Offscreen Notes

Jerry Lewis RIP: 1926-August 20, 2017

August 22nd, 2017

One of America’s greatest comedians died on August 20, 2017 at the age of 91, leaving behind a lasting legacy as an old school comedian who redefined himself to become a modernist directing and writing and starring in a series of films peaking in the 1960s that had as much in common with Beckett and Brecht and Tati as Keaton and Chaplin and Lou Costello. Jerry Lewis along with his comic partner Dean Martin were the most popular comic team of their time, perhaps of all-time, consistently making films that topped the box-office charts throughout the fifties. His penchant for combining manic movement with stoic stillness defined two poles of comedy, which can be expressed through a comparison of someone like Harry Langdon to Buster Keaton. Stasis versus movement. This is captured in one great scene from the Lewis directed/written vehicle The Patsy (1964), where Lewis as the bell boy soon to be patsy enters a hotel room to service its occupants. The scene cuts between (mainly) long shots of a harried, jittery Lewis nervously entering the room, all arms and legs, and long shots of the six black dressed business types standing perfectly still, like statues, staring in bewilderment at the odd human in front of them and slowly turning their expressions to eureka divination at having found their patsy. No comedian mugged for the camera with more brazen conviction than Lewis, who well into the second half of the 20th century still treated the camera with a mixture of contempt, love and lunacy. There will never be another like Jerry Lewis. That mold is done and busted.

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