Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”: The Dollhouse and the Forbidden Room

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.

Photograph by Keith Bernard (date unknown).

After attending a screening of The Ladies Man last summer, I wrote her a fan letter. She replied:

Hello Adam,

Your very kind words have made my day…….

Many thanks,
Sylvia

Sigh…

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:

Happy viewing!

Works Cited

  • 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.

8 thoughts on “Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”: The Dollhouse and the Forbidden Room

  1. Adam, thanks for this. If memory serves, I first caught LADIES’ MAN on some late-night NYC television, back in early cable days or perhaps even pre-cable. Kept me up & fascinated, must say. The dance sequence, in particular, had all the invention & self-mockery so conspicuously missing from similar quasi-burlesque stuff in the Elvis movies.

    That said, I must point that Lewis surely had another referent in mind in these scenes, namely Federico Fellini. Fellini had just won all sorts awards for LA DOLCE VITA, & the elements of the fantastic there, such as the way he used Anita Eckberg, & a number of his untrustworthy interiors, such as the late orgy setting — all these seem much on Lewis’ mind.

    So too, in ’63, Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 created a sensation for any number of reasons, among them its hilarious & balletic rendering of male fantasy, in the following much-imitated scene (hope the link works:

    Maestro Fellini, if you don’t know, was a lifelong appasionato of clowns. Among his very greatest accomplishments must count the whacked documentary, I CLOWNS. Surely he knew Lewis, our American master of physical comedy.

    • Thanks for a great article. And an opportunity to mention one of my favorite shots in movies, when Frank Borzage shows us the only way you really could just how high Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor have to climb to reach their Seventh Heaven:

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  3. Nice work here. Glad to see someone seriously interested in Lewis’s work. For the record, Lewis was NOT influenced by Fellini in any way. At the time The Lades Man was released, some American critics called the film “Fellinieqsue” because of the fact that Jerry was constantly breaking that fourth wall, as well as attempted to be complete auteur in that he had complete and utter control of his film environment. But actually, Lewis had been breaking the fourth wall etc since 1959, while he was collaborating with Frank Tashlin on the shooting of Cinderfella, as well as his own self directed The Bellboy, and there are trace elements of this idea in the 1959 made for NBC television film, The Jazz Singer (just released to DVD). Lewis’s primary and sole influences as a comic actor and director where the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Stan Laurel. Chaplin, because of his obsession with making people cry and laugh at the same time, and there’s that obsession with pathos.. Langdon, cause of that kid trapped in a man’s body idea. Keaton, the obsession with the comic gag, and Laurel, the loveable innocent. In addition, following the release and the massive success of The Bellboy in 1960, this idea for The Ladies Man was originally conceived by then Lewis road drummer Bill Richmond. Richmond worked closely with Lewis on The Bellboy helping write gags, all though the worked is uncredited, the whole concept of this house filled with young on the rise actresses was something that actually existed in Hollywood in the early ’40s. The actual house was called the Hollywood Social Club and it was founded by Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille. And RIchmond took his idea from such, as a young man Hollywood of the era, he would date woman that resided in the home. In addition, actor James Best, who would work with Lewis on 1966’s Three On A Couch, too would note in his 2011 biography about dating girls in the Hollywood Social Club, that may or may not have included a young Marilyn Monroe. Interesting, the sets for The Ladies Man were built on Cecil B. DeMille’s soundstages at Paramount. DeMille was the king of Paramount in this era, and these sets at this time were the largest ever built, taking up two entire soundstages and they were the most expensive constructed in the era as well. The entire set when built was wired for light and sound, and the sets were on this big control box, so at even given time, the lighting gaffer apon a nod from the director would bring down the lights of 12 rooms all at once, or vice versa. While filmming often only a fill light was required for many scenes done on the set. In addition, with Lewis bringing Richmond on full time to write the film, Lewis had also hired a young Mel Brooks fresh off of writing for The Sid Caesar show would be hired to write the film as well, but after a couple weeks the egos of Lewis and Brooks would clash, and Brooks walked away from the project, leaving Lewis to step in and work closely with Richmond crafting the script. This would create a collaboration that would last a few years and produce the best work of Lewis.
    Also, while it’s been incorrectly noted elsewhere, The Ladies Man was NOT the first film in which would use his creation, Video Asst. He would first use that on The Bellboy, but it would feature effective and of great use here on The Ladies Man. Lewis would sometimes have as many as 25-30 video monitors across his entire eye line on the set while doing a scene. This was done so no matter where he was in the scene, he could always see himself, and this was essential for him in order to direct himself. As you’ve wonderfully pointed out in your article, the possible films that were influenced by The Ladies Man and it’s ahead-of-it’s-time technique, one you’ve overlooked or forgotten about is Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart. Coppola has gone on record praising the innovation of Lewis on the film, The Ladies Man. Coppola was a young page at Paramount in 1960, and was on the set of the film with Lewis is his free observing. Lewis was known for creating a wonderfully fun film environment for his team. He always posted a sign outside of his sets that his sets were “open.” This meant, that anyone, a studio page, a group of tourists touring the studio etc would walk in anytime and sit down on bleachers constructed and walk Lewis in action as director and actor. As for the finale of the film. The set up for the sequence is completely flawless, as we’re given advance notice as the audience that something will happen in the room. The sequence was not in the original script, in fact they had no idea who the film would eventually end. However, Lewis and RIchmond had conceived of a dance number for the end, but they weren’t certain in what to do. Actress and choreographer Sylvia Lewis was on the set of The Ladies Man almost two weeks prior to filmming the end sequence of the film. Lewis refused to talk to her or plan anything for the sequence. The sequence came to Lewis as a dream two nights before filmming of the sequence. In addition, he dreamt Sylvia’s costume, the white fact, the set, the colors of the set etc. While it’s not instantly noticeable, the chandelier in the sequence is shaped exactly like the upside down hanging body of Slyvia Lewis. Jerry originally insisted that a stunt woman be used to hang upside down in the sequence, but no one could be found to make Slyvia’s body, so Slyvia insisted that the work be done by her and her alone. They did that aspect of the scene, and when the dancing part of the scene was to be filmmed, there was no discussion of the dance or choreography. Slyvia and Jerry stepped out onto the soundstage, and Jerry told Slyvia to simply “Follow him”. The scene, the dance was completed in 3 takes, and Lewis printed Take 1.

  4. sorry about the typo’s in the above..

    Also, please let just say….Throw away that copy of the book E’fant Terrible. Cause it is terrible, and will do you no justice to read that book. It’s all all academic BS theory will no proof to back up the theories. The best books you can read on Lewis is the James Neibar book – The Films Of Jerry Lewis, and then the best book written on Lewis which is written by Lewis – The Total Film-maker.

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  6. Pingback: An inventory of all my writing on cinema | A D Jameson's Blahg

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