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The Nutty Professor Lewis

Comedian, clown, mime, director, singer, Jerry Lewis could do it all...

By Abigail Church | Video of the Day | August 24, 2017
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Qobuz

There are clowns. And then there’s Jerry Lewis. And the man who died at 91 years old definitely wasn’t your average clown. In addition to being a hilarious comedian, Lewis was also a director. And a great one at that! A bit like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, two other geniuses that weren’t only clowns… Jean-Luc Godard even said that he found him better than his two elders…

France was one of the few countries to regard Jerry Lewis as a great master, something his fellow Americans will never truly understand, even if they idolized him in the 1960s before abandoning him… It was in the middle of the 1940s that America discovered this very young and falsely awkward comedian from New Jersey, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants that never got a break in music-hall, who associated with the Italian crooner Dean Martin. The synergy between the two stars—a goofball being the punching ball of an inveterate Don Juan—made this duo one of the most popular of its time, on the radio then on television. This was to such an extent that Hollywood seized this association starting from 1949 with George Marshall’s My Friend Irma. Fifteen or so movies followed, at the top spot of which was Artists And Models, directed by Frank Tashlin in 1955. It’s through contact with the latter, a former screenwriter at Walt Disney, that Jerry Lewis later took interest in movie direction and all its techniques. The jealousy Dean Martin was feeling towards his accomplice, whose talent he was very aware of, is such that the tandem split the following year, after filming Hollywood or Bust, another movie from Tashlin, during which the two men didn’t speak to one another.

Though Jerry Lewis suffered from this divorce and sank into depression, he didn’t know that he was about to live his most abundant artistic years. Even on the musical side, Capitol Records made him record the album Just Sings, which went on to sell one million and a half copies! This big jazz fan, whose voice is a bit nasal but always impeccable, performed at the Sands in Las Vegas six weeks a year over five years! And in January 1957, he went back to television to host his own show on NBC. Jerry Lewis was such a star at the time that even the famous DC Comics published The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, a comic series that ran until 1971. Movies would follow but, most importantly, Jerry Lewis finally started directing in 1960 with The Bellboy. Splendid comedies came after, a lot less superficial than they seem. They included some great criticism of the American Dream, amongst which we find The Ladies Man in 1961, The Errand Boy in 1962 and, his most famous, The Nutty Professor in 1963. Very few people know that Jerry Lewis was also a pioneer in the field of video control, as he was one of the first to double the shots with a video camera in order to visualize the result in real time. A method that ended up being the norm.

Jerry Lewis’ popularity declined in the US at the end of the 60s. In France, he found unexpected support from all the young directors of the New Wave, especially in the columns of two movie bibles of the time, Les Cahiers du cinéma and Positif. In 1966, he created the telethon by putting together the Labor Day Telethon For The Muscular Dystrophy Association, a charity he’d been associated with for a decade.

The rest of his career was punctuated by awesome or odd moments, surprising or puzzling. Like The Day The Clown Cried, a movie about a clown in a concentration camp who makes children laugh before they go into the gas chambers. This feature film was shot in 1972 and was never released, though 25 years later would inspire the Italian comedian and director Roberto Benigni for Life is beautiful… In 1981, after coming back with Hardly Working following an eleven year absence, he gave a staggering performance the next year in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, alongside Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. The same Scorsese said after the comedian’s disappearance: “Jerry Lewis was a master. He was a great entertainer. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man. I had the honor of working with him, and it was an experience I'll always treasure.” Among the many tributes, the comedian Jim Carrey tweeted the following: “That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius, an unfathomable blessing, comedy's absolute! I am because he was!”

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