I can’t say precisely why the French loved Jerry Lewis, but I often explained my affection for the late comedian as part of my Francophilia. My Francophile roots were courtesy of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, but Cousteau and Lewis were very different men and I regret that I was never able to meet Cousteau in person.
I also never met Lewis, but I was very happy to see him performing live as the Devil, Applegate, in “Damn Yankees.” By that time (1995), he was finding himself at odds with the politically correct culture. His grip on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon was weakening. His last telethon would be in 2011. The telethon could not survive without him, ending in 2014.
In “Damn Yankees,” He did give a nod to his past, (Hey, lady!), but his performance showed him as something he could have never been had he stayed with Dean Martin. Martin and Lewis both needed to part ways for each other to grow. Martin became more than the straight man, the romantic lead and crooner. He was a respectable actor.
Lewis became a producer, director and star. The Lewis on stage in “Damn Yankees” was an older, less lothario version of his Buddy Love from the 1963 “The Nutty Professor.” For that movie, Lewis didn’t need makeup, he didn’t need prosthetics. His hardness was a striking contrast to the geeky, awkward professor. (Think of the Steve Martin as the Czech-born George Festrunk of the two wild and crazy guys with Yortuk (Dan Aykroyd). Then think of Martin in “The Spanish Prisoner.”)
You hear Lewis sing in “Damn Yankees” and know he could have been Dean Martin too. He’s not the spry, puckish devil of Ray Walston who won a Tony for the role he originated and played in the 1958 movie. There’s more 1960s lazy jazz in Lewis’ tones and a suggestion of a boozy slur. That was evident in his Buddy Love as well when he sings, “That Old Black Magic.” Yet he was 69 when he was doing the national tour of “Damn Yankees,” the year that his old partner Dean Martin would die.
The genius of Lewis was in his movement–from his face to his hands to his legs and feet. Compare his dancing as the Professor in “The Nutty Professor.” His prof has the beat, but can’t find courage in his feet. Could Eddie Murphy had made the professor without the fat suit?
Lewis was a dancer of great rhythm and talent. He displayed it as the geek dancing the jitterbug with Sheree North in the Martin and Lewis vehicle, “Living It Up.”
Martin was no slouch on the dance floor, he could tap. Lewis did some tap dancing with Martin such as the “Swanee River” number in the 1950 “At War with the Army.” Martin is First Sergeant Vic Puccinella. Lewis is PFC Alvin Korwin.
Martin and Lewis were not masters of the tap, but they were good sports when they had the Step Brothers on a show.
On his own, he did dance and did his own Dancing Trends demonstration:
What he does well is the Lindy. Lewis isn’t just doing the basics; he has flair of his own in the Lindy. Much later, he even tried a bit of pop dance.
And Lewis would tap again although not as well as Savion Glover in 1997.
Besides “The Nutty Professor,” one of my favorite Jerry Lewis movies is “Cinderfella.” Besides changing from sad to suave, Lewis has an exhausting dance number that was done in one take (after which Lewis was rushed to the hospital). Dressed in a red blazer and black pants, he goes to the ball where he meets Princess Charming of the Grand Duchy of Morovia (Anna Maria Alberghetti). The choreography shows both good visual style and a precision of movement. He poses, he struts and then he prances down the stairs to the music of the Count Basie Orchestra.
Under the direction of Frank Tashlin (also credited as writer) as “Cinderfella,” Lewis is much sweeter than Buddy Love and a bit kooky in a jazz-inflected way. You see turn out, toe lead, heel lead and then a bit of zany.
Tashlin was originally an animator and he directed the 1956 Martin and Lewis film “Hollywood or Bust.” He would also direct five other Lewis films: Rock-A-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, It’s Only Money, Who’s Minding the Store?, and The Disorderly Orderly.
In “Cinderfella,” Lewis breaks loose from the juvenile geek persona. We glimpse at the suave persona during the dance until he and Princess are dancing in an embrace. Up close, his facade breaks down. That’s similar to the Professor Julius Kelp socially awkward Dr. Jekyll to the Buddy Love Mr. Hyde. Lewis had range as an actor, but he also had ego. As the times changed, he did not so gracefully transform himself. He became socially awkward but not necessarily in a goofy, lovable geeky way. That’s regrettable. Not everyone ages gracefully and Lewis had health problems, some exacerbated by the medication he was on.
You can’t be a kid forever. Lewis played a juvenile at 31 in the 1957 “The Delicate Delinquent” and it was impossible to drag on longer. And other comedians rose. Lewis taught directing at USC, to classes that included George Lucas. As a dancer, Lewis understood movement and as a dancer age wasn’t kind to him but we have the movies to remember a man who danced with such energy and commitment he ran up the stairs in “Cinderfella” to complete perfection before collapsing and being hospitalized. The show must go on, and so will memories of this master of madcap movement.