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Errand Boy, The
The film's premise ultimately leads nowhere. At Paramutual Pictures, studio head T.P. (Brian Donlevy), concerned about company revenue lost, stolen or perhaps merely wasted at the studio, engages schmuck paper-hanger Morty Tashman (Lewis) to spy on the everyday goings-on around the lot, albeit it undercover as a gopher, the errand boy of the title. Nothing ever comes of this, but it does give director Jerry Lewis an excuse to cut Morty loose. He disrupts shooting, ruins dailies, runs into TV stars, and with disastrous results fools around on the dubbing stage.
While it's often fascinating to get an inside look at Paramount Studios circa 1961, the comedy itself is variable, though some sequences work wonderfully well. One of the best has Lewis trapped in an elevator, uncomfortably nose-to-nose with a man wielding a dangerous toothpick, and another brandishing a smelly cigar. Throughout the picture, Lewis's Morty bumbles about a studio filled with mostly expressionless extras going about their business. Their lack of reaction (most of the time) to Lewis's antics is similar to an approach used by Jacques Tati (in, for example, Playtime). In the case of the elevator sequence, it's an approach that works -- the stoicism of the others in the elevator car increases the comic tension, making Morty's discomfort all the funnier.
A more obvious influence is Stan Laurel, who shared Lewis's fondness for surreal sight gags. After Morty nearly drowns in the Paramutual pool, he's seen leaving the studio infirmary bloated like a balloon from all the water he's ingested, the same gag Laurel used in Below Zero thirty years before. Another very funny bit has Morty ruining director Sig Ruman's dailies. Morty, an extra in a party scene, can't hide his curiosity about the camera, staring straight into the lens and ruining the shot. Morty's reactions are right out Towed in a Hole (1932), a Laurel and Hardy three-reeler that has Stan peering sheepishly at an angry Ollie.
This is not to suggest Lewis was stealing from one of his mentors; clearly he was legitimately mining Laurel's repertoire of gags and reactions and adapting them to his own very different persona. Indeed, this thread of comic influence is clearly carried over in turn from Lewis to Pee-wee Herman, who uses the same looking-at-the-lens gag in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), a movie that likewise finds its star wreaking havoc at a movie studio.
Like many of Lewis's pictures, The Errand Boy gets off to a great start, with excellent aerial shots of Hollywood as Paul Frees's narration contrasts the glamorous world presented in Hollywood movies versus the harsh realities of filmmaking. Also like a lot of Lewis's films, it runs out of steam long before the final reel. Producer Lewis may have been contractually obligated to deliver a 90-minute movie, but the film would play much better shorn of 20 minutes of weaker material.
With no story to hang his routines on, the weaker gags have nothing to fall back on and sometimes are excruciatingly overlong. Even Lewis admits some sequences don't play well, pointing to a long, labored routine where Morty repeatedly climbs up a ladder to grapple with a huge jar of jellybeans.
On the plus side, even lesser concepts are bolstered by familiar faces, many regulars of Lewis's stock company: Kathleen Freeman, Stanley Adams, Doodles Weaver, Howard McNear (funny as a spineless sycophant), Fritz Feld, and Joe Besser among them.
Video & Audio
Paramount's DVD of The Errand Boy is a solid transfer, in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format. The black and white image is clean and clear with one major exception. At about 26:45, a big black line (soon joined by two friends) disrupts a sight gag and continues on for several minutes. This flaw appears inherent in the negative, but surely the impact could have been minimized with a little digital tweaking? The mono sound is fine; an alternate French audio track and optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Many will be most drawn to the Scene Select Commentary by Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence, but be warned: of the picture's 92 minutes, they only talk through four short scenes lasting all of 12-and-a-half minutes, and much of that is Steve Lawrence's guffawing.
Lewis really seems to have missed a big opportunity here. Never given the credit he deserves (in America anyway) as a director and technical innovator, these audio tracks might have gone a long way to rectify this had Lewis discussed his craft with the seriousness and detail he's shown in other media. Maybe he was saving his energy for one of the other DVDs, or maybe he knows he no longer has to prove anything. In any case The Errand Boy's track is an insubstantial disappointment, with Lewis's insight limited to comments like this: "Brian Donlevy had the shortest arms of any man in Hollywood."
Also included are two and a half minutes of bloopers, all in 4:3 full frame format, which are fun if trivial; a trailer in 16:9 format with text and narration; and six promos, actually TV spots.
Fans of Jerry Lewis will enjoy The Errand Boy while those less enamored will likely find it alternately funny and painful, though ultimately worth sitting through once.
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.