4:07 PM CDT, November 1, 2012
Together, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (as they were never billed; always it was the other way around) constituted every conceivable and contradictory image of American manhood, never fixed, forever morphing into something else. Dweeb. Ladykiller. Infant. Country-club smoothie. The kid; the chimp. The adult; the shark. Jekyll. Hyde. Comedy. Singing. Pathos. Slapstick. Animal aggression. I still remember the rageful vein in Lewis' neck one night, in the mid-1980s, responding poorly to something going flooey with the sound during his nightclub act at the Carlton Celebrity Room in suburban Minneapolis. Take Dino out of the equation, and Lewis brought all those roiling personality clashes on his own.
By 7 or 8 my Lewis fandom had been cemented watching "Sailor Beware," a 1952 Martin and Lewis vehicle, on TV. I'd already caught parts of a Lewis-hosted Muscular Dystrophy Telethon or two. And I remember spending some quarters at a backyard carnival put on by one of the kids in my Racine, Wis., neighborhood, on behalf of Lewis' favored philanthropic cause. I remember also convincing my gracious and long-suffering parents to take me and my brother to "Hook, Line & Sinker" (1969). On a school night, even.
That late-period Lewis picture isn't likely ever to be shown at the Siskel Film Center. By the end of the '60s, the decade Lewis began so richly (in both senses) with his directorial debut, "The Bellboy," Lewis' cachet and comic invention were sputtering. But those dismissive of Lewis' talents at their peak, both before and behind the cameras, write him off at their peril.
In an impressive archival black-and-white print, "The Bellboy" (1960) returns to the big screen Saturday and Wednesday at the film center. Accompanying Lewis' blithely plot-free showcase (a big hit in its day), set in and around the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach, the film center presents Columbia College Chicago professor and Iranian native Mehrmaz Saeedvafa's "Jerry and Me," an intriguing 38-minute essay on the filmmaker's personal journey as guided by her favorite childhood Hollywood star.
"The Bellboy" finds Lewis rather startlingly mute for most of its 72 minutes, though in one sequence, Lewis takes on a second role, that of Major Hollywood Star Jerry Lewis, a tetchy and short-tempered fellow (there's truth in comedy) hassled by his own entourage. It's one of Lewis' really good films, beginning with a superbly executed sight gag involving the titular schlep, Stanley, removing the luggage from what he assumes to be the trunk of a Volkswagen Beetle. An independent project released by Paramount Pictures, "The Bellboy" made Lewis a fortune along with some enemies. How dare he do it all?
Like Lewis' best work, "Jerry and Me" is frankly autobiographical. Director Saeedvafa grew up in Tehran and saw "The Disorderly Orderly" (1964) when she was 14. Something in Lewis' comic universe, perched so scarily on the cliff of utter disaster, spoke to the "anxiety and fear" in her own upbringing in pre- and post-revolution Iran. "Jerry and Me" doesn't stick to Lewis exclusively in its generous and shrewdly interpolated clips; there's a lovely moment, for example, from Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" when John Wayne, after kissing Angie Dickinson, speaks in dubbed Persian while the accompanying Iran release version's subtitles have him saying: "There is no god but Allah."
Lewis would love it. He also loved the film "Yoyo" (showing this month at the Film Center), a largely forgotten 1965 release from the French comedy star and director Pierre Etaix, whose reputation has come and gone and come again. Just like That Kid's.
"The Bellboy" and "Jerry and Me" will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, introduced by Mehrmaz Saeedvafa, at the Siskel Film Center.Movies on the TV: Michael and A.O. Scott of The New York Times debate their favorite movie presidents in the 7:30 a.m. segment of “CBS This Morning: Saturday,” broadcast 6-8 a.m. Saturday on CBS-TV (Ch. 2)