In Hardly Working, Jerry Lewis, as Bo Hooper, is Making America Goyish Again. Made in between The Day the Clown Cried and Jerry’s Telethons for Muscular Dystrophy, this is Jerry’s first (seen) attempt to wed issues of Jewish /outsider identity, and Americana with the desire for artistic or political legacy. Opening with a montage (of other movies): Jerry toots his horn in a greatest moments' super edit. Bracketing the sequences is the typewriting scene in Who’s Minding the Store?. Though it is not a film Jerry directed, it is the only clip shown piecemeal that conspicuously shows craft. The poetry of his comedy, seemingly effortless, credited to hard work.
This gaze extending into the past introduces an artistic defense that Jerry makes for himself. In a late career pivot Jerry Lewis (re)directs himself in Hardly Working as a less hapless, more goyish and less boyish Clown. This iteration is Bo Hooper, older and wider, the least 'beau' Bo; close cousin to The King of Comedy's "Jerry Langford", but without his stature or success. Adjusting his persona as a literal clown in a more real world, there is markedly less "Bell" and less "Boy." More muscular, aged and thick in circumference than we've seen him on screen, physical and emotional gravity occupies these frames.
Abandoning some of the pure anarchy of earlier Jerry star turns, Hardly Working introduces a pathos (the circus closes and Jerry is thrust into the real world to plant roots), infecting the carefree cinema of Jerry's past. The world may scorn an unemployed clown, but that does not make him a scoundrel. Despite his best efforts, Bo remains an optimistic square peg. Though never made explicit, issues of difference, and the fear of being kicked out of a community reverberate as indicators of "Jewishness."
Away from the circus, Bo is thrust into the land of you better blend in, and comedy ensues as he tries on job after job after job. These jobs don’t ‘work’ for Bo/Jerry. Dreaming of a greater purpose, he is an artist busying himself with mindless chores. Common work is for the common people, or at least the more vanilla ones.
The picture crystallizes a time of becoming; Jerry the clown (and Bo the clown) is struggling to find or create serious work; to be a part of a social or artistic legacy greater than a stand alone comic sequence.
Hardly Working followed a painful near-decade where Jerry Lewis stopped making his own films. The last film he'd previously had in production was the still unseen Holocaust picture The Day the Clown Cried. Intended to be Jerry's first serious dramatic role, the film apparently embraces head on both Jerry's Jewish identity and his identity as a performer.
Bo Hooper is the antithesis to the clown who periled in the Holocaust. His family members and romantic interest read blond and bland. With his severely greased back thinning hair, Bo even bears a passing resemblance to 1979 Ronald Reagan. Bo’s gaze of desire lands on suburban tennis courts where palm trees and well-manicured foliage abound. Homes and sunny exteriors conspicuously point to the whitewashed appeal of 1950s revisited as 1980s suburban America, a universe welcoming Ronald Reagan’s campaign pledge to "Make America Great Again". Bo lives in a series of set pieces wedded to prefab housed, affluent Florida (also location for Lewis’ The Bellboy) that embody an ethnic-free America. In the sun-filled suburbs half the tension is "blending in", which Bo attempts with desperation, but it's hardly working.
Muted mentions of government, civil service, running for office and becoming the President dot the film. Hooper bases out of his very blonde sister's (Susan Oliver) suburban home in Florida, and in one of the earliest not for laughs scenes, he speaks to his (very blonde) niece about working hard and becoming anything you want, even the President.
The onset of a greater purpose may be mistaken as a poverty of poetry. The American qualities of ingenuity and regeneration are at work. Meaningless work is the same whether it is of a pointless entertainer or of a pointless postal position. A cog in the movie machine sees a forest for the trees, dreaming of a greater impact. The mirror exposes an evolution of another actor; from performing roles to performing politics. Ronald Reagan, already governor of California, had transitioned to a role of greater public standing. Reagan ran for President as Lewis was making Hardly Working.
Jerry’s visible ethnic difference is highlighted by the pale blonde women cast as relatives and love interest. This quiet echo of what drove him to make The Day the Clown Cried haunts the film. It is impossible to separate the difference of being Jewish from the different -ness of Jerry as Bo.
A mitigation of Bo's exceptional 'difference' aka ethnicity or Jewishness, results from the splintering of characters Jerry plays. The most outrageous, most specifically ethnic character is also the only other one Jerry plays in drag; a lady, spewing Yiddish and thickly accented english, is dressed for tennis, flirting with Bo the postal worker on his route.
Notably, this is the only other scene where running for president is directly addressed. Through a strained dialogue, Jerry as the tennis lady thinks that Bo the postal worker (now semi-established by middle management) is looking to run for office.
Hardly Working also gives us time-bending sequences where pure comedy reigns. After a shift as a disc jockey in a disco nightclub, Bo, in a sweater vest and front-seamed slacks Mr Rogers would wear, unties his bow tie in a nod to being off the clock, joining the younger, hipper nightclubbers. Separated from the others, he wistfully props himself upon a staircase rail, igniting a Saturday Night Fever fantasy sequence. Lewis becomes Travolta, not Travolta the great dancer, but Travolta the entertainer who doubles as an object of desire. Suddenly dressed as Tony Manero and in center frame; the faces of the onlookers take on a hypnotized stare.
Dance moves, at first slow, point to a tightly wound sensuality. Rhythm has Bo on a short leash; the possession glows in his eyes, and it can move you to tears. The stoned onlookers' faces dissipate into relaxed smiles; all eyes focused on Jerry. Just as the tone draws us in, the dance moves morph to pure parody and physical comedy. Propelled by pure sensation, the droop in his eyes abides and the gravity of his weariness lightens; Jerry is reborn, alive yet again.
In failed job after failed job, there is the shadow of persecution: a constant threat that he can again be suddenly dismissed. The initial loss of work in the circus was traumatic enough for him to uproot his life and try to find another way to live. The constant loss of work underlies the lack of power in the hired hand as well as the nagging anxiety of being 'found out' and 'taken away' (Jewish anxieties post World War II). The narrative culminates in a pied piper type calling that finds Bo marrying his adoration from being a clown to being a leader in the Postal Service. The layers of persecution , threats of removal /being thrown out of a community, along with the bright pre fab faces that populate its carefully manicured 'Americana' point to a dilution of Jewishness or any specific ethnic identity. The tension of fitting in and getting to stay in a community coincide with the least Jewish Jerry and a political climate of retroactively imagining all of America as the suburbs in the 1950s.
The electricity of Hardly Working runs counter to earlier Jerry Lewis pictures. With a jangly alteration of scenes of relaxed comedy and those of forced sentiment, tacky romantic music underlining earnest dialogues collide with some of the greatest stand alone comedic sequences ever put to film.
The result is a movie out of step while caught trying to move forward. Jerry is in conflict; he is a man in artistic progress and moral consideration. He is the clown and the Postal Office Civil Servant, the suburban WASP, but he is also still the Jewish City boy. The effect of watching all these (sometimes clashing) elements is to force a pause of reflection between laughs-- drawn into a more intimate relationship with the film’s author.