Jerry Lewis’ Hardly Working is situated at the end of a long, uncomfortable hiatus. It was made in Florida, released first in Europe, then much later in the United States. While American critics, for the most part, loathed the film – Ebert gave it zero, and “Berg” in Variety is scathing – it was a commercial success both in the US and in Europe, despite production halts and bankruptcy. Hardly Working is about work: the work of the clown, Lewis’ work, the process of “working”, its intensity, its extensity. The title plays on two elemental words: work and hard. The film hardly works, that is, it barely works, and at the same time it is hard for the film to “work”. It works in a difficult way. The clown both works and doesn’t work. In fact, clowns work by not working.
Lewis’ career had been stagnant for a decade following the unfinished The Day the Clown Cried (1972), ending an almost uninterrupted run of more than twenty years of film-making, including a string of “total films” which he produced, directed, wrote and starred in, that began in 1960 with The Bellboy. An ill-fated, never released “experiment”, The Day The Clown Died was later described by Lewis himself as “bad work”, and ends with a scene of Lewis, a failed clown seeking redemption in a Nazi death camp, leading Jewish children enamoured by his clowning, to the ovens and to their death. Lewis’ clown make-up in that film resembles Bo’s face in Hardly Working and the final “pied piper” mail delivery sequences show a clown once more “leading” a crowd, including children.
The Lewisian clown is an idiot, a fool, a baby-like lump of slicing hands and nasal sirens. The clown’s humour must work and not work, and the clown must both understand and mock an audience while always staying on the periphery of total failure. It is a performance of liminality. The American clown, has a distinguished place in the history comic cinema, and in the history of cinema more generally. In a sequence towards the end of Hardly Working Bo, walking through a crowded, expensive restaurant, dangles a shawl carelessly over an elderly woman’s face. The material grips the woman’s head and Bo freezes, comic tension infusing his face which contorts, expressing the non-physical effort of awkwardness.
The Lewisian clown clenches, squirms, twists, and twists. Air-cutting slices trigger changes. Slogans, absurd apothegms, magic commands and exhortations, are its only language. Hardly Working multiplies and extends the clown’s foils. As always Lewis is doubled. When Bo the man speaks, earnestly, mawkishly, Lewis’ body becomes heavy and ponderous. It is this heavy, slick-haired cliché, this fabrication that infuriates critics. The straight man must be painfully inauthentic. Early in the film, Bo applies for his first job at a service station by carrying a worker wanted sign to the boss inside. This Bo-double, the heavy, blobby, Bo stands too still, too silently. He is an extra-terrestrial, or a squid, holding still, fitting in. He misunderstands the phrases “blend in”, “be still”, “don’t stand out”, taking them literally and then imitates stillness all too perfectly. Bo’s tensile quiet, seems to empty out the anger of the boss. If Lewis were relaxed, then the boss’s anger would be a transient peak, instead, it is set against the deafening but impalpable buzzing of Lewis’ body. It articulates flatness, a narrow band of higher volume lacking any other dimension.
The silent, mammalian clown, opens and closes the film, while Bo the man, a hollowed out and dense figure, oscillates in its centre, reaching through a catalogue of ready-made characters and occupations. Remember that the clown is only what the clown does, an evanescent wiggle of the hands or an eye-ball swivel. Lewis’ clown doesn’t speak audibly. As a teenager, Lewis’ act included what he called “Satirical Impressions in Pantomimicry”, parodies in which Lewis would mouth the words of popular opera recordings. The clown is a figure of contrast, never an absolute figure. This why the circus must close. The insipid, tired gags of Bo’s performance as clown at the beginning of the film, are the result of “pure” clownery. The cinema, and especially the American cinema, has fashioned a cinematic world, a double-world, against which, and by means of which, the clown exists. Lewis began as Martin’s double, a “splintering multiplicity”1, but the relativity of the clown includes an innate transitivity, a doing and a being done to, that engraves and embosses the inherent instability of all relationships. The clown moves in and out of this spectrum of transitivity.
Did you see that?
It is also possible to think of this active and reactive space in terms of its visual and verbal dimensions. More than anything else, it is the dialogue in Hardly Working that critics hated. Yet how could the braying ejaculations and the tensile presence of the idiot emerge except in relation to prefabricated character, to filmic form more generally? The clown’s idiom consists of languageless words. On two occasions, once after a torrent of water blasts a customer’s face in an antique shop, Bo exclaims, quite cryptically, “Did you see that?” His intonation is laborious, the linguistic equivalent of dragging a woollen shawl tortuously across a face. Another example is the phrase “That’s great soap, ho ho”. They are “gag titles”, in the same way that opera arias are often named after their first phrases, except here the phrases occur at the end, not the beginning of the piece. Fujiwara sagely remarks that “Lewis sees speech as internally self-contradictory, free from the immediate situation, not tied to the speaking individual, as self-defeating as it is tautological and self-affirming.” In the steady job, steady money speech, Lewis’ voice is utterly devoid of life, a comatose recitation.
The incapacity to work, performative malfunction, is at the core of American comic visuality, and also of Lewis’ comic persona. The problems of labour and of effort have always been important to Lewis. The Idiot always has a job, an occupation. In Hardly Working the Idiot is unemployed, he is an unemployed Idiot. Rather than a story, an arc of events, yielding a character, developing a character, in this film, like in so many other Lewis films, a character is assigned to the Idiot, in the same way a job is given to a worker. The actor is working and not working.
The stiffness of the scenes in the film is often redeemed by inconsistency. The film is never consistently good, nor is it consistently bad. Its merit resides in the transitions, in the liminality of “hardly” as a sort of negative “almost”. Consider, for example, Bo’s first job application. This Bo differs starkly from the animal-like innocence of Bo’s first clown-face. The silliness begins, as it often does, with a slice of Lewis’ hand, a cutting gesture, this time mixed with a salute. The solider-idiot is a familiar topos in comic cinema. Recall Alberto Sordi or Chaplin in their uniforms. The glass-breaking sequence is an example of an atmospheric gag. The noises permeate the entire sequence rather than punctuate its end. Bo enjoys “dusting”. In a tender moment at the end of Bo’s time at the antique/lighting shop, after inadvertently blasting a posh customer with water, he takes her in his arms and quietly dries off her hair. With his face frozen into a smirk and stifling an “eye laugh”, he places an almost protective arm over her back. Each frame of this moment shows that Lewis’ eyes are blank, paralytic, transfixed outside the frame, behind the camera and the viewer.
Episodic, “Block” Structure
Hardly Working does not have a narrative problem, indeed, as many have noted before, Lewis’ presentation of filmic ideas is not organised into a plot (a simulacra of cause and effect). The “blocks” (Fujiwara’s preferred term)2 or chunks that Lewis moulds often involve a change of grammatical subject, and contrary to the canons of classical rhetoric the change occurs mid sentence. Lewis’ periods are verbless despite their action, they are flights, trajectories, evasions, “gropings”. Irruptions of the fantastic shimmer at the edges of the banal. In other words, the film is episodic. Gags hold it together by breaking it apart and liberating the viewer from the obligation to maintain an organic real-time narrative whole. The film interrupts itself and so does not require uninterrupted viewing. It does not have an orientation, and begins where it started, with Bo the professional clown.
The montage sequence at the beginning of the film is a digest of a cinema withdrawal that was marked by Percodan abuse, creative inactivity and horrifying exposure (The Day the Clown Cried). Including the last image, an almost sluggish, warm-hearted, phlegmatic, shot of Lewis made up as Bo the clown, and pulling faces, the sequence lasts exactly two minutes, after which it dissolves to black, and into the film’s opening credits. The typewriter’s key strokes and carriage return ping set the rhythm as sixteenth note strings clamber up and down scales. Lewis is a cinema clown and the final image of Bo Hooper in close-up is the key to the sequence. The re-edited gags of early Lewis films are projected onto Bo’s face, into the clown mask that Lewis also wore in The Day the Crown Cried. The movements of his lips and face muscles resemble those of a rabbit or some other small docile mammal. If the film has a conceptual gambit then it is executed by this face. Slurping up decades of images Bo’s befuddled features emit an utterly opaque thought.
The important moment of this sequence comes while Bo dances with SanDee Pitnick (Lewis’ future wife). Energetically restrained, his face contorts as the parody reaches a libidinal paroxysm, and an infinitely funny grimace erupts from Bo’s face. Now a Neanderthal wrestler, he savagely hurls his partner with his shoulders. Dancing is another action that requires a partner, even if that partner is, as Valéry says, an invisible force like gravity. The cleverly concealed breach of the 180-degree line recalls the missing half of the clown’s necessarily double existence. SanDee looks into the camera. The dance is both a dream, and at the same time merely the complement of a wavy dissolve. Fujiwara points out that Lewis’ reverse shots do not complement the internal absence of an outward looking frame, instead they open up “parallel surfaces”, microformal correlatives of an episodic “narrative” 3.
There’s one scene in Hardly Working that requires critical attention. In it Lewis realises an offensive, profoundly racist yellow-face sashimi chef. I imagine that most viewers will be troubled by it, wrenched viscerally from their enjoyment of the Lewisian idiot and pressed squirming into the overdetermined conceptual and narrative zone of American Orientalism. The sequence begins with a close-up of Bo clumsily slicing onions on the grill intercut with Bo’s chef partner who deftly carves his onions into quarters. The music, all pentatonic chimes and plucked strings, sets the mood. The camera then moves back to show Bo, girded with knives, suited in Japanese white, a grotesque crenellation of broken white teeth sawing over his lips, coke-bottle glasses in large thin frames dominating his face, and a luridly off-pink floppy toque sagging across his head. As the camera frames Bo a gong sounds. The display, framed between the backs of a suited and bejeweled couple, is a performance, a performance that will ultimately fail. His partner, watched admiringly by a woman, is shot laterally, obliquely, more naturalistically, while Bo, facing the camera, framed frontally as though against a set, appears more theatrical. While the “other” chef juggles the spice-shakers skillfully seasoning the sizzling food, Bo fumbles the shakers, and for a few moments several bars of tribal, perhaps Latin drumming accompany Bo’s rhythmic juggling of the shakers-cum-maracas.
In this now densely overdetermined moment, the sophisticated, other-worldly rhythms of the Japanese chef are transformed into the primitive, libidinal beats of Afro-Latin culture, and the full spectrum of racist “facing” is refracted through Lewis’ idiot. The Chaplinesque reinvention of inability as music, dance, is transposed into a fluid economy of inscrutable cunning and instinctual movement. The theatrics are intensified as a cloud of smoke engulfs Bo/Lewis and the gong is struck again. From this murky phantasmagoric mist which Bo blows away by a miniature “made in Japan” electric fan, emerges the lisping, stretched Rs and Ls of Lewis’ parody of Asian-accented English. For a brief moment the scale of the shot is unknowable, then the reappearance of Lewis’ toqued head re-establishes the space, the scale a little closer than expected. Lewis’ meditation on clowns in Hardly Working is in many respects a failure. And yet the film is an absolutely indispensable moment in Jerry Lewis’ work with the cinema. Repeated viewings of this film show it to be a remarkably complex playing-out of a frightened clown’s game of cinema.
Hardly Working (USA 1980, 91min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Michael Janover
Cinematography: James Pergola
Sound: Jack Dalton Sr.
Music: Morton Stevens
Editing: Michael Luciano
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Bo Hooper), Susan Oliver (Claire Trent), Roger C. Carmel (Robert Trent), Deanna Lund (Millie), Harold J. Stone (Frank Loucazi), Steve Franken (Steve Torres), Buddy Lester (Claude Reed), Leonard Stone (Ted Mitchell), Jerry Lester (Slats), Billy Barty (Sammy), Alex Hentelhoff (J. Balling).
Producer: James J. McNamara and Igo Kantor
Hardly Working is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.
- Frank Krutnik, “Sex and Slapstick: The Martin and Lewis Phenomenon”, in Murray Pomerance (ed.), Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 113. ↩
- Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 75 ↩
- Fujiwara, op. cit., p. 39 ↩