Jerry Lewis’ directorial debut THE BELLBOY predates Woody Allen’s first “real” film TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969); both comedies draw influence from the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and silent comedy, and both make well-crafted films with intelligent undertones. THE BELLBOY is the only thing I’ve seen from Lewis: I don’t know about his career before, or after 1960: I can only draw parallels, and there are many.
THE BELLBOY was written, directed and produced by Jerry Lewis; he also stars in a silent performance as “Stanley” that is the film’s most obvious homage to the tradition of silent comedy. Directing this type of comedy film could not have been any great challenge: the work lies in writing the gags and performing them. Jerry Lewis’ performance is good, but with the amount of homage the film is based on, the fact that his character is silent seems like his attempt to prove that he can make an audience laugh without speaking his jokes. This tradition was most famously typical of Charlie Chaplin, whose presence can be seen in the influence, but also in physical homage as a strange look-alike who appears recurringly to prank Stanley.
Many of the gags are simple, amusing fare, but certain of them resonate, particularly when Stanley conducts a stage full of instruments, but no musicians. The communication is aided by sound effects and Lewis’ expressive face. The liberal contortion of facial expression to communicate when words can not be used is a good example of the tradition this film is made in. I can’t think of anyone who uses that style of acting, besides the original practitioners themselves, and people like Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, who adopted their influence as a key component of their own style. Woody Allen had tastes that ranged far wider than the silent comedy he grew up watching, namely to Sweden (Ingmar Bergman) and Japan (Akira Kurosawa). His broad and excellent taste becomes evident near the first end of his first phase of film-making (SLEEPER, 1973; LOVE AND DEATH, 1975) when he began to write more intelligent, dramatic characters. But his acting in films as late as HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) is still based in a large way on Chaplin’s influence; this film also contains a joke making fun of Lewis.
I don’t know nearly as much about Jerry Lewis’ career as I do Woody Allen’s, but I’m confident that if his debut displays as much skill, intelligence and hilarious wit as it does, then his efforts probably evolve in a similar way to his peer, with whom he shares many inclinations and a common background.