I’ve referenced both here on the blog and in other venues on the Internets that my introduction to classic movies as a tyke involved many of the great movie comedians. I went ga-ga over the silent clowns like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd…and later moved on to those funsters who made solid reputations in talkies like the Marx Brothers, the Stooges, Laurel & Hardy and W.C. Fields. As a young tad, I was also a big fan of Jerry Lewis…though admittedly, my ardor for his cinematic antics has cooled over the years.
I’m not one of those folks who sniff “The only people who like Jerry Lewis are the French”; I’m a huge fan of the films he made with Dean Martin (and feel that Dino often gets short shrift in them—since in many instances he was funnier than his partner), and some of Jerome’s solo vehicles can produce much merriment—usually the ones in which Frank Tashlin directed (I like Rock-a-Bye Baby and The Disorderly Orderly…but my all-time fave is It’$ Only Money). Last Thursday night, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (as Rick Brooks colors in another section of the thermometer in red) paid tribute to Jer with a few of his vehicles, notably The Nutty Professor (1963).
Professor often gets singled out as Lewis’ best solo effort, in terms of the auteur thing (starring, directing, co-writing, etc.)—I’m in the “funny peculiar not funny ha-ha” camp with the film, but I can’t deny the movie doesn’t fascinate me. Its TCM showing featured Stacia fave Ben Mankiewicz quizzing its star as to just who was the inspiration for the Mr. Hyde character in the movie, Buddy Love. Jerry gets asked that a lot—was he based on Dean Martin, etc. It seems as if the man has a different response every time he’s asked the question…when the answer is pretty much in front of us: Buddy Love is the darker side of Jerry Lewis—the guy who once berated a lady in the audience on the Phil Donahue show when she challenged him about the MDA telethon and believes comediennes aren’t funny. (Lewis at one time refused to let any of his kids see Professor if you think I’m joking about this.)
But this post isn’t about Professor—it’s about The Big Mouth (1967), a comedy Lewis made for Columbia (his second for the studio after leaving his longtime Paramount home in 1966) that admittedly was a favorite of mine as a child. Well, maybe I need to qualify that—not so much a favorite, more like a movie I watched quite often…and that might be because I didn’t understand the damn thing. So I taped it off TCM when I saw it was on the schedule, surmising that a revisit was in order.
Jerry plays a seemingly normal character named Gerald Clamson, who, while enjoying a two-week vacation in San Diego, manages to reel in a frogman with his fishing gear. He assumes it’s a frogman—the individual is wearing a wet suit, flippers, swim mask, etc. The frogman informs Clamson of a cache of stolen diamonds hidden around a nearby hotel, and that his rescuer needs to hie himself to safety because the frogman is being pursued by gangsters. It is very important that at no time Gerald unmask the mysterious individual, lest he discover that the guy is Syd Valentine, a mobster who could be his identical twin. Otherwise the movie would be five minutes long.
Three henchmen—Studs (Buddy Lester), Rex (Charlie Callas) and Gunner (Vern Rowe)—in the employ of a racketeer named Thor (Harold J. Stone) arrive on the scene shortly after Clamson heads off to contact the police (who refuse to believe the tale of the injured Syd, by the way), and make certain that Syd is really most sincerely dead by gunning him down with weaponry. Here’s the problem: each one of the henchies eventually comes into contact with Gerald later in the movie, and upon doing so suffer nervous breakdowns—Gunner becomes convinced he’s a dog, Studs loses all his teeth and is transformed into a mumbling Larry Fine, and Rex develops a noticeable stutter. Much pretend hilarity results from all this.
Clamson arrives at the hotel, but is refused a room after injuring the foot of the head desk clerk (Del Moore). Why any hotel would turn away a paying guest is up to you to decide, but Gerald must resort to subterfuge by disguising himself as a tweedy academic who sounds strangely like Professor Julius Kelp. In pursuit of the diamonds, Clamson encounters both a rival mob and a sinister Chinese warlord (Leonard Stone) who answers to “Fong.” On the plus side of the ledger, Clamson romances a pretty air hostess (Susan Bay) who becomes his prize at the end of the film (curiously, he nor anyone else ever locates the diamonds).
I’ll say this in support of Big Mouth—after watching it the other day, I was finally able to understand the plot. That it’s an idiotic one probably doesn’t help much, and though some consider the movie to be one of Lewis’ better later pictures (Leonard Maltin gives it two-and-a-half stars) I sat through the darn thing completely stone faced. The only times I chuckled were when Callas was onscreen (doing the shtick that made him in nightclubs and on talk shows, politically incorrect though it may be)—I always liked Charlie; I was a big Switch fan—and seeing Florence Lake (from yesterday’s Doris Day(s)) as a little old lady accosted by Charlie and Harold in the process of chasing Jerry.
Lewis and co-writer Bill Richmond appear to be hoping to duplicate their success with Professor on Big Mouth: Jerry does the Kelp character, and several actors from Professor appear (Moore, Lester, Med Flory, etc.)—and the movie also recreates one of Nutty’s most memorable sight gags (Kelp is incapable of holding up a set of barbells and his arms stretch like Silly Putty to the floor) with a bit where Clamson is trying to board a boat yet is stuck on the pier. Big Mouth doesn’t have as strong a plot as its predecessor, and there doesn’t seem to be any flow to its narrative; many of Lewis’ films often seem to stop for the purpose of a weak gag (one of his “comeback” vehicles, 1983’s Cracking Up, is a good example of this). I don’t remember the person who said it, but someone once opined that Jerry’s movies would have been much stronger had he been afforded the opportunity to make two-reelers like Chaplin, Keaton, etc. Frank Tashlin, despite his obsession with women’s hooters, was a good director for Jerry because of his previous experience directing animated cartoons.
Fellow Mountaineer Frank De Vol is on hand to explain the confusing plot to the audience, and it’s a shame that the man who made me laugh as the deadpan Myron Bannister on I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster has precious little to work with. There are other TV veterans in Mouth: Leonard Stone, of course, and Jeannine Riley, the first and best of the Billie Jo’s on Petticoat Junction (I always liked Riley’s interpretation of the character—she wasn’t afraid to be selfish and a bit self-centered). Jeannine plays Stone’s moll (Bambi Berman) in the movie, but I was kind of rooting for her to wind up with Jerry because I do love me some bad girls. Susan Bay is pretty blah as the leading lady…plus, I’m always wary of any credit that reads “Introducing So-and-so” when so-and-so (in this case, Bay), already had a pretty extensive resume guesting on television shows (Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Perry Mason, etc.). (Bay is now married to Leonard Nimoy; she was at one time betrothed to John “Sergeant Enright” Schuck.)
Looking back, it’s not hard to comprehend why I was such a fan of Jerry Lewis in my youth; the man was the epitome of arrested development, who garnered big laughs being the naughty kid—this is why even as he was making those terrible films in the 1960s his biggest audience remained those of a younger crowd. (It’s the same way with the Stooges and Abbott & Costello…though my appreciation of them has grown considerably as my appreciation for Jerry has diminished.) Lewis eventually matured and demonstrated he could do great things; I think he’s sensational in both The King of Comedy (1983) and the underrated Cookie (1989), and as several folks have pointed out in the comments section he was first-rate in that Wiseguy story arc as clothier Eli Sternberg. (I also liked him on Law & Order: SVU when he played Munch’s uncle…my parents…not so much.) But you know the familiar Thomas Wolfe refrain—so I was a bit saddened to learn The Big Mouth just doesn’t play as funny as it once did.