Last Monday, Lara Zarum wrote about The Family Jewels, an underrated 1965 movie starring and directed by Jerry Lewis, who died earlier this month at the age of 91. This week, Jaime N. Christley highlights another unsung Lewis vehicle: Three on a Couch, from 1966.
By the mid-Sixties, antics and paroxysms and hijinks had earned Jerry Lewis both his fortune and a global following in an industry that was in no way starved of funny faces, gag men, and crooners. But as we are reminded now almost hourly, good things in life don’t last forever. Fast approaching forty, and sensing correctly that the world had begun to rotate away from his goofball act — even as it had undergone permutations that gave us the inept genius Julius Kelp (The Nutty Professor) and the spastic, girl-phobic Herbert H. Heebert (The Ladies Man) — Lewis went searching for new boulevards along which to hawk his wares. Concluding a sixteen-year tenure at Paramount as an accredited jack-of-all-trades, Lewis emerged as something of a learned elder in the moviemaking business, but on his own, he would need to rebuild his entire cache without the support of a studio whose very name had for so long been inextricable from his own.
The pictures he chose during the back half of the Sixties signaled a phase change for the star: an attempt to pivot away from his existing luminescence, which relied on the public perception that he was a purveyor of kooky fare, in order to accommodate roles that showed he could close the deal as “normal” onscreen. It was a tricky balancing act. He took projects that, on a divergent timeline, might be offered to Bob Hope or Dick Van Dyke, playing regular guys intermittently obliged (because he was still Jerry) to bust out the facial contortions and the funny voices. Films like Boeing Boeing and Way… Way Out identified unambiguously as outrageous comedies with slapstick elements, but Jerry, no longer “the kid” or “the boy,” now sought to present as Jerry Lewis, Man Person, who sat down with Dick Cavett, put out records, and submitted to being roasted by Don Rickles.
Lewis sat in the director’s chair for one of those pivots: Three on a Couch. The 1966 film, which was cowritten by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo, Sabrina) and Bob Ross (veteran of The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It to Beaver), uses many ancient plot devices — flimsy disguises, compound lies, and misunderstandings — taken straight from the well-worn pages of the farce playbook. Lewis plays Christopher Pride, a successful artist who’s just been offered a lucrative residency in Paris. His fiancée, the hardworking and dedicated psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Acord (Janet Leigh), tells him that she can’t accompany him because doing so would disrupt ongoing critical treatment for three of her patients: a trio of women who hate or fear men. At wit’s end and nine martinis deep, Pride and his friend, Dr. Ben Mizer (James Best), concoct a scheme to make the women fall in love with Christopher — courting each of them by pretending to be, by turns, an eccentric Midwestern millionaire, an athlete, and a shy zoologist.
Broadly speaking, Three on a Couch is a fruitcake of Lewisian anarchy crammed unwillingly into a letter box of prehistoric gender politics. The sort of “a woman isn’t truly whole until she has a family” bunk that ought to have been out of fashion long before threatens to run the whole enterprise aground just as the script is establishing its core conflict. Lewis’s and Leigh’s characters emerge from the rubble of their first argument looking poorly: They’re both right, but the story almost unavoidably jams its thumb down on the scale, attempting to sell us on the notion that Elizabeth’s professional integrity is some kind of quaint sentiment at best, a betrayal of her status as wife- and homemaker-to-be at worst. However you weigh the respective merits of the two parties, Christopher is the story’s protagonist, and the script clearly registers his eventual victory (the Paris relocation, with wife in tow) as a necessity, and Elizabeth’s professional dedication as the seemingly immovable object that he must somehow circumvent. It’s all pushed too hard, reaching a point where Christopher’s hard-line stance, digging in his heels and threatening Elizabeth with emotional blackmail (“I won’t go to Paris, but I’ll resent you, and you’ll feel abandoned, and then you’ll need a psychiatrist”) reveals that he’s kind of a shit — and certainly not much of a partner.
Lewis sinks not insignificant narrative costs into erecting this relationship dramedy, to an extent where, while the architecture is implausible and even vaguely disturbing, it doesn’t entirely vanish when the necessary tonal shift opens the floor for Lewis to regale us with the gags and the pageantry. This layer of the movie both panders to loyal Jerry fans and unlocks fully his surrealist capacity, more than well-practiced after six years behind the camera.
Three on a Couch is a rarity among Lewis’s films for its generosity in boosting Janet Leigh and James Best to co-lead status. The film’s relative obscurity in the director’s catalog conceals the fact that Leigh gives the greatest star performance in a Jerry Lewis movie, so effortlessly and luminously does she exceed her mandate as the fool-suffering romantic partner. Best makes for another surprising MVP as Christopher’s co-conspirator, awarded an equal percentage of double takes and panicked face-cradling; even without being given the task of earning laughs, he’s surprisingly equal to Lewis in terms of comic energy.
There isn’t another film that Lewis directed that’s quite like Three on a Couch. It doesn’t run sequentially with the more coherent and Tashlinesque quintet that preceded it, nor does it seem akin to the loosey-goosey array of features that began with The Big Mouth and ended with Cracking Up. It’s a grown-up picture under siege by a three-ring circus. And yet, if you’re open to the idea, you find yourself falling in love with this case of cinematic impacted wisdom teeth. Somewhere between Christopher learning to walk in uncooperative cowboy boots and the madcap finale, the battle between disorienting and conventionally oriented editing strategies, tempered by the strange artifice of the color cinematography (many of the film’s “normal” scenes recall the claustrophobic transformation sequence in The Nutty Professor), begins to inject jet fuel into an increasingly deranged, kaleidoscopic farce. Three on a Couch refuses to name a champion in the competition between its futile bid for normalcy and the accoutrements of the big/loud Jerry Lewis masquerade ball; it’s the viewer’s pleasure to be rent apart.