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Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis (DVD Review)

2 Feb, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Anchor Bay
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Featuring Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, Carol Burnett.

A warts-and-all documentary on Le Jer could keep Ken Burns or Marcel Ophuls burning calories for a long time. You know, one that addressed, say, some of his painful family issues; or the notorious dark side of Lewis’s mooning; or The Day the Clown Cried; or the 70-year legend’s loss of popularity at home for a long period after the mid-1960s until a most deserved re-evaluation (which incurred some Lewis wrath when Bob Costas brought it up on his great old interview show). This Encore presentation isn’t that, but it’s still OK because a love song to Lewis (especially one that plumbs his unsurpassed archives) was years overdue, and this one got me misty more than a few times. The biggest boo-boo the Kennedy Center Honors has ever made its failure to honor him as comedian and filmmaker, and the slight seems even worse than it might because Lewis knew JFK fairly well. By the way, Carol Burnett says here in an interview that Lewis should get a KCH, and she has won one herself.

This film tribute has been around on DVD for a couple of years but has been given a big push recently at Costco. Constructed around what I take to be one of Lewis’s on-stage traveling shows of clips-‘n’-shtick that friends of mine in DC and Seattle have said is great, Madness devotes a necessary two hours to all kinds of subjects: his vaudevillian father; the years with Dean Martin; the much more laudable than not post-Dino years at Paramount as an inventive director; and (in lesser morsels) triumphs in The King of Comedy and Damn Yankees. The Muscular Dystrophy Telethon to which he gave so many years and sweat are barely touched upon aside from the famed 1976 reunion with Martin — a painful subject given Lewis’ eventual curt dismissal and one that merits admiration for his refusal to go on the warpath. (But if he wants to unload on his deathbed, a lot of people will want to hear what he has to say). All through the running time, people who should know show up to kiss the ring: Burnett, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Quentin Tarantino (who notes that Jerry Lewis comic books were better than their Bob Hope counterparts), Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Carl Reiner, Richard Lewis, Richard Belzer and (surprising to me) Alec Baldwin and Woody Harrelson (the latter looking really happy to be included).

For someone who redefined “madcap,” Lewis has always been rigidly organized. While spending half-a-day with him on his yacht several years ago, I mentioned that the world premiere of The Caddy had been held in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in July 1953 — centered on a round at golf at Scioto Country Club (where, by the way, Jack Nicklaus was learning to play golf at around the same time). Without even moving, Lewis reached over to a shelf or a safe (can’t remember) and pulled out a kind of bound diary of dates devoted to every time and place he had scratched himself going back for decades — and there was the Columbus annotation. Somehow, you know a guy like this is going to preserve his archives, which means we get mostly mint copies here of the “Dean-Jerry Colgate Comedy Hour” and the Paramount features (which look great because many were shot in Technicolor and the ones from 1955-58 in VistaVision to boot). One of the few worn prints here is a delightful one whose existence was previously unknown to me: Lewis guesting with Burnett in a 1961 TV skit where they both play wallflowers.

Spielberg rightfully credits Lewis with inaugurating the “video assist” — which every filmmaker around has by now used for a long time and alone would have justified the special Oscar Lewis got not that long ago. And Spielberg and Tarantino laud him for rekindling the great silent comic tradition after it was ignored on screen by the likes of the Marx Brothers, Hope and Red Skelton — or, for that matter, the Lewis films themselves not directed by himself or Frank Tashlin. (Rightfully, someone here points out that Lewis is closer to Keaton than Chaplin — and, indeed, Lewis got into trouble whenever he tried going the Chaplin route, as in some of the later scenes in 3 Ring Circus).

I laughed out loud many times here at the visual invention displayed in the clips from The Bellboy to The Ladies’ Man to The Errand Boy to The Nutty Professor and so on — though, given the apt selectivity here, I suppose it’s only fair to add that with Lewis you have to live with a lot of self-indulgent groaners while waiting to get to the great stuff. But since we do the same thing with Godard, it’s also only fair to do so for one who’s been high on the list of the most instantly recognizable personalities in the world — since just after the conclusion of World War II.

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