Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents and one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century, has passed away at age 91. He combined his film career with a long commitment to community service, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised funds.
Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appeared in last year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films. All these films screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – in retrospect, almost perfect timing memorialising a great man of American film: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).
Although mostly known as a comic and entertainer, Lewis also was an extraordinary film technician: he invented the “video assist”, a technology that enables filmmakers to view a video version of what they have shot.
Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”, where the video assist was used for the first time. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.
“The Bellboy” – my personal favourite and Lewis’ debut as director – captured another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” has a lovely “backstory”: Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and starred – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night. For those of us who grew up in the northeast of the USA in the 1960s and visited Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau personifies that time and place. And Jerry Lewis in turn personifies the hotel. View it for a peek of what life was like there and then, more than 55 years ago.
“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackled the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general. It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis. Although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.
The world will be a much poorer place without Jerry Lewis in it, but we are all much richer for his having shared himself with us.
(Note: the post above is an updated and expanded version of my original article, which appeared in The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition on 28 July 2016.)