"The Patsy" *** (out of ****)
How many times have you thought to yourself, why aren't I famous? I'm just as good or better than some of the people I see on television.
How many times have you watched Jerry Lewis and thought, this guy is not funny? I could do what he is doing.
"The Patsy" (1964), directed by Jerry Lewis, his fifth feature film as director, deals with these issues, as well as a few others.
Jerry Lewis was never a critical darling in America. Lewis felt the critics were hostile towards him, he would even go as far as to suggest anti-semitism was the reason behind it, and he was hostile towards the critics.
But, critical praise be damned, Lewis was a box-office star. His comedies at Paramount made a lot of money. Maybe the studio executives couldn't figure his movies out but they made money and that was the bottom-line. As long as a Jerry Lewis movie made money, Lewis would have the creative freedom to make the type of comedies he so desired.
Of course though, the critics and some of the American public did wonder, why would anyone find this guy funny. He is crazy. A child could do what he is doing. In fact, Lewis is a child. "The Patsy" dares to argue, oh yeah! You think anyone could do what Jerry Lewis does? Try it! Go ahead. Perform in front of an audience. Tell jokes. Sing a song. Dance. Not everyone can do it. You know why? It takes talent. It may all look easy but that is only because the person is so talented they make it seem effortless.
In "The Patsy" a famous comedian dies in a plane crash and now his entourage consisting of his writer, Chic (Phil Harris), his public relations man, Harry (Keenan Wynn), director, Morgan (Peter Lorre), producer, Caryl (Everett Sloane) and a beautiful woman named Ellen (Ina Balin), who handles his fan mail, have decided to turn a nobody into a star.
Their reasoning is they are afraid of what the future holds. Of course, if these people were any good at their jobs, they shouldn't worry. Any celebrity would want their services. Each person admits the deceased comedian taught them what they know about the movie business and now they believe they can take what they have learned and create a star. With minds like this backing a person, how could the plan fail?
On some level this story has appeal in our world today. Everyone wants to be famous. We have countless shows on TV featuring people trying to break through. They sing, tell jokes, make sex videos, all in the hopes of becoming famous. The one thing they all over look however is they don't have talent. What makes a person famous? It is not their public relations man. Oh sure, he or she might get your name in the paper or all over the internet, but if you don't have talent, the fame won't last.
Along with this theme Lewis also injects observations suggesting, one must be true to themself. That is the only way we will succeed. We must never lose our innocence and become corrupt by a system. A system that makes us question our instincts and hide our feelings.
The patsy in "The Patsy" is a bellboy named Stanley Belt (Lewis). He has been chosen by this great entourage to be turned into a star. The problem is Stanley has no talent. He can't tell jokes. He can't remember the set-up and doesn't know how to deliver a punch line. He can't sing. He doesn't know how to dance. But, he agrees to have this group of people publicize him because of the money and the promise of beautiful women, fast cars and an exciting nightlife. Plus, Stanley takes a liking to Ellen, whom for some reason, takes a liking to Stanley.
It has been suggested "The Patsy" was intended to be a sequel to "The Bellboy" (1960), Lewis' directorial debut. In that movie Lewis also played a bellboy named Stanley.
When I was younger I remember finding Jerry Lewis to be a very funny guy. There were two movies in particular that I found to be extremely funny. One was "My Friend Irma" (1949) a feature film based on a popular radio program of the same name. It marked the screen debut of the comedy team Martin & Lewis. I also remember finding "The Bellboy" to be hysterical. But, as I've gotten older, my feelings toward Lewis have become more neutral. I am not Jerry Lewis's biggest fan nor am I someone who finds his humor infantile.
However, as I watch his movies I am always questioning his filmmaking techniques. I can never quite understand how he uses his camera. Watching "The Patsy" for the third time I had these thoughts as well. Lewis likes the long shot. Charlie Chaplin once said, "comedy is long shot, drama is close-up". There is an element of truth to that but Lewis takes it a bit too far.
One example is a scene at the beginning of the movie. Stanley has agreed to the plan by the entourage. It is shot in an extreme long shot of the top suite in a Hilton hotel room. Immediately after Stanley agrees, everyone goes into action making important phone calls, running from one side of the room to the other. The problem is, when you shoot this sequence in a long shot you don't get that hectic, frenetic pace. Picture the scene shot in a medium shot, where we would only see the characters from the shoulders up. This would give the impression of being cluttered. In that split second, as soon as Stanley agrees, his life will now spin out of control. Then we see the other characters speedily walk past Stanley.
Once we see this sequence in an extreme long shot and we can see the entire hotel room we are aware of space. It present a different emotion. We don't feel chaos. Everyone has so much room. And, some of the characters are static. Lewis has given himself such a large canvass to paint he doesn't know how to fill the frame.
Lewis the director does this over and over again. He films too many scenes in long shots. He also has a bad habit and shooting characters from the back as they speak to Stanley, so only Stanley's face in on-screen and the back of the head of the other actor. He rarely cuts away to each person during a conversation. Sometimes the expression of the other actor as it relates to Stanley's behavior would be funny.
Another problem with "The Patsy" and Lewis in general is the dialogue. Jerry Lewis is not an intellectual. Lewis has nothing, if anything, insightful to say about human behavior. Lewis observes the world as a child. If you listen to the dialogue in this movie, if you listen to Lewis speak in interviews, he often speaks of a child's perception to life. What separates him from Chaplin or even Woody Allen is, they deal with adults. They examine the relationships between men and women. Lewis wants to. Pay attention to the dialogue between Ellen and Stanley. But Lewis writes cliches. Listen to Ellen's dialogue about dreams and recalling pleasant memories. Ellen's dialogue is clumsy at best and doesn't sound the way people speak but, doesn't it also resemble how a parent speaks to a child?
Lewis wants to have sentimental scenes as in a flashback sequence of when Stanley attended a school dance but didn't have a date and was made fun of for wearing a rented tuxedo. First of all, this is an unnecessary sequence. Secondly, again, we are dealing with observations based on children. Can we relate to feeling like an outsider, as Stanley does in this sequence? Yes. I can just picture Lewis speaking about this sequence saying it is for every poor child that went to school and didn't have enough money to wear expensive clothes. It is about the child that had to wear the same outfit two or three days in a row while the other children made fun of them. Great Jerry! You hit it on the head. Now how about dealing with adults.
Lewis could never find the right tone for great pathos like Chaplin. He doesn't have the insight into human behavior between men and women. He doesn't know how to comment on it. Even Woody Allen can make sharper observations about life, dating, marriage, death. And Allen can write better dialogue for women. This hurts Lewis as he tries to dip his toe into more dramatic scenes.
Jerry Lewis normally played a buffoon in his comedies and he certainly does here. This bothers some people as they say, it is not funny watching a grown man take pratfalls and act like a jerk. The viewer must either accept this or completely reject it. If you chose to reject it, then you are not allowed to ever watch a Jerry Lewis movie ever again. The funny thing is, while I normally accept the Lewis persona on-screen, watching "The Patsy" was the first time I struggled. There is a scene where Stanley is being coached to tell some jokes. Stanley can't repeat a simple sentence and fumbles and stumbles over the words, changing their order. Repeatedly Chic and Harry give him the line and time after time Stanley can't repeat it. As I watched the sequence, I understand it is suppose to be funny but soon I started to become aggravated. Stanley! What's so difficult?
And this leads to another issue. Clearly the other characters in the movie are aware and react to Stanley's buffoonery all except Ellen. She laughs at him. I found this to be a distraction. In nearly every scene Ellen has with Stanley she has a smile on her face or laughs at him. It feels as if Ellen is watching not Stanley but Jerry Lewis. Oddly the movie also ends on a self-referential note which feels awkward at best. It has been said Lewis simply didn't know how to end the movie.
Still "The Patsy" has some moments that are funny and nicely structured visual gags. As I said, I am neutral when it comes to Lewis. I can admit sometimes he makes me laugh and I can spot his flaws. "The Patsy" is one of his better outings. I would even go as far as to say it is one of Lewis's better movies.
The trick to the Lewis man-child persona is coming up with a good scenario which fits the character. "The Patsy" is about about a person that doesn't have talent trying to become a star. Therefore Lewis can play the fool. The persona is built into the plot rather than placing the Lewis character in a movie that doesn't need his physical comedy. That can become annoying. That's what makes "The Patsy" works, when it does. That is it's strength.