Wednesday 20 March 2013

1,001 Films: "The Ladies Man" (1961)

At his 1960s height, Jerry Lewis presumably saw himself as the rightful inheritor of the Chaplin tradition, putting out work that mixed slapstick and sentiment with something of the artist's soul. Another fifty years down the line, his films are as much love-'em-or-hate-'em experiences as the Adam Sandler oeuvre, though there are crucial differences between the two comics. For one, Sandler wouldn't have been able to resist turning the premise of The Ladies Man - in which Lewis's momma's boy Herbert Hebert leaves home in the wake of a heartbreak, and finds work as a factotum in a boarding house for actresses - into a leering male fantasy. 

Similarly, Sandler's pet directors - the Dennis Dugans and Frank Coracis of this world - have never quite done anything this visually ambitious or strange within the widescreen frame. Lewis's film takes place largely on the one exquisite, cross-sectioned dollshouse of a set, one of the very best the movies ever provided for a comedian to romp around on. Successive pullbacks and rugpulls recast this set as a dancehall (in which Herbert comes to tango with George Raft, playing himself and effectively initiating the long comedy tradition of po-mo celebrity cameos), a TV studio, and finally an easel upon which Lewis could sketch and design set-pieces that sought to do for the comedy what Gene Kelly had done for the musical. 

The interest in interiors extends to more than one level. As with its predecessor The Nutty Professor, this is almost as much case study as it is straight comedy, hinging on a replayed scene of trauma - Herbert/Jerry seeing his college sweetheart being swept off her feet by a jock - that this putz must overcome through his everyday interactions with the boarding house's women, presented as "real" and unidealised. The film is unusually generous and gentlemanly towards the 1,001 actresses who parade across the screen, clad in the finest Paramount-bought appareil; we could be watching the typical Hollywood audition process, scaled (and, no doubt, classed) up a thousandfold.

The usual caveats pertaining to Lewis apply. Yes, it's narratively scatterbrained, and dependent upon the presence of a performer who, for better or worse, is relentlessly on. Lewis the director is the enabler in this respect, ensuring the camera is always trained on his own garbling, eye-rolling and facepulling. Yet this unblinking gaze results in some very funny, still risky set-pieces, like the extended take that sees Herbert bringing a visiting tough down to his level through the crushing of his hat (and, it's inferred, his masculine pride); it also catches a streak of pathos that remains in comedic circulation, running as it did through Peter Baynham's Peter in TV's Fist of Fun to today's foremost bespectacled weirdo Angelos Epithemiou. As Herbert Hebert himself says, "Being alone, you know, is very lonely - but at least when there are people around, you can be lonely with noise."

The Ladies' Man is currently unavailable on DVD.                                                                

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