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Jerry Lewis

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 25

“Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.” After a retrospective on the director, Patrick Holzapfel finds a key to the muted (and thus more dramatically and symbolically potent) sense of the miraculous in Jacques Tourneur, and it has to do with resignation. Via David Hudson.

“Reviewing Drafthouse’s Blu-ray of Wake in Fright (1971) for Sight & Sound (May 2013), Michael Atkinson describes Ted Kotcheff’s film as ‘a wrenchingly odd piece of work… that could’ve easily, with some tweaks, emerged as a dark comedy’. When I finally caught up with this remarkable film, what immediately struck me was how closely it anticipated an actual black comedy: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Another of those chance juxtapositions I described in last month’s column? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. For Scorsese was one of Wake in Fright’s earliest champions; after selecting it as a Cannes Classic in 2009, he described the film as ‘a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and it left me speechless.’” Brad Stevens finds more points of contact than a first glance would suggest between Kotcheff’s brutal dissection of Aussie machismo and Scorsese’s long-dark-night-of-the-yuppie-soul.

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How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Nutty Professor’ 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.

Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.

Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.

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DVD: Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and Edward Small

Rock-a-Bye Lewis

Three With (But Not Directed By) Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis cited director Frank Tashlin as his mentor when he finally stepped behind the camera. You can see what he brought to the Lewis persona in Rock-a-Bye Baby (Olive), Tashlin’s third film with Lewis, but his first with Lewis as a solo act.

Ostensibly a reworking of Preston Sturges’ great 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, writer/director Tashlin spins an entirely new story from the premise. Lewis is likable small town goof Clayton Poole, whose unrequited love for local girl turned Hollywood superstar Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) makes him the perfect secret babysitter when she discovers that she’s pregnant just before taking her role in a Hollywood costume epic. Like its inspiration, the film insists that she’s married (she just can’t prove it), but then it exiles her to focus on Lewis as a doting guardian of three orphaned girls, with a little help from the babies’ grandfather (Salvatore Baccaloni, playing the hot-tempered yet sentimental Italian immigrant father of two independent daughters) and young aunt Sandra (Connie Stevens in her first major role), a lively all-American girl with a hopeless crush on Lewis’ goofy child-man.

Tashlin, an animator before he turned to live action filmmaking, was all about the gag and helped define Lewis as a walking cartoon, the rubberface spastic adolescent in a grown-up body. And yes, he is a walking disaster, but here he’s also oddly sweet as he watches over triplets. Sure, they’re mostly props, but they also become a kind of audience for performances he plays directly to them, child-man to infant, and in these sequences Lewis starts to take over. Where Tashlin tends to unleash a succession of one-off gags, Lewis riffs and builds on them, such as a scene of Clayton in a cloud of baby powder. The jokes themselves aren’t always as funny as Tashlin’s sight gags, but they follow one from another more organically and Lewis plays them like a sustained series of variations that build to an actual narrative conclusion. Tashlin’s hand is more evident in his pop-culture lampoons: Lewis as an wild-eyed rock and roll singer with no actual talent beyond energetic shouting and gesticulating, Marilyn Maxwell’s Egyptian costume epic transformed into a silly musical with a cheesy nightclub number. (For a film not considered a musical, there are plenty of musical numbers sprinkled through the film, some serious, some straight-out spoofs.)

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