Why the French Love Jerry Lewis

Why the French Love Jerry Lewis is the title of a book by Rae Gordon.   I have read the book, and found it worthwhile. Here is the product description from Amazon:

Vividly bringing to light the tradition of physical comedy in the French cabaret, café-concert, and early French film comedy, this book answers the perplexing question, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis?” The extraordinary emphasis on nervous pathology in the Parisian café-concert, where the genres of the Epileptic Singer and the Idiot Comic took center stage, and where popular comic monologues and songs included “Man with a Tic” and “I’m Neurasthenic,” points to a fascinating intersection between medicine and popular culture. The French tradition of comic performance style between 1870 and 1910 nearly exactly duplicates the movements, gestures, tics, grimaces, and speech anomalies found in nineteenth-century hysteria; the characteristics of hysteria became a new aesthetics.

Early French film comedy carried on this tradition of frenetic gesture and gait, as most film performers came from these entertainments and from the circus. Even before Chaplin’s films triumphed in France, film comics were instantly recognizable from their pathological gait, just as Jacques Tati would be a half-century later. Comedy, a genre that dominated French cinema until World War I, has often been linked to a mass public for film; the author elucidates this link by proposing a broadly generalized cultural-medical phenomenon as the explanation for the dominance of the comic genre. Comic performance style drew from a group of nervous disorders characterized by the psychological automatism emanating from the “lower faculties”: nervous reflex, motor impulses, sensation, and instinct.

Building on her previous work on hysteria, the cabaret, and pathologies of movement in the films of Georges Méliès, and drawing on over 400 French films made between 1896 and 1915, the author contributes to a new theory of spectatorship at work in the cabaret, in shows of magnetizers, and in early French film comedy. Jerry Lewis touches a nerve in French cultural memory because, more than any other film comic, he incarnates this tradition of performance style.

Some time ago, I brought this up on a physical comedy discussion forum, and one of the responses was that the French Jerry Lewis movies were dubbed by some one with a very funny voice, and that is what people laughed at.   Thanks to youtube, we can now here the voice.

Jerry Lewis with music

This is real sweet clip of Jerry Lewis from The Errand Boy.  Clearly it was plugged into the movie just for fun.  It does nothing to move the story forward, and I like that, because it’s all about character.  He has lot’s of strong expressions and hand poses.

It is powerful, brassy music which motivates Jerry to imitate a strong brassy character.  It’s also very interesting how certain instruments get interpreted into certain actions.  A Youtube commenter identifies the music as “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” performed by Count Basie.

This might make a great animation exercise, animating a character to interpret a musical track. Unless it comes out like this.

While I appreciate the fact that Family Guy is paying homage to Jerry, the limited animation gives us just a fraction of the fun.
Before animating, shoot reference, and judge the reference harshly.

There are much worse versions on youtube. The comparison is valuable to understand what Jerry is doing. He is a master.

If you are enjoying these posts, please link to Comedy for Animators. Thanks!

Jerry Lewis as Ernie Kovacs

Here is a trailer for the Jerry Lewis film “The Bell Boy”.  First I include the introduction by “Rolko52” the person who posted the clip.  It’s a interesting view on what might have been going on behind the scenes.

[From “Kovacs Corner” on YouTube.com] – Consciously or not on Jerry Lewis’ part, I have an opinion that his 1960 film “The Bellboy” was shot at least in part as a response to Ernie’s award winning half hour television special “The Silent Show” which featured his character “Eugene”. If you analyze some the events surrounding Ernie and Jerry around that time, it bears some consideration. On January 19, 1957, the NBC Television Network offered Jerry ninety minutes for a one time special program. Lewis had just broken up his partnership with Dean Martin and the network thought that it would be a great opportunity to showcase his comedy as a solo act. Jerry agreed but he wanted only sixty of those minutes. That left a half hour AFTER the Lewis special that nobody wanted…except Ernie. It was reported that when Kovacs came back to NBC with an outline of the show, they were shocked beyond disbelief. During the show’s rehearsals, the network executives made such disparaging remarks to Ernie that at one point he threatened to walk off the show and force them to run the backup program – a filmed western episode. This event may have severed Ernie’s professional relationship with NBC Television, as he subsequently made a deal and brought his projects to ABC. His wife Edie Adams was reported to have said that this event prompted him to write his novel “Zoomar” which is a satire surrounding the television industry. If you analyze “The Bellboy” you will see many similarities with Eugene. First, the bellboy character is silent throughout the movie…an indirect nod to the Kovacs character. Secondly, the film essentially has no storyline. It is simply a sequence of comedy “bits”. Jerry’s professed homage to Laurel and Hardy with this film would belie that statement as L&H shorts and feature films did indeed possess a fleshed out story. Lastly, the bellboy character essentially possesses the same attributes as Eugene…breaking the “fourth wall”, bending time and space, the musical references, and using the medium’s technology to drive the comedy. After “The Silent Show” airing, Ernie received critical acclaim from the newspapers and won the Sylvania Award for 1957. Anyone who has watched Jerry on his telethons or in interviews could reasonably assume that this would not sit well with his ego. I am sure that he expected to make the big splash with the audience and critics but it tuned out that the “throwaway” half hour from Ernie Kovacs garnered the publicity and award. In fact, so much good ink was generated that Ernie was subsequently featured on the cover of Life Magazine and he was offered his first Hollywood movie role in “Operation Mad Ball” by Columbia Pictures.

Celebrity Deathmatch

In the news, MTV is bringing back Celebrity Deathmatch, which was created by Eric Fogel in 1998. Here are some samples from earlier seasons. Celebrity Deathmatch. (Click link to see Buster Keaton Vs. Charlie Chaplin)

Some history of character walks

I didn’t start off writing a post about character walks, but that’s where it ends up.

Popular culture has been the breeding ground for many things that get developed into “highbrow” culture.  I recently learned a bit of trivia about the Commedia del ‘Arte that I had never heard before.   While driving home the Friday evening, I listened to the NPR program Fresh Air.  It was a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet dance.    Here is the piece of the transcript that caught my attention.

GROSS: So how did dancing en pointe, dancing on your toes, start?

HOMANS: That’s one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet because it’s really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of high operatic, high balletic art.

Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these sort of Commedia dell’arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.

And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet, most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.

The commedia actors had very demanding styles of movement, and walks in particular were used to express character.  Here is a quote from another source:

Hens, chick, rooster, capons, ducks, peacocks, all the farmyard bipeds make us laugh, their walks absurd parodies of man’s own gait.  [The actors] are not identified so much by the color and cut of their costumes as by the walk, the gesture, the manner in which each uses his ‘feathers’ to express pride, joy, anger, and sorrow, alternately swelling and drooping, preening and ruffling, as he picks his way like a strutting fowl, ever vulnerable, across the stage before the appreciative eyes of the audience.

That verbal description is inspiring since it describes walks in a way very different than what animators are accustomed to.  Animation walks tend to be utilitarian, they are simply to get a character from point A to B in a manner that seems realistic for the characters body and mood, as well as the situation.   A wacky walk might be so distracting from the story, and the director would nix it pretty quickly.Tex Avery would sometimes create totally fresh character walks, the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore.   I’ve just watched a Jerry Lewis movie, and realized Jerry’s run was one of his signature actions that will always belong to him.   A big part of Johnny Depps presentation of Jack Sparrow’s character was his effeminate swagger, something the Disney executives originally hated.   That’s the way to start a character.

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