The success of the DVD format has had the heartening effect of prompting studios to treat their back catalogs with new respect, cleaning up and special-editioning old films to meet a demand that seems unlikely to abate soon. The trend doesn't always encourage the healthiest viewing habits, however. One day, a store has no Jerry Lewis on DVD; the next day, the racks swell with Lewis discs, giving curious viewers a chance to plunge into the deep end of a talent who's prompted more genius-or-idiot debates than Jeff Koons and Kid Rock combined. Drifting toward the idiot camp ever since Lewis' great popular success from the '40s through the '60s: the opinion of the average American filmgoer. Taking the genius side: much of Europe and auteurist weirdoes of all nationalities. The proof, as always, lies in the work. Watching Lewis' first five post-Dean Martin films as a director and star, it's easy to decide that the weirdoes have been right all along.
Lewis works hard to get the reaction he wants, and the hard work shows. His films occasionally feel like the manic desperation of Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number in Singin' In The Rain stretched to feature length, broken up by periodic yanks at the heartstrings. In each film, Lewis sets out to overwhelm his audience, and he usually succeeds. Building on the style of animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin—who directed some of Martin & Lewis' best movies and some Lewis solo ventures—Lewis looks for the places where film twists reality like a cartoon, then throws himself in the middle with spastic abandon. Befuddled with the craziness he's created, he spits gibberish and works through a series of silly faces and comic takes older than vaudeville. Then, just when a film seems ready to get out of hand, he'll slow it down for a pathos-heavy sentimental stretch as broad as the comedy. Usually, these involve positing his flailing man-child as a victim of a cruel world, and occasionally, they involve lectures from kindly puppets.
Yet for all their shamelessness, his best films hold up remarkably well. Announced from the outset as "a series of silly sequences" with "no plot, no story," The Bellboy strings together artfully choreographed comic setpieces as it follows a silent Lewis through his rounds at a posh Miami Hotel. The Ladies Man shoves the same formula into a plot, turning a woman-hating Lewis into a servant at a boarding house for single women. In a slight variation, The Errand Boy makes him an unwitting spy for Paramutual Pictures as he wreaks havoc on a Hollywood backlot.
As successful as the formula proved, Lewis didn't make his best film until he broke with it for the split-personality comedy The Nutty Professor, in which a secret formula makes him divide his screen time as weakling scientist Julius Kelp and pitiless lothario Buddy Love. The handsomest, funniest, most emotionally complex film in the Lewis canon, The Nutty Professor taps into another abiding theme. Like William Blake, Lewis found no middle ground between helpless innocence and jaded experience, and he romanticized the former from the perspective of the latter. In a dual role, he shows up in The Bellboy playing an asshole movie star named "Jerry Lewis." By the end of The Errand Boy, he looks well on his way to becoming that star. And all affection for the trappings of fame curdle in The Patsy, in which he plays another bellboy, albeit one turned into a manufactured celebrity by lackeys hoping to keep their jobs when a famous comedian dies. This is the Lewis as Hollywood burnout, the one reflected in the offstage life of The Simpsons' Krusty The Clown, in Lewis' lonely turn in Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy, in the wee hours of the MDA telethons, and as heard on the Steve Lawrence-assisted audio commentaries on these discs. The harder he fought against it, the more it fought its way to the surface. He's Buddy Love desperately trying to turn back into Julius Kelp—a phony, but a sincere phony—and for a good run at the beginning of the '60s, he worked as hard as he could to convert his insatiable desire to entertain into genius.