The Patsy and The Struggle of Jerry Lewis
In 1995, the novelist and critic Gilbert Adair published his Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema. The year, by most historical reckonings, marked cinema’s centennial, if, as many do, you regard the 1895 public screening of La Sortie des usines Lumiére – a strip of film less than a minute long showing nothing more than workers, mostly women, strolling out of a Lyonnais photographic plant – as cinema’s birth. The book is a prose poem, one long love letter from an informed, articulate, passionate, intelligent cinephile to his beloved, starting with La Sortie (which remains, Adair writes, a profoundly affecting experience because the genius of the medium can be felt at its birth — the filmic equivalent of the Lascaux cave drawings) and ending, a hundred years later, with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), a film about a filmmaker and film. In it, Adair argues that Jerry Lewis is a test case. Not that if you do not love Jerry Lewis — by which, if I may expound a little on Adair’s argument, he is predominantly referring to the films Lewis directed, co-wrote, and starred in in the 1960s, mostly distributed by Paramount, starting with The Bellboy in 1960 and ending with Which Way to the Front? in 1970 — then you do not understand cinema. But, that if you can’t understand how goofy, buck-toothed, disarticulated, squeaky Jerry Lewis, how movies so garish, so seemingly childish…so vulgar, could ever be judged as beautiful, as great Art, then you do not understand cinema.
I like to think that we have passed this test. That we recognise that the high can be found in the low, that what is peddled as high can be nothing more than sentimental illusion (in the case of Hollywood) or pretentious affectation (in the case of art cinema), that high and low are discursive categories rather than value judgements; but that still, such beliefs do not imply a descent into meaningless relativism, or preclude a belief in hierarchy, or of value.
The specific aesthetic that Adair is referring to is well-recognised now, at least among cinephiles, and is often referred to as “vulgar modernism,” a term coined by J. Hoberman in his now famous 1982 essay of the same name in which he describes a certain kind of art that is low in cultural status (vulgar), but innovative in its irony, self-reflexiveness, and formal playfulness (modernism).1. And although Jerry Lewis and his 1960s masterpieces, including The Patsy (1964), are supreme examples of such vulgar modernism, they are also profoundly, to use a word I seem unable to avoid in my recent film writing, humanist.
Although The Nutty Professor (1963) is likely his most highly regarded and most often discussed film, I am not sure which is his best or even my own personal favourite. I love the two early black-and-whites, The Bellboy and The Errand Boy (1961), and when I think of his colour films The Ladies Man (1961) most often comes to mind. But if you were to watch only one of his movies, The Patsy would be a good dip of the toe into Lewis waters, since it includes almost all of the thematic, formal, and stylistic qualities that have made Lewis so beloved.
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After a famous comedian dies in a plane crash, his management team, fearing they will be jobless without him, attempt to make a bumbling bellboy at their hotel, Stanley Belt (Jerry Lewis), into the next star to take his place. The film’s working title was Son of Bellboy, and it was intended to be a sort of sequel to The Bellboy, a plotless movie in which Lewis plays a near silent Stanley, a bellboy at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami.
The management team is led by Everett Sloane playing Caryl Fergusson and includes Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, and the sole female member Ina Balin playing Ellen Betz. Their frustrations grow as they seem incapable of transforming the klutzy and sincere Stanley into an urbane, singing, funny, sophisticated star.
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The opening sequence of the management team at their large office suite at the Beverly Hilton hotel introduces one of Lewis’s main stylistic qualities: the set not just as backdrop to the actors or as a means of conveying place or narrative information, but as an object in and of itself. It is to be admired by the camera, or used as a tool to break the audience’s reliance on narrative as a movie’s raison d’etre when used by Lewis the director; when used by Lewis the actor it is a tool by which to show his disconnect from the world around him, a world which at times is revealed to be artificial and contrived. Not only that, it reveals to us that it is not Lewis and his antics that are the height of artifice but the world around him, a world – that is, a set – which is, at times, destroyed.
The hotel suite, similar to but less ambitious than the famed set of The Ladies Man, is a large, expansive space with multiple levels and compartments. It is shown at times in its individual compartmentalised spaces and other times in its entirety, spectacular in its wholeness, its lush, green carpet the colour of money, the underlying motive of the team and hence the movie’s narrative impulse. The colours are striking, the management team all dressed in black, bustling about against the pecuniary green. Stanley, by contrast, fumbles about in his red bellboy blazer. Lewis’ use of colour is emblematic of his style – a particular and innovative attention to form (modernism), at times cartoonish and garish in tonality (vulgar) – and reaches its apogee in The Nutty Professor, but can be seen in all his colour movies, including The Patsy. The vehicle for the painterly colours, both in this film and his others, are often in the costumes of the famed Edith Head, who did much of the costumes for Hitchcock too.
But back to the set. The set is where we see one of the main thematic dichotomies underlying Lewis’ work unfold: authenticity vs. artifice. In the last scene, when he apparently falls off the hotel suite balcony, he openly reveals that the hotel suite is merely a set, walking back from behind the balcony, opening its doors to reveal wires and set equipment, saying it’s just a movie, just a “dumb city”, addressing his love interest by her real name, “Aren’t you overacting a little Ms. Balin,” she in turn addressing him not as his character, but his person or persona (a distinction we are always asked to consider in Lewis movies), “Mr. Lewis, you are a complete nut.” The camera pans back and we see the set in all its nakedness, but rather than the ugliness implied by concealment, its nudity is unabashedly sincere and endearing; take me as I am, I am both, both the prettiness and spectacle of the hotel suite and a mangled collection of wires, lights, and equipment.
Authenticity vs. artifice. Sincerity vs. spectacle. Lewis the person vs. Lewis the star. This is the underlying current that runs through Lewis’s movies. The tension between these two – that movies are both, and in turn Lewis is both, that these contradictions run through Lewis, his movies, and in each one of us, that we have to accept these contradictions and navigate them the best we can – this is an unflinching level of honesty, compelling and enduring. This dialectic plays out in different ways: juxtaposed with one another (The Bellboy, The Errand Boy), disapprovingly (The Family Jewels ), frighteningly (The Ladies Man), longingly (The Nutty Professor), and in the case of The Patsy, reluctantly.
Stanley, though he accepts, only begrudgingly and reluctantly follows the directions and orchestrations of the management team, who of course are not concerned with Stanley’s well-being but only with creating a star, a walking, breathing form of capital from which they can derive their income. All, except for Ellen, the sole female member of the team, and his only source of goodness. It is often the case in Lewis movies that a female character is the sole source by which Lewis the person/persona can validate his own impulses towards goodness. Ellen – or because we are speaking of the Lewis authenticity/artifice dichotomy, probably best referred to as Ina Balin – is the only bulwark against the rest of the world that pushes Stanley away from his simple, bumbling, “authentic” self, which they see as childish, ineffectual, and foolish, the same way those in the audience who have eye-rollingly dismissed Lewis and his movies may see him.
In the end though, these sorts of discussions around Lewis, The Patsy, and the rest of his movies may be fruitless. Other than the ones already mentioned, I can list other various formal and stylistic techniques that Lewis employs: the loose and deceptive relationship with narrative, the painful nakedness of not being funny, the face as a canvas by which the authenticity/artifice dialectic can be painted. I can say that all these are in service of a profound humanity, a simple emanating goodness, and that consequently watching Lewis movies may be morally instructive in a way that you don’t even realise, that they may in fact even make you a better person. All this I believe to be true, but when his face contorts into exaggeration, when his cheek turns a garish red after a simple kiss, when his limbs seem to disarticulate, when he bumbles and stumbles, feckless and effete, when it appears the psyche of a repressed child has found expression, when he seems to be nothing more than a Tex Avery cartoon, a live-action Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck – if at all this you cringe, or yawn, or are even forced to look away, if all this you see as the height of artifice, bewildered that anyone could have a serious, intimate relationship with such movies, there is likely nothing I, or anyone, could say that would disabuse you of this. It is ultimately the Jerry Lewis character, in all its forms, that authors these movies. All I can say is to keep your eyes open a little longer, that such a squealing, incontinent creature may actually be revealing something quite real, may actually affect you and the various parts of your psyche in ways that other movies can’t, may actually make you feel a little less alone about the unsettling truth – for he is nothing, if not unsettling – that to be human is a constant struggle.
The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, USA 1964, 101min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Howard Beals
Music: David Raksin
Editing: John Woodcock
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Stanley Belt), Ina Balin (Ellen Betz), Everett Sloane (Caryl Ferguson), Phil Harris (Chic Wymore), Keenan Wynn (Harry Silver), Peter Lorre (Morgan Heywood), John Carradine (Bruce Alden).
Producer: Ernest D. Glucksman
The Patsy 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.
- J. Hoberman, “Vulgar Modernism”, Artforum vol. 20 no. 6 (February 1982), pp. 71-76 ↩