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The Errand Boy

The Errand Boy

1961. Paramount, Directed by Jerry Lewis. With Jerry Lewis, Brian Donlevy, Howard McNear, Dick Wesson, Renee Taylor

Thanks to Shawn Levy for mentioning The Errand Boy a couple of weeks ago. He said that it contains an odd reference to the movie It Should Happen to You (this time starring Jerry Lewis!) and it certainly does. But that’s only the tip of this iceberg. The Errand Boy is a real curiosity, nearly plotless and strangely endearing.

The Errand Boy is no typical Lewis film. Most noticeably, it's in black & white. Jerry Lewis is such a primary-color, cartoony character that he seems out of place in the subdued, arty greys and blacks. The visual style recalls the 50s TV Jerry more than the garish Las Vegas Jerry. Fortunately, his white socks still show up fine.

Second, Jerry lets other people be funny. He generously makes room for extended bits of business from the supporting players and confines his own character to reaction shots. Jerry as straight man! Contrast this toThe Patsy, made only a few years later, where Jerry sucks up attention like a black hole.

And third, The Errand Boy is virtually story-less. Most Lewis vehicles have strong narrative lines supporting their set-pieces, but not this one. It starts off as the management of Paramutual Pictures hires spastic sign-hanger Morty Tashman to gather information on waste and extravagance at the studio while passing himself off as an errand boy. But this plot thread soon snaps; it's just an excuse to get Jerry inside a movie studio. Nothing happens for a long time, and then at the end Morty is inadvertently filmed and recognized as a major comic talent, a purely mechanical wrap-up.

The Errand Boy is, when you get down to it, a loose series of riffs. Some work, some don't. Often a lot of setup leads to very little payoff. You keep thinking you missed something. Some gags are pointless, diffident—experimental, if we want to be charitable. There’s a kind of hipster sensibility about the thing.

A hipster Hellzapoppin!. Jerry performs in various disconnected sketches, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, twice with puppets (!), once with a boys' basketball team, sometimes doing verbal humor and sometimes doing physical. There's a long underwater gag, a Jerry-is-mistaken-for-a-dummy sequence, a dubbing stage joke that pairs Jerry’s funny vibrato singing voice with film of a beautiful soprano, etc. Apropos of nothing, a bunch of extras in armor fall over each other and can’t get up. We haven't seen them before, we never see them again, it isn't very funny, and yet we spend several minutes on the gag. The movie has so much variety-show sensibility that Jerry might have been experimenting with his telethon-host persona.

Well, I guess I should say something about self-referentiality. The Errand Boy seems, among its many half-baked ambitions, to want to be a parody of the innocent-loose-in-movie-studio genre that we’ve seen on this List so often. The movie opens with arial shots of Los Angeles and a travelogue-style narration about "Hollywood--land of the real and the unreal." As the tourist sites appear, a hip note creeps into the narration: "I guess from up here it doesn’t look very different from your home town. But how would you know? You don’t go around looking at your hometown from a plane."

The travelogue turns increasingly subversive. We're shown exciting scenes from different kinds of movies, and then shown the truth behind the illustion---that boulder is papier mache, that helpless girl is really a burly guy in a wig, those lovers bicker viciously until the director calls "lights!" The travelogue concludes with views of the various studios, ending at Paramount (here called Paramutual) and homing in on a billboard that says, of all things, JERRY LEWIS. This becomes the first shot of the credits.

It’s a pretty complex bit of film. The term "alienation effect" comes to mind. Like many of the prologues that introduced 50s comedies (Frank Tashlin did this a lot), it undermines the experience we're about to have. It reminds us that we're watching a movie, that movies are artificial, that we're smarter than "Hollywood" thinks we are, and that we ought to look at whatever happens next with a skeptical eye. You can't help but feel that Jerry is worming his way into our good graces at the expense of the studiio and the industry that support him.

Compared to some of Jerry’s garish ego-fests, The Errand Boy is a charming, low-key movie that at least tries out some interesting ideas about how to make a movie comedy for the TV generation.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein