30 June 2012

THE PATSY (Dir. Jerry Lewis, 1964, US) - Comical Histrionics

Jerry Lewis as Stanley Belt.
Jerry Lewis was postmodern before the term came to dominate the discourse of modern comedy. BBC2 had a good habit of regularly screening Jerry Lewis classics but it would usually be in the afternoon so naturally one got the impression that this was disposable and escapist comedy churned out by the Hollywood studios on a constant basis. I did recognise the hilarity of Jerry Lewis as a comedian, much of it non verbal and slapstick led, but it’s only recently that I have started to revisit much of his work. Oddly enough I thought I would have remembered The Patsy but watching it again made me realise how my youthful viewings of Jerry Lewis have all merged into a YouTube like mash up. The two I do remember most vividly is The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man – largely because one was remade by Eddie Murphy and the latter for that extraordinary transparent set. The Patsy which Jerry Lewis co-wrote and directed in 1964 is one of his most accomplished films. It is a studio film but Jerry Lewis plays with this very notion by offering what is a satirical look at the artifice of cinema such as stardom, the illusionary nature of the culture industry and filmmaking. The narrative is quite simple. A group of money hungry showbiz types have their livelihoods threatened when a star that they rely upon dies. They concoct a plan to find a replacement. The patsy they settle upon is a neurotic bell boy Stanley Belt. Stanley is a man child, a shy and bumbling fool who is manipulated by the creative types and manufactured to become the next big thing – a star. Nothing goes according to plan and they soon discover that Stanley is a walking disaster. However, when they abandon Stanley he finally proves his worth by appearing on the Ed Sullivan show delivering a star making performance. And just as we think a star has been born, Jerry Lewis pulls the rug from under us by breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience and showing to us the crew and set. The film ends with Jerry Lewis and the love interest literally walking off the film set with the crew and heading for lunch. The Patsy is a sophisticated work that operates on a number of levels but I feel it is one of those films which can be easily overlooked and dismissed as simply a good comedy. One of the more obvious points about the film is its postmodern status positioning it as a work of innovation that was unique for the 1960s and American film comedies. A key moment in terms of postmodern discourse occurs with a terrific intertextual gag with actor/star George Raft who appears as a reflection in a dressing mirror being used by Stanley/Lewis as he tries on a jacket as part of his new star look. Such postmodern attitudes are reflected in the ending which strips away the illusion of film but also undercuts the very idea that we are going to be given a happy ending so in effect closure is interrupted by mischief – a key trait of the slapstick comedian. The Patsy was released in an era in which success of bands like The Beatles illustrated the way our fixation with the culture industry and celebrities was emerging as a potentially unhealthy aspiration. The way in which the creative showbiz types attempt to manufacture stardom from virtually nothing is strangely prescient today given the way new stars are replicated and sold on an image rather than a talent. Such manufactured and artificial stardom can be seen in its extreme form in grotesque reality TV shows like The X Factor. Another easily seen and often discussed dimension of Jerry Lewis is his destructive nature as a slapstick comic. Wherever Stanley goes or meets, chaos ensues. His histrionics cannot be contained and this comes largely from Laurel & Hardy especially the slow burn antics of Stan Laurel whose childish innocence produces a wave of physical destruction. A similar vein of anarchy exists in the hysterical mannerisms of Jerry Lewis. This is best exemplified in the classic sequence in which Stanley goes for singing lessons and ends up destroying the prized antiques of the singing teacher. Perhaps what is most influential today is the way in which Jerry Lewis was one of the first filmmakers to represent the nerd as a transformative figure and thus celebrate his idiosyncrasies as something affirmative. A strong fairy tale aspect in terms of narrative runs throughout many of his most popular comedies – both this and The Nutty Professor sees the nerd/geek/misfit transform into a supercool icon of male sexuality. Aside from the points I have outlined, what really impresses the most about Jerry Lewis is his capacity to star, write and direct many of his films. The nearest parallel in American cinema would be both Keaton and Chaplin. However, unlike the work of Chaplin and most recently Keaton, which has been reappraised, the films of Jerry Lewis are still gathering momentum in terms of critical stature. The Patsy is one of the great American comedies of the 1960s. 


  1. It is always such a joy to read an article such as this. Too many do not appreciate Mr. Lewis and his many talents. Thank you.

  2. yeah, great piece regardless of the fact that it had no paragraph brakes, and it damn near made me go blind reading it.