Entry #12: Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy and Cracking Up
by Nathan Rabin
First and Last is an ongoing column exploring remarkable filmmakers at the beginning and ends of their careers.
Jerry Lewis was not the first funnyman to venture behind the camera. Far from it. But seemingly no famous film clown derived as much of his identity from being not just a filmmaker but an auteur as the controversial, widely loved and widely hated slapstick icon. Lewis detractors see him not just as a buffoon but as something even more absurd: a caricature of a megalomaniacal Filmmaker with the requisite beret/neckerchief combo lording over his sets from his Director’s chair, megaphone perpetually by his side, always just a moment away from flying into a rage.
To give Lewis credit, however, something folks in the States do too infrequently, and people in the fine nation of France do too often, with his delightful black and white 1960 directorial debut The Bellboy, which he also wrote and produced and starred in, the recently deceased funnyman earns auteur status with a deliriously inventive physical comedy that boldly announcement its uniqueness and crazy ambition in an opening sequence where a studio executive explains to us that what we are about to see is no ordinary motion picture.
Growing with excitement and enthusiasm with each word, he happily boasts that what follows is not one of those “space, violence and horror” pictures (apparently in 1960 “violence” was an entire genre, not merely an element found in some) but rather “a film based on fun” with “no story, no plot” that is, fundamentally, just a series of “silly sequences”, a “visual diary of a few weeks in the life of a real nut”, if you will.
In his first time in the director’s chair, Lewis is throwing down the gauntlet. He’s letting audiences know that they’re about to see an unusually pure exercise in slapstick and physical comedy undiluted by anything that might get in the way of the gags or the comedy, like love interests or character arcs or, well, a plot.
In another context, this lack of a plot might be troubling. Lewis’ final film, 1983’s Cracking Up, similarly doesn’t have a plot, but it feebly attempts to, whereas The Bellboy going without a plot feels like a bold and purposeful artistic choice that pays huge creative dividends. It helps that The Bellboy runs a brisk 71 minutes, so it doesn’t give audiences time to get tired of its non-stop parade of silly sequences and surreal sight gags.
With The Bellboy, Lewis clearly set out to make the ultimate Jerry Lewis movie, one that proved he didn’t even need dialogue (or, as we have established, plot or many of the other hallmarks of most motion pictures) to make audiences laugh. Lewis’ iconically simple Stanley the Bellhop goes through the movie with a beatific grin on his weird angel-face, never saying a word as he goes about his daily bumbling.
The Bellboy has the energy and invention of a great debut. It feels like Lewis had been diligently stashing away gags and jokes and visual bits his entire career for when he made the big leap to director. It feels like his entire career was building to this moment, when he could call the shots and serve only his own demanding muse.
But if The Bellboy is the ultimate Jerry Lewis vehicle, it’s also intent on one-upping the likes of Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. The hotel where the movie takes place is a character onto itself, a sprawling, hyper-modern mecca of comfort and prestige with ballrooms that seem to stretch out for miles and miles. The movie is shot in luscious deep focus whose scope makes Stanley seem like even more of a tiny, bumbling little ant making a mess of his lair.
Lewis does double-duty as, of course, movie star Jerry Lewis, who checks into the hotel accompanied by an entourage of cackling yes men and women who guffaw with delight at anything the boss says, even when it’s sad. There’s more than a touch of acidic Buddy Love self-caricature in Lewis’ depiction of himself as an aggressive, neurotic, insecure star protected by a cocoon of sycophants and boot lickers.
The Bellboy, which began Lewis’ directorial career on an auspicious and remarkable note, has a lot of elements in common with 1983’s Cracking Up, which ended it in an infinite pool of sadness and failure, like the aforementioned lack of a plot, as well as a cameo from Milton Berle. Berle matches, and even exceeds Lewis in caustic self-parody, depicting himself less as lovable old Uncle Miltie than just another lecherous celebrity with bedroom eyes and an unmistakable agenda whenever he encounters a beautiful woman.
If Lewis and Berle’s cameos as themselves are pleasingly tart, there’s a core of beatific, almost angelic sweetness to Stanley. He’s Lewis at his most child-like and pure and the choice to forego dialogue almost entirely for the lead character gives the movie an energy and novelty all its own. He’s a silent movie protagonist in a sound movie world but being a Jerry Lewis divine nut, he’d be out of step with the modern world no matter what.
The Bellboy may just be a series of silly sequences, but at its best, it’s nothing short of divine, proving that Lewis was a comic genius in real life, not just in the minds of pretentious Frenchmen. The Bellboy is nothing short of magnifique!
The world changed a whole lot between 1960 and 1983. That’s true of cinema as well but Lewis stubbornly refused to change with it. Sure, he revealed a powerful new side of himself in his masterful, justly acclaimed turn as a Johnny Carson-like talk show host around this time in The King of Comedy but when it came to Lewis’ own comedy, he seemed trapped sometime long before the end of vaudeville.
“Old-fashioned” doesn’t begin to do justice to 1983’s Cracking Up. “Prehistoric” would be closer to the mark. Indeed, Cracking Up, Lewis’ final film as a writer-director-star seems to exist in some weird alternate universe where the 1960s and 1970s never happened, nor did the counterculture, or feminism, or Black Power, or New Hollywood for that matter, and there was still a market to see a clearly depressed man deep into his fifties perform more or lot plotless physical comedy for ninety minutes.
Slapstick is a young man’s game, as, ironically, Lewis’ dreadful performance in the misbegotten Kurt Vonnegut adaptation of Slapstick of Another Kind also illustrated conclusively. Watching a vital, vibrant youth in the prime of his rich physicality (like Lewis in The Bellboy) act like a buffoonish man-child can be a joy, and certainly is a joy during the superior entertainment from Lewis’ golden age. Watching a grouchy, transparently joyless man in his mid-fifties bumble his way sourly through these kind of man-child shenanigans, however, is just sad.
“Sad” is an appropriate word for Cracking Up, and not just because it opens with Warren Nefron (Jerry Lewis) unsuccessfully attempting suicide. Suicide isn’t the only thing Warren is incapable of doing. He’s equally incapable of sitting successfully in a chair and remaining upright for extended periods of time.
Warren is a mess barely able to go a minute or two without dropping something or falling down or humiliating himself, so he visits a psychiatrist who accurately sizes up his neurotic, flailing client as someone who has “Made too many swan dives into empty pools.” The shrink advises his pathetic client to seek further treatment overseas.
Cracking Up dares to ask, “How often could even the clumsiest man fall down or drop things?” The answer is “a seemingly limitless amount.” It similarly asks how much plot and shape and structure a movie like this needs and decides early on, “almost none.” Neither answer seems correct but Lewis clearly made this movie for himself and the kind of die-hards who aren’t put off by something as minor as a non-existent plot, terrible characters and physical comedy that inspires deep, almost bottomless sadness rather than cathartic laughter.
Cracking Up was filmed under the title Smorgasbord. I’m not sure what Webster’s definition of “Smorgasbord” is but I’ve always defined it as “a bunch of crap, most of it lousy, thrown together without much care or effort.” That is a perfect, if less than elegant description of Cracking Up. It’s almost aggressively slapdash and semi-coherent.
It’s as if Lewis, at the end of his run as a filmmaker and leading man, took seven or eight scripts he’d been fiddling with that just did not work at all and stapled them randomly together to create some weird, half-assed Frankenstein’s Monster of dumb running jokes, badly executed sight gags and forgettable, regrettable stereotypes.
There’s even a scene of the geriatric writer/director/lead as a schoolboy that’s so broad and over-the-top that even Krusty the Clown — a pop icon with a whole lot of Jerry Lewis in his DNA, albeit not as much as The Simpsons’ Professor Frink — would turn down as being beneath his dignity.
Cracking Up throws so much at audiences that something was bound to stick. Not surprisingly, it’s not cameos from fellow dinosaurs like Foster Brooks (doing a drunk act, of all things), Sammy Davis Jr. or Milton Berle, in drag as a sexually voracious woman with designs on our nerdy, unlikable anti-hero.
No, the only scene in Cracking Up with any real sense of joy or fun or spontaneity is a delightful, unexpected musical number where Lewis, playing a thuggish mobster of a bank robber, leads his accomplices in a rousing production number set to “New York, New York” for the benefit of the bank’s security cameras.
It’s a breath of fresh air in a mausoleum of stale, ancient comedy but even at its best Cracking Up is weighed down by bizarre choices and odd gaffes, like Lewis’ decision to have the mobster wear so much make-up that he looks more like Mr. Hyde or a werewolf than an actual human being.
Cracking Up is so slapdash that it ends with its protagonist seeing the movie that we’ve just seen in the kind of meta joke that was fresh when Frank Tashlin did it in 1955 and pretty over-done nearly thirty years later. But since the movie was filmed as Smorgasbord, that’s the name on the marquee at the end of the film.
It’s only the most dramatic illustration of Cracking Up’s shambling incoherence. Forget plot or characterization or clever gags: this movie can’t even seem to figure out what its name is, and Smorgasbord and Cracking Up are both appropriate names in that they’re terrible, and suit a terrible, desperate, amateurish movie, which feels closer to a home movie than the kind of comedies being made around this time.
Lewis would, remarkably, go on to live another thirty-four years after Cracking Up ended his directorial career on a singularly embarrassing note. With Cracking Up, the controversial legend had the misfortune of going out, as a director at least, a whole lot closer to the bottom than the top.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.