Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Decline of Jerry Lewis

Certainly between 1946-1960 Jerry Lewis was a phenomenally popular comedian. The films he and Dean Martin made between 1949-56 didnt break any new ground in comedy, and were really just a continuation of the trend for "comedy team" movies that had been such a huge hit after Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby.

After 1960, Lewis became increasingly interested in the technical side of filmmaking, becoming the first American comedian to direct himself since Chaplin, and being involved in every aspect of production on his films. Certain comedians (Stan Laurel at Hal Roach Studios, and W.C. Fields) had attained a certain degree of creative control over their films in the sound era, but Lewis became the first American comedy "auteur" of the sound era. It was in this period that he did his most interesting and personal work, which ranged from very good (NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE PATSY, THE BELLBOY) to downright childish (THE FAMILY JEWELS). The late 1960s saw an end to the type of comedy Lewis was doing. This combined with the fact that for a comedian who prided himself on his ability to expand and expound on the genre, Lewis' work was becoming relatively stagnant.

In 1961, his methods of comedy filmmaking were incredibly creative and new (THE LADIES MAN is one of the most sheer innovative comedies of all), but by 1965, he was in danger of (if not actually) repeating himself, and therefore the comic material becomes the focus of the work, and it simply wasn't strong enough to sustain itself through many more films. THE BIG MOUTH (a personal favorite, admittedly) is an example of this type of over-the-top silliness in search of some direction.

There were two major trends in comedy in the late 60s that hurt his output. One was the penchant for big-budget epic comedies such as THE GREAT RACE and THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES-films with ensemble casts, big gags and international stars and settings-that had been inspired by the all-star IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD in 1963. These big comedies were designed to stand alongside the other "big" films of the era (the historical and musical epics) as a measure of offering an audience something it couldn't see on TV. This was a direct opposite of Lewis' more personal and self-focused style of comedy.

The other trend that perhaps had a more significant effect on Lewis' career (especially after 1970) were the preferences for comedy with some sort of social satire. On the one hand, films like MASH were tackling serious issues with a comic twist, and on the other hand, comedians such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks (perhaps the two most significant comic actor-directors of the 1970s) were blending satire with a certain edgy-type of humor that was not Lewis' style at all. Allen's films of this period, such as TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and BANANAS, are fused with satire and social and political humor. Brooks similarly used that satirical edginess in THE PRODUCERS and BLAZING SADDLES. These films were all quite different from Lewis' more straightforward slapstick comedy. This type of comedy also certainly carried over to the TV medium with shows like LAUGH-IN and M*A*S*H, and with the standup comedy of George Carlin. These trends helped keep Lewis from doing much screen work between 1972 and 1981.

What *did* help Lewis' brief return in the early 80s was the new trend for "comedian-oriented" comedies that were spawned in the wake of the popularity of comedians from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and other comedy TV programs. This, mixed with standup comedy, put the emphasis back on the comedian and their unique characterization, rather than just the material itself. Lewis has said that this type of comedy (beginning with ANIMAL HOUSE) encouraged him to get back into the market. By this time, though, he was older and was also faced with the same problem he had in the mid-1960s in that the comic material was often just too thin to carry a full-length feature film. With the rise of comedians such as Eddie Murphy (TRADING PLACES), Chevy Chase(FLETCH, VACATION), Rodney Dangerfield (EASY MONEY) and Steve Martin(THE JERK, any of his films with Carl Reiner), whose films exhibited both a high quality of production as well as comic invention, Lewis stopped acting and directing his own films in 1983. Lewis broke alot of ground in the early 1960s, and introduced many filmmaking techniques embraced by both serious and comedic directors, and his influence is still strongly felt today in the comedy film scene.