Jerry Lewis in DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP (1959)

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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 ProfessorThe 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.

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The Day The Clown Shut Up

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It was announced last week that Jerry Lewis turned over his notoriously uncompleted 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried, to the Library of Congress, with the proviso that it not been screened or shown to anyone for another 10 years.

For those who have lived under the proverbial rock for the past couple of generations, Lewis intended The Day the Clown Cried to be his cinematic masterpiece. It’s the story of a bitter, unfunny German circus clown who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. I’ll let Wikipedia’s synopsis of the movie take it from here (SPOILER ALERT, if you’re really that involved):

“By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.

Knowing the fear the children will feel, he begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the ‘showers,’ he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, but there is none. He is so filled with remorse that he remains with them. As the children laugh at his antics, the movie ends.”

Through a series of cumbersome legal circumstances, the film never got finished or released. Lewis has since vacillated about the movie, stating alternately that he thought it was great and that he failed to achieve what he wanted with it.

In the movie’s wake, many people have speculated upon it — most notably comedian Harry Shearer, one of the few people to have actually seen the entire movie as such. (Click here for Shearer’s take on the movie, as well as a detailed history of its making and its non-release.)

Now that there’s a chance that people might actually see The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis fanatics and foes alike are salivating at the prospect. Will it be the masterpiece that Lewis once claimed? Will it be Lewis’ most excessive wallowing in bathos? Are you dying to see it?

Me, not so much. Even with all of its legal entanglements, I tend to think that if it had indeed been Lewis’ crowning artistic achievement, surely someone — maybe Lewis himself? — would have gone through hell and high water to get it released. Plus, I have to think that Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), with its similar theme of deluding a happy child while in a concentration camp, certainly stole much of what was left of the Lewis movie’s thunder. At the moment, The Day the Clown Cried looks to me to be one of those Great Lost Films that will remain great only as long as it stays lost.

On the other hand…If I had the Jerry Lewis Genie in front of me, and he gave me two choices — “You can either have The Day the Clown Cried released in all of its glory for everyone, including you, to see…or you can shelve the movie for good, and instead interview Mr. Lewis on the topic of your choice” — I’d go for the interview. Why? Because…

Telethon

After 45 years of hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annually televised Labor Day telethon, Lewis was unceremoniously dumped by MDA in 2010. Even more surprisingly, Lewis has remained tight-lipped about the entire matter ever since his firing. This used to be the guy you couldn’t get to shut up about anything.

I’d love to have a no-holds-barred interview with Jerry Lewis about his ejection from the MDA. “Jerry, do you have any idea why they fired you? Were you given any advance notice? And [wait for it, folks]…how did you feel about the firing, and how do you feel about it now?”

I have the feeling that Jerry’s answers would comfortably run the length of a feature film…and that film would be far more entertaining and insightful than The Day the Clown Cried.

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