Bad Fit: The Ladies Man (1961)
Players and painted stage too all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
What is it to love cinema – beyond being open to pictures that move or to narratives rendered through pictorialism or to watching a vast array of films of all genres, keeping up with new releases, tacking posters on one’s wall? Can cinephilia be a commitment to a process and a community, a way of being in the world and thinking through one’s experience of life in terms of the cinematic image? It is surely a focus and an exclusion, since it demands an intense concentration of attention (that by nature can not take in everything) and chooses to revel in every discernable feature of the revealed. To adore cinema as an art is to be devoted to the play of the eye. In Autumn Sonata (1978), Ingmar Bergman has Ingrid Bergman say – as we learn, also, watching My Dinner With André (1981), where the line is repeated – “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” Cinema is, of course, a picture – or face – of life, as we typically take it. But cinema is also life itself. Jerry Lewis’s “Kid”, somewhat grown by the time he begins to make his own films and yet still bearing distinctive traces of childhood, does not love particular people as much as he loves the human array, the very fact of being in the world. That stunning consciousness of the social array, tasted without competence, is central to all of Lewis’s work. An innocent abroad, newly arrived in civil affairs, he is as yet unformed but sensitive to the kaleidoscope of sensations and experiences that are the due of life. In The Ladies Man, running away from women because of a bad love affair he finds himself an ultimate outsider, working in, of all places, a girls’ rooming house. His posture unmoulded, his movement undirected, his vocalisation untrained and unharmonised, he yet craves urgently to present himself, to make a way, to express feeling. Can we bear to watch Herbert Heebert’s fear of the feminine (especially in the twenty-first century, when feminist nuances in a film like this are harder to detect than the sexism that criticism now prefers to find in 1960s work), and can we cheer when he is won over by the girls’ genuine affection? He is surely a fellow stunned by femininity, standing in the girls’ shadows even as much as, clumsily amazed and thrown into nervous tension, his explodes into their space. Love of the romantic sort, typified and idealised by Hollywood cinema, is promised for later, in a zone of conclusion and release.
Herbert awakes into a female universe – more women than can quickly be counted, every one a model of beauty and poise as typified in American consumer culture by the early 1960s. The viewer is offered the ressentient pleasure of feeling superior, able to laugh derisively at Herbert’s incompetence in its myriad manifestations; or else a chance to sympathetically recognise that the situation itself is alienating, and his response is “natural”. Certainly the etiquettes and control the women constantly model are only roadblocks to Herbert’s innocent movement as he sets out to explore the jungle of their strange, intoxicating society.
A stunningly recursive doubling in The Ladies Man could occur only in, and through a devotion to, cinematic effect. The rooming house is both setting and set, part of the diegetic imaginary and the material means by which that imaginary is activated. A key sequence has Herbert and the girls marching (to trombone-centred band music) into the dining hall in a long parade, Herbert, a model of confusion, bringing up the rear. The camera tracks from room to room – each decorated (in a comic strip palette) with a different colour scheme – then slowly pulls back to show several stories of rooms in a single startling vision, and still further back to show more rooms, and then still further back so that we see that the entire place is a gigantic doll-house set on a sound stage, the lighting rig of which is visible at the top of the screen. It is in this set revealed as itself that Herbert finally emerges to head downstairs, with the effect that Lewis’s character inhabits not – or not only – a fictive space but a practical one as well, and both simultaneously. All of this is happening on Paramount’s Stage 18, which from November 27, 1953 through February 26, 1954 housed the apartment complex set for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Through the setting-as-set shot, Lewis openly reflects the history of the soundstage itself, and nods to a significant cinematic design precursor. The sequence becomes simultaneously cinema and cinephilia, employs the medium to invent a fabular world and to reflect upon its own real past and possibilities.
What can happen to the graceless nebbish when he is confronted with the girls of his (terrified) dreams? The film offers a concatenation of gender anxiety, self-doubt, and performative genius, since in a climactic sequence it is by virtue of his ability to mimic Chaplin, Groucho, and other celebrities of the past that Herbert wins the girls over. The Ladies Man was filmed in the context of a prevailing social rhetoric (continuing in some sectors today) that emphasised biological gender difference as culturally central and telling. For Herbert, girls are essentially different, and the female actors’ elaborately primped and optically sweetened presentations strikingly announce this elementary “fact of life”. However, are the “ladies” of the film made to seem alien in order to accentuate Herbert’s sexual immaturity or distinctness in gender? For, indeed, they do accomplish this, giving resonance to a similarly craftless, clueless masculinity evident in Lewis’s characters from his first films onward (while not being the point of attention I would recommend for appreciating this film).
But I think a different argument must be made. At heart The Ladies Man is no sex comedy. Its “ladies” constitute the optical and emotional world of the film. They not only outnumber (dominate) him by sheer presence but decorously constitute the entirety of his not-me. By showing Herbert’s crippled social relations with girls, Lewis the filmmaker continues to work out more generalised portraits of individual alienation from cultural context; he points to, and diagnoses, a spectacular failure of fit endemic to modernity as hyper-civilisation. The failure must be spectacular in order to seem worthy of attention in its own right. And the idea of fit itself, as we see evidenced by the girls, needs demonstration as a ground for Herbert’s central innocence, and also as a problematic diluteness (the extreme vapidity of their self-attention).
Badly fitting his surround, Herbert Heebert may remind us of legion Lewis heroes, every one a reiteration and development of klutzy, ill-bred, and athletically challenged – if wholly sincere – civility. As with all great comedy, Lewis’s work operates by pointing: in this case to lubricating conventions that block spontaneity, true expression, and natural movement, that repress what Herbert Read called the “true voice of feeling.” In The Ladies Man the inflection of gendered being helps us attend to the heroic body as a site of doctrinal contest. Some degree of gender confusion is his natural heritage, since Herbert is sui generis, a fellow who was his own mother, but more broadly speaking, confusion besets him with a dizzying frequency that has inspired Lewis fandom. Herbert will seem unsure where to move or how, as though lost at a crossroads in a foreign space where the slightest gesture can lead to radical misunderstanding; yet he feels the need to speak this uncertainty out. Thus his flailing limbs, swivelling torso, indeterminately fluctuating gaze, and extreme linguistic non-fluency combine to articulate with extraordinary precision his real state of feeling – yet they also show him as behaviourally inadequate, especially in the face of others who cut through existential crisis with mesmerising routine.
Two figures caricature and iconise the alienating challenge for Herbert. Miss Helen N. Welenmelon (Helen Traubel) is matron; and Katie (Kathleen Freeman) is her erstwhile assistant, cook, and bottle-washer. The former is a stentorian Brünnhilde (Traubel [1899-1972] was in fact celebrated for performing this role, with the San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan, and elsewhere), the latter a stomping battlefront sergeant. Neither fits the official bill as a typical, culturally relevant young woman of the times; and thus both work handsomely to produce “comic relief”. Circling through the elaborate dollhouse – tidied and swept relentlessly by Katie – Herbert finds his way to the ground floor, stumbles into the breakfast room, where the girls are jabbering at shrill treble pitch. But now a sudden, petrifying, abject silence, as Miss Welenmelon rises to greet him. The raucous colours, the excited sounds (all indicators of Herbert’s interior state) vanish in a flash as the matron curbs and shapes the moment in one single sung breath: “Good morrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-ning!!!” Here is a text on power’s domination over powerlessness, a summary of Herbert’s fate – and that of every child-man – when sensibility and sense are in painful confrontation. For the moment form will win, of course. But Lewis’s signal contribution is in showing how fabulous delirium survives. This is the core of cinema, his ultimate love.
The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, USA 1961, 95min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Charles Grenzbach
Music: Walter Scharf
Editing: Stanley E. Johnson
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Herbert H. Heebert), Helen Traubel (Helen N. Wellenmelon), Pat Stanley (Fay), Kathleen Freeman (Katie), George Raft (Himself) Harry James (Himself)
Producer: Jerry Lewis and Ernest D. Glucksman