Writer, director, star of stage, screen and television, humanitarian, producer, and total filmmaker—Jerry Lewis was all of the above. For the first six years of his career he was also a professional lip syncher. At age twelve, desperate to follow his parents on stage, Jerry began developing a “record act.” A staple on the lower rungs of the Borscht Belt, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclubs, record acts (a.k.a. dummy acts) were cheap and easy: they consisted of a performer or performers miming away to recordings. Always considered pretty corny, they were the poor stepchildren on the theatrical bills, but there were plenty of budding comics who broke into show business that way. Jerry Van Dyke was another newbie who started his career doing record acts, and much later Andy Kaufman would put his own spin on it mouthing only part of the theme song to Mighty Mouse.
For the young Joey Levitch it was ideal. All he needed were the records and the player—he already had the overabundance of funny faces to go with them. At first he did the act whenever he could get a chance, mostly at the Catskill hotels. When he was sixteen he dropped out of high school and took it on the road. Appearing between features at movie theatres in Northern New Jersey, he soon moved into burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclubs. Jerry did take-offs of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Betty Hutton, Danny Kaye, Carmen Miranda, Deanna Durbin, and operatic performers such as Igor Gorin. The structure and duration of the routines were dictated by the recordings themselves, which left Jerry free and gave him a license to mug. Alan King in his 1996 autobiography The Life and Times of Alan King (Touchstone, New York) remembered:
"Jerry Lewis would put a mop on his head and lip-synch an aria from The Barber of Seville. He was crazy even then."
If he had just kept doing the record act we might never had heard of Jerry, but luckily he met Dean Martin. When they found themselves on the same bill in 1946 at the Havana-Madrid nightclub in Manhattan and started fooling around together in late-night impromptu shows, the rest is history. The combination of Dean and Jerry (where Jerry would basically interrupt Dean’s record act—although he was really singing) sent them into the show biz stratosphere. But the experience of his time spent miming to music left its mark on Jerry, and movie audiences would eventually see the after effects.
Although Lewis did musical interludes during his teaming with Martin—misleading an orchestra while Dean was trying to sing, doing his Carmen Miranda record act in Scared Stiff (1953)—it was really in his 1960 to 1964 solo films that the influence burst forth. The Bellboy (1960) has Jerry being just that at the swanky Fontainebleau Hotel in Las Vegas. Since he’s silent during the picture sound gags abound, and the most striking is the four-minute sequence where he conducts a non-existent orchestra. With great passion and deliberateness he goes through the various instruments, and ends the concert with a final bow and lights out.
Cinderfella (1960), which was shot before The Bellboy but released after, has two musical interludes. The first has poor step-son Fella in the kitchen preparing food. He takes a break to turn on the radio and hears Count Basie playing Cute. Fella is immediately transfixed and does his version of playing all the instruments in the catchy piece. The other is his dance down a huge staircase as a dream Prince Charming at the ball (done in one take, during which Lewis had a minor heart attack).
Probably the most unusual and intriguing of music sequence comes in 1961’s The Ladies Man. Jerry plays Herbert H. Heebert who has a chronic fear of women. Nonetheless, he gets a job as the boy-Friday of a women’s-only boarding house. While dusting one day, Herbert takes a look in a mysterious room to find it completely done in white—walls, furniture, light fixtures, et cetera. Within this pale world there’s a seductive woman dressed in black tights hanging from the ceiling. This spider woman comes after Herbert and eventually goes over to the white record player, and then turns on what I assume is a white record. Harry James and his orchestra suddenly appear (In these musical fantasies the accompaniment is always by heavy hitters like James, Les Brown, and Count Basie—Lewis always dreams big! Of course like the end of The Patsy (1964) it’s just a movie, and Jerry the director can get who he wants). The lady in black dance-chases Herbert through the band and around the room. Eventually tiring of the chase, she sends the puzzled Herbert on his way.
A famous bit comes in Jerry’s next picture The Errand Boy (1961) with “The Chairman of the Board” routine. Jerry is hired as an errand boy at Paramutual Studios, as they want a spy who can report what’s going on behind the scenes. During Jerry’s misadventures on the lot he comes upon the big conference room, and in the number he mimes that he’s the boss of the studio giving out orders left and right as he puffs on his big cigar to the oom-pahs of Les Brown and his Band of Renown. In The Nutty Professor (1963) Jerry sings tunes like Old Black Magic and We’ve Got a World that Swings as Buddy Love, but alter-ego Julius Kelp is too uptight to sing or even openly express his joy in music. In the sequence at the college prom, Kelp is a chaperone and has to surreptitiously enjoy Les Brown. As Kelp says the tune is “quite a toe-tapper,” and it’s all he can do to keep the enjoyment from erupting out of him while he’s under the horrified gaze of Principal Warfield and his secretary Miss Lemon.
Finally, Jerry’s best-known pantomime routine is to Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter. Doing it on the Colgate Comedy Hour as early as 1950, Jerry committed it to film in Who’s Minding the Store? (1963). Directed by Frank Tashlin, the plot has Jer having to perform all sorts of difficult tasks at a department store to prove himself worthy of the hand of his girl, and when he finds himself assigned to the personnel department of the store he has the need to write a letter. Probably the most formal and definitive version of the routine, it’s still his best known bit and fair game for much parody and imitation.
The period talked about above, from roughly 1960 to 1964, was Jerry's creative peak as a writer, director, and performer, where he had the freedom and full box office clout to explore all the nooks and crannies of his on-screen persona. A later sequence from 1970’s Which Way to the Front? is the inverse of the musical segments. Jerry puts on a record of German phrases which causes him to talk and try to conform to its standards. Much like his mimicking of Hans Conried’s painful yelps in The Patsy (1964), Jerry’s attempts to master the German spins out of control due to the brusqueness and Teutonic tone of the instructor on the recording.
The earlier musical interludes are eruptions of Jerry the character’s alternate reality—with all these things going on in his head it’s no wonder that he can’t repeat names or simple instructions. He’s living in his own busy internal universe so it’s hard for him to focus and take in the mundane things all around him. As a filmmaker the routines set to music gave Lewis a work- around to do silent comedy in sound films—where he could explore the purely physical without the restraints of the main plot (loose as it usually was). These sequences are more or less crystallizations of Jerry fooling around—which is what he really wanted to do from the very beginning of his career.