You’ve probably heard it all before, about how Jerry Lewis was both a comedy genius and hopelessly difficult egomaniac, how he raised billions of dollars for muscular dystrophy, while also making personal enemies (either real or perceived) as naturally as the rest of us breathe.
What often gets overlooked in reviews of his life and career, however, is the fact that he almost single-handedly revived American film comedy, i.e. real, pure, slapstick comedy, after a full decade of creative drought. As fashionable as it became for cinema snobs to denigrate him and his comic style, Lewis can be credited with helping American film comedy crawl out of its doldrums, which, throughout the 1950s, was no laughing matter.
Just as the magnetic attraction of films and radio lured vaudevillians off the stage in the ’30s and placed them in front of microphones and movie cameras, television in the late ’40s and early ’50s exerted its own irresistible influence on performers–in many cases, those very same former vaudevillians. Television represented the future. Radio comedians abandoned their medium with TV’s rise to dominance, but movie comedy in the ’50s suffered from an even greater vacuum. At the time, those veteran movie comedians who didn’t turn their attention to television simply left the film industry outright. By the end of 1950, the motion picture business found itself without all of its true comedy giants, such as W.C. Fields (who died in 1946), Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
Here are the specifics: The Marx Brothers ended their movie career with their last film, Love Happy, released in March of 1950. Love Happy was made mostly because Chico was broke and needed money, even though it is Harpo who dominates the screen time, with Groucho doing little more than serving as narrator, and appearing in a brief scene late in the film. This swan song was only their thirteenth film in twenty years. Groucho had long lost his enthusiasm for making films, but was riding high as the host of the radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, which would make a successful transition to TV later that year.
Laurel & Hardy, after making a handful of inferior comedy features for an uncaring 20th Century Fox studio in the mid-1940s, released their own disastrous final film in 1950, Atoll K, which was made in Europe with a confused, multi-national, multi-lingual production team, and with a very ill Stan Laurel. After Stan recovered, he and Ollie resumed their career, most notably with a British stage tour, but they had left their movie days behind them.
As for comedy’s other elder statesmen of the screen, Charlie Chaplin, having appeared as his “Little Tramp” character (without speaking) for the final time in Modern Times (1936), offered only two features in the 1950s–Limelight in ’52, and A King in New York in ’57. His friend/rival Buster Keaton enjoyed a new lease on life on television (much to Chaplin’s chagrin), starring for a time on his own syndicated program, as well as in numerous commercials.
Abbott & Costello’s films, wildly popular throughout the 1940s, suffered a steady decline in quality after 1950, as they too turned more of their attention to television. They began their stint as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951, and stared in their own half-hour sitcom the following year for two seasons.
Even the Three Stooges’ comedy suffered throughout the 1950s, first from the loss of Curly Howard, who was forced to retire in 1946 after a series of strokes (he died in 1952). Shemp Howard dutifully stepped in for his brother, but despite his own considerable comic abilities, his films with the Stooges did not have the comic impact as Curly’s had. Shemp died in 1955. His successive replacements, Joe Besser, and later Joe DeRita, joined too late in the game to make much of their own mark on the franchise. More significantly, Columbia Studios, the Stooges’ home for a quarter-century, closed its short subject division in 1958, and chose not to renew the team’s contract.
But what about Jerry Lewis, you ask? Don’t worry, we’re getting to him.
The break-up of Martin and Lewis in 1956, exactly ten years after they first became a team, dealt another major blow to comedy. They had been the darlings of the entertainment world, complementing their successful film career (where they became the country’s #1 box office attraction), with legendary nightclub stage shows and rollicking sketches as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour.
But Dean, growing weary of Jerry’s onstage antics–with at times interfered with Dean’s earnest attempts to sing–decided it was time for the two to go their separate ways.
Later that same year, Abbott & Costello, considerably older than Martin & Lewis, and just as tired of each other’s company, released their final film together, Dance With Me, Henry. They split up after twenty years of tremendous success in every mass medium there was.
There were still more developments that did not bode well for comedy as the decade neared its end. Gracie Allen retired from show business in 1958, leaving George Burns to carry on without her. Lou Costello, who had been enjoying life as a frequent TV guest without Bud Abbott, died in 1959. He was only 52 years old.
On the silver screen, the meager output of feature film comedies by decade’s end was such that it’s almost possible to count on one hand the quality comedies produced by major American studios in that ten-year span. Only Born Yesterday, The Seven Year Itch, Mister Roberts, Pillow Talk, Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards’ directorial debut), and Billy Wilder’s much revered Some Like It Hot have demonstrated any true staying power in the decades since their release. However, even these films did not star established comedians, but rather light comic actors, such as Judy Holliday, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, and Jack Lemmon–similar to how the screwball comedies of the 1930s starred the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, and Cary Grant. But being a comic actor does not make one a comedian.
In 1960, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lamented how true slapstick, so popular in the silent comedies of the 1920s, and revived via montage tribute films such as When Comedy Was King, assembled by producer Robert Youngston, had given way to bland, suburban comedies like Please Don’t Eat The Daises. “Considering the pallid quality of most screen comedy these days,” he wrote, “it is gladdening but saddening, we must tell you, to look at When Comedy Was King.”
If there was anyone to assume the role of the shining knight on a white horse coming to rescue comedy at that time (even if he was prone to slipping halfway off), it was Jerry Lewis. The critically maligned genius had a lot to live up to, following his decade of onstage and onscreen madness with Dean Martin. But history shows us that it was Lewis who brought true slapstick comedy back to films after the nearly comatose decade of the ’50s.
He began his solo film career soon after the break-up of the team, but it wasn’t until he took full control–writing, directing, starring, editing–that his films took on their special quality. These films of the early ’60s, such as The Bellboy, Cinderfella (both 1960), The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy (both 1961), and, of course, The Nutty Professor (1963), may have lacked anything resembling comic subtlety or restraint.
But to his credit, and despite the grumbling from the critics, Lewis kept throwing his gawky screen persona and preposterous sight gags straight at his audience’s heads, without let-up. He provided what had been missing from films for so long: an anything-for-a-laugh philosophy favoring silly, often surreal sight gags and a plethora of pratfalls (which led his considerable discomfort and addiction to pain-killers), designed to do nothing more than to keep filmgoers in stitches.
As comedian Gilbert Gottfried said in tribute to Lewis this week, “The French were right all along.”