Jerry Lewis is not a filmmaker who has received his due in my opinion. He is an artist and a personality that I must confess to feeling equally fascinated and repelled by and I fear that a sense of balance doesn’t exist in most viewers who are mostly just repelled by him. But I believe my own reaction to that is in keeping with what’s always been Jerry’s own personality, especially around the time when he made the film you’ll see tonight, which is this curious mix of self-love and self-loathing.
The gags in his films are motivated by this conflict between narcissism and self-hatred, in relation especially to his own physical presence and his own comic persona. This is one that intrinsically involves Lewis’s typical physical instability — he’s always stumbling and running around, which is typically followed by vocal instability. The constant string of situations that Lewis finds himself in in his movies, especially The Errand Boy, involve that physical awkwardness which is generally followed by deformations of language which — kind of like mispronunciations of names like “Mr. Bleidenheiden” and getting things all screwed up. Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film critic, has called this the ‘spastic jabberwocky’ that comes at moments of hysteria.
Jerry Lewis is a decidedly personal filmmaker and he lays himself bare on screen, even in something that might seem on the surface to be a ‘shallow series of silly sequences,’ as they call The Bell Boy and other movies like The Errand Boy. And audiences who feel that discomfort at watching Jerry go through his physical and vocal schtick might well be a reflection of the audience’s own sense of awkwardness and insecurity, which might be why he’s rejected a lot of the time, at least lately.
But generally, people who are against Jerry Lewis, I find, haven’t really seen his films and they’re turned off by the really creepy unabashed artificiality of his public manner — the guy who holds the Telethons and cries and tells everyone about what a legend he is on talk shows. But Lewis’s films really often say more about what is going on and what was going on in America than any other comic filmmaker of his generation. Which is probably one of the reasons why the French adore him so. Like America is sometimes he is alternately infantile, hysterical, uncontrolled, giddy, uninhibited, tacky, energetic, inarticulate, obnoxious, sentimental, overbearing, socially and sexually maladjusted, and all over the place. The low esteem that many French people feel toward America and their own constraining culture are given release in Jerry Lewis’s explosiveness and craziness and ungainliness, and their taste for freewheeling fantasy, which is shown by their equal enthusiasm for filmmakers like Chaplin and their own Jacques Tati. This is partially met by Lewis’s surreal sequences. There are scenes in this film that there’s no explanation for — sheer wildness of his ideas as a writer and director — especially the idea of the champagne bottle that cannot stop: it doesn’t seems to be his fault but he gets the blamed for it but the champagne keeps flowing from the bottle until it’s a total disaster.
How does Jerry Lewis fit in as a labor filmmaker? Well, I’m going to offer a bit of a provocation right now and suggest that Jerry Lewis, in terms of his commitment to the issues, almost across his films — especially the ones he directed — is every bit the labor filmmaker as Ken Loach. Jerry Lewis’s cinema is obsessed by the ideas of labor, and particularly physical labor. And this is more than appropriate, given his obsession with the human body and its limitations, as I said earlier. But several of his films, even in the title, refer to the workforce — the titles emphasize the jobs that the main characters have (the main characters, of course, played by Jerry Lewis): The Geisha Boy, The Bell Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Disorderly Orderly and, of course, The Errand Boy. His 1981 feature, that incredible mess of a movie (that I can’t really recommend to everyone, although it’s a guilty pleasure of mine) called Hardly Working, is still one of the only films to be released by a major studio during the early years of the Reagan era that dealt with unemployment.
In the world of Jerry Lewis there’s a clear sense that to be a notable character means to have a work-related identity. Thus, in the movie The Family Jewels, which he directed in 1965, he plays six roles and each character is firmly identified with his profession: ferry boat captain, circus clown, fashion photographer, airline pilot, private detective, and gangster. And in the second film he directed, which was called The Ladies Man, much of his character’s problem is that he has no job and must endlessly search for one and he gains that self-worth when he finally succeeds.
Now, though these films are often very funny — I think they’re very funny — Lewis doesn’t always paint a rosy picture of the workingman in America. The labor force is often alienated and, as you’re going to see in The Errand Boy, characters only rarely work for themselves and are in thrall to a power and authority that lords over them. There is a recurrent emphasis in his films on bosses, on managers, on directors — figures who basically try to discipline the worker in a place and try to take advantage of him. Laborers find themselves ordered about, checked up on, ruled and regulated.
And in The Errand Boy, Jerry plays a character named Morty Tashman who is hired by the studio bosses to spy on productions and figure out where all the money is being spent on these films. Morty is continually foiled in situation after situation by either the studio executives or co-opted employees who are working the system to further their own job security. So Morty, a humble and hopeful young man from New Jersey (just like Jerry probably wants us to believe he is or perceived his early self as), is operating out of a class-bound need to try to find a life for himself at the studio. So, like the factory in another Charlie Chaplin film, Modern Times, the studio bureaucracy in The Errand Boy serves as a kind of mechanism for regulating daily production activity through constant observation, measurement and calculation. But in the end what ruins production after production on the studio lot is the studio’s own secret spy — Morty Tashman. Morty causes more destruction with film-shooting than any other character or event we see in the film. Even when he doesn’t do anything he causes trouble, like that scene with the champagne bottle. Could that possibly be his fault? No, but accidents follow him.
So our final view of the studio shows a place where the senior executives themselves unknowingly sabotage their own operation by trying too relentlessly and dishonestly to count the pennies being expended on it. But this critical view has been fashioned by Lewis, and it is Lewis’s own personal view, especially considering that he made the film for Paramount Pictures — of which the studio is the barely-disguised version. But Lewis actually owned the rights to this film and in the years after its release it reverted back to him. So it was a subversive film in the way it was made and in the way it plays.
Jonathan Rosenbaum also pointed out that the reason audiences embraced Woody Allen more widely and more enduringly than Jerry Lewis is that generally a filmmaker’s perceived degree of seriousness and complexity is often gauged by that filmmaker’s capacity to deal almost exclusively with his own view of the middle class. Aside from being occasionally self-satisfied, gratuitously product plugging — (I’m sure there are several product plugs in this film) — and sometimes just downright technically inept, the films of Jerry Lewis deal with the working class and unemployment and they speak to the culturally and economically disenfranchised in this country.
I hope it gives you something to think about but, more than that, gives you something to laugh about.
This introduction was presented by Jim Healy at a screening of The Errand Boy on 26 September 2003.