If the mid-career of Jerry Lewis — the post–Dean Martin era, the years of films like The Nutty Professor, The Disorderly Orderly, and The Errand Boy — is often treated as a joke, the actor-director’s late career may as well be a bitter punch line. To get a really derisive snort, just mention The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis’s 1972 film about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, which has never seen the light of day. Lewis himself has said, “You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
You won’t see The Day the Clown Cried when Anthology Film Archives presents “Jerry Lewis: The Completed Retrospective,” a gathering of three films directed by Lewis in 1970 and 1980, pictures that were unavailable when Anthology organized its 2009 retrospective of Lewis-directed films. Be forewarned: This trio of little-seen movies — Which Way to the Front (1970), One More Time (1970), and Hardly Working (1980) — aren’t for Lewis neophytes, or for detractors who are thinking it might be time to rethink their dismissal of Lewis’s gifts. The humor of late Lewis is broader and more desperate than the stealthily cerebral sight gags and rubber-legged pratfalls you see in movies like The Bellboy, from 1960, or the googly-eyed genius of the pictures he made with Martin in the 1950s, like the Frank Tashlin–directed Hollywood or Bust. In Lewis’s later films, you can practically see him digging in harder to re-hook the audience he’d lost. But that in itself is compelling, and these movies come to mean more when you know something about the circumstances under which they were made.
Lewis was coming off a magnificent 10-year filmmaking high when he directed Which Way to the Front? (in which he plays a rich American playboy who, after being classified as 4F, wangles his way to war-torn Europe and impersonates a Nazi general) and One More Time (which Lewis directed but doesn’t appear in — it’s a vehicle for his friends Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and a sequel to the 1968 Richard Donner–directed comedy crime-caper Salt and Pepper). Lewis made 16 movies in the 1960s; 10 of those he either produced, directed, or wrote (or some combination of the three). Maybe just as significantly, he had never really gotten over the 1956 bust-up of his enormously successful 10-year comedy partnership with Martin — the duo were as popular in their day as the Beatles were in theirs, and like the Fab Four, the dissolution of this close friendship and collaboration was deeply personal as well as professional. As Lewis would explain in his extraordinary, heartbreaking 2005 memoir, Dean & Me, he and Martin played their last show on Tuesday, July 24, 1956: “When I awoke on Wednesday afternoon,” Lewis wrote, “I understood how an amputee must feel.”
What’s more, by the mid-1960s Lewis had been pulling off astounding physical stunts for years — he was injured more times than probably even he could count, and more often than not he got right back up and kept working. That pattern of neglected injuries caught up with him by the mid-1960s, when an allegedly helpful doctor finally prescribed Percodan. By 1978, Lewis writes in Dean & Me, he was taking up to 13 tablets a day.
If Lewis’s brand of genius is a little off the rails in his ’70s movies, you can understand why. But those movies deserve a more careful look than they’ve been given. You’ll find stray moments of brilliance, like the bit in Which Way to the Front? in which Lewis’s faux-Nazi general tries to talk his way past a checkpoint. “I must have the password!” roars the official in charge, to which Lewis responds, in a radiantly phony German accent, “Well, if you have it, then protect it, stay with it, don’t lose it, keep it forever!” In Hardly Working, Lewis plays an out-of-work clown who tries, with virtually zero success, to hold down a real job. He finally lands one at the post office, where he dons a zippered cardigan and an inherently foolish-looking shorts-and-kneesocks combo. When his new boss sits him down in front of a carton of Dunkin’ Donuts, he eyes them longingly, surreptitiously caressing the edge of the box, until the boss man asks if he’d like one. He eagerly accepts, taking a bite out of one, returning it to the box, and selecting another — and another. The gag is pure late Lewis; he’s a demonic kiddie and a full-grown egomaniac rolled into one.
But it’s One More Time that drops the most tender clue into the trials and travails of Lewis’s life. Lawford and Davis play business partners and best mates in London when it was still swinging — they run a successful nightclub, but need to scrounge up a wad of dough after a run-in with the law. Lawford’s Christopher Pepper turns to his identical twin (played, of course, by Lawford himself) for help and is rebuffed. When the twin is murdered, Chris takes his place, but doesn’t clue in his closest pal, Davis’s Charlie Salt, who thinks his best friend is dead.
One More Time is intermittently enjoyable for lots of reasons, not least of which is Davis’s parade of amazing, groovy threads. (He never met a brocade Nehru jacket he didn’t like, which is just one of the many reasons to love him.) The movie also often lets him show off his singing and dancing chops, and one of these moments is strangely poignant: Believing his best friend to be dead, Charlie lopes his way down the long, winding staircase of a British castle, crooning the kind of ballad you’d sing for a lost lover. You could paste readings of vague or outright homoeroticism on this sequence, but that would be a simplification. The scene is notable in the context of what it might have meant to Lewis personally, even some 15 years after losing the friendship of Martin, the man he has always referred to as “my partner.” Lewis and Martin did reconcile, tentatively, toward the end of Martin’s life (he died in 1995). Regardless of sexual orientation, friendships between men are delicate things, and Davis’s ballad in One More Time touches on some of the things that men who love each other can never bring themselves to say. Sure, love hurts. But not nearly as much as comedy.