It’s said that, years ago, you could start a fistfight by suggesting that Alfred Hitchcock was a “real artist,” as opposed to a simple, impersonal craftsman of high-octane entertainments. On the same bubble, if you said that Jerry Lewis was an artist, and not a goof-off prankster who ran that telethon once a year, you had to be careful, or the men in white coats might come to take you away.
If saying such things no longer gets you thrown into the nuthouse, or intensive care, it’s partly because, over the last few decades, strong fortifications have been built to support the idea that an entertainer could also be an artist. It doesn’t always break that way with new films – the media machine is so busy with thousands of voices trying to jockey for position, that columnists and bloggers rarely have the time and energy to sell the notion that a director can be one thing and the other in the same movie. But a little hindsight does wonders.
(Of course, there’s also the fact that, as our consumer class grows younger and younger, and the 20th century we once regarded as a steel fortress dissolves into the mist, having an attitude one way or another about Lewis, Hitchcock, Elvis, Louis Armstrong – you see where I’m going – is gradually losing currency. But I’ll go on.)
The television programs Lewis directed after his last theatrical feature (to date), Cracking Up aka Smorgasbord, have always carried an air of mystery. I mentally tagged their IMDb listings with disbelief and, to be honest, semi-conscious dismissal. The listings seemed like a mistake: Super Force? That cornball action series that subsisted on the leavings of Knight Rider, Airwolf, and Street Hawk? The sitcom Brothers? - never heard of it.
Lewis’s last director credit to date is Boy, a segment in the six-part omnibus film for UNICEF called Comment vont les enfants (How Are the Kids?), a 1993 project that also features work by Jean-Luc Godard (with his partner and collaborator, Anne-Marie Miéville), as well as Filipino titan Lino Brocka. Since then, he’s acted semi-regularly, always memorably, in voice and live action. Now that we live in the age of YouTube, where obscure works are now available at the touch of a button, some kind souls have posted some of Jerry Lewis’s late work for free, public viewing. Here’s one.
Super Force (Season 1, Episode 15: “Water Mania”)
The premise of this short-lived, futuristic sci-fi actioner is simple: ex-astronaut Zach Stone (Ken Olandt) fights crime with a “super suit” and a “super bike” – he can shoot electromagnetic pulses and repel bullets, that sort of thing. You can drop right into the 15th episode without much context – none, even – and you’ll be fine: local business owners are threatened by the area crime syndicate. Those that don’t pay for “protection” are menaced by a hulking, baritone-voiced bully, who uses a monster truck against defenseless citizens to prove his might. Veteran entertainer (and Dean Martin Roast fixture) Jackie Gayle guest-stars as the owner of a popular theme park, Water Mania, and he’s being – you guessed it – strong-armed by the syndicate.
The tone of the show seems roughly in line with the “light seriousness” of action/sci-fi programs of its time. While “Water Mania” features none of the surreal sight gags Lewis would use to populate his theatrical features, he’s often right at home. Right from the first frame
there’s an image that recalls the toy-box house of The Ladies’ Man – the fact that the sign that says “Closed” is the only thing that throws off your hunch that the shot is a miniature would not be lost on someone like Wes Anderson.
Here’s how the opening sequence progresses. With very little to-do and a little camera flourish, Lewis turns an ordinary opener into a work that’s both comedic, cartoonish, and grave.
This big galoot, played by character actor Michael Marzella, is given a comically deep voice that sounds over-dubbed. The camera, the blocking, the Gangster Wardrobe Central outfit (grey jacket over a black turtleneck), all conspire to give the enforcer outrageous scale, in the tradition of Bluto from the Popeye comics. Comedy, of course, doesn’t stop the scene from exhibiting (with the breakage of the unicorn) and suggesting (when the enforcer threatens, directly and unambiguously, to kill the store owner’s wife) violence that dominates the episode’s tone from here on out.
Like his mentor Frank Tashlin (as well as the other masters of Termite Terrace), Lewis usually held violence and dread at bay with comic exaggeration – comforting the spectator with invincible protagonists and villains alike. When the hero of The Patsy falls out of a high window, the actor would reappear to comfort the distraught heroine. “Water Mania” most resembles One More Time, the only feature Lewis made without casting himself in the lead – Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr. play Martin & Lewis surrogates in an on-the-run-from-gangsters comedy with an edge of bitterness that distinguishes it from Lewis’s other, gentler films.
The store owner and his wife chase off the behemoth with a toy gun, but he returns later that night and destroys their store, crashing the front wall with his monster truck and detonating a grenade. A hair’s breadth too late, Super Force pursues the enforcer and attempts to immobilize the truck. Following this action sequence, as the villain speeds away, S.F. dismounts to investigate what sounds like a crying child.
It’s easier to tell when you watch the video, but the sequence, which builds from two long-ish takes (Super Force gets off his bike and searches frantically through the burning rubble; Super Force scans the vicinity for the fleeing enforcer, then flings the mechanical doll into the wreckage behind him) and a handful of close-ups, fades out on the crawling doll.
Lewis sometimes directs action. He’s no Peter Yates, but it’s hard to determine whether he’s a Bresson or just not at all well-suited to such a task. When we watch action on TV or in films, I think we’re quick to assign demerits – sometimes for visual incongruity, but more often for absence of follow-through. The viewer follows a set-up and expects the money, and when there isn’t any, well, the viewer might be right to figure the action’s a bust. Like, no good.
I don’t know – while it’s obvious that Super Force hasn’t aged well, and, in spite of (what must have seemed at the time) its high-tech veneer, it seems to be the product of tight, make-do-with-what-we-have budgets. Still, there’s meat on these bones. The editing of this sequence cuts to the enforcer in his cab – laughing maniacally, growling, laughing triumphantly. The sequence culminates with Super Force, distracted by what he thought was an injured kid, losing the trail of a giant truck. I love the moment when he tosses the mechanical doll behind him; without the aid of CGI compositing, it lands perfectly in the (revealed as he exits left frame) center of the frame, and we fade out.
Where the action stuff is often stymied by similar circumstances, Lewis leaves his imprint on this episode in countless ways. Trying to convince Jackie Gayle’s club owner to testify against the brutal gangsters, the civilian-attire-clad Zach (née Super Force) finds himself verbally fixated on the idea that Water Mania is supposed to be a “happy place!” (A phrase he uses at least three times, if I recall correctly.) Gayle’s natural, old-time-Vaudevillian charisma fuels the episode. I was struck by minor business, like when Lewis leaves the entire right side of a frame vacant for Zach to extend his pistol arm to get the drop on a couple of thugs who are threatening Gayle. Other sequences reminded me of bits and shots from Three on a Couch, Hardly Working, and Cracking Up.
And, of course, these hep cats: