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The Big Mouth

The Big Mouth(1967)

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teaser The Big Mouth (1967)

The Big Mouth, Jerry Lewis's thirty-sixth credited feature as an actor and his eighth as director, opened to wildly mixed reviews in July 1967. It continues to have its supporters and detractors, and even Lewis himself has expressed ambivalence about it. "The Big Mouth was OK," Lewis has said, "it was fun, and I was having a great time in my life. But sometimes when you're in control of a project, the tendency is to believe it's far greater than it actually is."

Lewis made this film following three uncharacteristically subdued movies in which he played more "grown-up" roles than usual -- Boeing, Boeing (1965), Three on a Couch (1966), which he also directed, and Way... Way Out (1966). All three had been flops. According to Jerry Lewis historians James Neibaur and Ted Okuda, The Big Mouth marked a conscious return to Lewis's wild, wacky comic roots. The bare-bones story is a satirical take on spy films of the era, including James Bond. Lewis plays a bookkeeper who becomes embroiled in a scheme involving gangsters and diamond smuggling -- with plenty of room for outrageous comedy bits, such as one bad guy transforming into a dog, another spitting out all his teeth, and Lewis in whiteface and a white wig, masquerading as a kabuki player.

Lewis wrote the screenplay with Bill Richmond, based on Richmond's story. It was originally entitled Mind Your Own Business and then changed to Ready, Set, Die -- only to be changed once again at the very last minute. Much filming took place in San Diego throughout December 1966, including sequences at Sea World, with the remainder shot around Los Angeles and on Columbia soundstages. According to Lewis biographer Shawn Levy, the script was being revised well into production.

Supporting cast members include Susan Bay (cousin of director Michael Bay) in her first credited feature, as well as an array of comics and character actors, including Harold J. Stone, Buddy Lester, Del Moore, and Charlie Callas, making his film debut. Lewis had recently come across the 39-year-old comedian Callas and taken him under his wing, helping to build him up around Hollywood. "He's absolutely nuts, off-the-wall, irreverent, and wonderful," Lewis said of Callas's performance. Also in The Big Mouth are Rob Reiner in one of his earliest appearances and George Takei, of Star Trek fame. There's another Star Trek connection to this film: Leading lady Susan Bay later married Leonard Nimoy.

The Big Mouth made more money than Lewis's previous three efforts but still was considered a disappointment. Critics were all over the place. The New York Times deemed the film "tired and overdone," but added, "for all the deadwood, there are moments of real, inventive brilliance." Roger Ebert thought it "too long...repetitious...not funny because there is nothing at all original in it." Box Office magazine called it Lewis's best film since The Nutty Professor (1963). The Hollywood Reporter thought it "overlong, uneventful, generally unfunny and disappointing." But the tony New Yorker magazine said: "Lewis shows such great improvement in this welcome, nutty comedy that a reappraisal is required.... Toned-down wackiness, precision timing, humorous editing... He effects a modern kinship with the slapstick comedies of yesteryear. If Lewis keeps working in this vein, he may yet earn American recognition as a force in cinema comedy."

Later Lewis scholars have been equally divided, with Shawn Levy describing it as a "strange mix of expertise and amateurishness... tepid" and James Neibaur and Ted Okuda calling it "a great film done in the old style... Holds up better than most Lewis films."

By Jeremy Arnold

Shawn Levy, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis
James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda, The Jerry Lewis Films

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