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Jerry Lewis was a polarizing comic but showed flashes of genius

Posted August 23

Jerry Lewis had been away from the big screen for a decade when “Hardly Working” opened in April 1981, and it was billed as his big “comeback” picture.

The very broad, episodic slapstick farce — which Lewis starred in, co-wrote and directed — had already been a big hit in Europe, especially in France, where critics and fans always embraced Lewis’ films, often comparing him to Charlie Chaplin.

American critics were less kind to “Hardly Working,” noting that it was hopelessly old-fashioned, that production difficulties showed at the seams, that the pacing seemed off. Also, heavy-ish, 55-year-old Lewis was less appealing in the “idiot” role that served him so well when he was a skinny, younger manic comic.

Still, in spite of the reviews, “Hardly Working” also managed to be a moneymaker in North American theaters.

Nostalgia no doubt played a part in the film’s financial success, bolstered by moviegoers who remembered fondly Lewis’ long string of box office hits in the 1950s and ’60s. Lewis played to the masses and his rabid fan base loved him, though he was also a polarizing figure with detractors that could be just as vehement.

I was a fan of Lewis’ early films but I was also among that cadre of critics who expressed disappointment with “Hardly Working.” And that would be the only film by Lewis that I would review during my tenure as movie critic for the Deseret News, although I did write up later films in which Lewis appeared in co-starring or supporting roles.

He only starred in one more comedy that he also wrote and directed, “Cracking Up” (aka “Smorgasbord”) in 1983, a film that never made it to American theaters, instead going straight to cable TV and videocassette. (Yet in Europe it was another hit, topping “Hardly Working” at the French box office.)

Lewis, who died last weekend at age 91, never directed another film, and he never starred in another American farce — although he did headline two freewheeling 1984 French comedies that never received U.S. distribution.

After “Cracking Up,” Lewis switched things up by doing straight, sometimes melodramatic, character parts in films made by others, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1982), Susan Seidelman’s “Cookie” (1989) and Peter Chelsom’s “Funny Bones” (1995), as well as guest shots on such TV series as “Wiseguy,” “Mad About You” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

When “Funny Bones” played at the Sundance Film Festival, I tried very hard to get an interview with Lewis, but it never happened, much to my regret.

I was acutely aware of Lewis’ reputation as a difficult interview but I hoped to speak with him about some of the movies I saw and loved as a kid, when I would nag my parents until they grudgingly took me to each Martin & Lewis, and then solo Lewis picture.

I think my folks were overjoyed when I was old enough to simply go on my own. Actually, they enjoyed the Martin & Lewis films, when Lewis was teamed with Dean Martin for 16 pictures over a decade, but they were less enthused about Lewis’ solo projects.

Not me, though. I loved them.

True, Lewis’ films gradually became more sentimental and self-indulgent, as he seemed to believe the French press about his being a genius, another Chaplin, but his best movies were also loaded with enough brilliant sight gags that I fully embraced them when I was young.

That changed as I matured and Lewis didn’t, and in particular when, in the mid-1960s, his movies began to go off the rails. But some of his early work is worth checking out, if only for flashes of genius.

Most of the Martin & Lewis films are pretty good, especially the military trilogy, “At War with the Army” (1950), “Sailor Beware” (1952) and “Jumping Jacks” (1952), along with “Scared Stiff” (1953), “Living it Up” (1954),” “You’re Never Too Young” (1955) and “Artists and Models” (1956).

Of his triple-threat films, which he wrote and directed, the best are “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961) and the one that fans consider his masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963).

And some argue that films he starred in but did not write or direct are better, such as “The Delicate Delinquent” (1957), “Rock-A-Bye Baby” (1958), “Visit to a Small Planet” (1960), “It$ Only Money” (1962) and “The Disorderly Orderly” (1964).

Of course, if Lewis isn’t your cup of tea, he won’t appeal even in his best work. And, to be honest, as I’ve rewatched some of his old movies, I must admit that the luster has worn off a bit for me.

I can still enjoy Lewis’ best gags and, in this day and age of unabating raunchy comedy, that is sometimes enough.

Of course, there’s much more to Lewis’ life than his movies, as he also conquered the stage, had his own TV shows and, of course, hosted an annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for 40 years, raising some $2 billion. Yes, billion, with a “b.” And in the past few days, all of that has been widely reported elsewhere.

But he was first and foremost a major movie star, with his 1950s and ’60s films often among the year’s biggest hits.

“Hardly Working” opens with a montage of sight gags from some of Lewis’ earlier films, “The Bellboy,” “The Errand Boy” and others. And while “Hardly Working” may be a slog, those brief clips say a lot about Lewis’ comic abilities.

At his best, he could perfectly set up and execute slapstick tomfoolery, but like a child cut loose in a toy store with no restrictions, he had a hard time reining himself in, and his over-the-top style is unquestionably a matter of taste.

Still, there’s no denying Jerry Lewis’ talent at his peak, nor his place in the movie star firmament, and he deserves to be remembered, and maybe even re-evaluated.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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