I’ve always held Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961) in high regard, but a recent rewatch confirms by suspicion that it’s one of the great comedies of all time. Lewis’s second and arguably most audacious directorial effort is a remarkable object—endlessly inventive, surprising, and confounding. Has a more abrasive performer or eccentric an American artist ever become as popular as Jerry Lewis?
This is the movie that Lewis shot on an enormous, dollhouse-like set with the fourth wall removed, taking up two soundstages at the Paramount studio (it would inspire similar sets in Godard’s Tout va bien and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic). The set is a testament to Lewis’s clout circa 1961: The Ladies Man arrived two years after he signed an unprecedented contract with Paramount for $10 million plus 60% of profits for 14 films in seven years. He was five years removed from his partnership with Dean Martin, riding high on an unbroken string of box office successes, and one year removed from his directorial debut (and one of his biggest hits), The Bellboy (1960).
Dispensing quickly with the plot: Lewis stars as Herbert H. Heebert, the nerdy valedictorian of his junior college class (fun fact: Lewis was 35 at the time of this film’s release). On graduation day, he is heartbroken to discover his fiancée in flagrante delicto with another man, and dramatically swears off women. Seeking employment at a place where he won’t be tempted by the ladies, he takes a job at a boarding house. The next morning, he discovers that all of the tenants are young, gorgeous aspiring actresses.
At this point, the movie ditches the Jerry-the-woman-hater angle, and turns into a series of vignettes about the house and its inhabitants. There are many short blackout gags, but Lewis is also capable of a perfectly-crafted comedy routine (like the scene where Lewis struggles to adjust a gangster’s hat), or long, shaggy-dog sequences that derive their impact from the actors’ perfectly-modulated body language. There is some drippy sentimentality (Jerry teaches the ugly-duckling roomer the importance of loving herself), some light media satire, multiple musical sequences (Jerry Lewis: good tap-dancer), and some surrealism (Jerry enters the house’s only forbidden room, and…). At times, we’re supposed to accept the boarding house as a boarding house, but when once scene climaxes with a high-angle shot of Lewis and Raft dancing under a spotlight, we’re once again reminded that this is a giant dollhouse set on two Paramount soundstages.
The film is never less than beautiful: Lewis’s camera gracefully navigates the house set, and he is energized by the possibilities of the colour palette. In Lewis’s best self-directed work, the pleasure comes from the tension between the impeccable mis-en-scene, and the chaos of what transpires inside it. In his 2005 memoir Dean & Me, Lewis lamented that the formulaic movies he made with Dean Martin did little to capture the live-wire energy of their nightclub performances: “Three acts—that structure is as old as the hills. But there are parts of the human spirit that three acts can leave out.” Lewis immediately veered from convention for his first film as writer/director, The Bellboy (1960), a plotless string of oddball gags at a hotel in which the title character doesnt speak until the final scene. The movie was considered enough of a risk that Lewis had to finance it himself, and include an introductory scene where a fictional studio executive explains the premise (“A series of silly sequences!”).
I suspect a divide could be made between those who prefer Lewis in the comedies directed by the great Frank Tashlin (including Who’s Minding the Store, Artists and Models, It’$ Only Money, and Rock a Bye Baby), and those who prefer his self-directed work. The Tashlin films are more disciplined and more sharply satirical, but Lewis’s personal films are pure, undistilled Jerry. As a filmmaker, Lewis inherited a lot from Tashlin: the cartoonish gags, the candy-coloured aesthetic, the hyperbolic acting. But Lewis is chiefly interested in the self: he is obsessed with the sheer ungainly awkwardness of the human body, whether by itself or (The Ladies Man has a great offhand moment where he tries to smoothly slip a piece of paper into a jacket pocket, and repeatedly fails) or interacting with the world around it (in the film, Jerry struggles to clean the house, lie on a bed, carry a jar of milk, and countless other mundane activities).
Lewis’s partnership with Dean Martin rested on the contrast between Martin’s idealized masculinity and his own boyishness/ineptitude. Even after the split, Lewis kept compulsively returning to the idea of the misfit who tries to assimilate into polite society, but risks losing himself in the process. In The Patsy (1964), he’s a schnook who gets recruited by some showbiz managers to become a manufactured pop star. In Which Way to the Front (1970), he’s a millionaire who starts his own army after a stinging rejection from the real one. In Hardly Working (1980), he’s an out-of-work circus clown who fumbles through a procession of jobs. Jim Carrey is often cited as an heir to Lewis, but Ace Ventura and The Mask were swaggering cocksmen who laughed at the world around them; Jerry’s dweebs craved acceptance. The Professor’s climactic speech in The Nutty Professor is something of a mission statement for Lewis’s career: “I don’t want to be something that I’m not. I don’t like being someone else. At the same time I’m very glad I was ‘cause I found out something that I never knew. You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you.”
Off-screen, Lewis has overcompensated, affecting the air of a dilettante-ish intellectual and sexual boaster. Lewis’s Buddy Love persona in The Nutty Professor was widely assumed to be based on his old ex-partner (Lewis insists it isn’t, FWIW), but by now it’s an equally tired cliché to say that Buddy and the Professor represent the two sides of Lewis’s own persona. The scene where Buddy tries to sing a song but the professor’s voice keeps croaking out of his mouth could be a synecdoche for Lewis’s entire public persona (especially the potent mix of schmaltz, venom, and flop-sweat that wafted from The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon). Lewis literalizes the dichotomy in The Bellboy, in which the hotel is visited by Jerry Lewis, movie star, flanked by an entourage of fans and yes-men.
Since Lewis’s films take masculinity and rejection as their subjects, and The Ladies Man is about a woman-hating nerd in a boarding-house full of women, perhaps this would be a good time to address Lewis’s storied misogyny. His less-than-enlightened side was evident from his famously tetchy relationship with Sandra Bernhard on the set of The King of Comedy, and the generally ornamental role that women have played in his films, but it bubbled to the surface in some unfortunate comments he made about female comedians in 2000 (“I don’t like any female comedians. Seeing a woman in comedy sets me back a bit … I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world”). As is often the case with Lewis, he’s a bundle of contradictions even in this area (his appreciative comments about Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett aren’t hard to find), but still, sexism has become an irreversible part of his legacy, and he’s occasionally brought up by woke souls looking for an easy target.
Without defending Lewis’s comments, I’ll say that his films are spiky and conflicted, and if you’re interested in comedy as a means of therapy, they pose a rewarding challenge. So much of the alleged comedy that pops up in my Twitter feed—John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, SNL—offers just liberal truisms in joke-like contours (Andy Borowitz could also be on this list, but I have a policy of automatically unfollowing anyone who posts his work). I find it difficult to believe that anyone actually laughs at this stuff instead of just nodding in approval, but for many (most?) people, comedy is simply about pleasure, and I suppose it’s pleasurable to have one’s values affirmed. I also suspect that a lot of comedy practitioners get into the business because they like the idea of “speaking truth to power,” but don’t have the gravitas to hack it as public intellectuals. By contrast, Lewis is always using his films to work through some irresolvable self-esteem issues. We always sense the lonely boy who was neglected for months at a time by his vaudevillian parents, and then became a global superstar when he was barely in his twenties.
The Ladies Man is the sort of movie where I spend more time admiring the beauty and craft of the comedy than laughing at it, but on this viewing, I did find myself LOL’ing more than I expected. Your mileage for Lewis’s screechy-voiced shtick may vary, but the guy was a remarkably talented physical comedian. At any rate, I think Lewis is one of the rare comedians where laughs are almost beside the point. When thinking about Lewis, I often remember a line from Andrew “Dice” Clay’s album The Day the Laughter Died, in which he snarls at the sparse audience, “This isn’t about laughter. It’s about comedy.”