You Have To See… is a weekly feature at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time.
Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
Forcing a group of young (and crucially, non-French) cinephiles to watch a Jerry Lewis film and make a case for it was always going to be an uphill battle – his form of physical comedy, of exaggerated facial expression, hyperbolic klutziness and extreme sentimentality has been out of fashion for a long time aside from some brief, singular resurgences like Lewis descendant Jim Carrey’s ubiquity in the 1990s. This obstacle (in addition to some personal factors like his publicised misogynist remarks, which are particularly interesting in light of this film) makes him particularly unfashionable in a post-2000s culture that prefers wit to slapstick and irony over sincerity when looking at film comedy.
The aversion to Lewis the performer and Lewis the public figure puts off a lot of viewers from exploring the films he made as a director (as well as those of one of his key collaborators, Frank Tashlin) that formed a stretch in the early 1960s that was as prolific, creative and innovative as any American filmmaker has ever had. These films including his most known achievement, The Nutty Professor, the personal and self-deprecating showbiz satire The Patsy and a pair of elaborate sketch comedies The Bellboy and The Errand Boy that take paper thin premises and turn them into episodic, absurd visions of the working man that feel more closely aligned to the literature of Kafka than to his films with Dean Martin from the previous decade. These are all essential but The Ladies Man I find particularly inspired. As a critic Jean-Luc Godard praised Lewis as the only filmmaker in Hollywood doing something completely unique, and looking back there really is no American film that it feels immediately analogous to. Hell, the only non-Lewis directed film this seems to have any affinity with is Jacques Tati’s Playtime that would come out six or so years later, and even then as a screen presence Lewis’ manic, tormented Herbert H Heebert couldn’t be further from the passive Monsieur Hulot.
The film at least starts with a plot; or at least a premise from which everything else springs forth. After graduating, Heebert discovers his fiancé cavorting with another man. His sexual jealousy manifests itself by turning him into a neurotic, repressed and infantilised creature, who swears off women and runs away looking for work. Late at night he finds work in a boarding house, and only the next morning does the irony of the situation become apparent – Heebert, terrified and intimidated by women wakes up in a boarding house that is home to thirty young women that in 60s vernacular could only be described as bombshells. That’s basically it for plot, but this psychological conflict spurs much of the film’s content. Critics have spent a lot of time unravelling the psychosexual undercurrents of the film (and there are other factors that complicate this, such as the appearance of his mother, who is Lewis in drag) but many of the film’s pleasures and merits are worth mentioning first.
“The set” is the most instantly impressive features of this lavish production. The largest and most expensive ever built indoors at that point, the infrastructure in which the film unfolds is a masterpiece in its own right – a feat of architecture and design basically unmatched. The cut-out, fourth-wall-missing layout would be directly used again by filmmakers as varied as Wes Anderson in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Tout va Bien (and I’m pretty sure there’s an old Telstra broadband ad that does the same) but it’s still a startling visual (and visionary) achievement that is a joy to inhabit for an hour and half. The mise-en-scene and look of it is fantastic; a dollhouse with extremely garish colours relishing in its own artifice, with invisible mirrors and walls that put us in a strange voyeuristic position as a spectator. Also, the way it contains the film with its unique rules of space is masterful. On a two dimensional plain we see Lewis running vertically and horizontally through rooms and stairways, looking like a character in sidescrolling NES game, albeit controlled by a player with poor and erratic motor skills, and instead of mushroom enemies Heebert avoids the attentions of frantic women, with the female libido acting as the ultimate boss level. Cinema is, in a reductive sense, structured space and so the film’s unique literalisation of this concept is particularly effective. Heebert is simultaneously trapped by the geometry of the frame and set and by his own conflicted desires, running around in a finite space until he gets consumed up by one of the roving women like Pacman avoiding ghosts (I’m stretching the videogame analogy by now).
This is all illuminated best by one of the film’s climactic scenes, and what I consider one of the most sublime scenes in American cinema. One of the rules of the house is to not go into the forbidden room – a room we can’t see into like the others, and one we can tell has something very different about it. I don’t want to spoil it for those that haven’t seen the film, as it’s really quite special – it’s an offscreen, forbidden space that does not follow the rules of the rigid layout of the house, or even adhere to basic notions of spatial or temporal continuity. It exists in its own space, in a scene that represents what I understand to be pure cinema; after being constrained in the (elaborate and beautiful, but still self-contained) world of the film so far, the scene shows us nothing less than the possibilities of cinema as an art form in its sheer absurdity, imagination and sensuality. In a film that seems to reject narrative it’s a crucial scene in both our experience of the film as well as Heebert’s character development . It’s a scene rich with symbolism that I think has to be read sexually; the first scene where Heebert goes with the flow in part, and on a figurative level lets himself be seduced and adopts a very different persona to the klutz we’ve spend the majority of the film with – this sort of escapism, wish-fulfilment and, to revert to the Freudian aspect touched on earlier, the id/super-ego struggle is crucial to understanding the Jekyll-and-Hyde act of The Nutty Professor and the Lewis persona more generally.1
There’s much more to explore along these lines when talking about the film’s thematic and psychological depth and symbolism – I haven’t even used the word ‘womb’ yet – but I don’t want to miss the woods for the trees especially in a column like this. I love the film for a number of reasons, mostly a lot more superficial but no less accomplished than the juicy subtext . There are some stretches of just incredible filmmaking – the famous jazz number introducing the house and the women getting up and ready in the morning is worth the price of admission alone and even some of the more crude jokes (Lewis being fed in a highchair) are really, really funny. It’s an astonishingly visually impressive comedy that may seem forced in points to a modern viewer, but if you’ve come around to the acquired taste of Lewis’ antics then it’s one of the most purely pleasurable films you could see. It may not be the preferred form of comedy du jour but the artistry of The Ladies Man is timeless.
Isobel Yeap – Before watching Ladies Man (1961), I had no idea what to expect. I had never seen a Jerry Lewis film before and all I knew about it was that Brad really liked it. The film opens in technicolour, set in a small town reminiscent of Pleasantville. This town in New Jersey, we are told, is full of nervous people. And yet none of them are as nervous as the protagonist, Herbert H. Heebert. There are a few incidents of slapstick, and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go.’ because I’m not a huge fan of slapstick and I didn’t feel like watching 90 minutes of it.
Fortunately, Ladies Man offers much more than slapstick. For starters, it is delightfully absurd. We meet Herbert at his graduation ceremony and when his principal announces that he is valedictorian, he jumps in the air and yells with excitement. He doesn’t make a speech. That is the end of the ceremony. A few minutes later, when Herbert catches his high school girlfriend (or perhaps unrequited love interest, the two never actually interact) kissing another man, the shot is framed so that the girlfriend and her lover’s heads are chopped off. Herbert distorts his face in pain, clutches his chest as though he is dying and literally crumples into a flowerbed. He tells his parents and they too start crying. The whole family, it appears, are so effusive it’s ridiculous. In the end, it’s the extreme dramatisations like these that make the film so humorous.
As Brad pointed out, the set and costumes of Ladies Man are flawless. The camera pans across a cross-section of the house and it is indeed like looking into a dollhouse, a dollhouse overrun with musical dolls. Herbert moves into this house because the women need a male housekeeper (I don’t think it is ever explained why). His incompetence lends itself to more slapstick and by the end of the film I was a little tired of watching him smashing glass heirlooms and just generally getting in the way. The other qualm I had with the film was that it finished and I thought to myself, ‘What just happened?’ There was no character development; Herbert never actually becomes competent and although he is slightly less scared of women (by the end of the film, he no longer screams and runs away whenever he sights one) he has hardly matured in the sense of a bildungsroman.
Throughout the film, Herbert is repeatedly infantilised and emasculated. He is a character of extremes; just as his facial elasticity is a forerunner to Jim Carrey’s, so his neuroticism renders him reminiscent of a Woody Allen character on amphetamines. Should the film, for example, be read as a parody of the suave prototype of masculinity that typified the 1960s? If so, perhaps some of the film’s strangeness can be attributed to the fact that the female characters are not exaggerated at all. In this sense, the satirical elements appeared to be slotted into an otherwise realistic environment, and with variable success.
Conor Bateman – In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die” and that comes to mind after watching Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man, which would have been much funnier if Lewis’ Herbert H. Heebert had walked into an open sewer and ceased to exist. There’s a recurring issue I have with these ‘classic’ American comedies, like the work of Mel Brooks himself, whose Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles I find more hit than miss, in that broad and unsophisticated humour reigns supreme, seemingly gleeful absurdity that brings about no joy abounds and lazy characterisation forms the basis for tedious and flimsy stories or conceits. Lewis actually appears to be quite adept behind the camera, with some truly spectacular crane shots moving through, as Isobel has put it, “the dollhouse” (the influence on Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic and Moonrise Kingdom now seems clear) and a pretty funny, marvellously well-edited musical sequence in an all-white room that calls to mind the dream number in Singin’ in the Rain. Lewis also proves that he understands space in sets, with every wide shot of the entire set something of a marvel and the physical chaos during the ‘tv show’ sequences amusing.
The film, though, was a slog for me. The first half hour failed to gel, perhaps only the initial reveal of his mother bringing any amusement (and then retrospectively odd consdiering the portrayal of women, particualrly those he doesn’t find attractive, like housekeeper Cathy, in the rest of the film), and the character of Herbert seemed caught in idiotic stasis, rendering the somewhat emotional end completely undeserved. I want to clarify that by ‘idiotic stasis’ I’m not taking a swipe at all American physical comedians who use facial expressions and physical movement; Chaplin and Keaton always managed to bring a true sense of character and development even when saying nothing or standing still. Lewis has none of that talent, relying on shouts of “MAAA!” and ‘wacky’ facial changes ad nauseum. The argument that Herbert is a clever portrayal or takedown of ’50s masculinity is there to be made, I’m sure, but I want no part of it. Lack of character, frustrating vocal tics, a painful accent and an overreliance on jumping up and down to convey emotional responses make me want to wash my hands of Herbert entirely. Brad notes the influence of Frank Tashlin in the film, which pains me, because another film Brad introduced me to, Tashlin’s fantastic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, has great wit and a still searing look at publicity and Hollywood. Any time Lewis touches upon Hollywood here, whether by having some of the women rehearse or talk about auditions, reveals absolutely nothing of value comedically or intellectually.
When Brad writes that “post-2000s culture…prefers wit to slapstick and irony over sincerity”, I have to agree in part. Though I see no effective sincerity in this picture at all and perhaps wanted some dark irony like in Tashlin’s film, I would’ve much preferred an injection of some wit. There are a handful of dialogue exchanges that work in this manner but, for the most part, slapstick reigns supreme, and not good slapstick either. Overly telegraphed gags become painful when they eventuate and the Chekhov’s ‘don’t touch that –‘ was lazy narrative storytelling when they pop up in slapstick routines. Outside of technical marvels, the film rarely worked for me. So I’ll say you don’t have to see this one. Trust me.
Felix Hubble – A movie featuring genius gags such as ‘look how many items of clothing he can fit in his suitcase’ and ‘man gets tangled in cord’ but also some gags like ‘look at the man fall through the bed’ and ‘man is terrible at playing the trombone’ so there are definitely some enjoyable moments. I couldn’t fully get into this film – it’s shot really nicely (the editing leaves a little to be desired) and the set design is amazingly meticulous, but I didn’t find Jerry Lewis, or the script he was working with, particularly funny. Lewis lacks a straight man (a role Dean Martin had previously so successfully filled), which makes much of the film tedious as there is no-one to balance his cartoonish overacting. A few of the gags even felt sort of like a set of Tim and Eric sketches without the ironic self-awareness, many go on for way too long and descend into almost self-parody. I did have a fun time with a large chunk of the film but I wasn’t always sure if I was laughing with, or laughing at Lewis. Lewis does not feel like the past’s equivalent of a Louis C.K. (not that he purports to be), he feels much more like an Adam Sandler, and not at his best. While I wouldn’t recommend the film, there is something somewhat endearing about his goofiness.
Jessica Ellicott – Brad mentioned Kafka in relation to Lewis’ other films The Bellboy and The Errand Boy, but I think an interesting link can also be drawn between The Ladies Man and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Herbert H. Heebert, much like Gregor Samsa, is a prisoner of his environment, remaining for the vast majority of the film claustrophobically constrained within the walls of the Dollhouse (albeit a much larger prison than Gregor’s apartment). He is also, much like Gregor, imprisoned by his own sexuality in a house of single women, traumatised by the sight of his first love Faith in the arms of another and sworn never to love again. He is as uncomfortable in his own skin as Gregor is as a gigantic insect, writing around, knocking over things and leaving a glorious path of destruction in his wake. The Ladies Man is a much deeper text than its cartoonish surface may suggest.
The Ladies Man is available on DVD from Paramount, and is also available to be streamed on Netflix UK.
You Have To See… will take a one week hiatus due to our SFF coverage and return on 17 June with Udaan (2010). Join us then!