|The Ladies' Man (1961): Another Movie That Makes Me Laugh|
|Part 3: Lewis, Loose and Loopy|
It's widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies' Man.
- There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
- At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
- In the movie's running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal's quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
- In a ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell "Cut!" to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It's obviously a blooper, but the ballerina's stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.
I enjoy this looseness. What's important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.
Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the "C" is for "Killer"). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man's hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard's head. Lester's blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster's hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.
The camera is shooting over Lewis' shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester's performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard's forehead. He tells the man he's removing the thread. Willard deadpans, "That's my eyebrow." Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.
All of this action is quite hilarious -- but, hey, we're looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!
With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the "fourth wall" between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.
So what if easily corrected mistakes surface in this movie? So what if Jerry was a 35-year-old man playing, at most, a 22-year-old kid? So what if Herbert shifts wildly from bungling nebbish to brash rebel to worldly big brother and back and forth?
The Ladies' Man is not about plot or reality -- that's all window dressing. It's about entertainment and dazzlement. It's a star vehicle packaged to showcase a singular personality, not unlike the films of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant, and scores of others from the Golden Age of Hollywood. We continue to see this packaging today with icons, such as Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood.
Some of Jerry's best bits in The Ladies' Man, ironically, are not his over-the-top trademarks; instead, they are those simple instances when the unexpected visits him, rather than the character catapulting the chaos. Witness the bunk beds, the Welenmelon portrait, and the butterflies segments. These gags are silent movie worthy, pure cinema, magical and merry.
Of course, if you want noise, let me direct you to the opening graduation scene. It contains one of the greatest star entrances in motion pictures ever, short, funny, and bursting with Jerry. If I were editing his shamefully overdue Oscar tribute, I'd open with this clip. I won't give away the gag, but "I'm very glad that you choose me."
In case I've failed to encapsulate the charm and relish of this movie, perhaps, I should tell you what happened as I rewatched the film this afternoon.
When Herbert, "that skinny unglued crewcut cat," arrives on the set before the big Welenmelon broadcast, we see he's got Sunday school hair and his good suit is far too small and his white socks are too white. Beaming with pride and anticipation, he jauntily approaches the hubbub, swing music blaring in accompaniment.
It's a tiny, wonderful moment. It's Jerry being Jerry. My eyes welled up. Even though I'd seen The Ladies' Man over 20 times, I found myself crying, grinning with joy.
I'm very glad that I choose this.
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Images from The Ladies' Man Merchandising Manual and Pressbook