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ADue to rare appearances on the big and small screen in recent years (other than hosting the annual MDA Labor Day Telethons), it may be too easy for audiences of today to dismiss Jerry Lewis and forget just how immensely popular he was for several decades. The fame and success of his early act with Dean Martin (beginning in the 1940s) rivaled that of any of the great comedy teams. And on his own, he made a string of pictures between 1957 and 1969 that represent one of the longest runs of box-office hits of any star. Lewis's popularity was such that he even spawned a popular comic book series. The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was first published by National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) in summer 1952, and ran for 40 issues until fall of 1957, a year after the two split up their act. Martin was then dropped from the title and Lewis went on as the sole star of the series until it was discontinued in 1971, around the time his screen career had lost its momentum.
Lewis's comic book appearances, however, were not limited to the DC titles. One of the pioneers in the field, Dell Publishing, put out a number of titles over the years based on famous movie and cartoon characters and stories, most notably the Disney franchise. Occasionally the company, which generally eschewed the super-hero craze, would release a one-off title based on a single licensed property. One such release was the comic book version of Lewis's 1959 hit Don't Give Up the Ship, in which the star played John Paul Steckler, the junior officer aboard a destroyer at the end of World War II. Stuck with the duty of sailing the ship home to be decommissioned, he finds out years later that the vessel has disappeared and a congressional investigation is holding him responsible for either locating it or paying for it.
Don't Give Up the Ship was Lewis's next-to-last movie with Norman Taurog, who directed six earlier Martin-and-Lewis flicks. If Lewis's career has been obscured in a haze of wildly divergent opinion about its worth, Taurog's has been nearly forgotten. He began directing in 1920 with a series of short films starring and co-directed by Larry Semon, a slapstick comic whose popularity at the time rivaled Chaplin's. Although he's most often associated with lighter fare, Taurog did occasionally turn his hand to dramas, such as the biopics Boys Town (1938) and Young Tom Edison (1940), both starring Mickey Rooney. After his run with Lewis, Taurog hooked up with Elvis Presley, helming more of the teen idol's pictures than any other director (nine in all).
Lewis's supporting cast included the noted character actor Gale Gordon, best known as the slow-burning curmudgeon in a number of Lucille Ball's TV series. A radio announcer and performer early on, Gordon based much of his acting career on the character of the stuffy, imperious authority figure, much like his dastardly Congressman Mandeville in this movie. He kept working well into his 80s, making his last screen appearance in The ' burbs (1989) with Tom Hanks.
Lewis had two female co-stars in this picture. Diana Spencer (no relation to the late Princess of Wales!) made her only film appearance as Steckler's fiance Prudence. More integral to the plot, however, is Dina Merrill, as the comically named Ensign Benson, who helps the hapless hero search for the missing ship. This was only the third film for Merrill, heiress to both the E.F. Hutton stockbrokerage and Post Cereals fortunes and now co-owner (with her husband Ted Hartley) of RKO Pictures. She recently appeared in two remakes of older RKO films: Mighty Joe Young (1949, 1998) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, 2002).
While Don't Give Up the Ship was raking up at the box office, Lewis had one of his few flop ventures during this period, a TV version of the Al Jolson classic, The Jazz Singer (1927). Lewis changed the story (but not the title) to that of a young Jewish man who turns his back on a religious career to become not a singer but a comic. The project was disparaged even before it went into production as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Cantor," and it was resoundingly trashed upon its broadcast in October 1959. Luckily, however, Lewis still had his amazingly successful film career and was able to pass the small-screen disaster off by saying simply, "TV is a joke."
Following this picture (and a brief uncredited cameo in Li'l Abner, 1959), Lewis made one more film with Taurog, Visit to a Small Planet (1960), adapted from Gore Vidal's stage play. His next project after that was The Bellboy (1960), Lewis's debut behind the camera as well as in front. Directing his own films had been inevitable for years; Lewis was determined to develop his own distinctive brand of comedy and, convinced his contribution could be as important as Chaplin's and others', he became increasingly difficult in his working relationships with directors. In fact, at one point he walked off the set of Don't Give Up the Ship, derailing production for half a day and earning the press nickname "Problem Child."
Director: Norman Taurog
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Herbert Baker, Edmund Beloin, Henry Garson, story by Ellis Kadison
Cinematography: Haskell B. Boggs
Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler
Original Music: Walter Scharf
Cast: Jerry Lewis (John Paul Steckler), Dina Merrill (Ensign Benson), Gale Gordon (Congressman Mandeville), Mickey Shaughnessy (Stan Wychinski), Mabel Albertson (Mrs. Trabert).
by Rob Nixon