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The Bellboy

The Bellboy(1960)

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It was no accident Jerry Lewis became a director. From his earliest movies with Dean Martin, the comedian had made it a point to learn about how things worked on a movie set. It was, however, an accident that The Bellboy became Lewis's 1960 directorial debut. He had already finished filming Cinderfella with his mentor, director Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), when Paramount Pictures told him they wanted to release the Cinderella variation that summer. Lewis, who also produced the fairy-tale comedy, insisted it would make a better holiday release. But Paramount still wanted a Lewis summer movie. So the star told Paramount he'd give them one. Shot in four weeks at Miami Beach's lush Fontainebleau Hotel, while Lewis was performing his nightclub act there at night, The Bellboy was in theaters less than six months after shooting began.

If The Bellboy was a low-budget rush job, the results are doubly impressive. Like no other Lewis movie, this plotless picture was marketed as "a series of silly sequences," with Lewis playing near-mute, trouble-prone bellhop Stanley. But another description might be "a gag machine."

Willfully ignoring most of the conventions of a comedy vehicle, like a romantic subplot or a sentimental back story, The Bellboy just wants to pile on as many gags as it can. Sometimes, the gags can be quick hits, like Stanley's struggle to get a bra to stay on a coat hanger or his emptying out of an old VW Beetle's trunk which, of course, includes the engine. Other times, they can be elaborately set-up and strikingly surreal. Just watch the sequence in which an obese woman checks into the hotel, slims down (played by a svelter actress) during her two-week stay because, as she says, she "kept away from the candy," and then balloons back to her old weight (and the original actress) in a matter of minutes, because smitten Stanley unknowingly slips her a box of chocolates as she waits for her car after checking out of the hotel.

That surreal streak delivers many of the funniest gags. Jerry Lewis himself arrives at the hotel, and a single shot captures his impossibly huge entourage piling out of the same limousine. But Lewis the writer-director doesn't leave the surrealism there. Some of the bellboys and hotel guest Milton Berle notice the resemblance between Lewis and Stanley, and soon we see there's another bellboy who's a Berle double.

The gags keep coming. There's Stanley caught in the middle of a bickering husband and wife (who find a common enemy in the unlucky bellboy), and getting the best of a wet sculpture in the hotel's art gallery (his mortified facial expressions are priceless). One of the best sequences finds Stanley manning the phones at the bell captain's desk. There are four, and whenever one rings, Stanley starts picking up handsets. But it's always the last one he gets to that's ringing, and it always stops just before he can grab it.

The Bellboy's repeated emphasis on timing, body language and facial expression is Lewis's tribute to the comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. He pays obvious homage to Stan Laurel by having frequent writing partner Bill Richmond play a Laurel lookalike who traipses through the hotel from time to time, blithely interrupting Stanley's day. But the pantomime in The Bellboy mingles with a lot of noise, from ringing phones and arguing spouses to the rowdy antics of nightclub act The Novelites.

Paramount Home Video's DVD of The Bellboy has many extras, albeit poorly arranged. In Lewis's audio commentary, he rarely gets into the nuts and bolts of gags, though he talks more about the script's genesis and his recruitment of every comic he could find in Florida's nightclubs. As always, you have to leave room for creative license in Lewis's anecdotes. He recalls bankrolling the movie himself after Paramount balked-a decision the studio would regret-saying he overcame his lack of upfront money by giving all 185 crew members 1% of the profits. Fortunately, Jerry's a comic, not a mathematician.

The Bellboy disc includes three amusing gags deleted in editing, unfortunately placed in the reverse order they would have appeared in the movie. Meanwhile, a bonus clip that's labeled a blooper is really just an alternate take of a scene between Lewis and Berle (they crack up after the scene cuts) and another labeled "Jerry Receives a Letter from Stan Laurel" should be "Jerry Replies to a Letter from Stan Laurel" - it's the filmed response Lewis sent Laurel after the comic icon gave a favorable response to the Bellboy script Lewis sent him. Gaffes aside, this is a generous disc for one of Lewis's best comedies.

For more information about The Bellboy, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The Bellboy, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman