With his turn to directing in 1960, Jerry Lewis became one of the rare filmmakers, and today the only one, to make courageous and effective films in Hollywood. This phenomenon is not without its predecessors, it can be linked to a whole tradition of cinema: as early as the silent era, slapstick was a reserved terrain, freed of censorship and self-censorship, denouncing the “American way of life” with impunity (or near-impunity: see the case of Fatty Arbuckle, the obese companion to Chaplin in the early years of the cinema, who was destroyed by a totally fabricated scandal), and representing a viable hypothesis for “national-popular” art.
In Which Way to the Front?, Lewis pushes the provocation further, to the point that he risks turning the American public against him. Such is the explicit, unequivocal violence – in the context of normal film production distributed via the normal channels – of what he offers the viewer, and what he says in the film. His only alibi is the date of the action (1943) and the clear reference to the Chaplin of The Great Director. Some films had already demonstrated the spectacular conception of Nazism by using comedy (The Great Dictator, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be), or even irony (Romm’s Ordinary Fascism). Lewis – whose film shares with its forerunners, and for good reason, a Jewish overdetermination – shifts the target of this charge: by refusing the appearance of the historical film, by clearly connoting the fiction as contemporary (costumes, haircuts, vocabulary), he imputes this spectacular conception of politics to America, subjecting Nazi militarism and its American counterpart to the same treatment. Sequences echo each other, the character traits of homosexuality and folly are held in common, and programmatic slogans (for example: “More people have died this year from smoking cigarettes than from bombings”) are indifferently attributed to both sides.
In all his films, Lewis strives to undo narrative logic: firstly, by a reinforced usage of traditional comic devices, which are extremely important in Which Way to the Front?: the characters accumulate blemishes as the film progresses, while all the actors make full use of their physical capabilities. Alongside the destruction of the realism of the sets and composition, the destruction of narrative itself was, in the earlier films, operated through an insistence on the spectacle from within the spectacle: from the gigantic set cut into two in The Ladies Man to the kabuki scene in The Big Mouth, which is an indication (and one that is not free of Brechtian touches and Pirandellian temptations, cf. The Patsy, a veritable American remake of A Man’s a Man) of the indirect narrative that constitutes the form of the slapstick in itself, but also the dichotomy between author and actor.
Here, it is in the very principle of the story, and in the editing, that narrative is “torn asunder”. If Lewis has learnt much from the “young cinema”, the latter owes him a lot in return. Lewis once again questions, from inside Hollywood, the formal principles on which, for 70 years, the world’s foremost cinema has been founded, and this says volumes about just how remote his filmmaking is from the innocence and spontaneity that we have long ascribed to him.
Reprinted, with the kind permission of Bernard Eisenschitz, from La Nouvelle Critique no. 40 (January 1971). Translated by Daniel Fairfax.
Which Way to the Front? (Jerry Lewis, USA 1970, 96min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Al Overton
Music: Louis Y. Brown
Editing: Russel Wiles
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Brendan Byers III, Erik Kesselring), Jan Murray (Sid Hackle), John Wood (Finkel), Steve Franken (Peter Bland), Dack Rambo (Terry Love), Robert Middleton (Colonico), Willie Davis (Lincoln)
Producer: Jerry Lewis and Joe Stabile