Jerry Lewis turns eighty-one today.
Has popular entertainment ever produced a more polarizing talent? For the longest time, people either thought Lewis was a genius or they hated him with an irrational passion. These days--maybe it's an elder statesman thing--he seems to be somewhat revered; when he shows up on talk shows, he's afforded some measure of respect, if not quite the adulation he clearly feels he deserves.
Lewis' massive ego probably kept him from being the truly great director he sometimes seemed meant to be. If you only watch one Jerry Lewis movie in your life--one too many for most people I know--it should be 1961's The Ladies' Man.
Clearly Lewis was given freedom to do anything he wanted here, and as the title suggests, it is also the source of his "Hey, La-ay-dy!" catchphrase. He plays a handyman at a girl's school (I was going to say "bumbling handyman," but it kind of goes without saying), and there is no real plot, only a premise, a thin thread on which to hang gags.
Which would be fine, but the movie is largely laugh-free. Amusing at times (Lewis' character is named Herbert H. Heebert, and how can you not love that?), but not funny, which becomes particularly painful since Lewis leaves pauses during some bits, presumably to be filled with an audience's laughter. When there is no laughter, there is only cruel silence.
But. Lewis' staging of the gags, his formal conception of the entire film (shot entirely on one massive, ingeniously designed set) is often brilliant. His talent was very real, but he was so convinced of that talent that he wants you to admire it, too, and so lingers over certain scenes when he really needs to pick up the pace. A comedian should know timing is everything--and make no mistake, back when he was teamed with Dean Martin, Lewis was absolutely brilliant, as good as any comedian who ever lived--but every single movie Lewis ever directed is seriously flawed, and if you listen to the commentary track on The Ladies' Man DVD, you'll know why: Jerry is more concerned with building a monument to himself than acknowledging the contributions of others, contributions that might have helped the movie, might have helped Lewis make a genuinely funny movie instead of a brilliantly-engineered stiff.