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Jerry Lewis Retrospective at Cinefamily

“Just what is it that the French see in Jerry Lewis?” That has long been the watch cry of a supposedly intellectual American class. The answer: The French were simply faster on the uptake. They saw that this rubber-faced, twitchy-bodied, high-voiced comic was not only funny (as millions of moviegoers the world over knew) but was filled with cinematic ideas as inventive as any devised by his masters — Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy. Every Saturday (and one Sunday) this month, Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre is offering a Lewis double feature that demonstrates why audiences have adored him, why comics like Robin Williams, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy worship him, why directors as varied as Jean-Luc Godard (Keep Your Right Up) Bernardo Bertolucci (Partner) and Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) are so indebted to him, and why the Los Angeles Film Critics Association honored him with its 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award. Which is not to mention his Emmy, his Oscar and his Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

It all starts on June 6 with the classic The Nutty Professor (1963), paired with the lesser-known but equally inventive The Patsy (1964), a darkly hilarious satire of show-business success that’s more relevant than ever in the age of American Idol. On June 13, The Bellboy (1960) screens with The Errand Boy (1961). The former (his first as a director) finds Jerry treating the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach as if it were a movie set; the latter finds him treating Paramount studios as if it were a hotel. The June 20 program spotlights two Frank Tashlin–directed items. Who’s Minding the Store (1963), a department-store slapstick romp, is climaxed by the most incredible gag with a vacuum cleaner you’ve ever seen. The Disorderly Orderly (1964) finds Jerry too empathetic to be a doctor, so he becomes an orderly, driving the great Kathleen Freeman to distraction. The pièce de résistance, however, is Jerry’s reaction to patient Alice Pearce as she describes her physical ailments in excruciating detail. Screening on June 27, 1960’s Cinderfella (self-explanatory), another Tashlin collaboration, has Jerry in love with both Anna Maria Alberghetti and Count Basie and his orchestra. It’s paired with The Ladies Man (1961), a surrealist masterpiece shot on the largest set built at Paramount since Rear Window. Last but far from least, June 28 brings Jerry’s 1983 (and, to date, last) comedy, Cracking Up (also known as Smorgasbord). It’s visual and aural gags achieve a sublimity few ever so much as perceive. Nothing more to say except OH LAAAAADDDYYYY!! Don’t miss it. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; thru Sun., June 28. www.cinefamily.org.)

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