A Cinematic Hapax Legomenon: One More Time (1970)
In linguistics the term hapax legomenon (Greek for “something said once”) is used to denote a word that only makes a solitary appearance in the written record of an ancient language. One More Time (1970), with Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford as the leads, can be seen as something of a cinematic hapax legomenon, a one-off event in film history that was never to be repeated. The film has a singular distinction: it is the only one of the 12 feature films directed by Jerry Lewis in which he was not also the star.1 Nor, indeed, did Lewis write the script for the film – a rare but not unique phenomenon in Lewis’ œuvre 2 and Which Way to the Front?  were attributed to other writers, although Lewis’ influence on their storylines is undeniable]. In fact, One More Time was essentially a commissioned work: a sequel to the Richard Donner-directed buddy comedy Salt & Pepper (1968), One More Time shared the original film’s screenwriter (Michael Pertwee), and it now barely rates a footnote in most discussions of Lewis’ work.
The reasons for Lewis agreeing to direct this film are obscure – Lewis himself, in works such as The Total Film-Maker and Jerry Lewis in Person, remains tight-lipped about his experiences working on One More Time – but it can not be excluded that opportunistic or mercenary considerations were a factor. Lewis had not directed since 1967’s The Big Mouth, accepting acting roles on films such as Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (Jerry Paris, 1968) and Hook, Line and Sinker (George Marshall, 1969), while finding the financing for his self-produced Which Way to the Front? (1970), a film that, made almost simultaneously with One More Time, was evidently much closer to its director’s heart.
If the unfinished The Day the Clown Cried (1972) – which the filmmaker to this day adamantly refuses to be publicly screened3 – is usually seen as Lewis’ film maudit, an alternative case can be made that One More Time is more aptly understood as his truly accursed work. After all, the concentration camp-comedy has become something of a cause célèbre in the years since it was shelved, interest in the film no doubt stoked by its “invisible” status. One More Time screened widely on release, and is today easy to track down on DVD – but its fate has been the perhaps crueller one of critical neglect. Very little at all has been written on the film, and many aficionados of Lewis find it difficult to allow it into his corpus.4 When the film finally made its French premiere at the Deauville festival in 1977, Louis Skorecki – otherwise an unconditional admirer of the comic – wrote in Cahiers du cinéma that it was a “failed film”, although he tempered this judgement with the auteurist axiom that “a failed Jerry Lewis film surpasses a successful Woody Allen film” because it “would not exist without the desire for cinema that is at work in it.”5 More recently, the Austrian Film Museum, normally fastidious in its auteur-oriented completism, symptomatically refrained from screening One More Time in its 2013 Jerry Lewis retrospective. Writing in the catalogue for the series, Jonathan Rosenbaum encapsulated the prevailing sentiment on the film when he asserted that, because “performance and writing” are “always at the centre of Lewis’ art,” he “can’t regard the 1970 One More Time […] as a ‘Jerry Lewis’ film in the way that A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong are Charlie Chaplin films.6
A koan-like riddle results from this logic: what is a Jerry Lewis film without Jerry Lewis? If his presence as a performer and his idiosyncratic approach to narrative structure are so integral to his authorial signature, can a film which he neither writes nor performs in truly be considered a “Jerry Lewis film”? Alternatively, can a Jerry Lewis film without Jerry Lewis inform us about Lewis as director? Shorn of the more overt elements that we associate with Lewis’ work – above all, his own body – One More Time is the only film by which we can judge whether his auteurist stamp (in terms of mise en scène, shot construction, thematic continuities) exists in its own right, or whether it can only be read through the prism of his on-screen presence. For this reason, far from being cast outside the Lewis pantheon, as a work that is his in name only, One More Time may in fact hold the key to our understanding of Jerry Lewis the filmmaker.
Indeed, there are a number of angles through which One More Time can be integrated into Lewis’ broader œuvre. Most strikingly, the themes of the double, of split identity and recognition, which course through his work, are also in play in this film. Charlie Salt (Davis Jr.) and Chris Pepper (Lawford), whose names invert their racial identities, are close friends who run a nightclub together in the Swinging London of the late 1960s. When the police raid their club, they are both presented with £500 fines, payable within a week. With nowhere else to turn, Pepper entreats his politically powerful twin-brother Sydney to pay the fine, which he only agrees to do on condition that they leave the UK. But Sydney is felled by an assassin linked to a diamond smuggling ring, and Chris, faced with the choice of incarceration or exile, assumes the identity of his brother, allowing the rest of the world – Charlie included – to believe that it is he who has actually died. A fake moustache and an archly posh accent are initially enough to hoodwink his friend, but when Charlie is invited to work at the Pepper castle, tell-tale signs emerge. Gestures, taste in food and drink, an aptitude for gin rummy all alert Charlie to the deception, but it is in the bedroom that his true identity is revealed: with Charlie eavesdropping via the castle’s intercom system, Chris, in flagrante delicto with the comely Miss Tomkins (Maggie Wright), utters his signature line: “You make me feel seventeen again.”
One More Time shares with many of the films directed by Lewis a fondness for a single actor playing multiple roles: here Lawford plays Chris Pepper, his brother Sydney, Chris impersonating Sydney, as well as Lawford himself. But its affinities with Lewis’ broader œuvre also stretch back to earlier in his career. It is hard to watch One More Time without seeing echoes of the Lewis & Martin double-act in the companionship between Salt and Pepper, which at times even has sexual undertones. Lawford, as a suave, womanising sophisticate, is easily calqued onto the Dean Martin persona, while Davis Jr., a naïve but good-natured outsider prone to mishaps, is an obvious cipher for Lewis himself – a trait that is emphasised by the numerous moments in the film when the actor replicates Lewis’ trademark facial contortions. Far from being an anonymous commission-piece, then, One More Time may in fact be read as the most autobiographical of Lewis’ films, a retrospective reflection on the work he did with Martin, who he calls, even 50 years after their break-up, his “partner”. This is above all highlighted in Davis Jr’s lugubrious ode to solitude in the castle’s stairwell, a repetition of a similar number Lewis had performed in Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960).
If the plot description I gave earlier sounds rather conventional, this does not account for the numerous digressions, non sequiturs and extended gag-sequences that are scattered throughout the film – another aspect that betrays the Lewis touch. Explosions in the film have a Tashlinesque force to propel objects and individuals long distances, while, in one of One More Time’s most memorable moments, Davis Jr. lets out a series of tremendous sneezes after taking a pinch of snuff from a doddering party-goer: the first discharge obliterates a cake being held by a passer-by, while the second knocks over an entire room of guests at the soirée, who pick themselves up in a manner akin to the toppled suits of armour in The Errand Boy (1962). The film’s most successful gag, repeated in Smorgasbord, pokes fun at the slowness with which the butler serves a lavish silver service meal to Salt and Pepper: as he brings the plates to the patient duo seated at the castle’s elongated dinner table, a series of shot/reverse-shots shows Lawford developing a pronounced stubble and Davis Jr’s hair turning grey. The surrealism of the sequence is further heightened in the first shot after the gag, which summarily effaces the physical transformations the two had undergone.
The most bizarre moment of the film, however, belongs to Charlie’s hallucination of a cellar hidden behind a bookshelf in Pepper’s library (the Kama Sutra is used as a secret door handle): making his way through the dark, he finds Hammer regulars Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, preparing to sacrifice a virgin. As with the “Miss Cartilage” scene in The Ladies Man (1961), the episode is a complete tonal diversion from the rest of the film, exemplifying Lewis’ taste for toying with spectatorial expectations of genre and diegetic realism. In like fashion, the self-reflexive ending of The Patsy is repeated at the conclusion of One More Time. Here, having pulled a prank on the supercilious inspector who had been tracking them throughout the film, Davis Jr. quips, in a recognition of the film’s status as a sequel: “I can’t help but think they’re going to be in our next picture. Shall we split?” to which Lawford responds: “Don’t you think we ought to finish this one first before we talk about the next one?” Whereas The Nutty Professor (1963) included a nod to Warner Bros. cartoons with a title-card exclaiming ‘That’s all, folks!”, Lewis opts to close One More Time with the more even more succinct phrase “That’s it!”
On a formal level, the film is also of interest for Lewis’ use of colour and set design. Fujiwara, indeed, has highlighted this aspect of One More Time in order to link it with Lewis’ other colour works of the 1960s, seen as “exuberant films of colour stylisation” 7. Here, his taste for bold primary colours is accentuated by the De Luxe stock used for filming. Of particular note is the contrast between the rooms respectively occupied by Salt and Pepper: while the former sleeps in an ornate wood-panelled chamber replete with antique furnishings, the latter’s garish lodgings are swathed in bright orange and yellow colour tones and contemporary design schemes, which act as a visual counterpoint to the baroque architecture of the rest of the castle, and follow Lewis’ dictum that “The sets should be in bright colours, be luxurious, beautiful and vast, and be worth the price of the ticket.”8
Finally, the politics of the film deserve mentioning: although One More Time presents itself as a vacuous caper farce, the interracial friendship between Salt and Pepper is charged with political significance. Everything about their backgrounds underscores their difference: whereas one was born into the English aristocracy, the other grew up on the streets of Harlem. The question of institutional racism, too, is not avoided by the film: the judge who sentences them is clearly more deferent to the wealthy white man, while a police officer investigating Pepper’s murder immediately suspects Salt when it is discovered that the victim was felled by an “African” poisoned dart. Despite their contrasting social origins, and the pervasive prejudice they must confront, Salt and Pepper forge a genuine, heartfelt bond with each other, a rare enough phenomenon in a Britain that had just heard Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.9 Lewis is usually seen as belonging on the right side of the political spectrum. His openly misogynist views and recent support for Donald Trump are evidence enough of this, and his fondness for racial caricatures undeniably makes for uncomfortable viewing for present-day audiences. But at the dawn of the 1970s race was an issue clearly preoccupied the filmmaker: it does, after all, play a prominent role in Which Way to the Front? and The Day the Clown Cried. It is with the relatively unheralded One More Time, however, that he has made his most unabashedly anti-racist film.
One More Time (Jerry Lewis, UK 1970, 93min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Michael Pertwee
Cinematography: Ernest W. Steward
Sound: Gerry Turner
Music: Les Reed
Editing: Bill Butler
Cast: Sammy Davis Jr. (Charlie Salt), Peter Lawford (Chris Pepper/Sydney Pepper), Maggie Wright (Miss Tomkins), Leslie Sands (Inspector Crock), John Wood (Figg), Sydney Arnold (Tombs), Edward Evans (Gordon), Percy Herbert (Mander), Dudley Sutton (Wilson), Esther Anderson (Billie), Lucille Soong (Kim Lee), Peter Cushing (Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (Dracula).
Producer: Milton Ebbins
One More time 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.
- Lewis limits himself to a brief off-screen vocal role as the aging bandleader of “Tom Thumb and the Fickle Fingers” during a ballroom scene. Strictly speaking, One More Time is not the only film Jerry Lewis has made without having an on-screen acting role: he directed a short-film titled Boy to the Amnesty International-funded omnibus Comment vont les enfants (1992), as well as a variety of television programmes. Its status as the only feature film he directed without appearing in is, however, uncontested. ↩
- The screenplays for Three on a Couch [1966 ↩
- See Jean-Michel Frodon’s article on the film in this dossier, http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/jerry-lewis/the-day-the-clown-cried/. ↩
- Chris Fujiwara’s superb study of his work, for instance, only dedicates a few scattered lines to One More Time. See Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. 8, 36-37, 42, 70, 72 and 88. ↩
- Louis Skorecki, “3 festivals de plus: La Rochelle, Trouville, Deauville”, Cahiers du cinéma 282, pp. 58-62, here p. 60. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Lewis Contradiction” (2013), which appears in English online at http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2016/06/the-lewis-contradiction/ ↩
- Fujiwara, op. cit., p. 72. ↩
- Jerry Lewis, quoted in Fujiwara, op. cit., p. 71. ↩
- In 1968, the racist politician Enoch Powell gave a notorious speech in Birmingham denouncing immigration from South Asia and the West Indies, and predicting future violence if it continued. ↩