Last Thursday night, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (as Rick Brooks colors in another section of the thermometer in red) paid tribute to Jer with a few of his vehicles, notably The Nutty Professor (1963).
Professor often gets singled out as Lewis’ best solo effort, in terms of the auteur thing (starring, directing, co-writing, etc.)—I’m in the “funny peculiar not funny ha-ha” camp with the film, but I can’t deny the movie doesn’t fascinate me. Its TCM showing featured Stacia fave Ben Mankiewicz quizzing its star as to just who was the inspiration for the Mr. Hyde character in the movie, Buddy Love. Jerry gets asked that a lot—was he based on Dean Martin, etc. It seems as if the man has a different response every time he’s asked the question…when the answer is pretty much in front of us: Buddy Love is the darker side of Jerry Lewis—the guy who once berated a lady in the audience on the Phil Donahue show when she challenged him about the MDA telethon and believes comediennes aren’t funny. (Lewis at one time refused to let any of his kids see Professor if you think I’m joking about this.)
Well, maybe I need to qualify that—not so much a favorite, more like a movie I watched quite often…and that might be because I didn’t understand the damn thing. So I taped it off TCM when I saw it was on the schedule, surmising that a revisit was in order.
Jerry plays a seemingly normal character named Gerald Clamson, who, while enjoying a two-week vacation in San Diego, manages to reel in a frogman with his fishing gear. He assumes it’s a frogman—the individual is wearing a wet suit, flippers, swim mask, etc. The frogman informs Clamson of a cache of stolen diamonds hidden around a nearby hotel, and that his rescuer needs to hie himself to safety because the frogman is being pursued by gangsters. It is very important that at no time Gerald unmask the mysterious individual, lest he discover that the guy is Syd Valentine, a mobster who could be his identical twin. Otherwise the movie would be five minutes long.
Here’s the problem: each one of the henchies eventually comes into contract with Gerald later in the movie, and upon doing so suffer nervous breakdowns—Gunner becomes convinced he’s a dog, Studs loses all his teeth and is transformed into a mumbling Larry Fine, and Rex develops a noticeable stutter. Much pretend hilarity results from all this.
Why any hotel would turn away a paying guest is up to you to decide, but Gerald must resort to subterfuge by disguising himself as a tweedy academic who sounds strangely like Professor Julius Kelp. In pursuit of the diamonds, Clamson encounters both a rival mob and a sinister Chinese warlord (Leonard Stone) who answers to “Fong.” On the plus side of the ledger, Clamson romances a pretty air hostess (Susan Bay) who becomes his prize at the end of the film (curiously, he nor anyone else ever locates the diamonds).
That it’s an idiotic one probably doesn’t help much, and though some consider the movie to be one of Lewis’ better later pictures (Leonard Maltin gives it two-and-a-half stars) I sat through the darn thing completely stone faced. The only times I chuckled were when Callas was onscreen (doing the shtick that made him in nightclubs and on talk shows, politically incorrect though it may be)—I always liked Charlie; I was a big Switch fan—and seeing Florence Lake (from yesterday’s Doris Day(s)) as a little old lady accosted by Charlie and Harold in the process of chasing Jerry.
|Jerry does his unfunny Asian shtick in The Big Mouth; I sat there wondering why Sea World features Kabuki theater.|
Big Mouth doesn’t have as strong a plot as its predecessor, and there doesn’t seem to be any flow to its narrative; many of Lewis’ films often seem to stop for the purpose of a weak gag (one of his “comeback” vehicles, 1983’s Cracking Up, is a good example of this). I don’t remember the person who said it, but someone once opined that Jerry’s movies would have been much stronger had he been afforded the opportunity to make two-reelers like Chaplin, Keaton, etc. Frank Tashlin, despite his obsession with women’s hooters, was a good director for Jerry because of his previous experience directing animated cartoons.
There are other TV veterans in Mouth: Leonard Stone, of course, and Jeannine Riley, the first and best of the Billie Jo’s on Petticoat Junction (I always liked Riley’s interpretation of the character—she wasn’t afraid to be selfish and a bit self-centered). Jeannine plays Stone’s moll (Bambi Berman) in the movie, but I was kind of rooting for her to wind up with Jerry because I do love me some bad girls. Susan Bay is pretty blah as the leading lady…plus, I’m always wary of any credit that reads “Introducing So-and-so” when so-and-so (in this case, Bay), already had a pretty extensive resume guesting on television shows (Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Perry Mason, etc.). (Bay is now married to Leonard Nimoy; she was at one time betrothed to John “Sergeant Enright” Schuck.)
(It’s the same way with the Stooges and Abbott & Costello…though my appreciation of them has grown considerably as my appreciation for Jerry has diminished.) Lewis eventually matured and demonstrated he could do great things; I think he’s sensational in both The King of Comedy (1983) and the underrated Cookie (1989), and as several folks have pointed out in the comments section he was first-rate in that Wiseguy story arc as clothier Eli Sternberg. (I also liked him on Law & Order: SVU when he played Munch’s uncle…my parents…not so much.) But you know the familiar Thomas Wolfe refrain—so I was a bit saddened to learn The Big Mouth just doesn’t play as funny as it once did.