A Labor Day weekend without Jerry Lewis just doesn’t seem right.
Even though this master comic stopped hosting his Muscular Dystrophy telethon in 2010, his presence continues to shade the holiday he defined for some 44 years. His death on Aug. 20 brings to mind a comedian who made memorable movies as well as a philanthropist who made a lasting difference. While Lewis could prompt laughter with his antics, his lasting gift was using his heart to make people care.
Here are some of my favorite Jerry Lewis moments on screen.
The Caddy (1953)
Of the 14 movies Lewis made with Dean Martin, this silly tale about golf captures the magic of this popular duo. In this comedy, Martin is a golfer and Lewis is his caddy. But Jerry does more than carry clubs. He tangles with dogs, rides on roller skates and dresses in disguises. And he makes want to watch oh so much more.
The Delicate Delinquent (1957)
After ending his 10-year partnership with Martin in 1956, Lewis looked to the stages of Las Vegas to redefine his persona and to the movies to stretch his talent. In this dark comedy, playing an apartment house janitor, Lewis reveals a collection of layers much richer than his comedies with Martin could suggest. And he makes us want to see more.
The Bellboy (1960)
While Lewis performed at a Miami Beach Hotel each night, he tossed together this odd cinema concoction each day. The result is a delightful mess with Lewis scoring a series of comic sketches that don’t fully connect. But they delight. And it’s so much fun to watch his collection of facial expressions that it doesn’t matter Lewis has no idea what movie he’s trying to make.
The Nutty Professor (1963)
This popular comedy illustrates what could please and frustrate about Lewis on film. As a would-be chemist in pursuit of lunacy, Lewis commands with a sense of comic improvisation that few can match. But his sense of humor doesn’t always work within a conventional plot. As entertaining as he can be, his movies suffer when they lack a defining narrative.
The Patsy (1964)
Lewis hits a comic high with this outrageous story of a man who impersonates a star who tragically dies. This story gives Lewis enough narrative framework to shape his visual antics into a well-developed character. He has a field day with sight gags, facial expressions and perfectly timed pratfalls. And he makes us care for this man having the time of his life.
Boeing Boeing (1965)
The traditional limitations of a story adapted from the stage give Lewis the chance to play a delightful game of comedy tennis with Tony Curtis. This exaggerated tale of a man who manages relationships with three girlfriends shows how Lewis can toss one liners with sharp timing when paired opposite a talented actor who can toss them right back.
Three on a Couch (1966)
As movie tastes started to change in the mid 1960s, Lewis continued to play the same games on screen such as this silly story about a man who impersonates people to woo his girlfriend to Paris. What the film lacks in originality, Lewis makes up for in the creativity of his performance. But the act is becoming too predictable to sustain audience interest.
The King of Comedy (1983)
Years after watching his box office command end, Lewis delivers the movie performance of his career in this striking Martin Scorsese drama about the loneliness of show business. Opposite Robert DeNiro as a would-be comic, Lewis sends shivers as a late-night television host who finds it impossible to connect with people. Except on the small screen.
Thank you, Jerry Lewis, for your gifts to the world, on and off screen. You make us laugh, think and look for the good around us. Rest in peace.
Quiz Show: Television and the 1950s
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Remembering the late Jerry Lewis recalls the 1950s when television offered comedians a range of opportunities to perform.
As Lewis and partner Dean Martin quickly learned, few entertainments appealed to home viewers as much as the variety show, a collection of songs and sketches that brought headliners into homes each night of the week.
And, as popular as the variety show was in the 1950s, its appeal couldn’t compare to the television game show.
People would spend hours hoping other people will win big prizes and privately savoring the moments when they lose. They loved the chance to watch others succeed, suffer, gamble and fail without having to invest in the outcome.
When television was new, in the 1950s, game shows were the national obsession, partly because they were cheap for networks for produce and easy for audiences to absorb, the main reason they remain popular today. As these programs became more popular, the thirst for higher ratings led to larger prizes and intensified drama, as the nation began to root for certain people to win the money. And such programs as The 64,000 Question and Twenty One made instant stars out of everyday people.
But what if the entertainment these shows would promise would overwhelm the need for legality and legitimacy? And what if some contestants received the answers in advance to make sure they were victorious? Would such tampering with the outcome be wrong? Or would it simply be a way to script the medium in a way the audience would demand?
Quiz Show takes us inside the television game show scandals of the 1950s as it teaches us, again, the difference between how people perceive what is right and wrong. We are on the set of Twenty One, a popular game show of the period, when a young man named Charles Van Doren becomes a popular national hero after successfully answering a stunning series of difficult questions. To many, he is a brilliant collector of facts; to others, he is a mysterious product of the entertainment machine. Soon, many begin to question if his victory is authentic. Or, in an effort to garner viewers, do the producers of the show blatantly manipulate who wins and loses? Is this man as smart as he appears? Or is he good at memorizing the facts that someone else gives him? And does it matter?
The film finds it nourishment in its insightful examination of Van Doren’s ambition. By focusing on the man, beyond the situation he is placed in, Quiz Show authentically explores if his own ambitions and ego prompt him to stretch the rules or if, simply, his vanity makes him the likely candidate to be manipulated by the media machine. But Robert Redford is too subtle a director to take sides, letting us see the negatives in this man, as well as the positives, as we consider who did what in the scandal of the century.
With amazing detail, Quiz Show recreates a world dominated by television, where success on the small box can change ordinary lives. But it warns us that, behind the box, people continue to live, and when we tamper with people’s lives, all the ratings in the world can’t make up for the ultimate hurt. We experience the highs and lows of live television as well as how this new medium made celebrities out of everyday people. And we see, much too clearly, how television can make or break its stars without thought for their personal lives. We are reminded this is ultimately a business and, if people get in the way, they can be expendable.
And, as Jerry Lewis learned in the early 1960s, when his own television series only played a short run, the small tube can be a challenging place to succeed.