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The Straight Dope 

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Can you explain to me where does it come from that the French are supposed to be Jerry Lewis fans? As soon as somebody recognize my accent I'm asked, "How can you like Jerry Lewis movies?" I lived this last 30 years in France and I never met any Jerry Lewis fan. If you ask to 100 persons in the street for a J.L. movie title you'd difficultly have a few answers, and lot of people would made a confusion with a rock 'n' roll star. Excuse my limited English but I just start learning it, reading your books.

--Salutations distinguees, F. Murat, Chicago

Better buy the whole set, mon frere. On the J.L. issue, your bafflement is a consequence of your youth. Jerry Lewis was hot in France in the 60s but today is remembered only vaguely and in some quarters, dare I say it, even scorned. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who lived in Paris in the early 70s, says when he was interviewed a couple years ago by the French rock weekly Les inrockuptibles, "They mentioned in their introduction, as an indication of how weird I was, that I preferred Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen."

But it's not like Jerry has been completely forgotten. In 1984, coincident with his appearance in Michel Gerard's movie Retenez-moi...ou je fais un malheur ("Hold me back...or I'll have an accident"), he was made a commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honor. Two months later he was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest any kind of honor. Sure, this was for his charity work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But you don't see them giving it to me.

The French affection for Jerry Lewis has always mystified Americans. Highbrow critics (the only kind France has) wrote appreciatively about his work beginning in the 1950s, but things didn't really get nuts until Jerry's visit to France in 1965. Though past his peak in America by then, he was mobbed at the airport by fans and the press and was the toast of Paris for a week. French critics, who had voted The Nutty Professor the best film of the year, gave him an award, an art cinema put on a three-week Jerry Lewis festival, and the French film library held a retrospective with seminars on Jerry's art. Rosenbaum recalls Lewis hosting a two-hour prime-time show on French television in the 70s, with "guests like Louis Malle literally at his feet."

The reaction in the States was and remains: Jerry Lewis? Though hugely popular in his day, Lewis has never been esteemed by the American cultural elite. French acclaim, far from causing folks to reconsider, was taken as proof of French ridiculousness. One hates to pile on, but having seen a couple Lewis movies recently (the little researchers like 'em), one has to ask: What did the French see in this guy, anyway?

One's first thought is that it was all a campy lark by French critics, who found Lewis a perfect example of their notion of American excess. But it went on too long for that. Sheer Gallic perversity, then? The French did manage to find something to praise in Lewis's lamest efforts. For example, the critic Robert Benayoun, author of a highly regarded book on Lewis, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, and in the opinion of some a virtual Lewis groupie, found his idol's 1965 release The Family Jewels "audacious" because it "deliberately severs space-time." Shawn Levy, in his biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (1996), translates: "The plotting is utterly arbitrary, the basic story ludicrous, and the filmmaking characteristically sloppy."

Levy conjectures that French audiences took to Lewis in part because he exemplified the French notion of the auteur--the individual, typically the director, who imposes his artistic vision on the production, which Lewis definitely did. But it's probably equally true that the French, despite or maybe because of their devotion to art (you know, pushing the envelope and all that), were also suckers for low comedy. One recalls the legendary French stage performer Le Petomane, aka the Fartiste. Not that Jerrymania was strictly a French thing. Lewis was voted director of the year three times in France, but he won the same honor in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Say what you will about the French, Lewis deserves more respect from Americans than he gets. Woody Allen, for one, admired Lewis and wanted him to direct Allen's early films. As a kid I remember watching The Errand Boy (1961) and being touched by the exchanges between Lewis and the little clown puppet. A small thing, but how much of most movies do you remember the next day, much less after 38 years?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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