Puppet on a String

Concentrated feel-good juice from LIVING IT UP. Jerry Lewis dances with the awesome Sheree North, who can be glamorous and goofy at the same time.

Watch him bash his spine  with the floor at the end of the clip: that’s going to cause you some trouble in later life, Jer.

Some Jerry Lewis stuff is a little sophisticated or has a zany abstraction. If I may quote David Ehrenstein on one mind-bending number: “Like all gags in Lewis-directed films, the Miss Cartilage scene in THE LADIES’ MAN refuses to be specific about its objectives. It questions itself even as it unfolds.”

But there’s another area of humour in Lewis that has nothing to do with gags, or intellection — the warping of the face and body for sheer freakshow appeal. “I bet you never saw a face/torso/limb do THIS,” is the closest this comedy comes to making any kind of statement.

Maybe this is why Lewis has more to do with dance than any other comedian I can think of. sure, Chaplin was balletic, but when he actually dances, in A DAY’S PLEASURE, the effect is ruined. Chaplin turning everyday situations or comic crises into a form of dance is funny and revelatory. Chaplin just dancing is just Chaplin dancing.

WC Fields comes close in his juggling: he’s so amazing at it that you don’t mind a suspension of the comedy, in fact you don’t really want the comedy to interrupt what he’s doing.

But Lewis dances in so many films, and with many different levels of grotesquerie that it’s clearly something inherent in his nature and in his comedy. In the above clip he’s unmistakably REALLY GOOD; in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR he’s brilliant on a whole other level and with a whole different character: those constrained, introverted movements yearning to breathe free. Like a locust who saw humans dancing and thought it looked fun.


16 Responses to “Puppet on a String”

  1. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The renaissance starts here! Thanks, I enjoyed that. It looked like Sheree was wearing wedges – so, believe me, she could have been killed. The Nutty Professor dance reminds me of Jacques Dutronc’s ironic dancing.

  2. Your thoughts on Fields’ juggling remind me of how I feel about Chico Marx — I love his trick piano playing so much that I’m entirely happy to take a break from the zany. Harpo’s solo scenes never quite do the same for me, but I think that’s just a matter of taste.

  3. Harpo may, for all I know, be playing the harp in an eccentric manner, but it’s not funny. Chico’s piano playing is at least somewhat humorous, and works as a pace change.

    Lewis is now rightly admired by all the smart cinephiles I know. But when I met the researcher of Jonathan Ross’s BBC show The Hollywood Greats, and suggested they profile Lewis, he’d never heard of him.

    “You mean, Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire? I didn’t know he made films.”

    “No, not Jerry LEE Lewis. The original Nutty Professor.”

    “Right. What else was he in?”

    “Well, you’re not going to know them, are you? If you hadn’t heard of John Wayne, saying he was in The Searchers wouldn’t mean anything to you.”

    He called the producer over (it was a BBC party). “Have you heard of Jerry Lewis?” he asked.

    “Yeah, of course. Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire.”

  4. Living it Up (M&L’s remake of Nothing Sacred) was of pivotal import to my development as it was the first film I saw twice. Up to then I thought films were senn once and that was that. But as it turned out my parents took me to it when it opened and few months latermy Cub Scout troupe went to see t en masse. As a result I discovered the importance of multiple viewings.

    Jerry’s dance with Sheree North is heaven.

  5. The problem with Harpo is he takes that harp seriously and the only people who would notice his eccentric playing are other harp players. Chico and his piano and Groucho with his guitar are much more in keeping with the films.

  6. Yeah, the only time it works is when he’s strumming on the piano strings in Duck Soup.

  7. His piano, hand clap, and ass slap in Animal Crackers was also pretty good.

  8. Oh yeah, for some reason I can never remember most of that one, but it’s good!

  9. The number with Miss Cartilage provided by David Ehrenstein is a brilliant, funny bit of surrealism – like The Lair of the White Worm crossed with Ernie Kovacs. I haven’t been a Jerry Lewis watcher, but your post and the clips have persuaded me to check out his films. Thanks.

  10. The Ladies’ Man and The Nutty Professor are certainly worth your time. I recently ran Three on a Couch also, which has less of a reputation, but that was pretty fine too.

  11. Bertolucci is a big fan ofThree on a Couch and Partner is his version of The Nutty Professor

  12. One more classic and astonishing dance number in the Lewis oeuvre – his descent of the grand staircase in CINDERFELLA, done in a single take. Glad you chose to highlight this aspect of Lewis’s talent.

  13. “Did you rehearse that?”

    “Yes. DURING the one take.”

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