Repelling Rejection, or:
One of the sad events that marked the sudden decay of the American cinema during the 1960s was first the slow-down, and then the cessation of activity by Jerry Lewis, the ‘total filmmaker’ (as he labelled himself). His absence went unnoticed by most – his rare partisans hoping for his return, his far more numerous enemies welcoming his defeated silence.
Certainly, his later and more adventurous efforts during the ‘60s, just after The Nutty Professor in the pivotal year 1963 – the last in which American cinema fully retained its greatness and variety – The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), Three on a Couch (1966) and The Big Mouth (1967), had proved successful neither in America nor Europe (where most of his supporters were based), despite the films’ high individual achievement. These four ‘mature’ films continued some sort of logical/intuitive progression towards what at the time was generally considered ‘modernity’, withdrawing steadily from well-trodden narrative paths as well as from accepted (or at least acceptable) representational strategies, in a course uncannily parallel to that of Jean-Luc Godard and several other Nouvelle Vague auteurs, plus the filmmakers they influenced around the world. Most of these directors felt themselves to be part of a collective if divided movement, while Lewis, unrecognised by the East Coast underground, worked alone and in the midst of a slowly crumbling production system which still pretended to reign in Hollywood, and its fragile European outposts from Madrid to Rome.
Around 1968, what had been happening – mostly underground in Europe as
well as elsewhere – crashed to the surface in the May events in
When a new Lewis-directed feature, Which
Way to the Front? (1970), finally came along after the atypical One More Time (1970) and several very
strange throwbacks to convention as a simple contract player under the
direction of undistinguished filmmakers, it was received by the few who paid it
any attention whatsoever as something (certainly not a movie) utterly disjointed and chaotic, barely making sense (or
rather, nonsense), embarrassingly unfunny and even quite aggressive towards the
audience in its own, non-violent way (let us recall that Peckinpah had just
made The Wild Bunch ). Then Lewis
But the American cinema had lost its most avant-garde filmmaker, who never had the opportunity to age and become an ‘old master’, or reconcile himself with classicism. Of course, the comedic actor had already been lost along before because, past a certain age, no such mind remains able enough of body to carry out its very physical designs with ease. Already in his mid-thirties when he became a credited director, Lewis took only five years to disseminate his burlesque attitudes and movements, first among a growing crowd of split or alternate personalities (two in The Nutty Professor and The Patsy, six in The Family Jewels, four in Three on a Couch, two again in The Big Mouth) and later, among other supporting players, with increasing dramatic importance and screen time. This was especially so in the final works of what will likely be regarded as his ‘classical’ period, since the three first movies he directed were really experimental, non-narrative films (financed by Paramount, but with several non-realistic and surrealist touches) – a point that DVD reissues have allowed us to confirm.
Although Lewis is credited with neither the screenplay nor the original story of Which Way to the Front?, even someone casually acquainted with his prior movies will immediately identify not only a typically Lewisian plot – soon-to-be dynamited by its own inner drive towards its extreme logical consequences, and pursued by Lewis regardless of any requirements of verisimilitude. Also instantly recognisable are the Lewisian non-sequiturs (rather than dialogue, there is a series of monologues to which nobody seems to listen) and autobiographical themes and motivations – as usual, of a traumatic kind with symptomatic manifestations, the roots of which likely lie in childhood.
The film starts with one of the longest pre-credit sequences ever made,
lasting around 20 out of a total running time of 94 minutes; its first two
minutes are embarrassingly silent. Like in a silent movie, printed titles set
the time and the place – 1943 and
Alas, together with three other queasy, ‘sissy’-looking guys, Byers is rejected by the U.S. Army recruitment office. For all of them, since the Army provided a temporary refuge from some kind of menace or oppression – marriage, family or gambling debts to threatening mobsters such as the one played by Mike Mazurki – this unexpected flunking at physical or psychological tests is a worrisome problem. For Byers, who had nothing to flee save an unlimited horizon of boredom and pointlessness, it is more serious still. The sheer idea of being ‘rejected’ – indeed, the word alone – provokes in him a strong neurotic reaction which leaves him blubbering nonsense in a non-existent, private language that nobody understands; he is completely blocked, and only slowly recovers his ability to breathe and think. Fortunately, after the first shock wave of overwhelming despondency, a bright idea lights up in his twisted mind: if the Army will not have him, he will use his money and power to create a private Army and go to war on his own, recruiting the other three ‘unfit’ guys he has just met – thus teaching a lesson to the official Armed Forces of the United States of America.
In a subversive and revealing fashion, he enrols as instructors – more or less blackmailing or buying them with propositions they could not possibly refuse – a Japanese Special Forces officer now working as a gardener in America, and a former gang executioner now passing for a legitimate businessman. He also acquires contraband sophisticated weapons on the black market, reshapes for warfare his own private yacht ‘Brendan’s Boat’, and conceives a daringly simple strategic plan: since the Allied forces have been in a stalemate for months in the middle of the Italian peninsula, he will break it for them. His improvised elite troopers are now trained, but in the process have become convinced that Brendan is nuts; they want to quit, but he buys their loyalty all over again with large cheques, payable only when they return home.
So the Byers commando unit crosses the Atlantic, miraculously unharmed by a German U-boat whose fanciful, shrewd commander fears that an incongruity such as a yacht, alone in the middle of the ocean, must be some sort of U.S. decoy to sink his submarine. The unit finally gets to Italy to kidnap Hitler’s star strategist and chum, Field Marshall Keiselring, and replace him with the near look-alike Byers – who will order the German forces to retreat from the front, thus opening the way for the progression of the initially suspicious U.S. troops.
If Byers’ plan seems far-fetched, its execution and success are downright unbelievable, although the reactions of the Allies as well as the Germans curiously mirror each of Byers’ most absurd steps. Of course, Lewis is fully conscious of the utter unlikelihood of it all, but he marches forward regardless of plausibility, launching the film into a delirious satirical farce of unprecedented audacity – one with more direct allusive power than Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933). Once the bounds of plausibility are broken, everything becomes possible, attaining its own coherence and following a logic all of its own. This may be madness, yet there is method in it. Lewis dares to tread ground that The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Heroes of Telemark (1965), The Secret Invasion (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Andre de Toth’s magnificent Play Dirty (1969), and other more or less disreputable, hit commando movies failed to enter – stopping short of the border of Absurdity. He even allows himself to borrow from and develop some of the most celebrated sequences from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), like a slow-motion dreamlike (or trancelike) ballet involving Keiselring and a very Jewish-looking Hitler. (Not until Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch  can we find another such disrespectful presentation of the Führer.) Since war is nonsense, let us follow its folly to the end: this seems to be Jerry’s motto, which proves successful despite even History itself – according to Lewis (well before Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2009), the disguised Byers actually blew Hitler to smithereens long before Berlin was taken by the Soviet troops and Hitler killed himself in his bunker.
Of course, such a daring excursion into the realm of Unrealism was quite unexpected at the time – especially coming from a comedian such as Lewis. So the film was met with enmity and outraged disbelief by most commonsensical reviewers who, in addition, had the usual ultra-conservative misgivings about the ‘propriety’ of addressing such serious topics as war, concentration camps or genocide – not to mention the army and recruitment – in a ferociously farcical way. Surrealism was not an accepted idiom anywhere around 1970, least of all in the U.S., and Lewis went way too far for most viewers – including the faithful naïve followers of the comedian, who were already showing increasing signs of unease and bafflement over his penchant for modernisms such as Brechtian distancing or reflexivity (revealing the status of the story as sheer fiction, or laying bare the mechanisms of representation), as well as his ever-growing refusal to sentimentalise even his own usually misunderstood and unloved character.
Serious students of Lewis’ career as a filmmaker, however, should have recognised Which Way to the Front? as the next logical step – if not a leap – forewarned by not-so-isolated scenes in The Patsy, The Family Jewels, Three on a Couch and The Big Mouth, and the very strange One More Time (1970). Only some people in Europe were aware of Jerry’s proximity to (or casual affinity with) the films of his great admirer Godard. Although I cannot picture Lewis sitting through most of Godard’s movies, the parallelism of the endings of Vivre sa vie (1962) or Le Mépris (1963) with The Patsy, of many aspects of Les Carabiniers (1963) or Week End (1967) with Which Way to the Front?, of Une femme est une femme (1961) with Three on a Couch, seems to me as striking and clear as the influence of The Ladies Man (1961) upon Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972), or the acknowledged Lewisian touches that we can trace in Vladimir and Rosa (1971), Sauve qui peut (La vie) (1980), Détective (1985), Soigne ta droite (1987), King Lear (1987) and many other Godard movies.
Godard’s championing of Lewis is well documented, not only as implicit details in his films, but also in the former’s own writings and many interviews. In some instances, Godard singled Lewis out as America’s most experimental and daring director – a sort of heir to Hitchcock – whereas most of Lewis’ interviewers never saw the connection or did not dare to ask Lewis about (of all people!) Godard – or, for that matter, his other Nouvelle Vague admirers such as Jacques Rivette or Alain Resnais. However, this is really the context in which Lewis’ films as a director (and not merely a comedian) must be considered: that is, as part of the New Cinema that had begun to develop around the world just when Lewis got his first credited job as ‘total filmmaker’. He did so as the auteur (writer, producer, actor and director) of The Bellboy (1960), a plotless, surrealistic chain of gags and non-sequiturs that, despite its complete breach of most Hollywood conventions, ended up breaking new ground without stirring any hostility – probably because it made money.
In Brendan Byers III, there is a lot more of the real Lewis – the self-assured sophisticated artist and successful businessman – than in any of his previous films. Therefore, we should regard Which Way to the Front? as the first instalment of a more personal, autobiographical period in Lewis’ career, which quite coherently started with settling some accounts with the past. So it should be not so surprising that Which Way to the Front? also became the first chapter in his personal, private war against Nazism and all it represents – whatever the name and shape it may take in different places and at different times. It was followed shortly by what I am afraid (because we may never see it) would have been his final, perhaps definitive statement on the issue, The Day the Clown Cried. Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not To Be ), and Leo McCarey (Once Upon A Honeymoon ) had risked and suffered the consequences of using comedy as a tool to expose, ridicule and belittle the threat of Fascism – because you don’t joke with the dead. But Lewis obviously miscalculated the odds he was battling, at the time of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. was much nearer to actual practical fascism than ever before (although much farther than now). Lewis was perhaps naïvely counting on the support of his traditional audience, which was probably aging by then and not going to the movies anymore – thereby leaving him exposed to the Lewis-haters in the academic and critical establishments who had never recognised his talent as a comedian (much less his real stature as a filmmaker), and who tended to label anyone who dared to defend this great modern filmmaker as either a perverted, French-influenced ‘aesthete’ or a native, All-American moron. In short, Lewis’ prematurely interrupted career is one of the major disgraces that completed the frightful demise of the mainstream American cinema since the 1970s.
Contrary to appearances, Which Way to the Front? is a superbly and thoughtfully constructed parable whose meaning is quite clear throughout, despite the unpredictable nonsense of its plotline and the utter absurdity of every scene in itself. Plastically, the film is masterfully shot, composed and edited, thus disproving all accusations of incompetence that have been levelled against Lewis. After the protracted pre-credit narrative exposition and the belated animation credits, once the real action is launched, most of what Lewis shows us is obviously, physically impossible – and there is not the slightest attempt at make-believe on his part. Nothing in the presentation begs for our suspension of disbelief: everything is filmed in well-balanced frames which explore, dissect and combine space as if we were watching the most commonplace events, with nothing in the camerawork or cutting which attempts to enhance or underline the absurdity or humour of a scene.
As Jean-Louis Leutrat and Paul Simonci detected in
When he shot Which Way to the Front?, Lewis used his self-devised ‘video assist’ system to control dailies; he had also developed very complex sound recording systems that enabled him to shoot, swiftly and relatively inexpensively, complex dolly shots with sophisticated sound design. Despite its apparently disjointed narrative and its obvious disregard for standard editorial conventions, the film has an elegant, serene quality.
Like many slapstick/burlesque comedians of the silent era who became their own directors or effectively controlled the mise en scène through competent if subservient technicians, Lewis generates, through his corporeal activity and displacements, a space of his own – a territorial imperative which was probably the cause of increasing friction and conflict with his original partner, the very talented but rather straight comedian and singer, Dean Martin. Also, Lewis’ battery of gestures was extremely eye-catching, making it difficult for anyone else to share the frame with him on equal terms – the spatial distribution being dominated by Jerry, even if the composition or camera set-ups did not actually privilege him. Despite painstaking pre-design, preparation and rehearsals – including the working out of camera movements, choosing of lenses, placement of furniture, props and microphone positions – Lewis could not be satisfied with the usual shooting patterns, likely because he needed room for improvisation. He soon began to have himself photographed rather as a dancer in a musical film, in a tradition that was perfected since 1949 by Arthur Freed-MGM musicals, but one that had its precedents in Hermes Pan’s choreography for Fred Astaire movies in the ‘30s.
As a matter of fact, comedic actors develop a very peculiar sort of choreography, requiring larger and longer shots and a mobile camera to faithfully record their partly improvised performances on set. This is probably because they often got their start in music hall, vaudeville, cabarets, nightclubs or TV variety shows: media less restrained by feature-length narrative structures, in which they frequently achieved the status of one-man-show entertainers, able to control every aspect of the spectacle. Given Lewis’ interest in music and his affection for big band swing, many sequences in his self-directed movies border on the musical genre – which he had already courted during his association with crooner Dean Martin. Lewis often actively sabotaged Martin’s ballad singing in films like You’re Never Too Young (1955): nominally a remake of Billy Wilder’s early comedy The Major and the Minor (1942), directed by Norman Taurog, but already featuring many of Lewis’ future directorial touches and distinctive camerawork.
If every film is, at bottom, also a documentary of its shooting, we cannot but wonder at the frequent display of the technical crew and their equipment at key, unexpected points in most Lewis-directed pictures. Of course, The Errand Boy or The Patsy played with the excuse of the title character working in a Hollywood studio or appearing on Ed Sullivan’s television show; but what about, for instance, The Ladies Man or even The Bellboy? Nobody has so far convincingly explained why Lewis – rather than enjoying his status as a star and producer – became, from the moment he was finally allowed to direct his first film, so intent on breaking the illusionist simulation of reality that all Hollywood cinema, before or since, has been so intent on preserving. But it is not so strange that he had to pay the price for such a breach of the unwritten commandments of American filmmaking.
© Miguel Marías 2005 / LOLA 2012
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.