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Triple-threats are rare in the movie industry, but quadruple-threats are almost unheard of. Jerry Lewis not only entered that rare group with The Bellboy (1960), he also became one of the few to score a box office hit.
Lewis' path to becoming a writer/director/producer/star began when Paramount's chief of production, Barney Balaban, wanted a Jerry Lewis comedy to release in the summer of 1960 and tried to push up the production schedule on Cinderfella (1960) from Paramount's planned Christmas release. Lewis was counting on a bigger buildup for Cinderfella, so he promised Balaban that he would make another movie for summer release. However it was already January and he was about to leave for a series of live appearances at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. How could he get a comedy written and produced in time?
The only answer was to do everything himself. He would have to write it, direct it, star in it as well as pay for the film out of his own pocket. While performing at the Fontainebleau he stayed up eight days and nights pounding out the script. Casting about for a location, he thought, why not set the movie at the Fontainebleau? He wouldn't have to build sets, many of Lewis' performer friends would pass through for cameos, plus he would be far away from any interfering Hollywood types.
As if that were not enough risk, Lewis also decided to abandon a linear narrative and make the entire movie a loose series of sight gags, with a lead character who didn't speak, as a tribute to silent movie comedy. Why not? No comedian had done anything like this since the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. On February 8, cameras rolled and twenty-six days later the shooting was done. To help him direct as well as act, Lewis bought a video camera and put it alongside the main camera, allowing him to immediately judge set-up and action. This groundbreaking idea would, in a few years, be adopted by all filmmakers and become a Hollywood standard.
But in 1960, Hollywood insiders were sure of one thing, Jerry Lewis was going to fall right on his face with this silly, slapdash comedy he'd shot off the cuff. Paramount even tried to sneak it out to theaters; they were so sure the critics would destroy it. A depressed Lewis ran into director Billy Wilder who told him why the town was against him. "The only reason that they're talking is that they can't do it. And the thing they hate more than anything is that you're doing it and you're showing them they can't."
The naysayers were right about the critics. They slammed The Bellboy, but it didn't matter to the public. In Los Angeles the movie made $200,000 in its first week and in New York 141,000 moviegoers saw it within forty-eight hours of its premiere. Lewis' experiment became one of Paramount's biggest hits of the year, made Lewis a fortune and launched him on his filmmaking career.
Writer/director/producer: Jerry Lewis
Cinematography: Haskell B. Boggs
Art directors: Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira
Music: Walter Scharf
Editor: Stanley E. Johnson
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Stanley the bellboy, Jerry Lewis the star), Alex Gerry (Manager), Bob Clayton (Bell Captain), Bill Richmond (Stan Laurel), Milton Berle (himself/bellboy), Max "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom (Gangster).
by Brian Cady