The story is simple: When a famous comedy star dies in a spectacular plane crash (footage from The Mountain), his producer (Everett Sloane), publicist (Keenan Wynn), secretary (Ina Balin), writer (Phil Harris), director (Peter Lorre) and valet (John Carradine) are reluctant to disband their well-oiled franchise. Figuring that if any of them had died their boss would have simply found a replacement, they decide to replace their boss, confident their experience and industry savvy can make anyone a star, even bumbling bellboy Stanley Belt (Jerry Lewis).
Like a pack of Henry Higginses, the Hollywood veterans begin to work Stanley over, but he proves hopelessly inept, unfunny, and non-musical. By the time Stanley makes his network debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, all but one of his handlers have abandoned him, certain that his appearance will be a disaster of epic proportions.
Lewis, for his part, was brave to make The Patsy when he did, though what makes it work is pretty intangible; one wonders if he or co-writer Bill Richmond fully realized the kind of movie they were making.** Lewis was then on a schedule that would have killed a mortal man; around the time the film went into production he was in the midst of his famously disastrous primetime variety series, had just wrapped two features and finished a grueling cross-country personal appearance tour.
At a time when his popularity was leveling off and the main audiences for his pictures was gradually shifting to youngsters, Lewis could have played it safe with the kind of predictable, generic fare that had been the hallmark of his pictures for producer Hal Wallis. Instead he made The Patsy, a film more personal and edgier than anything he had directed before. One long, daring scene has Stanley bombing at a nightclub so hostile even The Four Steps, with their signature acrobatics, can't appease them. Stanley's routine is so excruciatingly bad that it becomes funny, but it's also squrimily tense. So much so it anticipates the edgy losers Martin Scorsese would explore in The King of Comedy (1983), which appropriately co-stars Lewis.
In many respects The Patsy is a culmination of comic styles and influences, everything from his Catskills days lip-synching records to silent comedy to a more personal, confessional approach, and in some ways it's more akin to European cinema of 1964 than anything made in Hollywood, despite its Hollywood setting. Indeed, stylistically it has more in common with Czech surrealist Jan Svankmejer's The Flat (Byt, 1968) than Jerry's The Sad Sack (1959).
Except for the darker elements of The Nutty Professor, Lewis made nothing quite like it. Gone is the sticky sentiment of early efforts like The Errand Boy, the inconsistencies of Lewis's performance within a single role, the unevenness of gags and a reluctance to cut the fat from his routines. Until its miscalculated climax, The Patsy is a hypnotic odyssey through an entertainment world gone mad.
For instance, Ed Sullivan makes a cameo appearance as himself, introducing Stanley on his TV show much as Sullivan had done in Bye Bye Birdie the year before. Only here he plays an absurdly grotesque (and quite hilarious), exaggerated version of himself -- rather than presenting Sullivan in a standard, in-joke cameo fashion, Lewis turns him into something out of a Fellini movie.
Sullivan's intro is followed by the picture's one misstep: abandoned by his entourage, Stanley improvises a lengthy, polished quasi-tribute to silent comedy that is to The Patsy what the Broadway Melody number is to Singin' in the Rain. It's okay as a stand-alone piece, but illogical even in the surreal world of The Patsy and at odds with everything we know about Stanley.
The picture's most celebrated sequence operates from a more stable if slightly absurdist perspective. Sent to voice teacher Professor Mueller (Hans Conried), Stanley nervously wanders the room, nearly (but never quite) breaking every valuable antique in the man's study. It's a masterpiece of gag construction, performance, timing, and cutting -- as good as anything in Mon oncle (1958). Lewis is very funny throughout in what is his best filmed comic performance.
Video & Audio
Paramount's DVD of is an okay transfer in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format. The dominant use of pastel colors holds up well, and the picture's massive set of a Beverly Hills Hotel penthouse suite looks great on big, widescreen TVs. There is one rather strange problem throughout the picture, however. If this had been shot in three-strip Technicolor one would assume that the colors had been misaligned. That's not the case here, but there is a vague blurring of colors which is at times glaring, and which looks almost like a polarized 3-D image seen without the glasses (though it's never quite that extreme). The cause of this is unknown; readers with a better grasp of this printing (?) flaw are welcome to write in. The Dolby Digital mono sound is fine; English and Spanish subtitles are included.
As with other titles in this series, the Scene Select Commentary by Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence is a disappointment, especially on a picture like The Patsy. The pair talk only through the its opening minutes, and again briefly during the scene with Hans Conried. All of this adds up to just 10-and-a-half minutes of conversation, none of it very probing.
Also included are several minutes of bloopers, all in 4:3 full frame format. Included is what might very well be the very last footage Peter Lorre ever shot, a marvelous blooper of him Puckishly messing up the timing of a shot where he's supposed to be part of a firing squad. A re-release trailer, in 16:9 format, doesn't know how to sell the film ("more fun than a funhouse!"). It contains shots not in the film, and is complete with text and narration. Finally, a (wisely) deleted scene featuring all the main actors except for Lewis rounds out the supplements.
It's a shame Lewis chose not to do a more detailed commentary track. Insights on what remains his most underrated film might have been fascinating. Maybe he's unhappy that critics 40 years ago didn't recognize qualities more apparent with the passing years.
**Or for that matter the cast. Peter Lorre, who died less than a month after filming his scenes looks bored and slightly disgusted in his role. He practically spits at the camera lens during his onscreen curtain call.
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.