October 18 to November 24, 2013
Actor-producer-director Jerry Lewis represents one of the few radical innovators in the history of film and television comedy – and it’s still not easy for us (and maybe even for him, at age 87) to reconcile this fact with the massive popularity he has had for more than half-a-century. Since when are radical innovation and mass appeal not mutually exclusive?
With its neurotic mixture of lost illusions and hope against all reason, the comedy of Jerry Lewis is a post-war phenomenon – meaning, firstly, the 1945-1970 period of his major creations, and, secondly, the post-1970 (and no less post-war) eras which saw him become a perennial favorite for children of all generations, mostly on TV. He was The Stooge (1952) and The Errand Boy (1961), he saw himself as a Ladies Man (1961) and a Nutty Professor (1963), he could become a child (You’re Never Too Young, 1955) and a one-man army against Hitler (Which Way to the Front?, 1970). From that point on, he may have appeared to be Hardly Working (1980) in movies anymore, but with good reason: he was, and would always be, The King of Comedy (1983).
In Europe, at least until the early 1990s, Lewis’ work was part of a collective socialization: one grew up with his clowning, his funny faces and his travesties, and thus learned at an early age all about the ambivalence of interpersonal relationships. The memorable and sadomasochistic mind (and body) games created by Lewis and his longtime partner Dean Martin in such gems as The Stooge, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young and Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models were always quite disturbing. One could sense that this unlikely partnership of a Rat Pack god and a bundle of neuroses was based on need (and the spirit of the era), not on personal closeness – their perfect alliance was more a result of shared antipathies than spiritual kinship.
Their common enemy was a culture defined by the self-disciplining constraints of the postwar world and the demands imposed by the competition for world domination in the Cold War era. At their best, Martin & Lewis confronted this culture with its distorted funhouse mirror images; a casually smart sensualist and a clumsily destructive fool, embodying the American nightmare in the most glaring light. The partnership however, could not last: after Tashlin's monumental Hollywood or Bust (1956), Martin and Lewis went their separate ways.
The Bellboy (1960), Lewis's first film as a director, was a stroke of genius; he immediately hit his stride in the new role. But the loss of his "significant other" affected him more than he would ever admit. One of his most important works, the sardonically perverse Jekyll & Hyde variation, The Nutty Professor, is often viewed as an intimate reflection about Lewis's years with Martin: malicious gloating, inextricably linked with a dull and pulsing feeling of loss, a kind of phantom agony. Later on, in Pirandello-like films such as The Family Jewels (1965) and Three on a Couch (1966), Lewis often tried to split and multiply himself, but he always ended up alone. Horror vacui.
Frank Tashlin, animation genius, creator of visionary children's books, and professional skeptic, became Lewis's preferred director early on – as illustrated by their decade-spanning series of accomplishments (including The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, Who’s Minding the Store, and The Disorderly Orderly) and by the teacher’s role that Tashlin held for Lewis as a director-in-development. Tashlin was also central to the legendary Jerry Lewis cult among European cinephiles in the 1960s: the appreciation of Tashlin's work strengthened interest in Lewis. The transatlantic skirmish would be waged primarily over Lewis, however, whose gesturally “juvenile” (and, in spirit, Juvenal-like) fondness for “culturally inferior” material was mostly misinterpreted in the U.S., even by the more progressive and open-minded critics. (Due to Lewis's many stage and TV appearances, his image in America had originally been associated with witty puns and cynical hipsterism.) Inspired by the surrealists, French critics portrayed Tashlin and Lewis as examples of a magnificently vulgar and ambiguous popular culture: they could be used to pry apart intellectual rigidity and to shine a light onto society's blind spots.
The early 1960s are often cited as the highpoint of Lewis's genius: from The Bellboy to Family Jewels, whose creative virtuosity and frosty psychological depth have no equal in film history, Lewis was one of the greatest directors of all time. But, as befits a true Pantheon auteur, his seemingly minor works often prove more durable than their critical reputations can convey. Some of the Martin & Lewis films may have been directed in a pedestrian manner, but ultimately that only strengthened their caustically anarchic and transgressive humor. On the other hand, Lewis's late 1960s satires and masquerades are drawn from a continually increasing despair – the films grow messier, the jokes colder and cruder. The appropriate highlight of this period is a monstrously grotesque war movie: Which Way to the Front?
After directing and starring in the dramatic story of a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, The Day the Clown Cried (1972), Lewis mostly retired from the cinema; the film probably remains unfinished and was never publicly screened. Hardly Working (1980) and Smorgasbord (1983) were, in their aversion for the present day, not so much comeback attempts as grumpy signs of life. Meanwhile, Lewis’s tour-de-force performances in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy and Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones (1995) hint at the black abyss yawning deep within Jerry Lewis.
A joint project of the Film Museum and the Viennale, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles. With thanks to Chris Fujiwara, author of the canonical book on Lewis, and who, along with Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, will introduce several films in the retrospective.
In addition to excerpts from Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin's outstanding television work (for the "Colgate Comedy Hour"), the show includes a sensational six-part TV documentary created by French critic Robert Benayoun in 1982. "Bonjour Monsieur Lewis", which resurfaced this summer at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, is a treasure trove filled to the brim with unknown Lewis material, behind-the-scenes footage, and tributes from major directors and actors (from Federico Fellini to Mel Brooks).
Accompanying the retrospective will be a new German-language catalogue, including new and classic essays, interviews and autobiographical material, as well as reviews of all films in the series.