Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Jerry Lewis

The Case for Profundity

By David Luhrssen
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The joke about the French discovering a profundity in Jerry Lewis unsuspected by American audiences is so old by now that younger film historians might be unaware. Chris Fujiwara, who previously authored biographies of directors Otto Preminger and Jacques Tourneur, asserts the significance of the comedian with no hint of embarrassment.

Fujiwara’s Jerry Lewis, the latest installment in the Contemporary Film Directors series (published by University of Illinois Press) makes its case for the wacky star of Cinderfella as cultural critic. Lewis’ early, Borscht Belt comedy hinged on an awareness of the hollow artifice of pop culture through pantomime performances to recordings of contemporary tunes. Fujiwara argues for a continuity of this realization in Lewis’ famous movies with Dean Martin. As the straight man, Martin embodied a mid-century ideal of American manliness. And like a Mad Magazine character set loose in Hollywood, Lewis represented a gonzo inability—or refusal?—to conform to society’s ideals.

The Hollywood comedy formula constrained the Lewis-Martin partnership. They were better, Fujiwara says, in live settings. Even so, the author follows Lewis’ own lead in claiming creative input, even co-direction, of many of the early Lewis-Martin comedies. In 1960, Lewis received credit for directing The Bellboy, a rather avant-garde, Jacques Tati-like tale set in Miami’s Fountainbleu. The following years brought a slew of inventive or at least amusing movies, many of them spoofs or even satires of a world in which Lewis’ characters seemed forever out of place.

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