Tag Archives: Peter Chelsom

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films

 

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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.[1]

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.)

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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 LIVING IT UP

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.”)

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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 [2]) 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.

 

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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.

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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 CRACKING UP

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 CRACKING UP

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.

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Poster for Funny Bones

Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

 


[1] 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.)

[2] 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.

 

Buy Living it Up on Amazon
Buy Cracking Up on Amazon
Buy Funny Bones on Amazon

 

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Funny Bones” (1995)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

 

“We were funny people. We didn’t have to tell funny stories. We were funny. We had funny bones… I think there are two types of comedians. There’s a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

– George Fawkes

“Comedy’s a magnificent shambles, huh? Purposeful, intentional chaos. If it isn’t funny, you die a double death, right?”

– Tommy Fawkes

“I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible, didn’t cause pain.”

– Bruno Parker

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British filmmaker Peter Chelsom’s 1995 movie Funny Bones, which he produced, directed, and co-wrote with Peter Flannery, is the type of film that defies simple categorization. It is, among other things, a tribute to Vaudeville, a celebration of English eccentricity à la the old Ealing comedies (it was even filmed at the Ealing studios), a backstage soap opera, a drama, a tragedy, a melodrama, a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, a horror story, a musical, and a very, very, very black comedy. Speaking of which, it is the single best movie ever made about the subject of comedy. There have been several films about performers doing comedy, including Roy Del Ruth’s Always Leave Them Laughing, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Alfred E. Green’s Top Banana, Carl Reiner’s The Comic, and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memoirs, but Funny Bones doesn’t just concern those who perform comedy, it deals the very nature of comedy itself. The theme of Funny Bones, however, isn’t anything as trite as posing the question, “What is comedy?” (A question so inane that it only deserves the exact same answer that Louis Armstrong gave to someone who once asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”) Rather, the main focus of Funny Bones is exploring the difference between those who want to be funny, those who instinctively know how to be funny, and what it takes to be funny.

It’s impossible to summarize Funny Bones’ story in a sentence or two. The film does have a plot, but it’s so complex and labyrinthian that seeing exactly how it unfolds and discovering the secrets the various characters are hiding are among of the chief pleasures of watching the film for the first time. (Subsequent viewings of Funny Bones can be ever more rewarding; no matter how many times you see it, there’s always something new to discover.) Perhaps the best way to convey some idea of what Funny Bones is like without spoiling the fun is to take a look at the two characters the film revolves around.

The first one we are introduced to is Jack Parker (played by British comedian Lee Evans in his theatrical film debut) in the film’s mysterious opening scene depicting a botched robbery at sea. A young man in his 30s, Jack is first glimpsed perched at the top of the mast of one of two boats rendezvousing out in the middle of nowhere off the shore of Blackpool, England. (As Janet Maslin pointed out in her New York Times review of Funny Bones, Jack’s “most important scenes in the film have him perched above other characters at precarious heights.”) We don’t learn exactly what is being stolen or why until later in the film. What is clear in this sequence is that Jack is being betrayed by his companions, led by a slimy, corrupt cop appropriately named Sharkey (Ian McNeice), and that one of the people involved meets a macabre end when he’s thrown overboard and his feet are chopped off by the boat’s propellers, causing him to bleed to death under the water.

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It isn’t until a little later in the movie that we discover that Jack’s is really a natural-born comedian and that he comes from a family of performers. His father, Bruno (Freddie Davies), and uncle, Thomas (George Carl), were a celebrated slapstick comedy team known professionally as the Parker Brothers. His French-born mother, Katie (Leslie Caron), was a singer, who is now divorced from his father, but used to participate in the family act, as did Jack. A deeply troubled individual who has already experienced more than his share of sorrow, Jack is, nonetheless, an enormously talented comic, even more so than his elders. With Jack, comedy is instinctual, even when he’s not performing. When taken into police custody because of a presumed suicide attempt that takes place in the aftermath of the robbery, he can’t resist turning an interview with a psychiatrist (Gavin Millar) into a Vaudeville routine.

Psychiatrist: “Where were you born?”

Jack: “Blackpool.”

Psychiatrist: “Why Blackpool?”

Jack: “’Cause I wanted to be near me mother.”

Psychiatrist: “Have you lived here all your life?”

Jack: “Not yet.”

But Jack is no idiot savant; from years of experience. he knows the mechanics of comedy by heart and is also something of a technical wizard. We observe Jack at the decrepit warehouse on the Blackpool docks where he lives with his father, uncle, and pet dog, meticulously putting together a reel-to-reel tape recording of sound effects and snippets from several different radio broadcasts. The purpose of this recording is explained in a crucial mid-film scene set on an open mike night at a small Blackpool nightclub. That night, appearing under the pseudonym “Val Radio,” Jack performs a “dummy act” in time to his sound montage recording, giving the film audience its first indication of what a brilliant physical comedian he is.[1] The routine has the club audience laughing hysterically, but when Sharkey shows up unexpectedly, Jack’s cut off in mid-act by the club’s owner. In is then that we get the first hint of the dark secret Jack harbors. He’s been banned from performing by the local law for the past twelve years. Why Jack got banned is one of the film’s mysteries that isn’t answered until late in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s been established that Jack, indeed, has funny bones.

If Jack is one side of a coin, then the flip side of that coin is Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt). Like Jack, Tommy is the son of a professional comedian in his 30s whose life’s calling is comedy. Unlike Jack, Tommy isn’t funny. It isn’t just a lack of talent; it’s his attitude. Tommy is an arrogant, hipper-than-thou, privileged rich kid who can’t help feeling superior to those around him. Jack and Tommy are first linked by a transition from the Blackpool sea to a Las Vegas casino on the night of Tommy’s big debut at a prominent venue after years of playing tiny comedy clubs. Chelsom makes the transition with the aid of music: French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet’s original 1946 recording of “Le Mer” (The Sea) plays underneath the opening scene and, when the locale shifts to Vegas, it is in the middle of an elaborate stage rendition of the Americanized version of the song, “Beyond the Sea,” performed by a dancer (Harold Nicholas) backed up by a big band and a line of chorus girls.

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In a scene that’s almost as nightmarish as the one preceding it (but in a different way), Tommy waits to go on in his dressing room fighting a major case of backstage jitters. Everything that subsequently happens in that dressing room conspires to add to those jitters. The attempts of his joke writer Al (William Hootkins) to both pump him up and calm him down only succeed in infuriating him.

Al: “How’s the star of the show?”

Tommy: “I’m gonna die.”

Al: (joking heartily) “Tommy, you’re among friends. We won’t let you die!”

Tommy: “No, Al, I don’t mean on stage–although I feel like shit—I mean, I’m gonna die!”

Al:  “What is this? What’re you talking about?”

Tommy: “If I don’t do it, make it happen—you know, find that feeling—in two weeks, I’m just not gonna live any more.”

Al: “You mean you feel desperate, that’s all. A lot of people feel desperate before doing something exceptional.”

Tommy: “You know, Al, I’m not gonna play safe any more. I’m gonna take it to the edge –right to the edge—and do pirouettes.”

Al: “Pirouettes? What—what are you talking about?”

Tommy:  “Pirouettes, you dumb fuck! And if I fall… well, so be it. You know? Who gives a shit, you know?!”

Getting increasingly apprehensive, Al warns Tommy not to do “the sheep story,” pointing out that it’s a mainstream audience out there who won’t appreciate a joke with “the ‘F’ word” in it. “You’ll lose ‘em with the ‘F’ word,” he pleads. Tommy’s next visitor is his fiancée Jenny (Peter Pamela Rose), who bursts into tears over Tommy’s rudeness and breaks off their engagement. “You’re so cold! You wonder why people don’t laugh at you?” she wails before storming out of the dressing room. (The look of sheer horror on Tommy’s face reflected in the mirror at something so traumatic happening to him right before he goes out on stage is one that just about any actor or performer can identify with.) Last and most nerve-racking of Tommy’s visitors is the man he’s lived in the shadow of his entire life, his father, world-famous comedian George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis). George’s lackadaisical attitude as he peruses the dressing room (“New mirrors,” he casually observes, an ad-lib by Lewis) only intensifies his son’s case of nerves, especially when he tries to put him at ease. “You couldn’t ask for a better audience,” George says, “That room is filled with people, friends, old friends of the family. The whole of show business is there. They’re all just hoping and wishing and ready to laugh, son.” After George leaves, the heavens themselves add another twist of the screw to Tommy’s anxieties: a rumbling thunderstorm begins outside.

And just when Tommy is convinced it can’t possibly get any worse, it does… with a vengeance. After the dancer’s number is over, he spots George in the audience and encourages him to come up on stage. (Listening on the dressing room monitor, Tommy fearfully begs, “Don’t do it, dad! Oh, please don’t do it!”) Being a 24-carat ham, George unhesitatingly goes up on stage to overwhelming applause and a standing ovation. George then proceeds to do an impromptu stand-up set, beginning with, “As the cow said on a cold, wintry morning, thanks for that warm hand.” Overshadowed yet again, it’s the last straw for Tommy: he makes a beeline for the men’s room and throws up in a toilet.

Reduced to a neurotic bundle of nerves, Tommy finally takes the stage. Assuming an angry young man persona, he barely get some mild chuckles with his first jokes. Desperate, Tommy launches into the “sheep story.” Sure enough, as Al had predicted, even before he gets to the F-bomb punchline, he’s already lost the audience. Even the Japanese tourists aren’t amused. (It should be noted that this supposedly “edgy” piece of comedy material is actually one of the oldest blue jokes in the book.) Realizing how badly he’s bombed (people are already walking out), Tommy tells the crowd, “I gotta run. You’ve been a lousy fucking audience! My name’s Tommy Fawkes and I got two weeks to live!“ He flees the stage to a small, unenthusiastic smattering of semi-polite applause. When his friends and family go backstage to Tommy’s dressing room, all they find a handwritten scrawl on the mirror, “Goodbye. Sorry.”

But rather than committing suicide, Tommy turns up in his hometown of Blackpool, where he and his family lived before moving to America when he was six-years-old. Sporting a hideous mustard-yellow suit and a fake pencil mustache, Tommy is going by the name of “Rick Tarascas” (echoing the nom de plume Jack hides behind later in the film). “Tarascas” tells the lawyer he’s hired to represent him, Lawrence Berger (pronounced “Ber-jer”), a charming little milquetoast of a man played by Christopher Greet, that he’s come to Blackpool looking for new and unique comedy material. (By the way, “Tommy Fawkes returns to his hometown to find comedy material” might fit handily into a capsule review of Funny Bones, as so often has been the case, but that’s no more the plot of the film than “an anonymous reporter travels around the country trying to find out what the hell ‘Rosebud’ is” is the plot of Citizen Kane.) It soon becomes apparent, however, that the real purpose of Tommy’s quest is trying to discover the elusive secret of how to be funny.

Jack and Tommy first meet at the aforementioned open mike night. From there, everything in the story builds to the grand finale: a spectacular circus performed at a Blackpool arena, with the Parker Brothers headlining the bill. While his father and uncle are performing, Jack slips out of the audience and Sharkey smells a rat. (“Find Jack Parker now,” Sharkey cautions his men. “It’s all gettin’ a bit French… an’ I don’ like it.”) Events both magical (literally) and sinister occur, karma happens, lives are changed forever, and, after eluding the police backstage, Jack finally makes his triumphant return before an audience. But whether his appearance will result in redemption or tragedy remains to be seen until the film’s final few seconds.

Throughout the movie, Chelsom’s direction reflects his inventiveness. There are several intricately-edited montages depicting Blackpool, its eccentric inhabitants, and the even more eccentric—and downright bizarre—variety acts that audition for Tommy and Berger, including a bagpipe-playing dwarf, a lady with a singing poodle, a backward-talking man, a pair of dancing identical twins, a musical saw player, and a costumed, powdered wig-wearing magician who goes by the stage name of “the Bastard Son of Louis XIV.” Chelsom depicts important flashback sequences in two different film styles: Jack’s flashbacks are shot in black-and-white, utilizing a harsh, hard-edged, documentary-like style, whereas Tommy’s flashbacks are filmed with hand-held cameras, in slightly blurry, over-exposed footage with faded colors like 8mm home movies. As mentioned before, Chelsom’s use of music is also very creative. In addition to John Altman’s superlative background score, recordings by such diverse artists as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Washboard Sam, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and the Raymond Scott Quartet are heard.

For Funny Bones, Chelsom got first-rate performances from all of his actors. Both Evans and Platt do their best work to date as Jack and Tommy. Davies and Carl exude a feeling of melancholy resignation as the Parker Brothers. Caron is every bit as sensuous and lovely as she was in her younger days with her charming, sympathique turn as Katie. Jerry Lewis gives perhaps his finest serious performance as George, even better than his work in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Although his lack of even a hint of a British accent belies the idea of George being a native of England, it should be stated for the record that Chelsom wrote the role especially with Lewis in mind, and being the only cast member with a direct connection to classic days of Vaudeville and Hollywood comedy, Lewis’ presence is absolutely crucial to the overall film, despite only having about fifteen minutes of total screentime. Other notable performances are provided by Ruta Lee (as Mrs. Fawkes), Ticky Holgado, Terrence Rigby, and Richard Griffiths. And the late Oliver Reed plays what has to be the most atypical role of his career as Dolly Hopkins, a flamboyantly gay millionaire obsessed with his own mortality. (The fact that most of Reed’s performance wound up on the cutting room floor only adds to the sheer oddness of the role.)

Funny Bones was produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division, and they obviously had absolutely no idea of how to market the finished film when it was released in the spring of 1995. They futilely tried to sell it as a family comedy with ambiguous ad copy like, “Comedy. It’s in the timing. It’s in the material. But mostly, it’s in the bones.” (On the other hand, the theatrical trailer did suggest some of the off-the-wall quality of the film.) But it was to no avail; the film got mixed reviews and quickly vanished from sight. Disney released a DVD of the film in 2003 with no extras, not even the trailer, with the cover featuring Lewis billed as co-star and an equally deceptive tagline, “A zany look at two comedians who’ll do anything for a laugh.” One can only wonder at how many unsuspecting parents thought they’d be safe showing their children a seemingly typical Jerry Lewis comedy with an innocuous-sounding title like Funny Bones only to cause those kids to have nightmares for weeks afterwards!

 

 


[1] “Dummy act” is a Vaudeville term for an act where a comedian mimes in time to music or a recording. In the years before he teamed up with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis got his start performing a dummy act with phonograph records he played on stage.

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