The purpose of this blog entry is twofold. First, it’s worth mentioning that Paramount Pictures has done something uncharacteristically generous for a movie studio. They have started their own channel on YouTube, named The Paramount Vault, onto which they’ve uploaded more than 100 movies from their backlog of film releases. Granted, they’re not all classics, but it’s certainly worth a look to see what Paramount has made available for free online viewing.
Secondly, I’m going to do something I never imagined undertaking on this blog. I’m going to say a few kind words about Jerry Lewis.
To me, Jerry Lewis is a cinematic car wreck. Not liking most of his work, I should completely look away from it, but I can’t. He has (or had, in his heyday) a gift for superb physical comedy that is rare in movies, and like many of his old-old-school fans, I wish he had stuck to that.
What has always turned me off of Lewis are his many chest-pounding moments as the all-knowing auteur, using his movies as a vehicle for showy directorial stuff, while letting plot elements dangle in the wind. If only he’d done just one movie where he hadn’t felt compelled to show us that he was Jerry Lewis The Genius, where he had just let loose with the funny.
For me, that one movie is Don’t Give Up the Ship, filmed early in Lewis’ solo career and just before he got the auteur bug. I came across it on local TV one boring Sunday afternoon, and I was surprised to find that I laughed myself silly all the way through it.
In the movie, Lewis plays John Paul Steckler VII, a Navy veteran who has just gotten married and thinks he’s about to enjoy his honeymoon. Unfortunately, the Navy has other ideas. It seems that Steckler was a junior officer aboard a WWII destroyer, and Steckler was responsible for sailing the ship back to the U.S. so that it could be decommissioned. Now the ship is missing, and Steckler’s was the last name associated with it. So Steckler can either find the ship or reimburse the Navy for it! How does one lose an entire Navy destroyer, anyway?
IMHO, this is Lewis at his purest and funniest. He plays a well-meaning but neurotic and put-upon guy whose reactions to stressful situations are a bit more over-the-top than most people’s. That’s something I can relate to — not some wacko moron who does quadruple takes and shoves an entire glass in his mouth to get laughs.
And the first thing that Lewis’ detractors point out is that Lewis never learned that less equals more — that sometimes, it’s the simplest moments that are the best. The moment in Don’t Give Up the Ship that completely won me over to Lewis’ side involves only a hat and a piece of cake — nothing elaborate, but perfectly executed. (If you want to cheat and zip ahead to that moment in the movie, it’s a set-piece that starts at about the 5-minute mark.)
So don’t bother trying to sell me on the glories of The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, or any of Lewis’ other directorial indulgences. Don’t Give Up the Ship is the one Lewis movie that I completely enjoy from start to finish. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the Jerry Lewis movie for people who don’t usually like Jerry Lewis movies.