Sunday, March 20, 2016

Film Review: Which Way To The Front?

"Which Way To The Front?
*** (out of ****)

It's an all-out assault for laughs as Jerry Lewis marches forward in the comedy "Which Way To The Front?" (1970).

This World War II comedy written and directed by Jerry Lewis and released by Warner Brothers has gained an extremely negative reputation over the years. That kind of reaction may not be a surprise coming from the sheep (movie critics) who were known to dislike Mr. Lewis' comedies but even the general public dislikes the movie.

If you were to go on the website you will note, as of the date of this review, 896 users have rated the movie. On a scale of 1 - 10 the movie has averaged a score of 4. That's pretty low. You have to assume fans of Mr. Lewis are included in that 896 number. Where's the love?

"Which Way To The Front?" takes place in 1943 with Mr. Lewis starring as Brenden Byers III, the richest man in America. One wonders, was this meant to be a swipe at Howard Hughes? Mr. Byers is bored with life. He has acquired so much money and has been able to do so much with that money he feels there is nothing left for him to do. Life offers no new adventures. How much money can he possibly make in his lifetime? The thrill is gone. But then Mr. Byers learns he has been drafted in the war and welcomes the opportunity of a new experience.

The first 15 - 20 minutes of Mr. Lewis' comedy plays out as a sharp social satire and should have appealed in particular to anti-Vietnam War protesters of the time. Mr. Byers' legal team initially suggest ways in which he may be granted a deferment but Mr. Byers protests and declares "In a democracy it is the right of every man to die for his country." A line which surely made the youth in the audience giggle.

There is also a comment to be made about the draft. It is usually only in the movies that the wealthy were drafted. You would see this in several Hollywood movies made during WW2. The draft has been perceived as a device used strictly to enlist the working class and minorities while the wealthy are able to avoid service. During WW2 movies were made showing the wealthy being enlisted in an effort to promote unity and show the country at large that we are all fighting this war. Of course there was a draft during the Vietnam War. Did the country have the same perception of the draft as they did during WW2?

When Mr. Byers shows up for enlistment he and three other men have been rejected and classified as "4-F". While initially crushed by this news, since as Mr. Byers explains, due to his money he has always been able to get what he wants, he decides to turn the tables on the army. So, the army doesn't want him huh? Fine! He doesn't want the army! Mr. Byers decides to create his own army and head to the front lines.

Mr. Byers recruits the other men classified as "4-F" which includes nightclub comic Sid Hackle (Jan Murray), a timid, cowardly husband, Peter (Steve Franken) and a liberal, hippy type Terry (Dack Rambo), each of whom has their own reason for desperately wanting to enlist, in order to escape their complicated lives. Sid owes money to a gangster, Peter feels like a walking doormat for his  dominating wife and Terry has impregnated two women.

Perhaps out of a sense of patriotic pride, also joining Mr. Byers and his "soldiers" will be Mr. Byers' personal secretary Finkel (John Wood) and his driver, Lincoln (professional baseball player Willie Davis). Their plan is to head to Italy, where Mr. Byers bears a striking resemblance a Nazi general, Eric Kesselring (also Mr. Lewis). Mr. Byers will impersonate the general and order a retreat allowing the Americans to advance forward after being positioned in the same spot for four months.

At this point in the story one could assume "Which Way To The Front?" is Mr. Lewis' comedic version of "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), also about a rag-tag group of unfit soldiers on a WW2 mission. Mr. Lewis also seems to be tipping his hat to the Charlie Chaplin classic "The Great Dictator" (1940), a WW2 satire where our little tramp friend resembles an Adolph Hitler-ish dictator.

As in most comedies, events don't go as our hero plans and soon Mr. Byers, still impersonating General Kesselring, finds himself involved in a secret assassination attempt to kill Adolph Hitler, a plan which was originally devised by the real General Kesselring. Now "Which Way To The Front?" seems to be a bit ahead of its time as it proceeds Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (2009), another movie about a group of rag-tag soldiers on a mission to assassinate Hitler.

Almost nothing about "Which Way To The Front?" seems typical for a Jerry Lewis comedy. Mr. Lewis almost exclusively directed movies which have the message of being true to one's self. In his comedies his "man-child" character is misunderstood by the public in which he encounters but by the end of each movie the characters come around and appreciate the prat falling fool because he is genuine. They cannot change him.

"Which Way To The Front?" is taking the opposite approach. Yes, there are characters trying to change Mr. Byers, telling him his plan will never work, but Mr. Byers fights on. He is determined. He will not allow others to change him. Instead Mr. Byers wants to change others.

This makes the Mr. Byers characters, at first, not the typical character Mr. Lewis would play. The character has much more confidence than Mr. Lewis' typical characters. In fact, in another movie one would expect Mr. Lewis to play the timid husband character of this movie, Peter. But, because Mr. Lewis is playing the lead character, Mr. Byers, he does eventually slip and fall a lot, which feels out of place for the character. Mr. Byers was not established as this type of character. He is a take charge kind of guy. Not a man easily intimidated and prone to falling down a lot. What a different movie this would have been if say Mr. Lewis would have cast his friend Tony Curtis, for example, in the lead.

The argument can be made however that without Mr. Lewis in the lead "Which Way To The Front?" would not be funny. It is Mr. Lewis' antics which will bring a smile to the faces of those who see it. There is some truth to that. Who can do "Jerry Lewis shtick" better than Jerry Lewis?

And "Which Way To The Front?" is funny. Mr. Lewis is out to fiercely denigrate Hitler and his Nazi supporters, nearly at the same level Mel Brooks did in his comedy "The Producers" (1968). The Hitler presented in "Which Way To The Front?" (played by Sidney Miller) is not exactly the hippie seen in "The Producers" played by Dick Shawn but it is not a stretch to suggest one was influenced by the other.

"Which Way To The Front?" may at times go for the easy laugh and that may bother some viewers who may suggest the humor in the movie is repetitive. I have a hunch that people who say this either are not Jerry Lewis fans to begin with and / or are not familiar with his humor. To say Jerry Lewis engages in broad comedy, goes for easy laughs and "milks" situations is the same as saying ice cream is cold.

Mr. Lewis also takes a different approach to the film's visual style. Mr. Lewis usually has plenty of long shots and over head angles in his movies. He is also not shy about shooting several close-ups of his face. In "Which Way To The Front?" Mr. Lewis abandons this aesthetic. The one distinguishing trait of the movie is prior to transitioning from one scene to the next Mr. Lewis will freeze the frame. This gives the movie a look similar to that of a television show.

The interesting question to ask is why did Jerry Lewis want to make this movie to begin with? Was he inspired by what Mel Brooks did in "The Producers"? Did Mr. Lewis want to make a subtle commentary on the Vietnam War? Was Mr. Lewis eager to tell a story about World War II? Following "Which Way To The Front?" Mr. Lewis would have told a dramatic story, the infamous "The Day The Clown Cried" (1972), the story of a clown imprisoned at a concentration camp, who is used to lure children to the gas chambers. Of course that movie never saw the light of day as Mr. Lewis has said he is ashamed of the quality of the film and will never allow it to be seen. But, these two movies, back to back, would suggest an interest Mr. Lewis had in WW2.

The movie did not do well at the box-office, which was the trend starting with the last movie Mr. Lewis made for Paramount, "The Family Jewels" (1965). This coupled with the experience Mr. Lewis had while filmming "The Day The Clown Cried" caused him to not release a movie for 11 years. By which time his audience had left him behind as the comedy landscape had drastically changed from the time when Mr. Lewis was at his peak.

Audiences are over reacting in their dismissal of "Which Way To The Front?". It is something different from Jerry Lewis, even in its visual aesthetic, but the public should not considered it a disaster. Granted, it may not be the most influential movie Jerry Lewis directed but it is hardly something to be embarrassed over. The movie has its bright spots which made me laugh. It has moments when it makes social points as well. Clearly though "Which Way To The Front?" is for Jerry Lewis fans only. It appears to lack a cross-over appeal to those who find his antics childish and not funny.

Does a man falling down, tripping all over his words and fighting Nazis sound funny to you? Then move on up to the front lines!