He’s become a punchline here in the US, but that doesn’t make Jerry Lewis any less of a cinematic genius. Case in point: his 1961 masterpiece The Ladies Man:
Whether you’re a fan of Lewis’s eccentric comedy or not, this film is worth watching for its legendary “dollhouse” set alone, supposedly the largest built by that time (it occupied two Paramount soundstages), and still one of the most elaborate ever constructed.
Within the film, the dollhouse is an all-female boarding house, where Lewis’s character (the woman-hating Herbert Heebert—obviously a stab at the recently published Lolita) rents a room for reasons quite frankly unimportant (i.e., so that there can be a movie). Once ensconced, Lewis restlessly mines the cavernous interior for jokes (did you see the part where he splits into four, four minutes into the above clip?) as well as metatexual play:
[T]he division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narratorial agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to […] the courtyard of Hitchcock’s Rear Window […]) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its on design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. (Polan 220)
I’ll get to one of those rooms—the Forbidden Room—below.
Unsurprisingly, that set inspired homages in several other films:
Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972):
Four years earlier, Godard had famously declared: “[Lewis is] the only one in Hollywood who’s doing something different, who remains outside its categories, its norms, its principles. … Lewis is the only one who’s making courageous movies right now” (Bomtemps 30).
Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986):
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002):
Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004):
…I’ve also sometimes wondered whether Peter Greenaway didn’t have it in mind when directing The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989):
(See 4–5 minutes in.)
(See 0:30– 1:25 and 5:00–5:30; the full film contains many more examples.)
Greenaway is cutting between different sets here, but his montage achieves a somewhat similar effect.
Obviously, the further we get from 1961, the less certain it is that any particular film is directly influenced by The Ladies Man. Nonetheless, the video that Dom and Nic directed for Smashing Pumpkins’s “Ava Adore” must count as some kind of descendant.
But back to Lewis. Not content with just his dollhouse, Lewis staged a spectacular sequence (my favorite) relatively late into the movie, where Heebert enters a separate set: the aforementioned Forbidden Room. This stretch of film is built around a vast practical set and cinematic montage, utilizing both strategies to create the impression of a much larger (and much more magical) space:
The above clip isn’t the highest-quality—but even still!
You can also see it here (it starts at 2:14 in):
Incidentally, the remarkable woman in this sequence is Sylvia Lewis (her character is listed as “Miss Cartilage”—was Donald Barthelme a fan?). This Lewis was born in York, PA, which is not too far from the valley where I was born. I’ll die happy if I go half as far as she has. Alas, I don’t have her legs.
After attending a screening of The Ladies Man last summer, I wrote her a fan letter. She replied:
Your very kind words have made my day…….
Anyone interested (and you are interested, aren’t you?) can watch the entire film at YouTube (at least, for now). The zaniness begins right here:
- Bontemps, Jacques, Jean-Louis Comolli, Michel Delahaye, Jean Narboni and Jean-Luc Godard. “Struggle on Two Fronts: A Conversation with Jean-Luc Godard.” Film Quarterly 21.2 (1968–1969): 20–35. JSTOR. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Fujiwara, Chris. Jerry Lewis. Contemporary Film Directors. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Google Books. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Polan, Dana. “Working Hard Hardly Working: Labor and Leisure in the Films of Jerry Lewis.” Enfant Terrible: Jerry Lewis in American Film. Ed. Murray Pomerance. NYC: New York University Press, 2002. 211–224. Google Books. Web. 3 May 2011.