A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do the French really love Jerry Lewis?

October 1, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Can you explain to me where does it come from that the French are supposed to be Jerry Lewis fans? As soon as somebody recognize my accent I'm asked, "How can you like Jerry Lewis movies?" I lived this last 30 years in France and I never met any Jerry Lewis fan. If you ask to 100 persons in the street for a J.L. movie title you'd difficultly have a few answers, and lot of people would made a confusion with a rock and roll star. Excuse my limited English but I just start learning it, reading your books.

Cecil replies:

Better buy the whole set, mon frere.

In re: Lewis, your bafflement is a consequence of your youth. Jerry Lewis was hot in France in the 60s, but today is only remembered vaguely and in some quarters, dare I say it, even scorned. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who lived in Paris in the early 70s, says when he was interviewed a couple years ago by the French rock weekly Les inrockuptibles, "They mentioned in their introduction, as an indication of how weird I was, that I preferred Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen."

But it's not like Jerry has been completely forgotten. In 1984, with the opening of his movie Retenez-moi ou je fais un malheur ("Hold me back … or I'll have an accident"), he was made a commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honor. Two months later he was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest any kind of honor. Sure, this was for his charity work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But you don't see them giving it to me.

French affection for Jerry Lewis has always mystified Americans. Highbrow critics (the only kind France has) wrote appreciatively about his work beginning in the 1950s, but things didn't really get rocking until Jerry's visit to France in 1965. Though past his peak in America by then, he was mobbed at the airport by fans and the press and was the toast of Paris for a week. French critics, who had voted The Nutty Professor the best film of the year, gave him an award, an art cinema put on a three-week Jerry Lewis festival, and the French film library held a retrospective with seminars on Jerry's art. Rosenbaum recalls Lewis hosting a two-hour prime-time show on French television in the 70s, with "guests like Louis Malle literally at his feet."

The reaction in the States was and remains: Jerry Lewis? Though hugely popular in his day, Lewis has never been esteemed by the American cultural elite. French acclaim, far from causing folks to reconsider, was taken as proof of French ridiculousness. I hate to pile on, but having seen a couple Lewis movies recently (the little researchers like 'em), I have to ask: What did the French see in this guy, anyway?

Your first thought is that it was all a campy lark by French critics, who found Lewis a perfect example of their notion of American excess. "Where American critics and audiences see [Lewis] as the banal equal of, say Abbott and Costello … for the European critic, Lewis' comic strength is the comically accurate depiction of the American mentality — its brash, vulgar overzealousness," writes Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (1979). Maybe, but French audiences' love of Lewis from all accounts is too heartfelt for it to spring strictly from satisfaction in seeing Americans look silly.

Sheer Gallic perversity, then? The French did manage to find something to praise in Lewis's lamest efforts. For example, the critic Robert Benayoun, author of a highly regarded book on Lewis, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, and in the opinion of some a virtual Lewis groupie, found his idol's 1965 release The Family Jewels "audacious" because it "deliberately severs space-time." Shawn Levy, in his biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (1996), translates: "The plotting is utterly arbitrary, the basic story ludicrous, and the filmmaking characteristically sloppy."

Levy conjectures that French audiences took to Lewis in part because he exemplified the French notion of the auteur the individual, typically the director, who imposes his artistic vision on the production, which Lewis definitely did. But it's probably equally true that the French, despite or maybe because of their devotion to art (you know, pushing the envelope and all that), were also suckers for low comedy. One recalls the legendary French stage performer Le Petomane, aka the Fartiste. Not that Jerrymania was strictly a French thing. Lewis was voted director of the year three times in France, but he won the same honor in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Today I'd say French critics still like Jerry Lewis but their appreciation is tempered by a recognition of his failings. Writing in American Directors, Vol. II (1983), Jean-Pierre Coursodon writes, "Watching his films again … one more than ever notices how contrived and, at times, counterproductive their formal sophistication can be. Too, their frequent unfunniness shouldn't have been so breezily dismissed as irrelevant. … [But] once all the necessary reservations have been duly entered … and once it has been recognized that  Lewis's work, as a results of its inner contradictions, imposed some serious limitations upon itself, the inescapable fact remains that Lewis was the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to … 'total film maker' during the sound era." (Thanks to Lewis fan Scott Marks for sending me this piece.)

Say what you will about the French, Lewis deserves more respect from Americans than he gets. Woody Allen, for one, admired Lewis and wanted him to direct Allen's early films. As a kid I remember watching The Errand Boy (1961) and being touched by the exchanges between Lewis and the little clown puppet. A small thing, but how much of most movies do you remember the next day, much less after 38 years?

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