Long before John Belushi, Rob Schneider, John Candy, Chris Farley, or Jim Carrey, there was Jerry Lewis. His trademark high-pitched, nasally, honking voice, his elastic facial expressions, his bulging crossed eyes, and his silly spastic physical moves made him a global comedic superstar, unmatched by others of his time. Schneider has called the team of Martin & Lewis, “the Beatles of comedy.” Carrey, whose own comedy style was heavily influenced by Lewis, tweeted after his idol’s death at 91, “That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius, an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute! I am because he was!”
Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis in “The King of Comedy,” said in a statement to Rolling Stone, “Jerry Lewis was a master. He was a giant. He was an innovator. He was a great entertainer. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man. I had the honor of working with him, and it was an experience I’ll always treasure. He was, truly, one of our greats.”
This entertainment great was born Jerome Levitch or Joseph Levitch (per various entertainment sources) on March 16, 1926 in Newark, NJ into a showbiz family. His father was a “borscht belt” Catskills entertainer and his mother was a pianist. During his career that started in his teen years, Lewis was a successful American comedian, actor, singer, director, producer, screenwriter, humanitarian and headliner. Known for his slapstick humor in film, television, on stage and on radio, Lewis truly reigned as the “King of Comedy.”
He partnered in a highly regarded comedy duo with suave Italian crooner and “Rat Packer” Dean Martin from 1946 to 1956. In addition to their nightclub act, Martin & Lewis starred in a successful series of comedy films for Paramount Pictures. In fact, from 1950 to 1956, they were the world’s top box office earners. They also were featured on NBC radio with “The Martin and Lewis Show” from 1949 to 1953. The Colgate Comedy Hour was their live comedy-musical variety series that aired on NBC from 1950 to 1955. The show featured many notable comedians and entertainers of the era as guest stars.
Lewis and Dean Martin appeared in 17 feature films together, including 1950’s “At War With The Army,” one of this week’s MovieZoot.com Watchlist films. This musical comedy, directed by Hal Walker, introduced Polly Bergen. The film takes place at a United States Army base in Kentucky at the end of 1944, during World War II. An unlikely buddy film featuring the characters of First Sergeant Vic Puccinelli (Dean Martin) and Private First Class Alvin Korwin (Jerry Lewis), who were partners in a nightclub song-and-dance act before the Army. Puccinelli wants to see active duty overseas, but is refused a transfer and instead is to be commissioned a Warrant Officer. Korwin wants a pass to see his wife and new baby. In addition, they have to rehearse for the base talent show and avoid the wrath of Korwin’s platoon sergeant, Sergeant McVey played by Mike Kellin. The pair sing together and do an impression of Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald by recreating a scene from “Going My Way” for the talent show. Add in a pregnant Post Exchange worker, a company commander who gets all his information from his wife, a scheming supply sergeant, and a defective Coca-Cola machine, and you’ve got the makings of a typical slapstick Martin & Lewis farce.
Other Martin & Lewis films include “My Friend Irma” (1949), “My Friend Irma Goes West” (1950), “That’s My Boy” (1951), “The Stooge” (1951), “Sailor Beware” (1952), “Jumping Jacks” (1952), “Road to Bali” (1952), “Scared Stiff” (1953), “The Caddy” (1953), “Money from Home” (1953), “Living It Up” (1954), “3 Ring Circus” (1954), “You’re Never Too Young” (1955), “Artists and Models” (1955), “Pardners” (1956) and “Hollywood or Bust” (1956). After a farewell performance at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956, the 10th anniversary of their very first appearance together in Atlantic City, the odd pair of Martin and Lewis went their separate ways.
In addition to his comedy career, Lewis was also known for his charity fund-raising telethons, serving as national chairman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) for many years. In fact, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his 50 years of raising money to fight muscular dystrophy. He was honored with lifetime achievement awards from The American Comedy Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Venice Film Festival, and given two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2005, he received the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, the highest Emmy Award. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
A favorite in Europe as well as in the U.S., Lewis was nicknamed “Picchiatello” (which translates to “nut” or “crazy”) in Italian. At least three of his movies there use the word in their Italian titles. The French also adored this living legend. For his 80th birthday in 2006, he was inducted with a medal into the Legion of Honor by France and given the honorary title of “Legion Commander.” While he apologized for not speaking French at the ceremony, he said “even if the French people cannot hear my language, they have always heard my heart.” You can be sure that now no matter where his fans were in the world, we all heard his heart and watched his comedic magic in wonder on the big silver screen.
Watch At War With The Army on MovieZoot.com now!