JERRY LEWIS – The Struggle for Autonomy From “Geisha Boy” to “Bell Boy”

Geisha Boy (1958)

With a title like “Geisha Boy,” one expects more than this unfunny stretch of tedium that divides its running time between animal slapstick and lost boy sentimentality. There is no geisha boy to be found. Jerry is a third rate magician who manages to get booked on a USO tour, during which he falls in love with a Japanese girl and her nephew, while Suzanne Pleshette makes half-hearted bids for his affections. Hollywood had an Asian fetish during these years, with Marlon Brando playing a Japanese man in 1956’s “Teahouse of the August Moon “and later a racist who falls in love with a Japanese woman in 1957’s “Sayonara.” “The Geisha Boy “came out in 1958, the same year barbarian John Wayne was falling for Eiko Ando’s geisha. In 1960, William Holden found himself a romantic hostage to the world of Suzie Wong, while Shirley Maclaine’s character managed to get cast as Madame Butterfly by fooling her husband the director into thinking she was a geisha girl. But all Jerry manages is root for the Dodgers when they go up against a Japanese baseball team. If you hate Jerry Lewis, this is the movie to offer as proof that he sucks. Its only redeeming qualities are a few sight gags that are brief enough to catch you off guard, and a couple of in-jokes for the movie buffs.

Visit to a Small Planet (1960)

I expected a lot more from Frank Tashlin than what he delivered on “The Geisha Boy.” He should have been the perfect director to wield Jerry through a lot of crazy situations in postwar Japan, but his satirical edge had become blunt, and Jerry decided to use Norman Taurog, another of the better directors from the Martin-Lewis years, on his next two projects. The first, which I haven’t had the opportunity to see since I was about nine years old, was titled “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” and featured Jerry in three roles. Since this title has not yet been included in any of the available Jerry Lewis DVD collections, we might assume it is a negligible effort. I have seen the second, “Visit to a Small Planet,” several times and can say without reservation that it is not very good. A watered-down version of Gore Vidal’s play, which was a black comedy about the end of the world, “Visit” plays like a meandering situation comedy, its vicious satire replaced with mushy romantic conflicts and an overflow of intrusive walk-ons. Two months after the film opened, Taurog began production on “G.I. Blues,” the first bad Elvis picture, and the one that set the formula for the the worst of those to follow. The director retired in 1968 after having made nine pictures with Elvis, keeping him too busy to mess up another one of Jerry’s movies.

The Bellboy (1960)

It would be another five years before Jerry saw the last of Tashlin. They made “Cinderfella” together at the end of 1959 for a summer release, but Jerry saw it as a Christmas picture and convinced the Paramount brass to sit on it. They agreed only on the condition that Jerry supply them with a quickie for the summer. This gave Jerry a low-risk opportunity to try directing himself. It was the best move he could have made. “The Bell Boy,” which he whipped out in just four weeks, established him, not only as a bankable star, but as a creative artist. His organization of space and movement is inspired. He glides through choreographed chaos while neither dominating the supporting players nor getting lost in the kaleidoscope.

it is worth mentioning that when he plays himself, the character is similar to the self he portrayed 25 years later in “King of Comedy.” So much so that we wonder if the real Jerry Lewis is this much of a bastard. or is this simply Jerry’s self-image? And if so, how can we stand watching the son of a bitch? It is a complicated issue, especially when the subject himself puts himself in such a compromised light. Are we watching a true artist at work, or just enjoying the over-indulgences of an egotist. The evidence on the screen points to the former. With “The Bellboy, “I have to stand with the French. Jerry is a genius.
Even if we only accept five of his movies – Rock a Bye Baby, The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, and the Nutty Professor – as substantial pieces of cinematic art, Jerry is still at even odds with the rest of those directors who have been elevated to such levels. Chaplin stands on City Lights, Modern Times, and Limelight. Peckinpah can enter his house justified on the basis of Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Cross of iron. Elvis has Loving You, Jailhouse rock, King Creole, Wild in the Country, and Flaming Star, Jacques Tati has My Uncle, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Traffic, and Playtime. Altman has Nashville; Hitchcock has The Birds. Some directors can go a lifetime without having ever made the movie that defines and justifies him. Lewis made four. When we look at the 70 movies he has made since 1949, it might look like a load of crap. But cull those four from the orchard and you have a handful of perfect apples.

We may get tired of his limited physical vocabulary. It is like encountering the best dancer you have ever in your life danced with, only to find out later that all she could dance was the Jitterbug. But running up and down staircases doing a lot of anxious turns is only a part of the Jerry Lewis Syndrome. His camera is the objective eye that penetrates the obfuscation of personality to reveal the disorganized spirit of hope and madness hidden deep within the conformity of the Cold War era.

(Note: Lewis’ career was never in danger during this period. All his pictures did well at the box office and were enjoyed by his fans. These articles are a subjective attempt on my part to suggest how he had to go beyond being a performer to become a powerful executive with the clout to give himself full artistic freedom. He could have gone on as a successful clown for years and nobody would have batted an eye. But call him a comic genius and the whole flock of naysayers are at your throat, deriding him as a third-rate clown. I maintain that, in terms of pure comic invention, the best of Lewis can stand with the best of anybody. And in the next few articles we will be trying to prove just that.)

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2 thoughts on “JERRY LEWIS – The Struggle for Autonomy From “Geisha Boy” to “Bell Boy”

  1. Great tribute! I am interested in watching Geisha Boy. Of course, now I have to watch The Bell Boy to see if your theory about him being a prick stands up in The King of Comedy. Mostly, I’d like to read a biography of him. Do you recommend any?

    Like

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