R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

The flags in France are at half-mast.

If all you know of Jerry Lewis is the interminable marathons … or maybe some of the rumors about his unpleasant personality … or if you wonder: “What is the big deal with this guy?” … then you need to go back, to the late 1940s into the mid-1950s, when he and Dean Martin tapped in the Mother Lode with their nightclub act, launching both of their careers. For a time there, there was nobody bigger. Their shows were EVENTS. That that crazy nightclub act would then translate into a series of films – that Dean Martin would become a gigantic solo star – and Jerry Lewis a prolific director – is absurd in the extreme. Nick Tosches covers it in detail in his unforgettable book on Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. Here’s just a brief excerpt on the duo’s sky-rocket to fame:

The Desert Inn was still several months away from opening when Dean and Jerry arrived in September 1949. The Flamingo was still the jewel of that stretch of Highway 91 that came to be called the Strip. The Rex Cigar Store, the Jungle Inn, the 500 Club, the Riviera – the great and gaudy neon cathedral of the Flamingo was all these joints exalted. Here, married by God and by state, anointed in the blood of Bugsy Siegel, Unterwelt and American dream lay down together in greed.

Martin and Lewis by now were among the beloved of that dream, embracing and embraced by the spirit of a post-heroic, post-literate, cathode-culture America. The Flamingo was the pleasure dome of the new prefab promised land: a land of chrome, not gold; of Armstrong linoleum, not Carrara marble; of heptalk, not epos of prophecy.

Martin and Lewis were the jesters of that land. Time magazine, then as always the cutting edge of lumpen-American mediocrity, the vox populi of the modern world, celebrated the dazzling appeal of their hilarity. The heart of their audience, the nightclub clientele whose reduction to a quivering mass of thunderous yockers Variety attested again and again, was sophisticated, white-collared, and well-heeled. The sophisticated, white-collared, and well-heeled New York Times itself, in an article published while Martin and Lewis were in Las Vegas, hailed their “refreshing brand of comic hysteria,” their “wild and uninhibited imagination”.

And yet, these few years later, the nature of that appeal is as alien and as difficult to translate as the language, syntax, and meter of Catallus. There are no films or tapes of their nightclub act. Only secondary fragments have survived to be judged: glimpses of routines reworked for pictures, such as the “Donkey Serenade” scene in My Friend Irma, and for pale renderings on radio; a few rare kinescopes of television broadcasts, none of them predating 1952. Those fragments convey almost nothing of the dazzling appeal of that hilarity proclaimed in contemporary accounts. And yet the howling laughter present in many of those fragments, in the radio shows and television performances, all done before live spectators, is unanswerable. Those spectators, who had lined up for free shows at network studios, were not the same urbane nightclub-goers who howled at the Copacabana or Chez Paree or the Flamingo. Their sense of yockery was perhaps homelier; but, on the other hand, it was less primed by booze. Jerry was right: Martin and Lewis appealed to everyone. But why?

“Let us not be deceived,” the New York Times had declared in April 1947, while Dean and Jerry had been playing at the Loew’s Capitol; “we are today in the midst of a cold war.” Now, in September 1949, while they were in Las Vegas, President Truman, the first president to have a televised inauguration, revealed that the Soviet Union had set off an atomic-bomb explosion. A week later, on October 1, Chairman Mao Tse-tung would formally proclaim the Communist People’s Republic of China. In January, Truman would order the development of the hydrogen bomb. Six months later, United States ground troops would invade South Korea. “Let us not be deceived” — but America wanted nothing more than to be deceived. Martin and Lewis gave them that: not laughter in the dark, but a denial of darkness itself, a regression, a transporting to the preternatural bliss of infantile senselessness. It was a catharsis, a celebration of ignorance, absurdity, and stupidity, as meaningless, as primitive-seeming, and as droll today as the fallout shelters and beatnik posings which offered opposing sanctuary in those days so close in time but so distant in consciousness.

Those days were the beginning of the end of timelessness. Homer’s Odyssey spoke throughout the ages; Kerouac’s American odyssey, On the Road, would have a shelf life, and would prove after a handful of years more outdated and stale than Homer after thousands. But like the detergent on the shelf in that other supermarket aisle, it was for the moment new and improved; and that is what mattered. And that is why the dead-serious pretensions of Kerouac today seem so droll while the comedy of that same necrophiliac era seems so unfunny.

Dean, of course, had no use for any of this shit. He did not know the new and improved from the old and well-worn. Homer, Sorelli the Mystic: it was all the same shit to him. The Trojan War, World War II, the Cold War, what the fuck did he care? His hernia was bigger than history itself. He cared as much about Korea as Korea cared about his fucking hernia. He walked through his own world. And that world was as much a part of what commanded those audiences as the catharsis of the absurd slapstick; and it would continue to command, long after that catharsis, like a forgotten mystery rite, had lost all meaning and power. His uncaring air of romance reflected the flash and breezy sweet seductions of a world in which everything came down to broads, booze, and money, with plenty of linguine on the side. There was a beckoning to join him in the Lethe of the old ways’ woods that appealed to the lover, the menefreghista, the rotten cocksucker, the sweet-hearted dreamer in everyone.

Mickey Cohen, a brutal killer who “got kind of friendly with him,” said that “Dean would’ve been in the rackets if he didn’t have the beautiful voice that he has. He probably would’ve ended up a gambling boss somewhere. I’d say Dean had the perfect makeup to be a racket guy, although he is a little too lackadaisical, if you know what I mean.”

Love was Dean’s racket. The traits he shared with the Fischettis and the Anastasias – that lontananza, that dark self-serving moralita – were never far beneath the surface of whatever sweet spell he meant to cast. Whatever talent he had, whatever he worked at, whatever was God-given and whatever manufactured, that much, that darkness beneath the spell, was immanent and intractable and ever-there.

Frank Sinatra, who had sung at the Nacional during the Havana yuletide gathering of 1946, was a malavita groupy, a scrawny mama’s boy who liked to pretend he was a tough guy. He cultivated the company of, and catered to, men such as the Fischettis. But it was Dean, so aloof and yet seemingly so kindred, to whom those men themselves were drawn.

“They loved him,” Jerry said. “But they knew that he wasn’t the one to talk to on a business basis. He had his way of getting that clear to them. I would say he was the most brilliant diplomat I’ve ever known. I used to hear things like ‘Talk to the Jew,’ ‘Talk to the kid,’ ‘Talk to the little one.’ “

Here’s an excerpt from Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors:

What I saw them do onstage at the Paramount was much like what they are seen doing at the end of The Caddy, and for the last ten minutes of each of their Colgate Comedy Hours: the boys in tuxedos (even during Paramount’s morning and afternoon shows), their bow ties untied, fooling around in front of Dick Stabile’s orchestra, their caricatures displayed thorughout the band. Dean sings — Jerry disrupts. They sing together. They throw things into the audience or Jerry runs into the auditorium. They do jokes putting each other down. Dean sings as if he’s sending up crooners and doesn’t mean a word, Jerry screeches hysterically for attention and his outrageousness becomes contageious. For a privileged minority, Dean was as funny in his own dry way as Jerry was so obviously. In fact, even Frank Sinatra had originally missed the self-deprecating wit behind Dean’s comedy. When Frank saw the act the first time at New York’s Copacabana, he reportedly said, “The wop’s not much, but the Jew’s funny.”

My introduction to Jerry Lewis (like my introduction to so many icons, like Shirley Temple, Esther Williams, and more) came from watching afternoon TV with my cousins in their furnished basement. That’s where I saw so much stuff for the first time. Interspersed by ping-pong matches. My cousin Susan and I watched The Bellboy, and I had to be 7, 8 years old … a pipsqueak … but I was rolling around on the couch laughing. Vivid memory. It’s common for film critics to weigh in saying they prefer the serious Jerry in The King of Comedy, and yes, he was an excellent serious actor too. But my intro was his lunacy. And I vibed to that lunacy. Maybe his major appeal is to kids.

Dave Kehr’s obituary for Jerry Lewis in The New York Times is the must-read of the year. It includes detailed paragraphs of connections made, lines drawn, associations revealed, like this:

“That’s My Boy” (1951), “The Stooge” (1953) and “The Caddy” (1953) approached psychological drama with their forbidding father figures and suggestions of sibling rivalry; Mr. Lewis had a hand in the writing of each. “Artists and Models” (1955) and “Hollywood or Bust” (1956) were broadly satirical looks at American popular culture under the authorial hand of the director Frank Tashlin, who brought a bold graphic style and a flair for wild sight gags to his work. For Mr. Tashlin, Mr. Lewis became a live-action extension of the anarchic characters, like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, he had worked with as a director of Warner Bros. cartoons.

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2 Responses to R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

  1. As a ’50s youngster, I was thrilled every time a new Martin & Lewis film came out. As a fully growed person, I believe his timeless bits will be the music pantomimes (orchestra conductor, typewriter, lip syncing to records).

    • sheila says:

      The pantomimes are amazing.

      Last night, I watched a little bit of Dick Cavett’s interview with Jerry Lewis – the whole thing’s on Youtube. It’s riveting.

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