Rarely shown and never commercially released, Robert Benayoun’s six-hour mini-series Bonjour Mr. Lewis is as worth seeing as it is hard to find. This wide-ranging anthology of clips, interviews, and rarities was made in 1982 with the help of producer Pierre Kalfon, and its premiere on French television coincided with the much-publicised comeback bid that kept Jerry Lewis on movie screens throughout the early eighties. Taking its shape and title from the monograph Benayoun had authored a decade earlier, the series works as both a primer and a master class, providing a general overview of Lewis’ accomplishments and a gateway to the labyrinth of TV sketches, home movies, and telethon shift-work that form the dark matter of his career.1 Its six episodes have a distinctive structure. Rather than settle for the linear plod of a standard biopic, Benayoun organises the show around themes. He worked with an extremely light touch: most of the installments have a recognizable center of gravity – kids, clowns, performing, directing, and most tantalisingly, Lewis’ film archive – but the parameters are implicit at best, and usually fluid enough to seem irrelevant by the time the episode is over. In coming back to the series now, I want to focus on this method of organisation, and read the show both as a collection of spectacular fragments and as a system which advances convictions about auteurism and film history.
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Benayoun assembled his documentary from such a wide variety of sources that the show still seems like a gold mine even now. He made staggering finds: Lewis laughing his way through an early screen test with Norman Taurog, demolishing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on their 1952 US Olympic Team Telethon, singing “We Belong Together” with Dean Martin and “Yakety Yak” with the Coasters, lecturing at USC, visiting the Comédie Française, doing bits as a waiter, a caveman, a bad golfer, and Frankenstein, encountering Pierre the wrestling chimpanzee, pretending to be Ben Gazzarra’s ventriloquist dummy, encouraging Lassie to hum “Born Free” and dropping the mike at the end of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” to say nothing of the fake commercials, the live routines, the outtakes from The Patsy (1964), The Ladies Man (1961), and The Nutty Professor (1963), the rare scenes from Flapper Party and Come Back Little Shiksa (two of the early 16mm parodies he shot at home with friends and family), the on-set footage from Hardly Working (1980), The King of Comedy (Martin Scorses, 1983), and Slapstick of Another Kind (Steven Paul, 1984), or the testimonials and anecdotes from contributors like Mel Brooks, John Landis, Pierre Étaix, Federico Fellini, Peter Bogdanovich, Adriano Aprà, Louis Malle, and Marty Feldman.
Within this trove of footage, the glimpses of Lewis working off the cuff and on the fly now seem impossibly raw and alive, especially during his early years with Martin. In a 1955 appearance on the Milton Berle Show, the slippery energy of live television seems to intensify their nightclub act’s volatile charge. It is an amazing segment: after deliberately flubbing a hat and cane routine, the two men regroup upstage, jockeying for position around their bandleader Dick Stabile and bickering over who gets to set the orchestra up for the final number, a tap dance exit to Stephen Foster. Lewis calls out “The last sixteen bars of Swanee River, Dick. Here we go!” but Martin shuts his partner down by beating the mic stand between them with his cane: “I’ll tell him,” he says. The ensuing argument degenerates into an impromptu rendition of Ella Mae Morse’s “Blacksmith Blues” before Lewis brings things to a halt with a flood of self-aware scenery-chewing that allows him to regain the floor and get things back on track. As the on-stage orchestra finally picks up their instruments, Lewis gives them belated instructions (“Watch the big finish! Go to the Star Spangled Banner if they don’t applaud!”) and moves towards the house with his partner. When the music starts, they come in on cue with a loosely synchronised and effortlessly fluid double-time step routine, and when a still-dancing Lewis tells the audience “You can start applauding now! Right now!” the pair pivot stage right and are gone in seconds.
As soon as it is isolated like this, the Swanee River bit almost seems strong enough to embody the central features of Lewis’ career: his roots in vaudeville, his unpredictable physicality, the doubling, fragmentation, and vexed relationships which provide his work with its thematic motors. It also captures the unstable mix of structure and chaos that Benayoun repeatedly identifies as the hallmark of his style. At the same time, it would be wrong to collapse the entire series into a single episode, for the whole here is much greater than the sum of its parts. Though each segment of Bonjour Mr. Lewis is powerful in and of itself, the value of those segments is equally determined by their place within the sequence, by the way they are prepared in what comes before and set up what follows. In Benayoun’s case, this process is particularly complex: by throwing out chronology, his series plays on the unexpected, so that the viewing experience is grounded less in the flow of a narrative than in the Surrealist taste for chance encounters and dazzling epiphanies. Like his fellow Positif critic Ado Kyrou, Benayoun became actively involved with Surrealism after the war, and by building his series around the friction between different registers of juxtaposed material, he remains faithful to one of André Breton’s primary convictions: “the value of the image depends on the beauty of the spark obtained.”2
For this reason, Bonjour Mr Lewis is best described not as a documentary, but as a compilation film whose collage-based structure of original footage and borrowed material advances an argument about its subject. In this regard, it takes its lead from other landmarks in the genre, especially postwar experiments in montage by Nicole Vedrès and Alain Resnais, whom Benayoun had written a book about before the production started.3 The series comes closest to these precedents when it pushes past the boundaries of individual scenes and uses editing as a tool for critical reflection. Like Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s contemporaneous Unknown Chaplin (1983), it includes several sequences that explore how Lewis reworked his material over time. The second episode, for example, juxtaposes 1949, 1958, and 1971 performances of one of his oldest routines, the “record act” pantomime, gradually moving it from a single-person goof to a larger (and funnier) ensemble parody of Mario Lanza’s signature tune “Be My Love.”4 In episode four, the series threads the in-flight movie sequence from The Family Jewels through separate interviews with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who single it out for different reasons. By balancing Spielberg’s discussion of the scene’s class commentary with Scorsese’s interest in its form, Benayoun underscores the richness of the sequence and the range of Lewis’ influence.
The order of the segments in each episode follows a definite logic. The third one, on children, starts with Lewis singing “Because We’re Kids” from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953) and works outward to a constellation of related ideas: how to act like a child, his own childhood, his place in a family of performers. The second half moves from Lewis’ immediate family to the notion of the telethon (very exotic for French viewers) and the idea, contentious even then, of Jerry’s Kids, and ends with another song, “Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day,” in the background of a bedtime skit between Lewis and the clown puppet from The Errand Boy. Though the editing forges connections here and throughout the series, it also conceals them, since the visibility of the thematic frame is often sidelined by the duration of the clips themselves. Letting sketches run for four or five minutes at a stretch diffuses Benayoun’s line of reasoning so that what his series eventually proposes is less the illustration of a thesis about Lewis than a blossoming, exploratory drift through his career. Like Ken Jacob’s Star Spangled to Death (2004) or Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), the show avoids a stable, didactic vision of its subject in favor of dialogue between the choices of the filmmaker and the complexity of archival representations.
Nevertheless, if Benayoun’s series opens onto experimentation, its central point is entirely traditional. Ultimately, Bonjour Mr. Lewis works to unify the diverse strands of a life lead in public – on film, stage and television; as director, actor, writer, producer, and singer; as inventor and technician, entrepreneur and humanitarian, child, parent, and adult – and reconcile these divergent paths within the figure of a single person. By starting and ending with the individual, the show defends a classical vision of auteurism that understands creative work as the expression of the artist. In 1982, this approach was anything but controversial.5. To its credit, however, the length and scope of Benayoun’s series allows it to transcend conventional profiles of “great” directors. In tracing the outlines of Lewis’ career, Benayoun is also telling a fragmented story about changes in the industry, the rise and fall of Hollywood, developing technologies, and the relationship between Europe and America, so that his portrait of Lewis is also, implicitly, a history of cinema.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several projects adopt the serial format of television to explore film history and film aesthetics over longer durations. Bonjour Mr. Lewis appears the same year, and on the same network, as Claude Ventura’s Cinéma-Cinémas, a beloved anthology series devoted to the medium’s past and present. These French initiatives are roughly contemporary with BBC programs like Unknown Chaplin, Brownlow and Gill’s earlier series Hollywood (1980), and Noel Burch’s What Do These Old Films Mean? (1985), as well as Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977), which was not produced for television initially, but did start from a desire to juxtapose unused footage from militant films with archival TV broadcasts.6 Despite their differences, these diverse projects all register a technologically-enabled concern with the past which became even more prominent during the 1990s as critics, filmmakers, and scholars began grappling with the notion of a cinematic centenary. Although I am sure he would have been loath to admit it, the fullest realization of the compilation methods Benayoun was experimenting with comes from the filmmaker he fought most virulently against.
The systemic counterweight to his epic auteurism comes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma project (1988-1998), the culmination of decades of research and meditation on the place of motion pictures in the twentieth century. While Benayoun defends a romantic vision of artistic creation, his series intersects Godard’s work through its tacit confirmation that the arc of Lewis’ career attests to larger, historically-anchored changes.7 While Bonjour Mr. Lewis will be primarily remembered for the vibrant image of its subject’s extraordinary accomplishments, it is also a fascinating example of how television can work as film history, and it is all the more valuable since its dual investment in singular figures and larger systems leaves it teetering on the cusp of two paradigms. In making a portrait of Lewis in 1982, Benayoun also captures a moment in which the notion of the total film-maker was starting to compete with renewed attention to the whole equation of pictures.
Thanks to Michael Chaiken and Jed Rapfogel (and apologies to Thomas Schatz).
- Bonjour Monsieur Lewis was initially released as a copiously illustrated large format softcover by Éric Losfeld in 1972. In 1989, Les Éditions du Seuil published an updated paperback edition. ↩
- André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924),” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 37. ↩
- Robert Benayoun, Alain Resnais: Arpenteur de l’imaginaire (Paris: Stock, 1980). ↩
- Though the series affirms that Lewis’ first performance is from 1949, the sequence was likely shot the following year since Lanza’s recording dates from 1950. ↩
- For a dissenting opinion, see Louis Skorecki’s 1978 essay “Contre la nouvelle cinéphilie” in Raoul Walsh et Moi suivi de Contre la Nouvelle Cinéphilie (Paris, PUF, 2001), pp. 45-112 ↩
- See Marker’s comments in the booklet which accompanies the Arte DVD of Le fond de l’air est rouge. ↩
- Godard includes references to The Nutty Professor and Hardly Working in episodes 2A and 3B of Histoire(s) du cinéma. In 1987, he told journalist Olivier Péretié “Jerry Lewis is one of the greatest contemporary artists. His most recent films were overlooked. He’s always been misunderstood in his own country.” Jean-Luc Godard. “ABCD… JLG” in Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, ed. Nicole Brenez, David Faroult, Michael Temple, James S. Williams, Michael Witt (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006), p. 328. ↩