February 2019, arsenal cinema

The Total Filmmaker: Jerry Lewis

ROCK-A-BYE BABY, 1958

Ever since as a five-year-old, Jerry Lewis stood on stage for the first time and made the audience laugh by bumping into a stage light and making it explode it was clear what lay ahead for him: That he would have to stumble, slip and fall for the rest of his life. His fortunate encounter with Dean Martin at the age of 19 led to a breakthrough. The two worked together for 10 years and made 16 films on top of their stage shows before parting ways. Jerry Lewis had already developed his iconic image by then: Next to the good-looking and cool Dean Martin, he came across as a childish and innocent being, who couldn’t but help crazily trigger disasters with his sheer presence. His performances in which something unexpected and suppressed would burst out, were characterized by a style that combined mimicry, body language and pitch with obsessive intensity. The abrupt changes of voice and ways of speaking, of behavior and body language correspond to reproductions and changes of personality; in his films he often embodies several characters, transforming himself into another with the help of a drink for example. His films are more than a sheer succession of often absurd gags: Not infrequently do they slide into pure farce, exhibit satirical observations of show business and the cult of stars and expose the character of illusion. His idiosyncratic and original use of sound, color and decor earned Jerry Lewis the admiration of French critics in particular. In 1960, the “total filmmaker” was born after he started staging himself and decided to keep full artistic control in his hands by writing, producing and directing the films in which he played. Before and after the Berlinale, we will be showing a small selection of films starring and sometimes directed by Jerry Lewis.

THE ERRAND BOY (Jerry Lewis, USA 1961, 4. & 26.2.) Paramutual Studios in Hollywood is losing money. An unwitting spy has find out why and the choice falls on paperhanger Morty S. Tashman (Jerry Lewis), who is hired as an errand boy to listen in on all of the departments. This self-reflexive inside view of the mechanisms of a film studio is a satire of the behavior of studio bosses, almost a documentary about the well-oiled machinery, and last but not least a declaration of love to the Dream Factory.

WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (Jerry Lewis, USA 1970, 5. & 22.2.) Brendan Byers III is the richest man in the world and not used to taking no for an answer. When he is declared unfit for military service – in 1943 – he decides to create his own private army with others in the same position. The plan is to fight the Axis Powers in Italy and tip the war in the Allies’ favor. On the front, Byers is able to beat his enemies with an elaborate obfuscation scheme that drives them insane. He learns to imitate German by listening to “Music to Mein Kampf” and eventually passes himself off as Field Marshal Kesselring. The film was a flop with audiences and critics alike, but it was unjustified as the parody - especially the meeting between Kesselring and Hitler - is a successful tribute to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY (Frank Tashlin, USA 1964, 6. & 21.2.) Jerome Littlefield (Jerry Lewis) is a doctor’s son who would have liked to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he cannot because of the "neurotic identification empathy” he suffers from, which makes him feel all the patients’ pain and ailments in his own body. So instead he works as an orderly at the exclusive Whitestone Sanatorium, where he also cannot avoid causing frequent damage, especially when he battles with bandages, straitjackets and laundry bags in his eagerness. A patient whom he recognizes as his high school crush is admitted after a suicide attempt. Despite the “no money, no bed” policy bandied about by the board of the profit-driven clinic, he does everything to keep her. When he realizes that he’s paying attention to the wrong woman, he puts in place the conditions to own cure his empathy. But not before triggering a chain reaction whose madness is unrivalled even in Jerry Lewis’ universe.

ARTISTS AND MODELS (Frank Tashlin, USA 1955, 6. & 23.2.) The protagonists played by the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis team in this film harbor dreams of living as artists in New York. But instead of devoting himself to the fine arts, Jerry Lewis’ comic-obsessed character gets lost in the adventures of Bat Lady by day and at night he has nightmares about her and Vincent the Vulture. Not only does he waken the whole neighborhood but he also arouses the attention of spies and the FBI who think that they can detect secret communist messages. And on top of that, there is the “real” Bat Lady, whom for a long time he doesn’t recognize because he can’t tell fantasy from reality - until a kiss which emanates so much passion that even a water dispenser starts to boil.

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (Jerry Lewis, USA 1963, 7. & 27.2.) The eccentric chemistry professor Julius Kelp is a bundle of nerves: He is also in love with his student Stella, who is the only one to defend him when insolent students strip him of the last of his authority. By chance, he invents a super potent serum that transforms him into the irresistible, if arrogant, playboy Buddy Love, whose slick exterior conceals his interior monstrosity. This breathtaking variation on Jekyll and Hyde is considered to be Lewis’ masterpiece; his art of transfiguration is only topped by the Technicolor spectacle.

ROCK-A-BYE BABY (Frank Tashlin, USA 1958, 23. & 25.2.) An orgy of destruction at the beginning of the film – the TV repairman Clayton Poole (Jerry Lewis) is distracted just at the moment when he is supposed to be adjusting the antenna on Mrs. Van Cleeve’s chimney and triggers a fiasco of unimaginable magnitude – frees the path for the caring, loving side of the Jerry Lewis persona. Finding himself the guardian of baby triplets out of the blue, Clayton turns out to be a perfect, self-sacrificing surrogate father, devoting his entire life to their needs. But this seemingly idyllic situation comes under threat when the courts attempt to relieve him of the babies’ care and Sandy, who is in love with him refuses to take no for an answer. To make complicate matters further, she is the sister of the children’s mother, the now famous movie star Carla Naples, whose marriage with a Mexican bullfighter was considered too short to not provoke a public scandal.

THE LADIES MAN (Jerry Lewis, USA 1961, 24. & 28.2.) Unwittingly perhaps, Jerry Lewis confronts his fear of women (present in all of his films) when his character Herbert H. Heebert is hired as a girl Friday in a luxurious boarding house for young women. But the film’s main focus is on the overwhelming architecture of the multi-story dollhouse-like mansion, with its staircases, entrances and perspectives, which offer ample opportunity for spectacular choreographed scenes, mishaps and crashes, revealing the character of illusion. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were so impressed that they adopted the same layout for their 1972 film Tout va bien.

THE FAMILY JEWELS (Jerry Lewis, USA 1965, 22. & 28.2.) The super-rich 10-year-old orphan Donna has to pick a guardian from her six uncles, all of whom are crankier than the next. She is driven to see them by Willard who is much more than a chauffeur, giving her warmth, attention and goodnight kisses. Donna can’t be fooled: Willard with his big heart is and remains the ideal surrogate father. Jerry Lewis never played more roles than in this film, in which he is not Willard but all six uncles. A tour de force touted on one poster as “Seven Times Nuttier”. (al)

arsenal cinema: The DEFA Foundation Presents

07:00 pm Cinema 2


Die Elenden / Les Misérables (Teil 1)

Die Elenden / Les Misérables (Teil 1)
Jean-Paul Le Chanois France/GDR/Italy 1958
With Jean Gabin 35 mm GV 101 min

Introduced by René Pikarski
arsenal cinema: The Total Filmmaker: Jerry Lewis

08:00 pm Cinema 1


The Errand Boy

The Errand Boy Jerry Lewis USA 1961
35 mm OV 91 min

arsenal cinema: The DEFA Foundation Presents

09:15 pm Cinema 2


Die Elenden / Les Misérables (Teil 2)

Die Elenden / Les Misérables (Teil 2)
Jean-Paul Le Chanois France/GDR/Italy1958
With Jean Gabin 35 mm GV 102 min