Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Review: The Errand Boy

"The Errand Boy"  *** (out of ****)

It has been staring me in the face all this time. Why has it taken me so long to notice it? It has been right there in front of me. I have finally figured out what the films of Jerry Lewis are about or at least I have come to my own interpretation and feel I have a better understanding of Mr. Lewis' work as a filmmaker. And it is because of "The Errand Boy" (1961) I have come to my conclusions.

In "The Errand Boy", Lewis' third film as director, he plays Morty Tashman, a paperhanger who works at Paramutual Pictures, clearly a reference to Paramount Studios, where Mr. Lewis made the majority of his films, who is hired by one of the studio executives, T.P. Paramutual (Brian Donlevy) to act as a spy in order to discover where the studio's money is going. To avoid suspicion Morty is hired to work in the mail department as an errand boy.

At first "The Errand Boy" establishes itself as a satire on the movie industry, showing us how movies are really made and what goes on behind the scenes on the studio lot.

These moments are the most enjoyable in the movie. Mr. Lewis makes sharp observations and creates several humorous set pieces. When "The Errand Boy" is dishing the dirt on Hollywood the audience feels they are in good hands. You suspect Mr. Lewis and "The Errand Boy" know what they are talking about.

But "The Errand Boy" doesn't really follow through on its premise. While Morty is hired as a spy, we never see him report to anyone. The viewer never sees him investigate. The idea of discovering where the lost money is going is abandon. What "The Errand Boy" eventually becomes is two things. One, it is a movie not unlike Lewis' "The Bellboy" (1960), an episodic comedy built around comedic situations the Lewis character finds himself in. There is no story arc or character development to speak of.

The second thing the movie becomes is a movie about learning to become comfortable with who you are. And that is what I discovered is the major theme throughout the work of Jerry Lewis. Lewis consistently makes movies which tell us accept who you are. Don't try to become someone different. The other characters in the movie learn they must accept the Lewis character as he is because he is genuine. And that makes him not only a rare person but a rare talent. The Hollywood system should not change him but learn to embrace him.

When we look at the movie in this light, the viewer begins to feel "The Errand Boy" and Lewis' other movies serve as a defense of the Lewis persona. During the time of release of Mr. Lewis' movies, the sheep (movie critics) often sharply attacked his movies. Many find his man-child character annoying. His pratfall humor childish. It is as if Mr. Lewis is rebutting all his critics by saying, "I'm real"! "I'm a genuine person"! "You don't want to change me. Appreciate my talent. I'm funny. Can't you see that"?

The larger question however becomes, what does any of this have to do with the story initially presented in "The Errand Boy"? The answer is nothing. "The Errand Boy" just simply becomes this movie by the end of the picture. It feels terribly out of place. Mr. Lewis would go back to a very similar concept for the movie "The Patsy" (1964), which was about trying to make a star. That movie also told us, talent cannot be created. It is ingrained in the individual. Talent is natural. Not everyone has it. That is the same message "The Errand Boy" leaves us with. But, it is not the movie "The Errand Boy" started off as. That bothers me. The theme is better suited for "The Patsy" because that is what the movie was about from the beginning.

It doesn't mean "The Errand Boy" isn't funny. It is. One good comedy sequence involves Morty working behind a cash register when three children show up asking for jelly beans. A jar of jelly beans is on the very top shelf of the store, where Morty has to climb a ladder to get to them. Another good sequence has Morty walking into an elevator. As soon as he does a mob of passengers get in. Now Morty is stuck facing a man with a toothpick in his mouth, which he keeps aiming at Morty. When Morty turns to his other side there is a man smoking a cigar.

Although the most famous moment in the movie may be a pantomime routine Mr. Lewis does as he sits at the head of a board room while the Count Basie orchestra plays "Blues in Hoss Flat" and Mr. Lewis mimes a meeting, speaking to the other executives. If you pay close enough attention you'll notice Lewis is slightly off in his timing.

Regardless, this speaks to another element of Mr. Lewis' comedy. It is musical. Remember the sequence in "The Ladies Man" (1961) when we see the boarding house for women? There is music playing in the background as the camera dollies pass each woman's room. Their movement matches the music. Remember Mr. Lewis' typewriter routine? He mimes typing a letter to a piece of music. And let us not forget Mr. Lewis actually fashioned himself a singer and released an album.

There is a sequence that does confuse me. Morty is to take a convertible for a car wash. Unfortunately it forgets to put the hood up. Mel Brooks, who did briefly write for Jerry Lewis, says he wrote that gag. Mr. Brooks though is not given any writing credit. The only person to share writing credit with Mr. Lewis is Bill Richmond, who made cameos in several of Mr. Lewis' comedies, including this one, as a man who gets gum popped in his face. This makes me wonder however if Jerry Lewis, like Bob Hope, had a gang of comedy writers working for him but never received writing credit for the movies.

"The Errand Boy" really has me conflicted. Should I give it two-and-a-half stars or three? Two-and-a-half because of the story structure. It doesn't stay true to its original premise. Or three because I laughed and realized something about Mr. Lewis' movies and the prevalent themes in his work. It is a toss up. But I will decide on the three stars. Among the other movies Mr. Lewis has directed "The Errand Boy" should be considered one of his best even with its faults.