The other day I took a look at an obscure work by a director who is, in my tenacious opinion, one of the greatest artists in all the cinema: Jerry Lewis. Those of you who don’t know me and/or have little reason to wander into the orbit of a curmudgeonly, druidic sect of cinephiles called “auteurists,” that sentence might seem to have been deliberately structured to end in an absurd, confusing punchline. Let me be clear: I am not joking. Neither hidden behind nor superimposed over Lewis’s legacy as a great entertainer, a great humanitarian, or (as, unfortunately, some still regard him) a crude jester specializing in sub-mental comedic hijinks, there is a largely self-taught movie director who, almost immediately with his feature debut (The Bellboy, 1960) excelled as a visual and “cinematographic” artist. His first five features (also The Ladies’ Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy) rank among the best American films of the ’60s; the very-hard-to-find Three On a Couch is also very, very great.
Through the ’60s and into the ’70s, conditions and circumstances, usually to do with health issues (an early back injury plagues Lewis to this day, and has led to numerous complications and close calls), have led Lewis away from the director’s chair. He returned with two monumental successes in 1980 and 1983: Hardly Working and Cracking Up. They were reviled by critics, but Hardly was a hit with audiences, and, yes, they took their place in the auteurist pantheon.
I wrote about the episode of the sci-fi action series Super Force that Lewis directed in 1990. Thanks to a kind soul on YouTube with just the right resources, I quickly found “Donald’s Dad,” an episode Lewis directed from a 1980s sitcom called Brothers, which aired on Showtime. Not so much a distant relative of raunchy fare like Weeds and Nurse Jackie, Brothers is a multi-camera situation comedy with a laugh track, obviously in the vein of something like Three’s Company. For a sitcom I had no knowledge or awareness of before I began this assignment, I tip my hat to the tireless tele-historian who put together the Brothers page on Wikipedia.
“Donald’s Dad” was written by Greg Antonacci (contemporary viewers might know him better as Johnny Torrio on Boardwalk Empire) and Webster creator Stu Silver, series shot-callers both; they were also Executive Producers. While the episode appears in the middle of the show’s second season, it needs no context – just like “Water Mania” for Super Force, you can drop right in and pick up relationships and conflicts without any undue strain.
Unlike Super Force, Brothers, with its door-slamming farce and snappy one-liners, would appear to be the kitchen that’s better able to accommodate Lewis’s cooking. It’s not “better,” per se, but the difference amounts to: despite the unlikely material, “Water Mania” bears marks from its director in many ways that concern tone, blocking, rhythm and timing, color coordination, set design, and so on. “Donald’s Dad” is, simply put, more cooperative clay. The 26-minute episode resembles Three On a Couch, with the way its frantic farce is indivisible from the genuine pain and frustration that boils beneath the surface.
The show begins with a graceful dolly-in that closes on a conversation between Joe Waters (Robert Walden, better known today for Lou Grant and playing Donald Segretti in All the President’s Men) and his daughter, Penny (Hallie Todd). They sit at the bar in the restaurant he owns and operates. There’s some comic banter – she’s wise beyond her years, he’s trying to keep up, etc.
After a humorous exchange, which results in Penny talking her dad into giving her the car keys, and some money for a new swimsuit, she exits, and our guest star enters.
Robert Stack, veteran of Borzage, Lubitsch, Sirk, Boetticher, Fuller, Tourneur, Spielberg, and Airplane!, saunters onto the set with all due grace and poise. Greeted with applause from the audience, he is immediately beset by one of Joe’s waitresses, Kelly.
Thus far, crisp, workmanlike stage direction from Lewis – a little bit of awkwardness and fussiness creeps into it that’s hard to pin down. Maybe people are standing a little too close to one another, like the crowded elevator in The Errand Boy. Maybe I’m grabbing straws. Blame my vulgar auteurism, but then again, I’m asking questions, not drawing conclusions. When I’m screening work by a director whose style is somehow more palpable than normal (based on what I’ve seen in their other work), a lot of mental notes and observations are drawn from “a sense” or “a feeling” – nothing that’ll be admissible before a judge, but, sometimes, enough to solve the case. At least to my satisfaction.
Lewis is one of a handful of directors – entertainer/kook/philanthropist or not – to write a book on the nuts and bolts of directing: his 1971 tome, The Total Film-Maker. Not so much a how-to manual as part rumination on the joy of creating, part discursive lecture on what a director has to deal with in his day-to-day, The Total Film-Maker makes it clear that, after directing 10 features in about as many years, the director must employ strategy, confidence, as well as a little cunning and a lot of fortitude, just to get people to do what they’re told. He tells of set carpenters who, if you happen to look away for five minutes, will figure out a way for a doorway to be too small to allow the passage of a large piece of machinery, if they figure said machinery is just fine where it’s at. These are things Robert Bresson never told us about, in Notes on the Cinematographer.
More often than not – especially in the case of an ongoing series – a director is pushed (by the producers, the front office, the cast, the writers, the crew, and, in a way, the viewers) to conform to the existing model. That’s why there isn’t much to distinguish David Mamet or Frank Darabont’s episodes of The Shield from the general line, or Michael Almereyda’s turn at Deadwood.
It isn’t always that way: John Ford’s 1960 episode of Wagon Train is unbelievably distinctive; the same goes for “Duel of Honor,” an episode of The Rifleman that Joseph H. Lewis directed in 1958. When Joss Whedon directed episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, the results were almost always a cut above those he farmed out to others. There are many such stories, as the old man in Vertigo might say.
What makes the “auteur” director interesting to me is that, in many cases, the person the producers and showrunners bring aboard is able to balance – perhaps unconsciously – the needs of his assignment with arguably contradictory impulses to mitigate, filter, tighten up, loosen up, amplify, dampen, etc., the design and character of the very same assignment. In other words, Lewis will do the “job of work” and, somehow, throw a little this and a little that into the pot. What makes the auteur act or behave above and beyond (or beneath and around) the call of duty isn’t necessarily something that the producers require, but it may not be something they inhibit, either.
Before three minutes are up, “Donald’s Dad” has switched out Penny for Robert Stack, and Stack for Donald (Philip Charles MacKenzie). The chuckling audience is encouraged to conclude that Donald finds the departing Stack terribly attractive, given the circumstances, and the way he acts as if he’s seen a ghost. The revelation that Stack’s character, Russell, is Donald’s father, is withheld until it can deliver the proper fade-to-commercial kick.
Scene the third: Donald’s apartment, night. A record plays an old song about “Papa.” Donald’s friends bang on his front door, fearing the worst for their friend.
They’re so concerned, in fact…
…they manage to bust down the door.
Donald, of course, is the perfect host, and immediately prepares some coffee for the gang.
This is a perfectly executed delayed-eruption bit, the kind Lewis specialized in, having learned from his elders, back when he was doing live TV with Dean Martin, or starring in films for Paramount. The episode has a lot of great, well-practiced bits from the big, old book of comedy.
In hindsight, Brothers was pretty bold for its time, with two openly gay characters among its principals. (Not so bold is the choice to cast two straight actors in those roles.) “Donald’s Dad,” as you may have guessed, concerns a long-deferred reunion between Donald and his father (Stack), the latter having long ago disowned his gay son, and cut off all communication. A heartwarming reunion is in the offing, of course, right?
Well… not quite.
A brief digression:
Cross-dressing has a long tradition in the performing arts – it could be theorized that a man dressing up in women’s clothing is the most basic act of performance. The fact that the tradition has stayed alive, despite the rampant LGBT-phobia of the 20th century, can, at least in part, be credited to Lewis, who kept the flame alive and, directly or indirectly, inspired younger comic actors like Jim Carrey, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and so on. A strange reunion-that-isn’t-but-is (Donald attends to his father, who’s about to go in for a risky surgical operation, in full nurse drag) closes “Donald’s Dad” – there are no hugs, no big tears, no affirmation of the father-son relationship, but the two seem to come away from their conversation with some closure.
How to fit “Donald’s Dad” into Lewis’s greater body of work? Lewis’s utopian aspirations, tempered as they always have been by the absurdity he finds in the world – comic absurdity, or alienated affections between people, or intolerance and cruelty – are conveyed in film after film. Pro forma comic or dramatic set pieces often serve as the engine for how he sees and speaks to the world, as they do for many film artists; I find Lewis’s artistic sensibility in the way “Donald’s Dad”‘s sequences are both precise and slightly awkward at the same time; the way each of Donald’s friends takes a turn crossing the length of the kitchen to say their piece to him – reminiscent of a similar sequence in The Patsy, when Ina Balin scolds each of Stanley’s show-biz elders, in a slow rotation.
Most of all – and I am well aware that Brothers is neither his creation, nor is “Donald’s Dad” his script – it seems beyond obvious, at this point, that Lewis has a vision of the world where we are free to be whatever. What’s also worth pointing out is that, while Donald is written as a “flaming” gay man, the other homosexual character, Cliff (Joe’s brother, played by Paul Regina), isn’t. The world of the show has undergone a careful pruning of what’s compulsory in terms of social expectations; from the first scene, for example, Joe actively tries to overcome his overprotectiveness as Penny’s father.
I keep trying to link Jerry Lewis to Clint Eastwood. The latter, whose Republicanism was, rather notoriously (and embarrassingly) illustrated by a gonzo dialogue with a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, is rather a more quicksilvery conservative – if you’ve been watching his films (director or not), or heard him speak, you might understand that one of his key values is “being left alone to do your own thing, as long as you’re not hurting anybody.” It’s true that Lewis’s protagonists, in stark contrast with the perennial, rugged “man alone” of Eastwood’s work (from Dirty Harry to J. Edgar Hoover), are isolated by their (conditional, social, structural) “freak” status, but there are lots of moments in his work when the freak ray is pointed at all of us: one wide world of weird. Eastwood might want an America where every law-abiding man with a right mind ought to be allowed to carry a gun. Lewis might say, if you’re a grown man, and you want a pacifier in your mouth because that’s your thing – no problem.
Here’s “Donald’s Dad” on YouTube, divided in three parts.