Lewis often structures his films around a therapeutic theme: a character needs to be cured of some affliction or has a problem – at least partly internal – that needs to be solved. The therapeutic theme is prevalent throughout Lewis’s films, including several he did not direct, such as That’s My Boy (Hal Walker, 1951), The Delicate Delinquent (Don McGuire, 1957), Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960), and The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964). Although the therapeutic structure vanishes completely from The Bellboy (which treats neither Stanley’s incompetence nor his muteness as issues for therapy) and becomes submerged in The Ladies Man (in which Herbert’s problem – his fear of women – is never “solved”), it resurfaces in The Nutty Professor. Starting with its central premise – Kelp’s transformation into Love – The Nutty Professor is concerned with forms of self-therapy. The therapeutic role Love plays for Kelp is also emphasised in Love’s dealings with others. Encouraging Warfield to declaim Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy while standing on the table in his office, Buddy tells him: “You know it’s the best thing in the world for you.” Earlier, he kisses Stella and says, “That’s good for you.” The message Love brings to all (and it is echoed again in the intrusion of Kelp’s father into Kelp’s classroom at the end) is one of healing.
Though Lewis clearly feels (and expects the audience to feel) more affection for Kelp, it is obvious that Buddy Love is loved, too: the close-up of Stella looking at him as he sings “That Old Black Magic” is eloquent, as is the enthusiasm with which the crowd responds to his performance. Later, in the parked car, Buddy tells Stella, “You know darn well that nothing delights us more than being enjoyed, appreciated, or just plain liked by someone, right?” The addiction to this delight and the pain that accompanies its withdrawal account for Buddy’s maudlin negativity on his second appearance, drunk, in the Purple Pit: “I think I’ll do a tune that I’m going to record for Poverty Records. They’re the only ones that’ll have me” (Poverty Records is the name of the company for which Stanley Belt records his hit single in The Patsy).
In Three on a Couch, Lewis and Janet Leigh suggest that Elizabeth’s devotion to her patients may be motivated as much by her own attachment to the role she plays in their lives as by her interest in helping them. Robert Benayoun, in noting that Elizabeth’s problem exemplifies for Lewis “the key idea of professionally making people happy”1, points out the central metaphor of the film. On the surface, the screenplay of Three on a Couch seems loaded against Elizabeth (indeed, against women) in defining the three patients’ problem as an aversion to men and proposing the end of this aversion as marking their cure. To see the film from this point of view is to share Ben and Chris’s implicit attitude that the three patients’ problems are not deeply serious and that Elizabeth’s concern for the women is misplaced and excessive. Seen more deeply, Three on a Couch becomes a film about the need for love and a restatement, in different terms and on a different plane, of the theme of The Nutty Professor. The problems of the three women are, for Lewis, serious (serious within the world of comedy and capable of resolution in comic terms), and he presents them as such. Through the mounting strain on Chris as he tries to carry out his plot and thought the unravelling of the plot when the four women in his life come together, Three on a Couch demonstrates, contrary to its ostensible message, the absurdity of the (culturally encouraged) presumption that a man could be the solution to the problems of all women, emphasising (like The Nutty Professor) the anxiety that results for someone who tries to act on the basis of that presumption.
A critique of the therapeutic/normative role of male sexuality, Three on a Couch is also a comment on its time and its society. Chris’s constant smoking and drinking (and Ringo’s unlit cigar), which outdo Buddy Love’s indulgence in these habits in The Nutty Professor, suggest a parody of and a rebellion against the “adult” image Lewis felt compelled to adopt at this stage of his career. The implied derision of psychiatry is a sixties notation, as is the implicit sexism of Ben’s plan (which is echoed by the tumbling of copies of Playboy from a diplomat’s briefcase onto the street). Shortly before Three on a Couch, Lewis had played a subordinate part in another farce with which its plot shares a number of similarities, Boeing Boeing (John Rich, 1965), starring Tony Curtis as an American reporter in Paris who conducts affairs with three different flight attendants while trying to keep them from meeting or finding out about each other. Quintessential Sixtiesiana, Boeing Boeing would fit comfortably among the films that Geoffrey O’Brien cites in Dream Time as paralleling the post-JFK assassination national mood shift to “hysterical lightheadedness”: The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963), A Shot in the Dark (Blake Edwards, 1964), Kiss Me Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964), The Patsy (sitting rather oddly among this company), The World of Henry Orient (George Roy Hill, 1964), What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, 1965), Lord Love a Duck (George Axelrod, 1966), The Swinger (George Sidney, 1966), Don’t Make Waves (Alexander Mackendrick, 1967), and Tashlin’s Caprice (1967). According to O’Brien, these films “aimed at frothy exuberance but were closer to the half-giddy, half-sickened disjointedness of a bunch of compulsive partygoers beginning to run out of steam.” O’Brien accurately recognises in this cycle a reflection of sixties modernity, “jagged and permanently out of kilter,” obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of fun and the “religion of the fleeting instant,” characterised by “an edgy failure to sustain any emotional note for long.”2 If Three on a Couch is Lewis’s approximation of the mid-sixties sex comedy, it is also his critique and overcoming of it, his correction of Boeing Boeing. Chris refrains from exploiting his three conquests sexually (“Please tell her [Elizabeth] I was always a gentleman,” he begs them at the end). Chris, too, remains a Lewisian innocent – a more mature one for whom sexuality is no longer innocent and who thus must make a conscious choice to maintain his innocence.
Discomfort with sexuality – and femininity – is visible in much of Lewis’s work (as Benayoun and other French critics pointed out to him, to his professed bewilderment). Lewis regularly confronts feminine attractiveness with its reverse, as in The Bellboy when, after having slimmed down while staying at the hotel, Miss Hartung bloats up again to her previous enormous weight from eating the candy that Stanley gives her as a going-away present. Of the women in The Errand Boy, the closest to a fully realised and sympathetic character and an acceptable erotic object is Magnolia, the puppet; the glamorous and sexually available Serina (Felicia Atkins), the move star who attaches Morty to herself at the Hollywood premiere, is rejected as an automaton, a not fully conscious being. Serina is another incarnation of one of Lewis’s most hallucinatory creations, the model in The Bellboy who, moving in her sleep with an involuntary unbridledness, attaches herself to Stanley while sprawling on a couch in the hotel lobby. The eroticism of this image is inseparable from the woman’s dependence and unconsciousness – traits that also characterise the three patients in Three on a Couch. Nevertheless, Three on a Couch enables Lewis to achieve a certain balance in his view of women. The film inverts the premise of The Ladies Man: instead of a man fleeing from women, Lewis shows three women fleeing from men. What remains constant is the figure of the man being embodied by a single actor, Lewis (albeit a Lewis who, characteristically, divides himself into several personalities), whereas the female figure is multiplied, whether she is conceived as the object or the subject of the obsession.
Reprinted, with kind permission, from Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. 52-55.
Three on a Couch (Jerry Lewis, USA 1966, 109min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Bob Ross, Samuel A. Taylor, Arne Sultan
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Walter Goss
Music: Louis Brown
Editing: Russel Wiles
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Christopher Pride, Warren, Ringo, Rutherford, Heather), Janet Leigh (Elizabeth Acord), Mary Ann Mobley (Susan Manning), Gila Golan (Anna Jacque), Leslie Parish (Mary Lou Mauve), James Best (Ben Mizer)
Producer: Jerry Lewis
Three on a Couch 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.