Jerry Lewis's first film without longtime partner Dean Martin is a pretty good comedy with social melodrama overtones, loosely suggested by, of all things, the Greek fable Damon and Pythias. The Delicate Delinquent (1957) was conceived for Jerry and Dean, but when the team broke up Dean's part was retooled for Darren McGavin.
The film gets off to a good start. Juvenile delinquency was constantly in the news and considered a big threat to America in the mid-'50s, and films like Blackboard Jungle (1955) were really scaring the bejeezus out of audiences. The Delicate Delinquent opens with a straight cops vs. hoodlums inner-city rumble (accompanied by a great jazzy Buddy Bregman score), that's triggered when janitor Sidney Pythias (Jerry Lewis) stumbles into the thick of it.
Mistaken for a delinquent, friendless loner Sydney is taken downtown where Officer Mike Damon (McGavin) becomes determined to reform him, despite the misgivings of Captain Riley (a pre-Naked City Horace McMahon, who also played a detective in Blackboard Jungle) and the meddling of abrasive, out-of-touch social worker Martha (Martha Hyer). Inspired by Mike's positive influence, lonely loser Sydney decides to become a cop himself, eventually enrolling in the police academy.
The Delicate Delinquent crossed Lewis's path at the right moment. Its low budget ($487,000) virtually guaranteed it would be very profitable, while its script, though an oil and water mix of broad slapstick and intended pathos, gave Lewis a chance to show that he could really act. McGavin's casting was fortuitous; though the role of Mike was obviously written for Dean Martin, McGavin plays the part his way, injecting it with his own easy-going, very different persona. In lesser hands Mike's relationship with Sydney might have been a disaster onscreen, but Lewis and McGavin are very natural together, looking like they might have been working together for years.
And yet there's also an intentional edginess in Lewis's early scenes with McGavin. Sydney doesn't trust cops at first. He knows the local gang (Robert Ivers, Dick Bakalyan among them) are no good but at least they'll speak to him, even if it is mostly threats and insults. Both here and in his comic set pieces, Lewis gives his performance obvious, careful consideration.
In a naked acknowledgement to Jerry's break with Dean, Sydney sings "By Myself" at one point, and the overall emphasis on an isolated, lonely character unsure of his ability to make it in the real world had clear parallels not lost on 1957 audiences.
The comedy fares less well than the overall story. Some ideas are great. One clever gag early on begins with a slow tracking shot of a police line-up, with the local gang-bangers straining to look tough. Track to Jerry who's overwhelmed with fear and unrestrained remorse, certain he's moments away from the electric chair, babbling almost incoherently. It's a real gem, very funny.
Less successful and notably incongruous is Sydney's friendship with crackpot inventor Mr. Crow (Jefferson Dudley Searles). Their scenes are like something from another movie, though there is a classic Lewis moment when Sydney stumbles upon Crow's Theremin and begins fiddling with it. Milton Frome, a regular in Lewis's stock company of actors, turns up as one of Sydney's hot-headed neighbors, a character perhaps inspired by Sidney Fields's nasty landlord on the Abbott and Costello TV show (Frome and Fields are practically twins). In one curious scene, set in janitor Sidney's basement apartment, Frome climbs into a nearby dumbwaiter and inexplicably falls down its shaft.
The last third of the picture is devoted mostly to Sidney's endless bumbling at the police academy, standard stuff done before in At War with the Army and other military comedies. Similarly, Martha Hyer's role is utterly thankless, part of a superfulous romantic subplot that's mostly irritating.
Video & Audio
Despite its low budget, Paramount shot The Delicate Delinquent in its VistaVision format, and for the DVD the studio went back to the original horizontal, oversized negative. The 16:9 image is a knock-out, with superb resolution and with virtually no age-related wear. Many DVD reviewers reserve their highest video ratings for new, high-concept movies with a lot of bells and whistles, but The Delicate Delinquent is a good example of a studio taking fullest advantage of available film elements. In short, it's one of the best-looking black and white transfers this reviewer has seen so far. The Dolby Digital mono is clean and clear. Also included are English and Spanish subtitles (what, no French?!).
The lone extra is a trailer, in 16:9 format complete with text and narration, which sells the picture in a straightforward manner, opting not to promote it as the curiosity it obviously was in the wake of the team's public break-up.
The Delicate Delinquent is a pretty good picture given a stunning transfer. As one of ten (!) new Jerry Lewis titles out this week, those less familiar with the comedian-director's work might want to start here, a mostly sweet, often funny tale of a schnook looking to get out.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.