The Ladies Man (1961)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jerry Lewis

By Roderick Heath

Jerry Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin had terminated in 1956 as Lewis increasingly dominated their movie collaborations. For every filmgoer who found Lewis a testing presence, there seemed to be another who adored him, and his slapstick talents were so spectacular, so percussive in their cinematic impact that Martin, for all his suave, romantic stature, was increasingly out of place beside Lewis’ one-man-band vibrancy. Herein lay an irony, a strange victory for a man seemingly cast by life as ridiculous second-fiddle, as the Jewish impersonator of male America’s neurotic, semi-infantile Atom-age id outpaced the slick Italianate mouthpiece of its ego. Lewis gave the classic figure of the farceur an added, potent dose of modernist mania, but was nonetheless obviously in the screen tradition of film comedy heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, so it might have seemed logical that soon enough Lewis would follow them and begin making his own movies. Lewis the director made his first foray with The Bellboy (1960), a modestly crafted debut shot in black and white, that allowed him nonetheless to articulate his abilities both behind and before the camera through a basic premise, casting himself as a bellboy romping through the halls of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the manifold rooms and jobs presenting him with a gallery of types to monkey with, from sexpots to celebrities. For his second project, Lewis exploited a higher budget and his own swiftly developing skills to attempt a similar concept in a radically different fashion. A script initially penned by Mel Brooks was mostly thrown out and rewritten by Lewis himself. Rather than utilise a real location, Lewis built a vast set to exploit, and The Ladies Man arrived as a monumental act of vaudevillian chutzpah mating with authentic cinematic vision in weird and intricate ways.

Lewis’ comedy style of course was never for everyone. Rather than the unflappable everymen Chaplin and Keaton played or the bewildered outsider trying to be sociable Tati affected, Lewis’ characters were usually closer in mould to the persona of Harpo Marx, if representing a slightly later stage of development, having achieved verbal facility. The opening scenes of The Ladies Man work as both a challenge and a sensitising process to the meaning of Lewis’ sense of comedy, as he portrays his hero Herbert Heebert, a young man just graduating from college, who is broken-hearted by the spectacle of seeing his girlfriend in the arms of another man, and so vows to his parents that from now on he’s going to entirely give up on women and love. The expenditure of jokes and precepts here comes on with such speed and dexterity it’s hard to process. The short, gangly, excitable nerd finds himself outpaced by a towering, anonymous jock – Lewis cuts off the man’s head in his framing, reducing him to a body that says all – in a basic riff on Lewis’ familiar persona as a man all too aware he hasn’t been cast by nature or society as the star. Lewis mediates this through the acting and film styles he quotes, as Herbert’s distraught reaction mocks the hammy affectations of Yiddish melodrama and silent film, whilst also converting them into a strange kind of android body language. This collides with a third level of referencing as Herbert runs to his mother, who is played by Lewis himself in drag: the stock figure of the Yiddisher mamma is given a Freudian makeover and a dose of drag chic as Herbert’s instantly born neurosis sees him turning inwards in a hall of psychological mirrors.

The very first shot of the film depicts the sign outside Herbert’s home burg of Milltown, with a hand reaching into frame to shakily revise the population count, and a statement underneath that describes the town as “a very nervous little community.” Lewis segues into a tracking shot moving through the quiet streets of Milltown, following a little old lady as she makes a morning promenade, only to stumble and set off a chain of accidents amongst her townsfolk, all laid out in their tight little boxes, the shops and stalls and vehicles on the main street. Lewis here offers both a kind of explanatory history not only for Herbert but his persona in general, the product of a cordoned little society defined by nerve-induced clumsiness – there really are more like him at home – whilst also hinting this is now an existential state of being. The slightest nervous tic and misplaced motion can disturb a delicately poised equilibrium and set this entire little universe in chaos. Although The Ladies Man eschews overt social satire, it’s not so hard to see why many commentators since have seen him as a true poet laureates of the Cold War’s first phase. The Ladies Man somehow manages to point the way forward to the way Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) would take up the idea of marrying the banana peel gag to unstoppable exigencies of nuclear war to illustrate the psychic landscape of the age. Lewis deals with the symptoms as well as the cause, and mixes in other aspects of cool mockery played as harum-scarum farce too, especially the constantly arousing and frustrating tease of mass media evolving in the era of television.

Lewis also finds a way here of giving his perversity as a performer, the total stylisation of his comedy method, a quality of depth gained precisely by rejecting depth, like a Japanese painter – an aspect of Lewis’ art echoed by the way he utilises the massive set that will soon be the playground for Herbert’s gradual recovery, which opens before Lewis’s camera in a manner reminiscent at various points of the theatrical stage and ukiyo-e-like illustrative sprawl. Herbert is presented for the early part of the film as a series of totally contrived and excessive gestures, screaming and running off from women, curling up in a foetal ball when someone advises him there’s “always hope,” and generally reacting like a man-sized mass of hysterical tension. The basic concept of The Ladies Man offers up a ripe male fantasy – a hapless nebbish finds himself in the centre of a veritable harem of lovelies – that’s the basic stuff of sex farce, whilst also making such sarcastic sport of it, the fantasy borders on cruel instead. Lewis takes on another stock character, that of the spiky, lovelorn woman who’s sworn off men, and inverts the gender expectations. Herbert’s anxiety and mistrust of women leads him to constantly attempt to leave what’s supposed to be the average Joe’s idea of dream gig.

After answering a number of job advertisements that see prospective female employers seeing him instantly as a potential love object, Herbert is attracted by a sign in a window of a boarding house calling for a “young bachelor” to apply within. Venturing inside, he’s put at ease to see this time the woman interviewing him, Katie (Kathleen Freeman) is middle-aged and matronly, and when he makes Katie teary with his tale of woe, she presents him as an ideal candidate to be the new houseboy to the owner of the house, retired operatic star Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel). Both Helen and Katie suppress the truth about their establishment out of a peculiar brand of therapeutic intent, for the boarding house is filled to the brim with comely young ladies. Herbert’s arrival in the boarding house sees him installed in a bedroom where appearances are deceiving. A bunk bed proves to be a magnet for the boyish savant, but the top tier proves to be false, and then the lower one also gives out on him, resulting in Herbert slowly sinking into the bed frame in a manner at once utterly hilarious and curiously heartbreaking. By morning he’s glimpsed simply as a blunt posterior jutting out of the frame. Around his obliviously sleeping self, the boarding house comes to life to the tune of a swinging jazz trombone, played by one of the resident girls, who provides musical accompaniment to the morning rituals of her housemates.

Although Lewis’ famous vanity as a performer-director is often evinced throughout The Ladies Man, this sequence is the core set-piece of the film and doesn’t involve him at all except in negative inference, as Herbert sleeps in blissful ignorance that his greatest nightmare is looming all about him. The awakening household is choreographed in sinuous and slippery fashion, the women riding from bed and doing their morning routines of exercise and make-up before slipping out into the halls in jive-hipped ranks, a sultry radio voice rapping out cool missives to get the day started. This sequence is reminiscent of the musical accumulation of street sounds at the outset of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), whilst also playing out in manner that can only be likened to a hip be-bop artist’s deconstruction of a big band tune in relation to the flashy, filled-out musical sequences of rival directors of the time like Vincente Minnelli. Indeed, the comedy of The Ladies Man always feels like bebop, skipping when you expect it to stride and ambling when you expect it to gallop, hitting a sour note and then pivoting into a passage of delirium on a dime.

Lewis extends the musical motif as Helen leads the girls in choral greeting of Herbert when he first claps eyes on the dining room crammed with breakfasting tenants. Helen’s background as a singer helps explain the boarding house’s rich trove, as it’s plainly a natural way-station for girls chasing performing careers. Herbert is put through a training process that sees his natural bafflement by the physical world given free and calamitous reign as he shatters priceless décor and accidentally unleashes a prize collection of butterflies – a priceless joke of pure surrealism (one of Brooks’ few touches left in the film, apparently) as the pinioned and seemingly very dead insects spring out of their frame when Herbert opens the glass over them, only to then return and snap back into place at a whistle. But the ladies are still eager to have Herbert around because they’re desperate to keep someone in the houseboy job, and at Helen’s encouragement in the belief Herbert only wants to be wanted and will be cured of his misogyny this way, the tenants weigh him down with requests to perform odd tasks and chores, which Herbert works up all his pluck and nerve to fulfil. Such tasks include play-acting opposite one perpetually rehearsing actress who pivots from seductive to friendly to face-slapping abusiveness within seconds, and trying to feed the house’s unseen but apparently monstrous pet Baby. Herbert’s attempts to feed Baby, which releases the roars of a lion from its private room, see him try and feed it first with a tub full of milk that gets spat back in his face in a torrent of white, and then with a huge leg of beef that gets swiftly gnawed to the bone. Baby not so subtly represents Herbert’s terror of, well, the pussy, a ravening monster hidden behind a door that he can only satisfy with spectacular and abasing effort.

Throughout his life, over and above his sometimes prickly nature and gauche public statements, Lewis was dogged by accusations of egocentrism and self-indulgence, qualities that seemed to stand in stark contrast to his officially boyish, even self-demeaning comedy act. And yet it’s hard to deny The Ladies Man gives its auteur scope to show off in highly impressive fashion, particularly when you consider some of the people who call themselves comic actors today. To watch The Ladies Man is chiefly to watch Lewis working hard throughout, trying to show off every facet of himself and his talent, whether it be hanging upside-down from a door-frame or balancing on a mantelpiece whilst trying to clean or managing to totally destroy a collection of precious glassware, and to watch this is to see a great comic actor at the top of his game. The motif of work is a telling obsession of Lewis, his interest in what his characters work at and his love of building his comedy around it. This topic became the central motif one his later films, Hardly Working (1981), where life takes him through a series of brief spells of employment constantly stymied by clumsiness and happenstance – a film that was also a sour charting of his own waning career and obligation to find new ways to make things happen, looking forward to a last decade of his directing career mostly expended on random TV episodes. His interest in the job of work as locus of comedy was also once again clearly following Chaplin and Keaton, whose heroes were also similarly defined by their travails in trying to hold down employment and stumbling from life phase to life phase in such a manner. Ironically for an artist who so often enjoyed burning natural orders to the ground, Lewis celebrates the work ethic in many dimensions, whilst also exploiting it for the ore of his comedy, noting like Chaplin and Keaton how such shifting scenes provoke new and ingenious problems and solutions from a nimble protagonist.

Lewis’ approach combines elements of both comics, but also defines itself against them. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Herbert is a stranger in a strange land. Lewis’ approach couldn’t be more different to Keaton’s even as both were sublime physical performers who knew how to direct themselves. Keaton’s stoicism in the face of a universe constantly attempting to destroy him cast him as the perfect American, whilst Lewis is his perverse and impish twin, constantly close to tearing apart a settled order by dint of his discomfort within it. Lewis’s sarcastic disavowal of both men’s variations on the sad clown persona is also constantly evinced throughout, as is his contempt for a certain brand of gooey, platitudinous sentiment, one that contextualises his approach to comedy, for he constantly pushes his sarcasm into the realm of physically enacted hyperbole. Lewis pushes his cheek and joker’s license to the point of ending the film with a title card reading, “We wish to thank the United States Armed Forces…(But only if they came to see the picture.)” And yet Lewis zeroes in on the quality that defines his understanding his characterisation when Herbert converses with one character on the subject of loneliness, a state that can subsist even in the midst of many others, to be “alone with noise.” The interludes of outright earnestness that usually punctuate his works, like an underlining of the moral of the story delivered towards the end of The Ladies Man, seem jarring in their contrast to this cynical streak, but really work in adjunct to the hyperbolic quality, a winnowing down of the point to a basic epigram even as the true energies of life explode every which way. Lewis’ work with Frank Tashlin had also left a powerful imprint on his method. Like Tashlin, Lewis’ engagement with the artifice of cinema in the context of comedy, where any disrespect of otherwise rigid rules of popular narrative cinema was permissible, found ebullient release in its sense of freedom and delight in ignoring traditional narrative flow. The lack of a developed story structure in The Ladies Man is an aspect that might strike some as a flaw and others as one of its most mischievous and subversive qualities. Although it stumbles through a kind of story to a form of conclusion, The Ladies Man is more a series of blackout comedy sketches strung together by a central conceit.

In the same mode as its grand central set, the dramatic architecture is more psychological and emblematic than traditionally narrative, and aspects of the boarding house’s random access portals that make a new form of sense in the age of computing and the internet. Many saw Lewis’ most famous work as director, The Nutty Professor (1963), as a travesty of Lewis’ relationship with Martin. Whilst that was probably an aspect of Lewis’ intentions, it misses the degree to which the two performers’ act had always been a purposefully dichotomous creation, two halves of a functioning human being split into two bodies, an idea The Nutty Professor simply made more literal. The Ladies Man uses the same essential idea whilst commenting less on the shape of the male ego than the bewildering threat of woman to it, fragmenting many possible images of femininity, all given designations like Vitality, Hypochondriac, Intellect, and Sexy Pot. Herbert is repeatedly warned not to venture into the innermost sanctum of the kind, the room of Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis), and just like the bride of Bluebeard Herbert is afflicted with the kind of curiosity that must eventually take him across the fateful threshold.

Pierrot finds his perfect Pierrette in the form of Fay (Pat Stanley), a wannabe actress who’s a comparatively shy and unschooled figure amongst all these other flashy and accomplished ladies, one who unveils an empathic look when Helen explains Herbert’s hang-up, and connects with him as another lonely and outmatched outsider in the big city who daily has to face the rejection Herbert conscientiously avoids. Not only does Fay bring out Herbert’s calmer side but also offers him a human project, and the otherwise frantically clumsy man suddenly finds his mojo helping Fay master various arts like playing the trombone and jive dancing. Fay eventually gives her fellow tenants a chewing out over their rather too ready willingness to exploit Helen’s advice and make Herbert a flunky. Meanwhile the household around Herbert offers not merely a bounty he’s incapable of taking advantage of but a psychological landscape of compartmentalised hang-ups mediated through pop cultural images, as Lewis’ deconstruction of his own hysterical sexism as matched to an exploration of his own ways of looking. Lewis’ greatest coup in depicting this aspect of himself comes when Herbert is confronted the by the massed ladies in the boarding house dining room. Where Martin would’ve grinned like all his Christmases had come at once, Herbert runs screaming from the room, and Lewis cuts to a long shot that sees Herbert seeming to split apart into multiple, madcap incarnations running up and down the stairs and corridors of the house, his character split into pieces, his being literally disintegrating in the face of all that taunts him and tantalises.

The elaborate set that Lewis spent a great deal of time, effort, and money on fashioning – at a reputed $1 million cost – is as much a player in the film as any of the actors, a multi-tiered, multi-dimensional stage for Lewis and his cast romp around in. Lewis constantly reminds the viewer this is a creation of theatrical artifice, even contriving, as a television crew invades it, to let the viewer see the elaborate, messy, cacophonous business that goes into creating the façade of well-oiled entertainment. In his next film, The Errand Boy, peeking behind the scenes of Hollywood infrastructure became the overt theme. Here, much as the windows in Rear Window (1954) project the hero’s hopes and anxieties for a looming life of marriage and commitment, the boarding house becomes an open gallery, bedrooms without walls and mirrors without glass. All of Lewis’s actress crushes are actualised, and a panoply of Hollywood stars processed into a certain set of codified behaviours, in various impersonations, as performers offer jokey impressions of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Carol Channing. Traubel’s Helen maintains an obvious sense of connection with type of dowager dames Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers, only Lewis offers her the foil not of Groucho’s patented demimonde shysters but a gawky man-boy thrilled by rather than disaffected towards the apparatus of pop culture. Other women in the house offer various types and traits, from rowdy rock-‘n’-rollers to glamour pusses to bespectacled intellectuals. Lewis’s worst nightmare of being infantalised before such a bevy is swiftly fulfilled as, after protesting he never eats breakfast, is stuck in a high chair and spoon-fed by Katie.

Lewis extends the game of emasculation as Herbert in the course of his job encounters the boyfriends of some of the women in the house, including a scarred and fearsome heavy, Willard C. Gainsborough (Buddy Lester), and a man famous for playing the same types, George Raft. Herbert is intimidated by Gainsborough, who bosses him about and warns him off paying any attentions to his girl. But when Herbert sits on his hat and he awkwardly attempts to restore it to shape, he steadily ruins Gainsborough’s sharp façade and his hyper-macho persona dissolves into delirious pathos, tough guy utterly defeated by a few swift and efficient revisions to his appearance. This casually brilliant piece of physical business also serves as a master class in comedy costuming, as Lewis shows the audience here a key part of his art even in the course of making hilarious comic capital from it. Raft meanwhile finds himself frustrated when he can’t convince Herbert he’s really himself, failing the crucial test of reproducing his own coin-spinning trick from Scarface (1932). Instead obliged to prove his identity by demonstrating his dancing skills, takes several turns around the parlour with Herbert in his arms, their turns lit with a spotlight. Lewis’ nods to movie history and the complications of a movie star’s projected persona here pivot on Raft’s willing conspiracy to mock his own aura of bulletproof machismo and readiness to show off his gift for dance, a gift he shared with James Cagney and was perhaps long frustrated not to utilise more on screen, now pressed into service in Lewis’ games with gender, offered not with overt mockery but instead as interlude of witty, oddly romantic grace.

As if to let the viewer know that he’s well aware of his own absurd streak even if he can’t quite conquer it, Lewis makes his tendency towards attention-hogging becomes a major component of the film’s last third, worked out with peerless comedic invention. The boarding house is invaded by a TV crew for an episode of a show called Up Your Street – a spoof of Ed Murrow’s roving interview show Person to Person, complete with a gaunt and intensely serious host constantly hidden behind a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. Herbert turns into an instant camera hog who desperately tries to stay in the camera frame whilst Helen is interviewed, at first hovering by her side and then scampering into the rear of the shot. Lewis makes fun of his own reputation for loudness as he blows a TV sound man out of his seat whilst helping him test his microphone setting, inspiring the sound technician to avenge himself only to soon be subjected to the same aural pummelling from one of his colleagues. Herbert also appears in a selection of pre-recorded performances he and the tenants have thrown together to show off their talents and celebrate the ethic of show business, the common cause of most of the people in the boarding house. Herbert’s antic enthusiasm and sparked desire to get in the spotlight also has the positive effect of giving some exposure to the women as well, even as they find they’ve bitten off just a little more than they can chew, like a frantic tap-dance and a prissy ballet routine.

The film’s apotheosis of strangeness, and of Lewis’ unique blend of the farcical, metaphorical, and aesthetic, comes when Herbert finally ventures into Miss Cartilage’s room, a surreal space with melting white walls and a veiled bed. Here Miss Cartilage dangles from the ceiling in a black cocoon sack, and greets Herbert with a lusty, “Hi, honey!” as he tugs down the covering on her face, revealing a deathly white pancake of make-up and a pair of yawing, red-lined lips. Suddenly The Ladies Man is skirting the edges of a horror film with Miss Cartilage as man-eating spider-woman whilst Lewis also somehow weaves this into a setting more like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers art deco musical fantasy. Lewis tips a nod to Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) in the sight of Cartilage withdrawing behind the veiling curtains of her bed and reclining stiffly in mimicry of Boris Karloff’s mate-mesmerising villain in that film. Cartilage pursues Herbert around in a chase that is also a dance, to the blaring strains of Harry James’ big-band orchestra which magically manifests on her balcony. Here Lewis and the film make ultimate entry into a rhapsody of sickly erotic delirium under cover of spry absurdist effrontery. The film’s twinned punch-lines must inevitably involve Baby, as the monstrous beast is released only to prove a small dog with a mighty roar. But just as he’s convinced to stay at the boarding house and give up his attempts to leave, Herbert is confronted by a real lion strutting through the dining room, one that sets all the women scurrying in panic and which drives Herbert to scream for his mother again. Though he may finally be regaining his ease around women and even have love in his future, Herbert will still have to learn to tame the beast one day.

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