zane Busby) who, in an annoyingly nasal and grating voice, recites a never-ending list of choices on the menu (e.g., when Warren asks for juice, she proceeds in a monotone to name three or four dozen different types of juice the establishment offers); Jerry playing a caricature of a redneck Southern cop who accidentally destroys both the car of the driver he’s just pulled over and his own patrol car; Warren flying overseas on the world’s cheapest, least competent airline, with perennially soused Foster Brooks (the spiritual heir of cinematic drunks Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton) as the pilot and Lewis regular Buddy Lester as a sinister, heavily-armed passenger. (When going through inspection, the officials not only ignore Lester’s dual bandoliers, but they even offer Warren his choice of weaponry.) Not all of the skits work, but enough of them do to justify checking out Lewis’ little-known farewell as a director.
Poster for Funny Bones
Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)
Jerry Lewis as George Fawkes in Funny Bones
Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits mentioned Scorsese’s The King of Comedy as an example of latter-day filmmakers’ admiration for him, but very few of them mentioned Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Not only is Funny Bones by far the better picture, but Lewis’ role is more central and critical. Several actors might have played Jerry Langford (albeit not as well as Lewis), but nobody else could have brought as much to Funny Bones as Lewis did playing the supporting role of world-famous, much-beloved veteran comedian George Fawkes. (And, no, the role is not an autobiographical one.) In fact, Chelsom, who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Peter Flannery) Funny Bones went on record as saying that he expressly designed the role with Jerry Lewis in mind. (Scorsese has admitted that his first choice to play Langford was Johnny Carson, and that he decided to offer it to Lewis only after Carson turned him down.)
George Carl & Freddie Davies as the Parker Brothers & Lee Evans as Jack Parker in Funny Bones
A very, very dark comedy, Funny Bones is the best movie ever made on the subject of comedy. Comedian George Fawkes is the father of two sons, one of them illegitimate, the result of an extramarital affair. The bastard son is Jack Parker (UK comedian Lee Evans making his film debut), who was raised in Blackpool, England by the Parkers, a family of music hall artists that include his mother Katie (Leslie Caron, looking as lovely as ever), his adoptive father Bruno (Freddie Davies), his uncle Thomas (George Carl), and his dog Toast. (When, during a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack is asked by a police psychiatrist what he wants, he answers “Toast,” and the cops, of course, think he’s requesting breakfast.) Jack is an instinctive comic genius with a gift for pantomime and physical comedy. Jack has funny bones.
Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes in Funny Bones
George’s acknowledged son is Tommy Fawkes (excellently played by Oliver Platt in a rare star turn). Whereas Rupert Pupkin’s main goal was fame for fame’s sake, Tommy desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps because he wants to be funny, needs to be funny. But there’s one problem. Tommy isn’t funny. Not in the least. In fact, Tommy is so clueless when it comes to humor that he can’t even recognize the incongruity of a spoiled, pampered rich kid adopting an angry young man persona on stage. Making his big Las Vegas debut, Tommy only succeeds in alienating the audience by resorting to what he’s thinks is cutting edge material, but is actually an ancient blue joke that’s been as pummeled to death over the years as Jerry’s parrot joke. (It would seem that Tommy wants to emulate Lenny Bruce, but he can’t even achieve the level of Andrew Dice Clay.) At one point, George accurately diagnoses why Tommy isn’t funny: “God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny!” In other words, Tommy doesn’t have funny bones.
Unfortunately, the suits at Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of Disney Corp.) had no idea how to market the picture, so they made the monumental mistake of peddling it as a family-friendly comedy, which it most certainly was not. The film was briefly given a limited release in March 1995 and then promptly vanished. I’ve already written about Funny Bones extensively for World Cinema Paradise in my The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, so there’s no need to spend much more time describing it when you can read all about it here. I did say earlier in this article that all three of these films are black comedies about death. In the case of Funny Bones, however, I can’t explain when and how the Grim Reaper appears in the picture without spoiling some of the movie’s best plot twists. Suffice it to say that, if you’re a major Jerry Lewis fan, you really need to see Funny Bones.
Before we wish a fond farewell to “the King of Comedy,” it’s worth considering one of those cosmic ironies that so often occur in the world of entertainment. As previously mentioned, most of the movie critics from the 1950s through the 1970s hated Jerry Lewis’ films and never hesitated to criticize his pictures in the harshest terms possible. But most of those comedies that were critical failures became huge financial successes, and almost every single one of those critics had been long gone decades before Jerry left us this year. For the umpteenth time, Jerry Lewis had the last laugh.
 Jerry Lewis’ parrot joke: “I’m riding on the New York subway and this young guy gets on and sits in the seat across from me. The kid’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, many colors on that shirt, and his hair is all done up in spikes, many different-colored spikes. He sees me staring at him and asks, “What the matter? Didn’t you ever do anything for fun?” So I said to him, “Sorry. The reason I’m staring is because I once fucked a parrot… and I was wondering if you’re my son.” (Needless to say, Jerry cleaned up the joke whenever he told it on television.)
 Ruman not only played Dr. Egelhofer in Nothing Sacred, but he repeated the role a third time in Billy Wilder’s 1966 black comedy The Fortune Cookie, which also involved medical fraud. Emile Egelhofer was also the name of the psychiatrist brought in to examine cop killer Earl Williams in Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s seminal 1928 newspaper stage comedy The Front Page. Obviously, Hecht liked the name.