WEIRDLAND: "The Delicate Delinquent": Essential Jerry Lewis

Saturday, November 11, 2017

"The Delicate Delinquent": Essential Jerry Lewis

“I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world of my own,” sings Sydney Pythias (Jerry Lewis) in The Delicate Delinquent (1957). This film, the first that Jerry Lewis made withouth Dean Martin, is an important, although largely neglected film in the Jerry Lewis canon—Leonard Maltin called it “an agreeable blend of sentiment and slapstick”—yet an appreciation of it does speak directly to what Gerald Mast called “The Problem of Jerry Lewis,” that is, “whether he should be taken seriously.” For The Delicate Delinquent, Lewis hired Don McGuire, a writer who had just directed his first film Johnny Concho (1956), starring Frank Sinatra. Lacking the stylistic influence of a strong director like Frank Tashlin or Norman Taurog, The Delicate Delinquent inevitably reveals much of its aspiring auteur, Jerry Lewis. In the story, a nebbishy apprentice janitor (Jerry Lewis) is mistaken for a young hoodlum by the cops, and a do-good patrolman (Darren McGavin) decides to take him under his wing and reform him. Jerry resists McGavin’s help at first, but pretty soon he wants to become a cop. 

The slim plot serves as a pretext for the redemptive value of niceness that would constitute an essential aspect of the Lewisian vision in later films. As Dana Polan noted in Being And Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French (1984): “There are two Jerry Lewises—the Id (short for Idiot but also suggesting the roots of comic idiocy in a primal unreason) and Jerry Lewis the Serious Man.” One of the reasons Lewis’s films were not so well regarded in North America is because The Idiot is simultaneously silly and sentimental—although, for the French, Lewis’s life and films “appear to combine the contradictory sides of America.” At the same time as Lewis’s Sydney is The Idiot, he is also an idiot savant, the wisest character in the film. Even as Sydney is silly enough to become involved in the scientist’s crackpot plan to evacuate all of Earth’s frogs in tiny spaceships with little toilets, he frequently drops pearls of moral wisdom, like a Shakespearean fool. For example, despite his tongue-tied embarrassment in the presence of his neighbor Patricia (Mary Webster), Sydney’s love interest, he articulately explains his shyness to her by observing, “You got to find out what you are before you can know what you want to be.”

Sydney confesses to Damon: “When I was a boy, I was jerky. And now, now I’m a man. And I’m empty.” In other words, Sydney is grown physically but not psychically. Damon says in defense of Sydney as a police candidate to the captain (Horace McMahon), “He’s honest, he’s got guts, and he’s a decent human being.” And as the film moves toward its climax, Sydney becomes “something,” now capable of standing up to Monk (Robert Ivers): when the cops scuffle with the boys in the alley, Sydney is shown exchanging punches blow for blow. A close-up at the end of the fight shows a dribble of blood at the side of Sydney’s mouth, his red badge of masculine courage. And Sydney’s conception of this better life (“There’s an awful lot of nice people in the world, Monk, and I just wanna be one of them”) marks him as the type of homo americanus that William H. Whyte Jr. had defined in the bestseller “The Organization Man” (1956).

The last scene shows Sydney in his new police uniform, embracing a suddenly proud Patricia, who describes him as “tall and handsome” and “respectable.” The Delicate Delinquent overlays the generic codes of the newly emergent family genre in postwar American cinema on the similarly emerging auteur Jerry Lewis, belonging to what Richard Staehling describes as “the fantasy sociology of the 1950s.” Raymond Durgnat cites two main themes in Lewis’s films, both of which are fully apparent in The Delicate Delinquent: “Jerry’s desperate attempts to live up to his own ideals of ‘benevolent toughness,’ and his equally desperate search to find, be worthy of, and be accepted by a loving world.” Perhaps these two versions of youth in the 1950s, the delicate and the delinquent, represent what Scott Bukatman sees as the juvenile and virile sides of Jerry Lewis’s personality, respectively.

Within the larger generic landscape, The Delicate Delinquent occupies a contradictory position. It is a movie in the venerable tradition of the postwar social problem film such as Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949), filtered through Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955) which present juvenile delinquency as a social problem. On the other hand, it is a comedy. Treating serious issues with humor is always a difficult aesthetic balancing act, so given its confusing mixture of tones it is no surprise that contemporary reviews of The Delicate Delinquent described the film as confusing, “neither fish nor fowl.” The film is Lewis’s attempt at making socially conscious comedy in the tradition of Charles Chaplin. At the conclusion of his musical number “By Myself,” Sydney moves two garbage cans from one side of the door to the other, a visual metaphor for the burden of his woes in the world. And when Monk confesses the truth about Artie’s gunshot wound in the climax, he explains that there “ain’t no reason for Sydney not to climb out of the garbage.” From scene to scene, The Delicate Delinquent veers between slapstick and social significance, just as Lewis lurches from stupid to smart. Where one scene is funny, the next is serious. The film’s very tone and style pull in two different directions, mirroring the tension within Sydney.

Beginning with shots of a city street complete with expressionist shadows and pools of water on the pavement, the film starts as film noir. Along with these images, jazzy percussion rises in volume on the soundtrack, the staccato rhythms connoting bohemianism, urban culture, and decadence. But when the delinquents begin to appear, their actions are expressionistic, stylized, like the gangster choreography of “The Girl Hunt Ballet” in The Band Wagon (1953). When three of the youths confront three others in the alley, they take out their weapons sequentially—first chain, then knife, then brass knuckles—with dramatic flair and in perfect time with nondiegetic musical accents. I wouldn’t agree that The Delicate Delinquent is “a minor work of American neorealism, a forgotten cousin of On the Waterfront (1954) or Marty (1955).” Lewis’s character challenges the typical representation of masculinity—here, delinquent adolescent masculinity—suggesting it is less monolithic than performative. 

Just as Sydney—as he himself tells Patricia—is a torn man, a nobody who wants to be a somebody, so Lewis is torn between the comic and the social critic in The Delicate Delinquent. Gerald Mast argues in The Comic Mind (1973) that his problem with Lewis is that he “contrives gags—many of them good ones. But the gags do not flow from any personal center.” But such a criticism is true only if we measure Lewis’s characters by realist criteria. Lewis’s films might more accurately be called “incoherent texts” by Robin Wood in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1999). For Wood, in certain fragmented films the fragmentation “becomes a structuring principle, resulting in works that reveal themselves as perfectly coherent once one has mastered their rules.” Jerry Lewis’s films, with all their inconsistencies of narrative, mise-en-scène, and style, speak to the difficulties of maintaining the kind of masculine ego ideal typically constructed by Hollywood movies and reveal it as constructed, rather than natural. Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema (1968), argues there is no “essential unity” to Jerry Lewis's personality. But as The Delicate Delinquent demonstrates, it is precisely this disunity (lack of unity) that is fundamental to Lewis’s vision—at war with itself—which is fully representative of Lewis’s cinema, built as it is on a number of tensions between auteur and genre. It is these tensions that reveal the ongoing attempt by “Jerry Lewis” to negotiate his place in “the world,” the Symbolic Order. Because of and not despite these tensions, The Delicate Delinquent emerges as an essential Jerry Lewis film.

As Frank Krutnik put it his critical analysis Inventing Jerry Lewis (2000), “American film and television reviewers routinely vilified his work before he even directed his first film.” There is indeed a smorgasbord of vilification laid out for Mr. Jerry Lewis, notwithstanding an important fact that Jean-Pierre Coursodon once emphasized: "Lewis was the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to “total filmmaker” during the sound era. The uniqueness of this achievement alone deserved sympathetic attention rather than the hostility or indifference it met with." Frank Krutnik identifies the Martin-Lewis split in 1956 as the origin of the sentimental dimension of the Lewis persona, and Lewis’s solo films, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent, do evince a pronounced sentimentality. Lewis himself has said, “At heart I really belong to the old school which believed that screen comedy is essentially a combination of situation, sadness and gracious humility.” As Krutnik astutely notes, some of the Martin and Lewis films feature a put-upon Jerry who commands our sympathy. Over the years, critics have sometimes found Lewis’s comic routines curiously disheartening, suggesting an implicit understanding of how humor can serve as a displacement for feelings that are more akin to hostility and despair. 

In his review of The Stooge for the New York Times in October 1953, Bosley Crowther described the film as “oddly depressing.” In 1961, in the Los Angeles Mirror, Al Capp described how he accidentally wandered into a movie theater showing The Ladies Man and he couldn’t stand the film, explaining: “It was painful: I felt it had been somehow indecent of me to peek at a grown man making an embarrassing, unentertaining fool of himself.” “It may well leave you in a state of depression,” read the Newsweek review of Hardly Working (1981), while the critic for Time magazine wrote of Lewis’s performance in the same film that “the only emotion he arouses is pity.” One of Jerry Lewis’s earliest forays into professional entertainment was with something known in the biz as a “dummy act,” in which he performed “outrageous mimes to phonographic records.” According to John Philip Sousa: “The phonograph is an extension and amplification of the voice that may well have diminished individual vocal activity.” Lewis’s dummy act looks like a significant example of the Sousa doctrine: the performer appears as an automaton whose movements and behavior are determined by the prerecorded status of the phonograph record. 

In You’re Never Too Young (1955), Jerry's character lipsynchs to a record by Dean Martin: in this ventriloquist act, an act of condensation, Dean is the voice, Jerry the dummy. This determinism is nowhere clearer than in the inevitable breakdown of phonographic technology as the record player winds down or the record skips or the wrong record is played. In The Patsy (1964), the staff of a dead comedian decide that they should use their combined talents to create a new star; their new “patsy” (Jerry) will be, in other words, programmed. Frank Krutnik describes one of the scenes when their big-hearted ex-bellboy patsy performs their material: “Stumbling onto the stage, he knocks the microphone off its stand and then proceeds to decimate the polished routines that have been taught to him. Stanley presents a spectacle of maladjustment.” Even the dummy act, perhaps a metaphor for this entire performance of middle-management ventriloquism, goes awry. Perhaps the performer of this dummy act is no dummy but a dialogic subject possessed of a new kind of self.

Jerry Lewis’s speech is characterized by free association, syncopated rhythms, and more than slightly Tourettic set of neologistically extended lines—a speech both smoothly improvised and stutteringly stuck. Like a ventriloquist, Lewis has multiple voices—his Donald Duck–like squawk, his high-pitched nasal drone, and the sober voice of the “adult Jerry Lewis.” Moved to laugh or not, we can see something startling and suggestive, even profound in some of his films. “Jerry” frequently seems intemperate and therefore asocial, even mortifying. He is strident, dysfunctional, uncoordinated, inarticulate, hyperactive (while at the same time paralyzed, as Scott Bukatman noted). Ed Sikov suggested that Lewis served postwar U.S. culture as “a jester in a court of sexual panic.” According to Andrew Sarris, “Martin and Lewis at their best had a marvelous tension between them. The great thing about them was their incomparable incompatibility, the persistent sexual hostility.” The appeal of Martin and Lewis was not a result of their closeness and cohesion but of the differences between them.

Jerry Lewis said, speaking to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1966: “One can talk about society, but in fact absolutely everyone is excluded.” In The Nutty Professor (1963) Julius Kelp says to Stella Purdy, “Whatever you see [in Buddy Love] is very well buried. Perhaps he chooses to keep the inner man locked up so no one steps on him.” A principal concern in the film, then, is the disentangling of the appealing, positive excitement but also the hurtful dominance that Buddy Love represents. One logic dictates that Kelp would learn positive excitement, confidence, and assertiveness from the “unleashing” of the Buddy Love within him, while retaining his gentle, kind demeanor to counter the hurtful dominance. But the film contradicts its own narrative trajectory. In the scene where Buddy Love transforms into Kelp in front of the college faculty and students, he says that the lesson he learned was to be himself—his insecure, submissive, but gentle self. —Sources: Shtick Meets Teenpic in The Delicate Delinquent (2000) by Barry Keith Grant and The Inner Man: Transformations of Masculinity in The Nutty Professor (2000) by Peter Lehman & Susan Hunt

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