JERRY LEWIS: “The Delicate Delinquent” and the Anxiety of Growing Up

After making seventeen pictures together over an eight-year period, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin terminated their partnership when Martin refused to don a policeman’s uniform for his role in “The Delicate Delinquent,” and was replaced by Darren McGavin. Martin was happy to be out of the relationship, as his role in the duo had been becoming more and more marginalized as Lewis’ antics were overshadowing the crooning and spooning of Martin’s debonair straight man. Although McGavin’s policeman did not sing, and was not as easygoing as Martin’s would have been, the actor supplied a suitable dramatic antagonist /ally for Lewis’ sentimental bumbler. Structurally, it was still a Martin and Lewis picture, but Lewis was fundamentally on his own, the weight of the picture resting on his shoulders.

“The Delicate Delinquent” was released in June 1957, one month before “Loving You,” Elvis Presley’s second picture but his first in the leading role, came out. Jerry’s second picture, “The Sad Sack,” was released in November 1957, the same month as Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock.” This is significant as Elvis and Jerry were the two primary role models for kids growing up in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties. Elvis represented the self-image, and Lewis the way kids were seen by others, namely adults. And each of us knew that. although we felt like Elvis on the inside, we were all Jerrys on the outside – little spazz wimps who had little hope of making it in the adult world.

“The Delicate Delinquent” opens with a choreographed gang fight (see clip) that is very similar to the opening scene of ‘West Side Story,” albeit on a more modest scale. “Since the musical opened on Broadway one month before the film was released, there is no way either could have been influenced by the other. These feminized expressions of “The Rumble” were conceived independent of each other, one in New York and one in Hollywood. Something was in the air. It is significant that Jerry is not an active player in this rumble, but falls into it while taking out the garbage, and is subsequently taken to jail with the real delinquents when the police show up. The gay subtext here is not sexual, but social. The delinquents have established an internal culture to make it possible to prolong adolescence in order to avoid dealing with the anxiety of trying to find a place in an adult world that rejects them.

Jerry is not content with such a shadow existence. He dreams of forging an identity in which he is useful to others and respected as an individual. The delinquents mock him for thinking he has a chance of making this dream a reality. They have accepted their roles as losers and embrace a philosophy of sociopathic materialism. Jerry realizes he will always be a nobody until he proves his right to a full and fulfilled existence, so when a pretty girl in the building where he lives and works as a maintenance man asks him why he has never made a pass at her, he answers that she deserves a somebody and he is a nobody and when he becomes a somebody, he will kiss her. It is an admission that domestic heterosexuality is a reward that comes only with the attaining of adulthood. His policeman mentor is having parallel difficulties with his girlfriend, who is emotionally, if not sexually, threatened by his devotion to the boy. The cop not only refuses to give up the boy for the girl, but tells her there will be several more like him in the future, and if she cannot accept this part of his life, their relationship is in deep trouble.

The movie does not get trapped in these undercurrents, but proceeds along its sentimental way towards Jerry’s victory over the anxieties of growing up, which is not achieved through overcoming his spastic behavior, but of manipulating it to his advantage. It is not enough to mimic others in order to be allowed a place in a rigidly conformist social order. One must also retain those quirks of individuality that make one a person in spite of the accompanying neuroses. And this is the formula that Jerry Lewis will more or less stick to in his subsequent movies, those movies in which he is without the male partner who in earlier times had made it possible for him to get through every situation without cracking up.

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