Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
What Was Going To Prevail
There was an unofficial blogger get together held at the Formosa Café the night before this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival began. I was invited but went without RSVPing, not knowing if I would actually go in, not knowing if I would stay, not knowing if I would just poke my head in for a minute then turn and leave as a few spare people wondered if they actually saw me. Sometimes I’m like that and this was one of those times. As things turned out some of those people seemed happy that I was there and I stayed for much longer than intended. I didn’t close down the place or anything but it was a pleasure to not only meet some of them but also learn that they knew who I was and enjoyed my work. Maybe I’m terrible at taking compliments but this meant a great deal and the only real drawback is knowing that you’re not going to spend as much time during the festival with them as you’d like. The sudden realization that you really are among friends can be a very good feeling and it was on that night even as I left several hours later still only partly feeling like I belonged in that crowd.
Its fifth annual event in the heart of Hollywood now a few weeks in the past, the TCM Classic Film Festival is wonderful and exhausting in all the best possible ways. Of course, you have to make choices during that long weekend which ran April 10-13 and they’re not always easy, made even less easy when you’re trying to get in on the standby line like I was. Upwards of six films or other programs going on all at once and your own decisions of scheduling have to be precise so it all flows from one into the next. But there are choices you sometimes have to make, regardless of what surrounds it. This year, I made a few. I got to see Paula Prentiss speak before a screening of THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT along with Merrie Spaeth, one of the girls from the film. Alan Arkin was there for a full discussion about his career as well as turning up before a showing of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. Joe Dante introduced the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, covering a number of topics from the history of the film to his own friendships with the film’s star Kevin McCarthy who appeared in a number of his films. William Friedkin presented the premiere of the restoration of his phenomenal 1977 film SORCERER, playing in the Chinese for the first time since 1977 when it was the film that followed STAR WARS into the house and was booted out a few weeks later for the return of STAR WARS. Now I can cross that one off my bucket list. There were others as well, not to mention choices I ultimately didn’t make. But of the ones I did, Jerry Lewis appearing before a screening of his masterpiece THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was maybe the most important, meaning that I had no problem whatsoever getting to the standby line well over two hours of showtime where I wasn’t even at the very front of it (I was #7, for the record). As I was standing there in front of the El Capitan on Hollywood Blvd a massive swarm of people emerged from the theater who had just viewed a screening of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY with Maureen O’Hara in person and a few of those who I briefly talked to seemed genuinely moved by the experience. Hard not to envy them for that but I had to do what I had to do. This was Jerry Lewis after all.
And what we got was worth the wait. Coming several hours after he placed his hands in the cement in front of the legendary Chinese Theatre, the interview conducted by Illeana Douglas (whose “Second Looks” series on TCM last May showed that she should be a much more regular presence on the channel) was clearly a highlight of this year’s festival. Douglas was genuinely emotional as she introduced him and, considering what a notoriously difficult interview subject Lewis sometimes is, it was a thoroughly engaging discussion with the legend, covering multiple areas of his long career starting with his relationship with his father and partnership with Dean Martin, moving into directing and the open set policy that allowed fans to come and watch his films being shot as well as even touching on how he essentially took charge of all the talk show sequences in Martin Scorsese’s THE KING OF COMEDY. Of course, since we were about to see THE NUTTY PROFESSOR part of the talk also focused on that film as Illeana Douglas discussed with Jerry his feelings on the character of Julius Kelp and female lead Stella Stevens as well as his opinion on possibly his greatest cinematic creation, Buddy Love --
“I HATED HIM!” was the immediate response.
Many have speculated about the origins of the character with the long-standing speculation that it was a dig at Dean Martin in spite of how Buddy Love never resembles Martin’s onscreen persona or even anything that’s ever been written about him. Other names have also been mentioned but what makes the most sense considering how personal THE NUTTY PROFESSOR feels, with a story that always has more edge than any of the other films Lewis directed, is how much the characters are essentially two warring sides of himself, the kindly nebbish that is Kelp with the utter monster that is Buddy Love. And he is a monster oozing with contempt for everyone around him, male and female but what has stayed with me for many years is a late night talk I had with a friend long ago where, probably after I’d been moaning about whatever frustrations I was feeling at the time, he bluntly and seriously stated that the best way to get tips on how to picking girls was to study Jerry as Buddy Love in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. This was after several drinks of course of course and when I reminded him about this much later on he acted somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing. But there was truth to what he said, ugly as it was. I just try to never remember a single word of it. That ugly truth is probably a big reason why the film, and both of those characters, has lasted longer than any of Jerry’s other films.
Whatever their ultimate qualities, nearly all of the films that Jerry Lewis directed play as extremely personal now. Not just in their portrayal of his screen persona as nebbish battling the world around him but in how he also sees that world—the eye-popping colors, the big brassy music, the episodic nature, the bellowing men in suits, the presence of Kathleen Freeman, the ingénues who will eventually express their love for him while Jerry as director treats them as gently as possible. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, written by Lewis and Bill Richmond, is the one that goes further. Telling the story of Dr. Julius Kelp and his quest to better himself resulting in this Dr. Jekyll giving birth to the Mr. Hyde known as Buddy Love, much of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR in any number of ways isn’t that different from the films that Jerry was directing at Paramount in the early 60s during the height of his powers. But THE NUTTY PROFESSOR stands out from the likes of THE LADIES’ MAN and THE PATSY which, much as I like them, do have a tendency to blend together through their episodic nature sometimes. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR is the one where everything he throws at the camera he’s playing for comes together with total directorial confidence in how he plays the straight horror movie elements, particularly the first-person camerawork building up to our first look at Love, and the gags throughout feel that much more integral to the story. Even the occasional indulgence like Kelp’s fantasy sequence of the Stella Stevens’ Stella Purdy parading an array of fashions plays as uniquely personal, an honest examination of whatever is going on inside Jerry Lewis’ (or Julius Kelp’s or Buddy Love’s) head.
And the setup is also the most ingenious way for Jerry Lewis to get around the use of his own screen persona as he got older—whether playing the idiot kid we usually think of him or those times in the 60s when he tried to somehow play a ‘normal’ person which never quite took and never really worked until Martin Scorsese took what we imagine ‘Jerry’ to be and appropriated it for THE KING OF COMEDY. But even within the midst of this dual character study it is continually clear how much he loves his (largely recurring) supporting cast. In the case of Stella Stevens his camera seems to literally gaze at her like none of his other leading ladies and he’s more than happy to let her gaze right back. The result is the best work of Stevens’ career, an undeniable bombshell and yet one with enough canniness to know that she can’t quite figure out what the deal is with Buddy Love and is still somehow drawn to him. One of the unexpected joys of seeing this film on such a huge screening was getting to pay attention to a particular shot holding on Del Moore shuffling papers for no particular reason and Kathleen Freeman, whose initial appearance caused the audience at the El Capitan to go bonkers, practically walks off with the film without even really doing anything. No matter what the film, it feels like Lewis as director is rarely as happy as when he gets to put Kathleen Freeman in front of the camera and Jerry’s obvious fondness for her makes you wonder about latter day quotes from him saying women can’t be funny. And Lewis as director makes the most of every moment making certain shots almost unexpectedly painterly at times, particularly the color scheme in the Purple Pit (maybe my favorite movie nightclub of all time) which should probably be studied in schools. Late in the film as Julius Kelp swallows down some emergency formula his choking face slam cuts to a trombone being played as part of Les Brown’s Band of Renown at the big dance—that’s Jerry’s directorial style. Trombone in your face. Pay attention. This is cinema.
Some of the moments where Buddy Love challenges whoever crosses his threshold goes beyond mere comedy to a place that sticks causing it to linger long past the point when Jerry Lewis trips and crashes into the camera at the very end. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR is funny, yes, and when you have a scene like Julius Kelp dancing or somehow trying to deal with his hangover analysis really isn’t necessary but it’s more than that. Just over fifty years after it was made, the film is a knockout. It deserves to be thought of as his masterwork. If anything, in spite of how it’s the one of his that’s remembered, it’s been underrated through the years, maybe because of whatever people think of Jerry Lewis as actor, director, personality at this point in time.
Whether intentional or not, some of the film did manage to tie into the overall theme of this year’s TCM Festival which was “Family in the Movies”, well represented by the likes of MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES as well as my first ever viewing of I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER which had Illeana Douglas introducing a performance her grandfather Melvyn was nominated for an Oscar. But since it was possibly an unintentional connection the placement of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR of all this comes from another place with the realization that a good portion of Julius Kelp’s personality that he has to work through comes from seeing his parents as a baby. At the end of the film, as an adult, he’s almost more befuddled than ever. But he has Stella Purdy, ready to help him move on in the world, a few spare bottles along to help when needed. After all, sometimes you need a little help to Be Somebody. Nothing wrong with that, either. Just figure out some sort of balance.
At one point during the interview Illeana Douglas asked Jerry his film THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, the first solo film he made after his partnership with Dean Martin ended and in which the story pauses at one point to allow him to sing a song called, “By Myself” the meaning of which is fairly obvious. Jerry confirmed this, saying that it was important to him to let the audience know that even if he was now alone, everything was going to be ok. Sometimes you’re by yourself and you need to be. Sometimes you find yourself among the right people and it couldn’t be more right. Both of those feelings sometimes work, just as there needs to be a middle ground somewhere between Julius Kelp and Buddy Love. The TCM Classic Film Festival is an event filled with people who love films, breathe films, bleed films, a passion that matters. And there is a feeling of family in all that, even if it’s only with someone you connect with for a few minutes at the Formosa. Plus they honored Jerry. And that’s a good thing. Illeana Douglas’ last question to him, referring back to Julius Kelp’s realization that, “You may as well like yourself, think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you,” for the final question of the talk Illeana Douglas asked Jerry, “Do you like yourself?” to which he responded with an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” Anyone who knows much about Jerry Lewis must know that the answer is more complicated than that but this appearance seemed to present a man, a legend, who was at peace somehow and treated like the king of comedy he truly is. And that’s another thing the TCM Festival was able to do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been meaning to finally try an Alaskan Polar Bear Heater.