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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Ladies Man
The Ladies Man
Paramount // Unrated // October 12, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 31, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Made at the height of his power at Paramount, The Ladies Man (not "The Ladies' Man," 1961) is producer-director and co-writer Jerry Lewis at his most indulgent, which means an uneasy blend of unmotivated action, sloppy sentimentalism, some brilliant sight gags, beautifully-timed bits of business, an inconsistent and underdeveloped central character, brassy Harry James music and the inevitable George Raft cameo -- all in a typhoon of cinematic inventiveness.

Essentially, Jerry Lewis is Herbert H. (Herbert) Heebert, a college grad who swears off women after he discovers his girl in the arms of another man. He's hired as a handyman at a gigantic Hollywood boarding house, unaware until his first day on the job that all 30 of its tenants are gorgeous women.

The picture's centerpiece in every way is its mammoth set, probably the biggest and most elaborate ever until Ken Adam's volcano lair in You Only Live Twice (1967), and that was built outdoors. Lewis's set, with its "fourth wall" exposed for the camera, is like a colossal dollhouse come to life, a four-story structure with working elevator, dining hall, myriad bedrooms, running water -- everything. In this jaded CGI universe of today, the big set still impresses.

Lewis also uses it extremely well. He embraces its artificiality with swooping crane and wide angle shots that often expose a dozen rooms at once. Some of this is elaborately choreographed, especially the set's big introduction, a ballet of music, dance, titillation, a few laughs, and constant, sweeping movement. It's a great moment.

The film itself is little more than a loosely-strung collection of uneven gags. Like The Bellboy (1960), some are presented almost like silent comedy, with some scenes deathly quiet, even when there's no reason for the absence of sound. Some of the best gags show the influence of Lewis's sometime director (and former animator) Frank Tashlin. One inspired bit has Herbert in such a state of panic that, like a cartoon character, he "splits" into four Herberts running frantically about. Another bit has Herbert opening a butterfly collection only to have the butterflies flutter away.

Other gags go over like lead balloons (e.g., Lewis playing his own mother, complete with 5 o'clock shadow), or reveal the sloppiness in the script's construction. For all its attributes, The Ladies Man is almost amateurish in other areas. It generates its own lengthy flashback barely 12 minutes in, and one woman's plea to Herbert at the film's climax ("You're a nice person, and nice people are needed everywhere!") is so hokey and completely unmotivated as to baffle its audience. Even comedy as occasionally surreal as The Ladies Man requires a modicum of logic, but this operates like something out of another dimension. The basic set-up is bizarre: what universe is this where, at a Hollywood boarding house full of beautiful women, a man can't be found to work there, and all the women fall madly in love (and sometimes lust) with Jerry Lewis? Some gags are overdone like burnt toast. One bit with (Sigourney Weaver's uncle) Doodles Weaver is executed three different ways, twice too many.

It's stuff like this that invariably turns off those already disinclined to like Lewis's movies, a shame since the good material is quite funny: Herbert talks to one woman whose Southern dialect is so impenetrable that she needs an interpreter. An extended sequence parodies the now mostly forgotten interview show "Person to Person," with an uncredited actor doing a hilarious, dead-on impersonation of Edward R. Murrow. (Paul Frees seems to be doing his voice some but not all of the time.) These scenes are notable for the addition of several tons of vintage KTLA television equipment. Combined with the real film's 35mm crew and Lewis's innovative Video Assist, any Paramount executives visiting the set that day probably had heart attacks.

The only other notable characters are matronly cook Katie, played by frequent co-star Kathleen Freeman. She's terrific, as is former Metropolitan opera star Helen Traubel, as the mansion's motherly owner. Both inexplicably lavish Herbert with undue praise (especially given his constant destruction of the home's many antiques), but the two performers have good chemistry with Lewis nonetheless. Pat Stanley, chiefly a stage actress, is good in her mostly lame scenes with Lewis, in what by default is the ingenue part. Hope Holiday, Madlyn Rhue, and Sylvia Lewis have more to do than the other 26 women.

Buddy Lester is good as a tough guy reduced to jelly by Herbert's incompetence. Fritz Feld can be glimpsed as an extra; longtime Three Stooges foil Kenneth McDonald plays Herbert's father.

Video & Audio

Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount's DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.

Extra Features

In addition to the usual Audio Commentary by Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence, this running the length of the picture, supplements include two Deleted Scenes, in 4:3 full frame format and running 10 minutes. These include a straight-faced opera solo for Helen Traubel. (Did Lewis hope to give his film a little class? Shades of Lawrence Tibbet!)

Next are two minutes of Outtakes, also 4:3 full frame, neither impressive but interesting. Lewis does an MDA Public Service Announcement seated on a camera crane overlooking The Ladies Man's set. It's in 4:3 full frame format, and its eventual use is unclear. A one-minute Construction of The Ladies Man Set uses animation shot by John P. Fulton in the fall of 1960, all of which is repeated, more or less, in the film's Trailer. Both it and a Teaser Trailer are 16:9 and complete with text and narration, promising "the flipping funster" in "the most hilarious [film] since the invention of the tickle!" Yuck yuck.

Lasting is one minute (4:3) Dance Rehearsal Footage, which inserts footage from the finished film for comparison's sake; and Audition Footage of Pat Stanley and dancer Sylvia Lewis (no relation to Jerry), who probably would have had a bigger onscreen career if not for her resemblance to Cyd Charisse.

Parting Thoughts

After The Nutty Professor (1963), The Ladies Man is probably the best bet for those curious about Lewis but reluctant to dive head-first into perilous waters. Though uneven, it's a showcase for Lewis as writer-director-star, and its best moments are classics of early '60s comedy.

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.

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