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Why France Understood Jerry Lewis as America Never Did

Following Mr. Benayoun, the enfants terribles of the French New Wave, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, also embraced Mr. Lewis’s work. His early films as a director, such as “The Bellboy,” “The Ladies Man” and “The Errand Boy” — which he also wrote, produced and starred in — were heralded as masterpieces here in France. Édouard Waintrop, artistic director of the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, said that “The Bellboy,” Mr. Lewis’s directorial debut, “remains one of the funniest and most audacious films in cinema history, a series of gags without any sentimentality.”


A scene from “The Bellboy.”

John Springer Collection/Corbis, via Getty Images

“Lewis’s face is the grimacing mirror of our vanities,” said the French film critic Pierre Murat. “His body, as bendy as rubber, is the reflection of our ridicule.” He added that Mr. Lewis, as writer, director and actor, inherently trusted “the public’s intelligence, and their culture,” continuing, “Everybody understood at the time that ‘The Bellboy’ was a rapt homage to Stan Laurel, the thinking man of the Laurel and Hardy duo — exactly like Jerry when he was Dean Martin’s sidekick.” In a memorable scene from the film, Mr. Lewis, in the title role, is ordered to bring a tourist’s luggage to her hotel room from her car. In the next scene, we see him haul in the vehicle’s engine. We don’t know what has happened, we can only imagine. Mr. Lewis’s art and humor lay in the ellipsis.

Jerry Lewis connects the French with their past in a profound way. His work harks back to the time of Georges Méliès, the godfather of comedies in the silent era, when the French were the world’s most prolific film producers — that is before Hollywood made cinema an industry. Méliès, a one-man band, just like Mr. Lewis, performed a split personality onscreen, playing many different parts in his films. It is the same complexity that attracted the French public and critics to Mr. Lewis. Just like another American, Orson Welles, misunderstood at home and worshiped in France, Mr. Lewis was in real life a handsome and intelligent man who loved hiding behind the character he had invented for himself: the ugly duckling — and the idiot.

But the French have always seen him as a thinker and an innovator. Mr. Godard even declared that Mr. Lewis was greater than Chaplin, and “the only one in Hollywood able to transcend categories and norms.” With his fourth film as director and actor, “The Nutty Professor,” Mr. Lewis enjoyed a climax in his career, one he was never able to repeat. However, despite much less successful films from the late 1960s onward, Mr. Lewis’s status was never diminished in France, where his best films are regularly shown in Paris’s art house cinemas alongside other world classics. This week, French television channels are changing their schedules to show the genius of “nutty Jerry” to a younger audience — and keep his name alive.

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