Documentary About Jerry Lewis to Be Screened at Jewish Community Center of LBI

Comic and Actor Was More Than a Clown
Aug 30, 2017
Supplied Photo

The Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, located at 2411 Long Beach Blvd. in the Spray Beach neighborhood of Long Beach Township, will screen the documentary “Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown” at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10. The showing is free, although a donation would be appreciated.

Why would the JCC be interested in the late comedian and actor? Well, he was born as Joseph Levitch (although one biographer, according to his New York Times obituary, claims his name was Jerome Levitch). It wasn’t he who came up with his stage last name, but his parents – his father, Danny, was a song-and-dance man while his mother, Rae, was a pianist. They used the name Lewis while performing in Catskills resorts. But he did pick his own stage first name. The New York Times wrote that his family called him Joey; when he launched his showbiz career, he changed it to Jerry so as not to be confused with the comic Joe E. Lewis.

He broke out as a star soon after World War II when he teamed up with singer Dean Martin for an impromptu performance at Atlantic City’s famous 500 Club on July 25, 1946. They rocked nightclubs including New York’s Copacabana and went on to take TV and especially Hollywood by storm, making 17 movies in the 10 years – to the exact date – they worked together before their well-publicized breakup.

Lewis went on to continue to star in such movies as “The Bellboy,” “The Ladies Man” and his personal favorite, “The Nutty Professor,” in the early 1960s. His career went downhill as the ’60s progressed and his slapstick physical humor went out of style. But he had flashes of later brilliance such as his role in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” in 1982 and his portrayal of Mr. Applegate (the Devil) in the 1995 Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees.” Indeed, he kept performing, often in one-man shows, until 2016 before passing away on Aug. 20 at the age of 91.

Lewis was multi-talented. After splitting with Martin he recorded an album, Jerry Lewis Just Sings, that reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts, selling more copies than anything his ex-partner did. And let’s not forget his annual Labor Day weekend telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which he hosted from 1966 until 2010. The public knew it as “The Jerry Lewis Telethon” and, interestingly, after the MDA dumped him, the telethon was shortened again and again and finally was discontinued after a two-hour special in 2014.

Perhaps less known today than even his best-selling record album was the fact that Lewis became interested in filmmaking beyond acting even before splitting with Martin. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in “The Bellboy,” produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in “The Ladies Man” and co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in “The Nutty Professor.” And who knew that Lewis had invented an important piece of movie-making equipment, the “video assist,” a monitor that allows directors to see what they have just shot on film instead of having to wait until the end of the day to see “rushes” on a screen?

What is known about Lewis today, even by casual moviegoers, is that he was often dissed by American critics but was loved in France, and in Australia as well. When Lewis was in his prime, one prominent French critic wrote that “since the death of Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis is the greatest comic artist in the world.” No less a figure than Jean-Luc Godard opined that “Jerry Lewis is the only American director who makes progressive films. He is superior to Chaplin and Keaton.”

Not surprisingly, Lewis was awarded a Legion of Honor by the French Minister of Culture in 2006. Following his death, according to The Hollywood Reporter, top French newspaper Liberation headlined its front-page story with “Genie Lewis” -- Genius Lewis. It also isn’t surprising that “Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown” was written and directed by a Frenchman, Gregory Monro.

“I had a love-hate relationship with Jerry Lewis films,” wrote Chris Thompson for cinephilia.net, an Australian movie website. “But seeing this film with my eleven-year-old (who fell about laughing at the clips) confirmed the longevity of Lewis’ humour in much the same way as I feel about Chaplin, Keaton and the rest of those silent geniuses. This isn’t a doco that’s going to change the world but just might have changed the way I look at the masterful clown that is Jerry Lewis.”

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.