Three films in, and Jerry Lewis was just warming up for his masterpiece, "The Nutty Professor." He had taken control of his comic persona with "The Bellboy," a great comedy, and then followed up with the ambitious "The Ladies Man," both of which we'll probably discuss at some point in this column, but with "The Errand Boy," Jerry Lewis wrestled with his identity as a movie star in a very public way, turning his own insecurities and ambitions into material for a string of surreal sight gags that demonstrate his innate mastery with the camera.
Because say what you will about the character he plays, the moron/innocent with the whiny nasal voice and the crazy spastic walk... Jerry Lewis as a filmmaker was a wicked-smart visual stylist, inventive and clever and always able to frame a joke in a way that milks it to maximum effect. Jerry Lewis the director dwarfs Jerry Lewis the actor in my mind, and to such magnitude that I think of them quite distinctly. There are always bits I like with Jerry and bits I don't, places where I think he pushes the dumb envelope to the shredding point, and places where I think he plays a childlike innocent spirit just right. But as a director... every single time, I think he knows what he's doing. I don't think he makes a bad move.
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And this time out, his subject matter is interesting because it reveals a real thematic scheme leading from this to "Nutty" to "The Patsy," in which he pokes and prods at the idea of a movie star, the reality of an image instead of a person, and how that image gets created and just what sort of work it is to maintain. All of that is the fodder for the character of "Jerry Lewis," who appears to be the main subject of interest in all of these films. At the end of the opening title sequence of "The Errand Boy," the final title is shown as a billboard that Jerry Lewis is putting up on the Paramount backlot. Errr... Paramutual, rather. And that final title stays up and part of the scene for the first ten minutes of the film as Jerry the character works to put it up, struggling with the glue and the poles and the paper, and to no avail. And over the course of "The Errand Boy," this innocent goofball who was discovered standing on that scaffolding goes from experience to experience, until finally he's recognized as more than just a bumbling force of nature, but a comedy star in the making. And at that point, he's groomed into the "Jerry Lewis" who we'll see show up in the next film as Buddy Love. That's Scary Jerry. That's the most interesting Jerry of all.
There are certain comedy directors who appreciate that every inch of the frame has different comic potential, and how they stage a gag within the borders of a frame can affect just how much someone laughs at something and even why they laugh at it. A lot of comedy filmmakers stage a joke in front of a camera and point the camera at it, or they use the camera as an observer for witty repartee. But not all comedy directors have the visual wherewithal to make the camera part of the joke, the composition part of the joke, the frame itself or the score or the notion of being in a movie... meta-humor like a Warner Bros. cartoon. It's no accident that one of Jerry's filmmaking mentors is the great, great, great Frank Tashlin, who's got a film that'll show up later in this first 26 aphabetical entries of this list. Tashlin was a Warner animator turned live-action director, and he kept that same exact brand of fastball visual humor when he moved to live-action. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone better at live-action cartoon than Tashlin was. It seemed easy for him. Like that's just how he saw things playing out, regardless of whether it was animated or not. That visual language made sense to him, and it seems to have rubbed off on Lewis, who really went out of his way to make himself-as-director a playful part of the movie.
As with Keaton's "College," this is basically a quick set-up that allows for a series of escalating gag opportunities, but in "College," there was no set-up as subtext, no meta-level on which to read it. Keaton wasn't commenting on anything. He was just playing a character, a situation. Lewis is bored with something that direct. He wants to subvert that sort of thing. He's done that in the Martin/Lewis movies, and now he wants to explode the idea of what a film comedy is. Watching it, I could feel Lewis straining at convention, and by taking things back to an almost silent-movie style of storytelling, it buys him room to experiment. That's what I mean when I talk about Jerry Lewis as a filmmaker... someone who took the studio system of the early '60s and used it to make a whole series of experimental films about the nature of film comedy, movies that bent form and commercial convention with a malictious little-boy glee. And "The Errand Boy" is a rev up to some of his later more overt efforts, but a key moment in his voice as a director. The Paramount Home Video version is actually pretty nice, and if you play it on an upscaler, the picture is pristine. As good as a DVD transfer could be for this film.
That'll do it for the first week of the Motion/Captured Must-See Project. So far, so good, and I'm sure I'll get better at figuring out exactly what to write each day. But it feels good to be pulling things at random like this and using this to cleanse the palette. I've got a ton of stuff to write this weekend, interviews and set visits and the like, and that sort of thing is very taxing for me. It's actual work. These reviews? These are pleasure. Something to occupy the mind with to keep the hype machine from ever grinding me down.
So I hope you're digging it so far. See you next week.
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"After Hours" (3.2.09)
Next week, we'll be doing F-J, so expect reviews for "Fat Girl," "Going In Style," "High Plains Drifter," "It's A Gift," and "Joe Vs. The Volcano." Feel free to watch along with us each day and join in with your own take on the movies.
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