The cinema of Jerry Lewis is nothing if not bodily, and its capacity to formally display certain anxieties regarding the physical relationship between himself and his audience can sometimes result in feelings of discomfort and aversion in the viewer. Lewis, as filmmaker and as performer, draws upon the kinetic devices of multiplicity and metatextuality in order to correlate cinematic images with forms of sexual hysteria and corporeal discomfort. If Lewis’s work can be categorized simultaneously as an expression of the body and an expression about or against the body, it is first important to understand the role that the audience plays in his films. Because all of Lewis’s self-directed films function as elaborate explorations of spectacle, it is necessary that they contain both elements of performance and an audience or viewer to receive this performance – Lewis’s comedy often plays on the duality or tension between himself and those who are watching him. Chris Fujiwara, in his excellent critical essay “The King of Comedy,” asserts that, “In Lewis’s work, identity is always performed; there is no private self… A person in a Lewis film is a collection of traits (rather than a ‘subject’).” Because Lewis, like Andy Warhol, displays a kind of refusal or inability to conceive of people with any sense of psychological interiority, the material world of surfaces and appearances becomes intensified in his work. In this regard, the settings in his films often act as large-scale receptacles which contain the “play” or performance that he enacts.
Lewis’s masterpiece The Ladies Man (1961) is structured around an ingenious conceit that functions as a consummate embodiment of these performative dualities. For the film, Lewis constructed an astonishingly elaborate set inside of a Paramount studio, a life-size dollhouse of sorts. In the film, Lewis plays a socially and sexually immature young man (“Herbert H. Heebert”) who loses his high school girlfriend, swears off romance, and then takes a job at a women-only boarding house. The artificially constructed set functions as a massive “stage” of sorts, a delineated space in which nervous spectacle can be conducted and acted out. The beautiful women surrounding Jerry at every moment of the film, the tenants of the boarding house, act as a substitution for the film’s audience, responding to his gestures and thereby fueling his performance forward. As a result, Jerry’s performance looks and feels like a kind of “stage fright” – sexual anxieties surrounding gendered differences collapse into the performative anxieties from which the comedy of the film is derived. The performative qualities of Lewis’s films are inseparable from an awareness of the body – an awareness that is crucially founded on feelings of anxiety and perhaps even a fear of sex.
These explorations of physicality through performance become richer, more complicated and more mysterious in the films where Lewis draws on one of his favorite reoccurring motifs: the doubling or proliferation of his own body or self-image, which Fujiwara aptly refers to as “Lewis’s adventures in multiplicity.” In these films, Lewis plays two or more different versions of his own persona, all of which are clearly distinguished from one another through marked visual traits and hilarious performance tics. These differing versions of the Lewis figure almost always seem to be situated in a kind of oppositional mode, enacting performances that seem to comment on or work against that of the others in a way that results in a deepening of the anxieties on display.
Perhaps the most famous instance of this Lewisian body multiplicity happens in The Nutty Professor (1963), wherein Lewis plays both the gawky, antisocial professor Julius F. Kelp, as well as his sexy, antagonistic alternate, Buddy Love. Here, the oppositional duality between the two Lewis figures is rationalized and explained by the demands of narrative: Love is created by one of Kelp’s chemical potions, an experimental effort to put an end to the harassment that he formerly received from student-bullies. The fact that Love represents yet another fictive manifestation of the physical anxieties which undergird Lewis’s cinema is made clear by the character’s various romantic pursuits of Stella Purdy, one of Kelp’s students. The film’s primary comic effect occurs during the inconvenient body reversal scenes, the inopportune timing of Love’s transformative dissolution back into Kelp which gives rise to a kind of romantic humiliation and sexual panic in the Kelp character. The multiplicity here is structured around a painful discrepancy between Kelp’s idealized projection of himself as a sexually desirable, masculine figure and the ultimate irreconciliation of this fictional image with his own “real” identity.
This notion of multiple Jerrys jostling for limited space and control within the same fictive universe is put toward more complex meanings and effects in The Family Jewels (1965), perhaps Lewis’s most visually sophisticated work. The closest Lewis ever came to making a children’s film, this somewhat neglected outing is centered around a ten-year-old girl (played by Donna Butterworth), who must select a new legal guardian for herself among her six eccentric uncles, all of whom are played by Lewis. The anxiety here is extended outward from the mere physical toward that of the familial or paternal, and is established in the foreshadowing details which inform us that one of the six uncles is a “bad” or malicious figure who is only out to get his hands on Donna’s inheritance money.
The film is structured episodically, so that we view all of Donna’s trial meetings with each respective uncle in orderly segments, but without knowing exactly which one represents a meeting with the ill-natured Jerry. This ominous yet unidentified presence of a possibly malevolent version of Lewis serves to deepen the humor in remarkably effective ways, adding an unsettling dimension to the typical Lewis gags that we don’t typically find in his other films. Donna becomes kidnapped during the third act by the malignant uncle, and this disturbing instance of Lewis using his charming comic skills to abduct an innocent kid functions as a kind of nightmarish inversion of the Lewis self-image. This grotesque distortion of Lewis’s beloved status as a lighthearted comic performer can be plausibly compared with Charlie Chaplin’s violent portrayal of a murderous Bluebeard figure in his autocritical sound comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947). In both cases, one can observe a universally successful movie clown using their recognizably affable qualities to arrive at a monstrous perversion of the celebrity image.
The film work of Jerry Lewis, which deals with an anxious awareness of the physical body as well as with other people regarding or perceiving this active body, is also concerned with examining another kind of body, that of film or the “cinematic body.” This more abstract notion of the cinema as a kind of organism is brought about through the strain of metatextuality that runs through the filmmaker’s work. Lewis’s The Errand Boy (1961), perhaps his funniest feature, is set on a studio backlot, and many of the gags are concerned with Lewis (as the titular errand boy) interrupting and derailing the filmmaking process. Here, Lewis tends to structure his gags around humorously large objects, and most of the scenes devolve into the spectacle of Lewis causing the accidental destruction of the studio set.
This destruction of the material world and of the artistic process that Lewis stumbles into is brought about through the gag and, by extension, through the kinetic motions of Lewis’s body, which we as viewers are supposed to perceive as clumsy but which are in fact tightly controlled, stylized, even choreographed movements that are a part of Lewis’s intentional performance. We watch with pleasure as the part destroys the whole and as one body destroys another, larger body through the chaotic acting out of performative spectacle. Lewis seems to be showing us that this, for him, is the very essence of filmmaking and artistic creation. Many of his films end with this enduring image of polyphonic destruction, as if Lewis is railing against the very stage which contains his performance.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.