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The Patsy

1964. Paramount. Directed by Jerry Lewis; written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond. With Jerry Lewis, Everett Sloane, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Phil Harris, Ina Balin

The amazing line-up of character actors listed above play the entourage of a famous comic killed in a pre-credits plane crash. They'll be out of work unless they can find a replacement. Just as they're pondering their plight, guess who arrives from Room Service? A hint: he drops a tray of glasses, spills ice all over the floor, trips over furniture, nearly knocks himself out by causing the door to rebound and hit him in the head, and then falls off the balcony, babbling incoherently the whole time. Le roi du crazy strikes again!

By 1964, Jerry Lewis had become so self-conscious that his movies induce claustrophobia. There's a whole lot of Jerry in a pretty tight space; he bounces off the walls in more ways than one. The Patsy is probably the most extreme example of Jerry congratulating himself on how far he has come since those days of curling up in Dean's lap.

Take, for example, the very end of the movie. Stanley, the Jerry character, once again loses his balance and disappears off the hotel balcony. Horrified, his fiancee stands by the railing sobbing (the shot is from inside the hotel suite). Then Stanley strolls by, outside, apparently on a ledge. But it's not Stanley--it's Jerry! "Aren't you overacting a bit, Miss Balin?" he says. It's only a movie, he reminds her, and he removes a chunk of the parapet to demonstrate that it's papier mache (talk about breaking the fourth wall!). He gestures toward us: "The people know I can't die! I'm gonna make more movies." He looks past Ina Balin and calls to the crew, "Okay, that's lunch! Take an hour. . ." A reverse shot shows us the crew, cameras, the rest of the sound stage, other sets in the background. The crew disperses, the lights shut down, and everybody follows Jerry across the darkened stage past a huge flat painted with the words The Patsy. Whoa!

Yep, that Jerry is some big macher. When he gets self-referential, it's Self with a capital S. At least this mock-Pirandellianism is in keeping with the movie's overall strategy, which is to show Jerry metamorphosing from his broadly comic Martin-and-Lewis character into the suave, condescending, self-adoring big shot whom Jerry apparently considers his more attractive self.

The transformation happens gradually "the boys" groom Stanley for stardom (new wardrobe, singing lessons, recording session, nightclub appearance, press interviews). He stops twitching, he starts speaking in coherent sentences, his voice lowers, he achieves a rapprochement with breakable objects. He looks jowly all of the sudden, and you notice the big rings on fingers that look like they should be holding a cigarette. He starts stroking his hair. It's as though Jerry, now freed of all collaborative constraints on his image, can't stand having us continue to think of him as only a slapstick clown--he's got to turn sexy, suave, and sincere. By the penultimate scene, Stanley has become a smooth operator giving orders to his former "handlers" ("Call Las Vegas . . . I'll need a whole new wardrobe. . .") We know he's turned into a real man because he orders the girl to marry him (she's thrilled).

We see this transformation in microcosm in the skecth that Stanley performs on the Ed Sullivan Show, the appearance that makes him a star. In it, a babbling movie fan (a lot like Jerry's character in Hollywood or Bust) finds a ticket to a big movie premiere, but can't get in because the affair is black tie. He ducks into an alley and uses house paint and glue to literally transform his klutzy outfit into a tuxedo and top hat; the sketch ends (to thunderous applause) as he strolls into the theater looking for all the world like Fred Astaire.

So in a story centered around Jerry's "cleaning up real good", it seems a logical culmination to have him completely transcend the movie at the end. In case we haven't got it, he has to insist that, far from being some retard, he's the guiding intelligence behind everything we've seen up til then. The transformation is complete: from patsy to master of the universe.

There's one final sequence: Lorre, Wynn, Harris, Sloane and Carradine walk out one at a time to take a little curtain call as their names appear on the screen. This is all in real time in one continuous shot. Then there's a cut, and Jerry makes a far more spectacular entrance, coming in through a door, bowing graciously, and then giving us a somewhat perfunctory final pratfall over a chair. This odd little scene seems to me a reversal (and a painfully childish one) of the beginning of the film. These five black-suited men who initially manipulate and exploit poor Stanley are revealed as aging character actors reduced to accepting work from beneficent celebrity-director Jerry Lewis. Stanley/Jerry changes from victim to benefactor, and he makes sure that his actors and his audience know it.

Jerry is apparently such a Hollywood big shot that he has talked a bunch of stars to make guest appearances in The Patsy. There's a clever mirror-shot with George Raft, and a party scene where Stanley is supposed to suck up to Hedda Hopper but instead has a hysterical fit over her absurd hat. Stanley's publicist is horrified, but Hedda is charmed: "He hasn't yet learned to be phony," she says. "He's real. . . and honest. . ." (Jerry Lewis, real?). A trio of minor show-business journalists make an appearance. And to show that Stanley's reputation is building around Hollywood, three "celebrities" express their admiration: Rhonda Fleming, Mel Torme and Ed Wynn!

There are a number of very funny scenes in The Patsy. But it's hard to imagine that many viewers these days can shrug off the really unpleasant, obsessive self-aggrandisement that pervades the movie. If it were just a display of Jerry Lewis's own particular pathology, The Patsy would not be especially interesting. But as an early example of "personal" cinema based on showing off one's insider status and rushing to congratulate oneself before the audience has a chance to, it's a landmark in post-studio Hollywood.

( 5/20/1995)


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein