By Leonard Klady

Jerry Lewis: The Day the Clown Disappeared

I loved Jerry Lewis as a kid, but everybody did. He was the bad boy. He got away with murder and we, his fawning fans, enjoyed the thrill of being his cohort. His screen persona was loud, awkward and innocent while strangely beguiling.

My introduction to his madness was post-Dean Martin, so I saw his earliest work after the fact. He was The Sad Sack, The Delicate Delinquent and The Geisha Boy. But the turning point was The Bellboy. A silent movie in black-and- white, one can only imagine how he fought with the studio to get it made. It was his first turn as a director as well, and he gave his on-screen clown the unbridled freedom others were reluctant to unleash. He was never freer to express his physical prowess and the finished film emerges as a paean to his inspirations, as well as a classic in its own right.

The 1960s would be his decade, with The Nutty Professor reflecting the essence of all he was in a contemporary Jekyll-and-Hyde that revealed the textures of artist and man.

Then in 1972 he went to Sweden to make “The Day the Clown Cried,” the story of a circus clown in a Nazi concentration camp. Helmut Doork, his character, winds up in the role of entertaining the children to be allowed to survive.

The film was never finished, let alone released, and reputedly was screened privately only once. I asked someone who was at that screening about the film and he said it had brilliant stuff as well as scenes that made you cringe. Lewis was never able to go back in the editing room and make it right though about a year ago he talked about finally completing it. He would direct only three more films: That’s Life (1979), Hardly Working (1980) and Cracking Up (1983).

Lewis turned some of his passion to the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon that raised $2.45 billion between 1966 and 2009. On rare occasion, Lewis allowed himself to display his talents as dramatic performer in films including The King of Comedy (1982) Arizona Dream (1993) and Funnybones (1995), as well as the television series “Wiseguy” (1988-89). (Lewis also starred in the 1995 Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees,” as Mr. Applegate, the Devil.) Lewis was incapable of lying on screen. The work was mesmerizing.

I contacted him in the 1980s for a story related to a possible resurrection or remake of The Nutty Professor. He had moved to Las Vegas many, many years earlier and handled everything professionally. My expectation was for something crazier but that was not to be.

The next encounter would be more than a decade later when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave him its 2004 Career Achievement award. I was a producer and a few weeks ahead of the event, the organization president called me to say that Lewis wanted to show DVDs as part of his acceptance.

We’ll rent projection equipment and we’ll put together a reel of our own honoring all the year’s winners, I said. What I edited framed everything around Leroy Anderson’s “Typewriter Song,” which Lewis memorialized in Who’s Minding the Store. After the ceremony he thanked me.

I also compiled the reel when Lewis was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. My concept was to juxtapose his work for kids via the Muscular Dystrophy Association and as a performer. It was the only element where I was in sync with the show’s producers, who were not fans of the honoree.

I had multiple discussions with Lewis. The first couldn’t have been funnier or more fruitful. Emboldened by the initial discussion, I suggested including footage from “The Day the Clown Cried,” as Orson Welles had his with unfinished “The Other Side of the Wind “when he was honored by the American Film Institute. I waded in as delicately as possible, knowing his sensitivity to the issue, as well as the fact he controlled the material. There probably was no diplomatic way of suggesting it. Lewis exploded and called me every derisive name in the lexicon.

A few weeks later I invited his son Chris to the editing room to see a nearly finished cut. He was delighted and I thought it wise to tell him that I had pissed off his father and told him what had happened. He laughed and said in all likelihood his father had forgotten it but that growing up there were three subjects never to be brought up at the dinner table (one was broccoli) and I’d committed one of the worst sins.

But I always will love Jerry Lewis. His legacy endures on film and video. His more complex off-screen persona also brings a smile to my face.

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What’s up with your people mover shot, where it seems like people are kind of floating along?
Oh, my signature shot? That’s just a new way for people to move! It’s really become my Alfred Hitchcock cameo. I did not invent that shot, but Ernest and I did it on the set of Mo Better Blues, when Shorty had to walk [through the park], and I thought, “Let’s try it.” But after that, we tried to have a reason for it. For example, that wonderful sequence in Malcolm X where you hear the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The final scene is like that, Malcolm floating along to his destiny. In 25th Hour, after Philip Seymour Hoffman has kissed Anna Paquin, we did a shot like that, and it shows his state of mind. In Inside Man, after Denzel thinks he’s witnessed the murder of a hostage, we did the floating shot there.

So you just like the way it looks?
~ Spike Lee To Matt Zoller Seitz

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“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster