Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython. Originally published in the Rome Daily American, 1971.
French film criticism has been deifying Jerry Lewis for nearly a decade now, citing him as an instance of American obtuseness in regard to our native art. Similarly, American critics never tire in citing this ultimate critical absurdity, as it were, as an attempt to discredit French criticism of Hollywood altogether.
Most of us no doubt possess so many low memories of Lewis at his hammy worst that it is asking quite a great deal of us to erase our revulsions and reverse our critical polarities. Lewis quickly becomes a supreme test of our objectivity.
Whatever one’s judgement, it has, I think, become considerably easier to approach Lewis’ later films. He himself is more disciplined, his gags have more dimensions, there is far more logic and grading in story development. It is easier to feel a directorial personality triumphing over the egomaniac on the screen.
All of which is so much preparation for saying that Which Way to the Front? has nearly converted me to the Lewis cult. Not only is it a tremendously funny film, it is amiable and pleasurable as well. And it may well be one of the few masterpieces of a comic personality since Keaton and Chaplin.
The comparison is purposeful. Lewis clearly intends himself as their heir and, whether one accepts him as such or not, it is only within this context that he begins to make sense. One must further grant to him, as one must to every other creator, a willing surrender of one’s own sense of order and propriety. Reality in art is a function of style, solely within style, need not answer in every respect to our intuitions.
Which Way to the Front? with fully anachronistic sets and clothing occurs during the time of World War II. Its hero is the wealthiest man in the world, an American business tycoon. When he receives his draft notice we expect him to evade it, as he so easily can. But Lewis’ satire has the biting truth of logic: he is proud to serve, henceforth the film has the wonder of logic unfolding happily along its own course, totally uninhibited by considerations of historical fact or normal criteria of sense.
Failing to gain entry into the U.S. Army, Lewis starts his own and, traveling to Italy, kidnaps the German Field Marshall and impersonates him in order to aid the Allies. A meeting occurs with Hitler that is an act of homage to the famous slow motion sequence in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and, with it, one of the most hilarious moments in American comedy.
While the film as a whole drifts along it own appointed course, the satire along the way is almost as stinging as anything to be found among disaffected underground filmmakers while being a lot more effectively accomplished. Chaplin had to flee America during the ‘50s for being far less critical than this.