The Patsy (1964)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Ina Balin, Everett Sloane
Synopsis: When a star comedian dies, his comedy team, decides to train a nobody to fill the shoes of the Star in a big TV show.
Is it possible that, by the time Jerry Lewis (The Ladies Man, The Nutty Professor) came to make The Patsy in 1964, he had become so jaded that he consciously chose to abandon making comedies in favour of making movies which emphasised the absurdity of what he had been doing for the previous 15 years? By 1964, his time at the top was approaching its end, and it was years since he had attempted to insert his increasingly stale routine of mangled syntax and contrary props into anything approaching a substantial storyline. His work on The Patsy has the feel of a tired talent going through the motions, and its subject matter suggests that Lewis was growing weary of the exploiters and the hangers-on that have always been a feature of the movie industry.
Lewis plays Stanley Belt, a typically challenged creation who’s working as a bellboy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel when news breaks of the death of a famed comedian. In one of the rooms of the Hilton, the dead comedian’s former entourage worry about their futures without a meal ticket. Morgan Heywood (a sour-faced Peter Lorre — M, Casablanca) suggests to his colleagues that all they need to do to keep the gravy flowing is to find an unknown — any unknown — and work their magic upon him. Enter Stanley, dropping glasses and flipping ice cubes in all directions. Perfect. What could go wrong? Simply take a near-retarded oaf with no discernible talent and transform him into a star. How can such a plan fail?
Lewis’s casting choices for the other members of the entourage are interesting. Everett Sloane (The Desert Fox, The Enforcer) was an actor who never found a niche in Hollywood and who therefore found his talents woefully under-used; John Carradine, who appeared in such bona fide classics as Stagecoach, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Grapes of Wrath had seen his career deteriorate into appearances in a series of Z-grade horror movies, and apart from a couple of scenes is given little to do other than to lurk in the background; Lorre, whose last film this was to be, had seen his career go nowhere; Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove, The Mechanic), the son of the legendary Ed Wynn and Grandson of esteemed Shakespearian tragedian Frank Keenan had toiled for years in supporting roles that never really tested his talents. Ina Balin, a one-time ‘International Star of Tomorrow’ in the 1950s whose Hollywood movie career was already in its death throes, provides Lewis’s love interest. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that cast list, but their shared experience of misused talent is undeniable.
Most of the comedy routines Lewis had done before, and for the most part they are interminable. Lewis began directing his own movies from 1960, and without the discipline of a mentor like Frank Tashlin to restrain his self-indulgence, his comedy quickly became bloated. And yet in every movie there would be at least one brief glimpse of gold, a rare glimpse of the quickness of his mind. In The Patsy it comes when Stanley deftly upends an irritating coach by looping an imaginary lasso around the offender’s legs and giving a good hard yank. In an inspired moment of innovation during the movie’s final scene, Lewis doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as turn the camera around to face it. It’s all an illusion, he seems to be saying, a meaningless sham — but I’m no Stanley Pelt because I’m the one who controls the illusion.
(Reviewed 30th March 2014)