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April Fools: The Errand Boy (1961)

April is for celebrating the fools of filmland. Each Friday this month, we will examine a vintage comedy. This week Rodney and Samantha discuss The Errand Boy.

RODNEY: Ah, Jerry Lewis. Comedian, dramatic thespian, author, director, movie theater chain magnate… what can you say about Jerry, the self-proclaimed master of all aspects of show business? Of course, I’m being facetious (mildly). Here we have Jerry in one of his more highly regarded pictures, The Errand Boy (1961). What can’t be disputed is that Lewis was undoubtedly one of the biggest stars on the Paramount lot during this time period. All of his early-60’s films, regardless of the critical response were reliable moneymakers, and in many ways it’s understandable why.

SAMANTHA: My introduction to Jerry Lewis was as a telethon host. I didn't know anything about his heyday in films, and didn't see him in anything until somewhat recently. It was while browsing the Whayne's dealer room at Cinevent that I saw title after title featuring Lewis and Dean Martin. A few friends recommended I seek them out, and I eventually did, enjoying several titles, including the much maligned solo film Way... Way Out. I even wrote to Lewis before he died and received an autographed photo perfumed with smoke. It now graces my wall.

R: Jerry is Morty S. Tashman (a name that seems remarkably familiar to Frank Tashlin who had previously directed Lewis. I may be wrong). He’s something of a handyman on the lot of Paramutual studios, where they are experiencing a financial crisis (but not because their movies aren’t making money; I’m not sure why. It’s all a little confusing).

S: There is no logic in this plot. I don't know if this was done intentionally for comic effect (if so, it failed) or if they just didn't care about the plot and just wrote up something to enclose the jokes.

R: TP Paramutual (Brian Donlevy), head of the studio concludes that they need someone who is not well known on the lot to go undercover and determine where business can be improved. Enter Jerry, who is given the assignment under the supervision of Dexter Sneak (Howard McNear).

S: They intentionally pick a moron for the job, but the why doesn't make sense. We are introduced to Lewis struggling as he covers over a billboard proclaiming his own name in association with this movie. How very meta, as the kids say.

R: From there on, we’re off to the races. There’s no real information about how Tashman is actually discovering where the studio is wasting money, just a series of skits and vignettes where he creates havoc around the studio.

S: The movie is just an excuse for Lewis to do bits. They're funny and the Hollywood setting is pleasant (I especially loved the documentary-style comedy voice over that opened the film), but the plot is paper thin. Several times, Jerry ruins takes when he is working as an extra by looking at the camera. It reminds me of Chaplin's Kid Auto Races in Venice.

R: Lewis himself directs and co-writes the film, and it’s up for debate just how much writing and directing were involved here. In case you miss the credits, Jerry reminds you throughout an early scene in the film that he is the director (and he does this in a pretty creative way). Watching the film, you have no doubt that he co-wrote it. For better or worse, it’s his show entirely. It's wildly inconsistent, but there are some great scenes here. The one where Jerry does a pantomime act to a Count Basie song is a popular one and with good reason. It’s pretty great.

S: I liked the scene where he sat down at a table to eat lunch and suddenly a war broke out around him. There is another moment where he's working as an errand boy and has to deliver a bunch of things for his boss, who insists he does not slam the door on his way out. Watching him try to maneuver a huge stack of mail while also getting to where he needs to go reminded me of myself on my frequent trips to the library.

R: The other scene that really affected me was a speech that Jerry gives to a goose puppet (look, just go along with me on this) about the importance of movies and the hard work that so many people put into making movies. We seem to be in another cycle where actors are absurdly derided as “pretending for a living” (always by non-actors) and just how great and magical this medium can be is discounted and lost. What ruins the magic of that scene is a scene that nearly immediately follows this one about how Jerry Lewis himself is such a great boon to the movies. Yuck.

S: Lewis was a rubber-faced comic, manic and childlike, but he is magnetic in his quiet moments too, like that sweet little mute puppet show. He made the bold choice to back this scene up with a mostly silent underwater sequence. Really this movie offers a variety of types of comedy, from the restrained to the very, very broad. The suit of armor jokes have a wacky Monty Python quality. The scene where Jerry tries to (poorly) teach the kids basketball, only to have them break out into an impromptu choreographed Harlem Globetrotter-esque routine is pretty fun too.

R: At the end of the day, I’m going to go with two stars, and a lot of that is because I love Howard McNear so much and he’s SO Howard McNear-ish and fun. There are also lots of character actors and cameos that are pretty delightful. Jerry himself? This isn’t his finest hour. It always throws me off to see a low paid idiot running around wearing jewelry with his chest-hair sticking out of his shirt like a sex symbol. Jerry always wants it both ways. Sometimes it works. This time it doesn’t.

S: I don't think you're undervaluing this by giving it two stars. I concur. As important as getting laughs in a comedy is, if the plot is no good, the movie won't have much replay value. It is worth watching for fans of old Hollywood to get a glimpse of the innerworkings of a studio, but only die-hard Jerry Lewis fans will find this performance worth repeating. It is hard for people to achieve the detachment from their work required to edit themselves, and Lewis struggled with this as a director in The Errand Boy. He was too self-indulgent and would have benefitted from an editor's eye to clean up this messy, but funny, comedy.

Join us next month as we pay tribute to films shown at Cinevent.

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