Jerry Lewis Vs. Dolemite
By Mike White
As a student of film theory, not a day passes without feeling the influence of French film criticism. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that some of the ideas put forth by the writers of Postif and Cahiers du Cinema were once considered radical since they are taken so for granted today.
In a period where American films were primarily created through the studio system, the notion of specific directors marking their work with a particular visual style was scoffed at and openly denied by credible American critics while their French counter-parts held fast to this auteur theory. The French critics had been studying the works of American film makers in the Cinematheque for years, noticing similarities among the works of notable directors such as Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Orson Welles as well as "fringe" directors who churned out B-movies that were made under a less watchful eye. In fact, if it wasn't for French film critics, the names of several notable directors would be foreign to our lips; Edgar G. Ulmer, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Raoul Walsh, Jerry Lewis, etc.
Laugh if you will (or don't, as is the more popular option), but Jerry Lewis was highly regarded by the creators of the Nouvelle Vague. And, after much deliberation and study, I'd have to say that the celebration of his work was rightly done.
All of my life, Jerry Lewis has been a bad joke. Sweaty telethons and silly schtick were the two things I most associated with him. And then to find that Jean-Luc Godard embraced his work? Forget it! But, I'm glad that I heard voices of reason from Mike Thompson's recommendation of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR to Krista Garcia's touting of THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY. I took a chance and it paid off.
From his directorial debut, THE BELLBOY, Lewis intentionally explored the medium of film and the concept of comedy. Certainly, some of his experiments failed, wrecking more havoc than a thousand Buddy Love's, but, like automobile accidents, they are painful and interesting to watch (the car crash in Godard's WEEKEND being the most notable exception to this rule).
In the prologue to THE BELLBOY, the audience is introduced to a "typical" studio executive, Jackie Mulsion, who warns us that the picture we are about to see is "a film based on fun and it's just a little different insofar as there is no story and no plot...it's actually a series of silly sequences. You might say that it's a visual diary."
From it's first jump cut I could see why the French would dig THE BELLBOY so much. Lewis did exactly what the French critics-turned-directors had already accomplished and went a step further by breaking new ground in the fields of self-reflexivity and fragmented narratives.
THE BELLBOY is seventy-two minutes of one joke after another which all take advantage of the hotel location and occupation of its title character. It's a far cry from the genre comedies of that era, harking back to the deceivingly simplistic silent comedies of prior decades.
Lewis' THE ERRAND BOY is based on the same principal, the only difference being another setting and a narrative frame that gives the appearance of a plot (albeit, a weak one). THE ERRAND BOY, with its Hollywood setting, allowed for more of Lewis' deconstruction of the film making process.
If the writers of Cahier du Cinema had had any sense in their heads in the Seventies, though, they might have seen the similarities between Jerry Lewis and another famous comedian-turned-film star, Rudy Ray Moore.
In both DOLEMITE and THE HUMAN TORNADO, Moore took every opportunity to rely on his skills as a stand-up comedian, breaking into his routines at the drop of a hat. However, like Lewis, his later films found Moore disassociating himself with his traditional image of Dolemite by toning down his act (MONKEY HUSTLE) or playing a "straight role," as he did in (AVENGING) DISCO GODFATHER.
(A)DG is a hard-hitting look at the menace of drugs to African-American society. Luckily, the audience is kind of eased into this fact with one of the most stunning opening scenes on film where Rudy shakes his groove thang and rappitates on the importance of putting one's weight "on it" at his club, the Blueberry Hill.
Things just couldn't be better with Tucker as he is the club's Man Of The Hour and Tower Of Power. He's fine, sublime, and guaranteed to blow your mind. That is, until his nephew, Bucky, blows his, getting whacked out on angel dust. Tucker tries to play by the rules and gets reinstated by the police department as one of their chief crime-fighters but, sometimes a Disco Godfather just has to take matters into his own karate-chopping hands.
Yes, you read it correctly. In (A)DG, Rudy's character is working for the Man. This is a far cry from his former "king of all players" Dolemite character. And, despite the lack of opportunity for Rudy to break into "The Signifying Monkey," he has ample time to kick ass with his high-flying fists of fury.
I suppose (A)DG could be a poignant message movie but the long, goofy scenes of Bucky's drug-induced nightmares, incredibly inept editing, continuity, and roller-disco teams in obscenely tight shorts, take away any shred of credibility that might have shown through otherwise, leaving a film more (unintentionally) humorous than either of the Dolemite movies.
Perhaps, though, it was intentional humor and Moore was exploring the concept of comedy much like Jerry Lewis did in his unreleased THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED in which he played a clown who leads children to their death in a concentration camp.
And, perhaps this apparent technical ineptitude was intentional as well, as it makes the audience painfully aware that the "rules" of film making are being broken, much in the same way that the French New Wave directors disobeyed them some twenty years earlier.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Moore never directed the films in which he starred, but they all bear his distinct mark, much like Frank Tashlin's Jerry Lewis films. (A)DG was co-written by Cliff Roquemore, who directed THE HUMAN TORNADO (see CdC #2) and PETEY WHEATSTRAW (aka THE DEVIL'S SON-IN-LAW). The script was so good that it was actually featured in the film on a clip-board that made an appearance in several scenes. Director J. Robert Wagoner did a fine job of capturing the feeling of Roquemore's oeuvre while allowing Moore to explore another facet of his ability as a performer. Moore's performance exhibits a powerfully dreamlike helplessness just as Tucker is left mad and trapped in a world of his own fantasies. (A)DG has to be seen to be believed.
The same goes for Rudy Ray Moore himself.
Seeing Rudy Ray Moore live and in person twice in my life was too much to ask for but that's what I got Saturday, September 14, 1996. Not only did I get so see Rudy doing his stand-up act again but I was privileged enough to watch his own personal copy of AVENGING DISCO GODFATHER.
Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to exchange words with Rudy this time around. If so, I would have asked the deal on the title of this movie. The old-school video box that we carried at the Blockbuster in Ann Arbor called it AVENGING DISCO GODFATHER with a cheap video CG title card that simply bore the name DISCO GODFATHER, which is the moniker given on the recently re-released version's box. To further puzzle me, the actual film print didn't have any title on it - it was cut clean out. It seems that Rudy's not Martin Scorcese as far as film preservation goes. Word from the projection booth was that heads and tails were everywhere which caused a twenty-minute delay as the projectionist worked over-time to get the reels in order.
Despite Steve and I sitting directly in front of the stage at the newly remodeled Magic Bag theater (nice wood), we had no insults hurled at us the entire evening (see CdC #4). Rudy even got so close that I could count the sequins on his star-spangled cap and vest but he over-looked me when it was time to ask an audience member if they could "make a pussy pop."
Rudy was in all of his glory. Since it's an election year, he got to break out all of his material from his "Dolemite For President" album:
"I'm not gonna lie to you like those other motherfuckers. I'm not promising you a chicken in every pot. I'm not coming to you with no heavy heart. I'm not promising to make every mother fucking thing perfectly clear. I'm not promising a god damn thing. But, if I am elected, you can bet your sweet ass I'm gonna legalize grass. And I'll have a constitution to legalize prostitution. You heard me right, I'm gonna be running this country as President Dolemite!"
I know I'd vote for him!
Rudy gave us a lot of the old favorites (The Signifying Monkey, the bus, the man fucking a cow, etc.) and even threw in some new stuff! Rudy told us a bit about his appearance on an up-coming Snoop Doggy Dog album and he played a bit of his new single, "Scratch My Back (Biiitch!)" which was on sale in the lobby along with authentic Dolemite back-scratchers and campaign buttons. Dolemite in 2000, baby!
Be sure to check out Rudy Ray Moore if he comes to your town on the campaign trail. Until then, perhaps you might be able to locate some of his new films. I've heard word of two (VIOLENT NEW BREED and VAMPIRE HOLOCAUST, both shot in Kansas City, MO) but haven't been able to find either of them at my local video store.