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Jerry Lewis was one of Paramount's biggest stars when he decided to step behind the camera. He'd contributed plenty of uncredited gags and script material to earlier films, had forged a creative relationship with director Frank Tashlin (whom he has cited as his mentor), and he had turned producer with The Delicate Delinquent (1957), his first "solo" film after the break-up of his hugely successful partnership with Dean Martin. When his directorial debut The Bellboy (1960) became one of the biggest hits of the year, Lewis was emboldened to take a chance with his next production. The goofy Lewis child-man may have taken a sideways career shift from bellboy to houseboy on screen, but behind the camera The Ladies Man (1961) proved to be a huge leap forward for Lewis the filmmaker in both ambition and technique.
Lewis is back in familiar spastic, ga-ga-voiced form as Herbert H. Heebert (the H stands for, of course, Herbert), a junior college graduate who swears off girls when he catches his childhood sweetheart in the arms of a jock. He inevitably ends up taking a job as a handyman at a boarding house bubbling with young women, an eccentric group of aspiring performing artists nurtured by a retired opera diva with the perfectly Lewis-ian name Helen N. Wellenmellon (real life singer Helen Traubel). Imagine Stage Door (1937) packed with sixties-era beauties and Lewis ping-ponging through the house with the braying, nervous energy of an adolescent juiced on espresso and raw sugar.
Like The Bellboy, The Ladies Man (plural, no apostrophe) is a largely episodic film. The script (begun in collaboration with Mel Brooks, who was fired early on and was refused screen credit by Lewis) is essentially a series of gags that embrace everything from crude slapstick to comic absurdism to a ballroom dance with George Raft. Kathleen Freeman, a veteran comic actress with a couple of Lewis and Martin pictures to her credit, was promoted to third billing and a meaty role as a housekeeper with a maternal affection for the heartbroken Herbert. It was the first of many collaborations with the new Lewis and she became his answer to Margaret Dumont, a dependable adult foil to his childlike characters. "I could write three pages at night and give it to her at coffee in the morning," Lewis recalled in his commentary for the DVD release of the film. "She'd nail it by the time we'd go and make the shot. And she would do spontaneous pieces with me that were incredible. I always opened up stuff and she handled it like a champ."
The film's greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.
More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.
Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: "This is NOT a closed set." He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. "This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited," remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). "He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot." The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.
The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn't exist anywhere but in Lewis' imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the clich about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it's hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.
Producer: Jerry Lewis, Ernest D. Glucksman
Director: Jerry Lewis
Screenplay: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Film Editing: Stanley Johnson
Art Direction: Ross Bellah, Hal Pereira
Music: Walter Scharf
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Herbert H. Heebert/Mama Heebert), Helen Traubel (Miss Helen Wellenmellon), Kathleen Freeman (Katie), Hope Holiday (Miss Anxious), Madlyn Rhue (The Translator).
by Sean Axmaker