Jerry Lewis, the Jewish comedian and filmmaker who died on August 20 at age 91, will be remembered for more than “Cinderfella” (1959), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1962), and a handful of other funny movies. A premier Jewish clown of American cinema, his innovative understanding of the medium ensured that his ethnic identity was an inescapable part of his celebrity in the United States.
As his biographer Shawn Levy emphasizes, Lewis scarcely needed to remind American audiences of his Judaism, since his essence and ambience were so obviously imbued with Yiddishkeit.
With his approval, Lewis’ friend Frank Sinatra called him “Jew” rather than by his first or last name. One of Lewis’ most inventive films, “The Bellboy,” (1960) was filmed in and around the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, a 1954 edifice designed by the Odessa-born Morris Lapidus, who expressed an exultant Jewish kitsch esthetic of New World overabundance.
Lapidus, like Lewis, would long be the target of critics preoccupied with niceties of taste, ignoring the fact that flaunting bad taste with a “too much is never enough” esthetic - to quote the title of a book by Lapidus - was precisely the intention. Lewis changed his Russian Jewish family name of Levitch to become a performer, but his cultural identity was always in the forefront, of someone whose family had fled the pogroms, only to make it big in showbiz.
Basic misunderstandings still abound about Lewis and his work, even among specialists in his films. Critic Chris Fujiwara claimed: “Lewis is one of the main exponents in cinema of the tradition of American Jewish verbal humor. All his films have a clear allegiance to this tradition.” In fact, Lewis was at his best a non-verbal, even anti-verbal performer whose extended sight-gags would not be out of place in silent films, with a variety of imaginative sound effects added.
Unlike Groucho Marx or an array of stand-up comedians, Lewis’s roots were in clowning. He was an exalted version of the Borscht Belt tummler, a hired entertainer who dresses as a waiter and deliberately falls into a hotel swimming pool to get a rise from overfed vacationers. Never verbally adroit, and increasingly inarticulate as he aged and health issues intervened, Lewis’s attempts to express his points of view could understandably offend. His heyday was a time of different sensibilities. Lewis approvingly recounted in a memoir that Dean Martin joked to a 1950s nightclub audience at Ciro’s in West Hollywood, before a solo appearance without Lewis, that it was a “night I’ve been praying for, for the last eight years - to be alone on stage without that goddamn noisy Jew.”
Like a tightrope walker, Lewis’s craft wavered between triumph and debacle. His noisiest failure was “The Day the Clown Cried,” a misbegotten attempt to prefigure Roberto Benigni’s maudlin “Life is Beautiful.” The comedian Harry Shearer, who saw a rough cut, told “Spy Magazine” in 1992: “The closest I can come to describing the effect [of “The Day the Clown Cried”] is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think, ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling.”’
Lewis’s sometimes-grotesque way of dealing with tragic subjects may have compromised his celebrated tenure at the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons. Inarguably sincere in his motivations, he was incapable of speaking to any audience at length without potentially offending at least some of them.
Even the notoriously indelicate comedian Joan Rivers found Lewis’s interaction with disabled children on camera unpalatable, and said as much in public. This sparked a longstanding feud between Rivers and Lewis, who threatened to wreak violence from Mafia pals if she ever returned to the subject. Uncharacteristically, Rivers remained mum thereafter on the topic.
Lewis would repeatedly embrace wildly inappropriate challenges, as when during the telethon in 2006, he tried to conduct the overture from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” outdoors on the Las Vegas strip. Although only mimed by Lewis to a prerecorded track conducted by someone else, the results decimated Bernstein’s music.
Given his uneven results, it is natural that Lewis should be misunderstood, underestimated by some and overvalued by others. The latter do not include the French, despite decades of mocking claims to the contrary. Film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum has exploded that myth, originating a half-century ago with some positive reviews in French intellectual journals, as much excited about Lewis’ directorial collaborator Frank Tashlin as by Lewis. Any such Gallic enthusiasm evaporated decades ago, to be replaced by a comparably exaggerated overestimation in France of Woody Allen, argues Rosenbaum.
Yet Lewis’s worldwide impact, overlooked in America, has extended. His silent film-style gags travel well, and in many countries that are not France, he is worshiped. The Iranian filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa created the documentary “Jerry and Me” (2012) to express how Lewis enchanted audiences in her homeland, oblivious of his Jewish roots. As she told an interviewer from the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012:
“[Lewis] was a man, but he had the persona of a child, very easy to identify with. He made me forget about myself and my world. It was pure fun. The world of his films, especially his Technicolor ones, was a fantastic world. It was an image of America and American houses and towns—very colorful and spacious, a very different world for me.”
Some writers have underlined that not just pratfalls and infantile wails of “Hey Lady!” endeared a world audience to Lewis. Steven Shaviro, a professor of literature and film at Wayne State University, has analyzed the Lewis oeuvre diligently. While being bookishly pensive in a way Lewis would have responded to with a rude noise or grimace, Shaviro manages to avoid the humorlessness of most theoretical appreciations of Lewis. In an e-book, “Two Essays on Jerry Lewis (2013),” Shaviro offers a parallel close reading of the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, who defined humor as laughing at people entrapped by mechanical repetition, a common theme of Lewis’s sight gags.
The last film Lewis directed, the underestimated “Cracking Up” (1983), is a feast of sight gags of deep metaphorical resonance. In one, a distraught patient slides endlessly on the over-polished floor of a psychiatrist’s office. In such evocations of the slipperiness of life and psychic woes, Lewis genuinely merited the adulation of his most ardent fans. As with all of his finest moments, they were non-verbal.