powered by AFI
Three on a Couch (1966) was Jerry Lewis's seventh feature film as director, and marked the first time he directed someone else's material. It helped, however, that the "someone else" was the very talented Samuel Taylor. (Bob Ross also shared writing credit.) Taylor had previously co-written Sabrina (1954) and Vertigo (1958), and would later write the play that became the basis for Billy Wilder's underrated Avanti! (1972).
The storyline of Three on a Couch gives Lewis a chance to play multiple characters, something he loved doing. His primary character, Christopher Pride, has a psychiatrist girlfriend (Janet Leigh) too involved in her work to find time for him. Her three female patients are suffering from broken relationships, so Lewis pretends to romance them so they will not need any further psychiatric help. Of course, all three ladies are attracted to wildly different types of guys, and Lewis therefore plays, in the words of film historian Shawn Levy, "a loud-mouthed Texan, an eager jock, and a nebbishy Southern zoology buff - and even dons drag to play the zoologist's twin sister."
Reviews were mixed. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote dismissively that if you've seen one Jerry Lewis film, you've seen them all, but Richard Schickel, writing for Life, was more thoughtful: "Functioning as his own director, Lewis disciplines his superb natural gifts in a way that others never could. He is proceeding more intelligently, more funnily than he has in years. There are a number of first class gags scattered through the movie... As both director and star, he demonstrates a sense of precisely where the laughs are, and a fine feel for comic rhythm."
Lewis was still at Paramount when he proposed making Three on a Couch,but the studio nixed it, wary of the ever-diminishing profit margins onhis outings as director. Lewis was sad to leave Paramount: "I had been there seventeen years," he later recounted. "We had a handshake deal for all those years, the most unheard-of deal in Hollywood history. I never lost a nickel on any of my films for them; they always produced a profit. When Gulf and Western took over, they didn't know from handshakes."
Lewis quickly got a deal at Columbia, which distributed Three on a Couch and three later Lewis films. Box office receipts, however, remained quite modest. Author Frank Krutnik and others have argued that Lewis was a casualty of the generational shift in moviemaking and moviemakers which occurred in the late 1960s. Suddenly the veteran filmmakers and actors were seen as dinosaurs, and studios were turning to new, younger talent.
Lewis had the following view on the underwhelming reception to Three on a Couch: "This film didn't work for a lot of young kids who felt I'd betrayed them by abandoning what they knew my name represented. As the young kids get older, they enjoy Three on a Couch as a departure... It afforded an opportunity to do what I enjoy most, and that's multiple characters... I got different audiences - adults who were not ashamed of something that was a little more sophisticated than the idiocy they never admitted to laughing at."
Co-star Janet Leigh and Lewis were old friends. She had worked with Lewis twice before - in his first work as director, the short film How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border (1949), and in the feature Living It Up (1954) - and the two had developed a personal friendship. She described him later as "one of the best directors I've ever worked with...His guidance in general and for one scene in particular was outstanding. I played a self-assured psychiatrist, about to be married, but only after I fulfilled my obligation to three confused girls. Jerry attempts to help by being each girl's ideal, just so we can wed. When I discover the subterfuge I naturally am burned and walk out in a huff...My first approach to the scene was total anger, which is basically how it read in the script. After the first take, Jerry said 'That was good. Now let's try it again, from a different point of view. Let's take it from the angle that this woman is fighting to control her temper because she's the psychiatrist, she doesn't want to show her anger in front of her patients - but let her lose her temper anyway.' It was so much better, added another dimension, and it was such fun to do. I wouldn't have thought of that approach." Leigh added that this movie marked "the first time I'd ever seen an instant replay used on the set" - a technical innovation for which Lewis is famous.
Recalling the tone on the set of Three on a Couch, Leigh said, "there was a sense of gaiety. They'd be throwing the baseball at lunchtime and things like that." The actress enjoyed the atmosphere so much that she led the crew and extras in a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" when Jerry arrived for lunch one day. A newspaper item which appeared during production further revealed the buoyant atmosphere. It read: "Jerry Lewis' production for Columbia, Three on a Couch, is becoming something more than just a film in the making... It is evolving into a sort of school for directors, according to lovely Janet Leigh who tips us off that co-star James Best and Del Moore, longtime friend and associate of Jerry Lewis, have become self-appointed students who daily dance attendance almost by the side of their guru to learn the art of movie making."
Three on a Couch was filmed in various California locations, including near the Santa Anita race track outside Los Angeles, fairgrounds in the San Fernando Valley, and the San Francisco waterfront area, including some shots on the S.S. President Roosevelt.
Playing the parts of the three female patients are former model Leslie Parrish, former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, and former Miss Israel Gila Golan. Look for Scatman Crothers as a party guest.
Producer: Jerry Lewis
Director: Jerry Lewis
Screenplay: Bob Ross, Samuel A. Taylor
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Art Direction: Howard Bristol (production design)
Music: Louis Y. Brown
Film Editing: Russel Wiles
Cast: James Best (Dr. Ben Mizer), Janet Leigh (Dr. Elizabeth Acord), Jerry Lewis (Christopher Pride/Warren/Ringo/Rutherford/Heather), Leslie Parrish (Mary Lou Mauve), Mary Ann Mobley (Susan Manning), Gila Golan (Anna Jacque), Kathleen Freeman (Murphy)
by Jeremy Arnold
Shawn Levy, King of Comedy
Janet Leigh, There Really Was a Hollywood
Frank Krutnik, Inventing Jerry Lewis
James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda, The Jerry Lewis Films
The Citizen-News newspaper. November 8, 1965