As part of his series “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” former Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum presents a screening of Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man. Obviously, a survey of transgressive American comedies would be woefully incomplete without Jerry Lewis, which explains why he’s represented twice in this survey: the aforementioned Ladies Man and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, screening in November. A hugely important figure in American cinema, Lewis is a singular performer who embracing and even celebrated his celebrity status, which he purged with his self-critical and introspective acting style. As a filmmaker, he was an inventive and daring formalist who held no affinity for narrative and spatial tradition. You can find my five favorite Lewis films below, with a minor caveat: of the 13 films directed by Lewis, I’ve only seen three. (I know, I know.) So I included a couple films that feature Lewis as an actor only, which really isn’t all that controversial when you consider how “auteurist” he is as an actor. As the critic Chris Fujiwara puts it in his excellent essay on Lewis, “Isolating for commentary Lewis’ work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis’ multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task.” On to the list:
5. The Ladies Man (dir. Jerry Lewis, 1961) Jerry Lewis’s Playtime. Dave Kehr called this “one of the stranger chapters in [Lewis’s] continuing psycho-biography.” The film is indeed irreverent, even surreal at times (I’m thinking of the “Miss Cartilage’s room” sequence), and it’s also a joyous expression of Lewis’s artistry and his brash affinity for the filmmaking process.
4. Who’s Minding the Store? (dir. Frank Tashlin, 1963) Lewis and Frank Tashlin collaborated on multiple films, and this one’s my favorite, a trenchant exploration of consumer culture. Tashlin’s penchant for anarchic comedy and elastic physicality suited Lewis’s lawless sensibilities. The climactic vacuum cleaner scene is one of Tashlin’s most inspired moments, a zany and comically rich capitalist critique.
3. The King of Comedy (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1983) Arguably the only person more interested in exploring Jerry Lewis than Jerry Lewis is Martin Scorsese, though Chicago’s own Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa might have something to say about that. Few directors (outside of Lewis himself) would give the actor such a role, and the fact that the film was so maligned upon release is proof that Lewis’s genius is one that requires proper distance.
2. The Patsy (dir. Jerry Lewis, 1964) Next to The Nutty Professor, this is among the most radical comedies of its age. The film dares to present scenes and situations that are fundamentally unfunny in an effort to question and explore what actually is funny, a harbinger of a subversive comedy style practiced today by directors like the Safdie Brothers and Joel Potrykus. Truly one of a kind.
1. The Nutty Professor (dir. Jerry Lewis, 1963) This comedy features what’s probably Lewis’s most palatable and audience-friendly performance, and it’s undoubtedly his most universally admired directorial effort, but it’s still a deeply personal work. Ideas of self-image, moral responsibility, and his own personal mythos are found throughout, and the genre tooling is fascinating; the film’s liberal and occasionally unsavory application of science fiction and sex comedy elements is something like a parabolic tone poem.