Three years ago now, I hit an unusual milestone – I had encountered a movie, Judge Priest, which I was very tempted to stop watching halfway through. For the past three years I have told people that was “the only film I was ever tempted to give up on”.
This film, a Jerry Lewis vehicle, is now the second film to earn that dubious distinction.
I hated this, y’all. Hated hated hated hated it. And this time the dislike wasn’t about the objectionable nature of the script (as was the case with Judge Priest); it was just plain bad. I also hated the previous film I’d seen with Jerry Lewis – but at least Artists and Models tempered things with some Dean Martin in the mix as well. In fact – it looks like The Ladies Man keeps all the things I hated most about Artists and Models, and threw out everything which made that film tolerable; Dean Martin and the plot are out, leaving only mugging manchild Jerry Lewis with an endless barrage of schtick.
I mean, they make some kind of attempt at a plot at first; Lewis plays “Herbert H. Heebert” (the “H” is also for “Herbert”, he says at one point), whom we first meet on graduation day from his small town college. He has been waiting until graduation to propose to his sweetheart, but rushes to her immediately following to find her in the arms of the star quarterback. The shock is enough to break his heart and make him swear off women forever. So it is “ironic” that when he goes off to The Big City to seek his fortune, the only work he can get is as the super in a prestigious women-only hotel and boarding house.
But that only occupies the first third of the movie; after Herbert is hired and underway, things just sort of….happen. Herbert knocks over some things while dusting. Herbert has a run-in with one of the resident’s dates, who happens to be a mafioso. Herbert has another run-in with another one of the resident’s dates, who’s someone famous that Herbert doesn’t recognize. A TV show comes to film live at the boarding house since the owner, Mrs. Helen Wellonmellon (Helen Traubel) is a former opera star, and Herbert repeatedly photobombs the event. Herbert meets the hotel pet, “Baby”. Herbert finally sneaks into the one room he has been told to avoid – only to find a woman dangling from the ceiling, clad in what I can best describe as “Spider Man Fetish Wear”, and then hallucinates an entire Big Band dance break. And so on and so on.
Maybe twice there are nods to a through-line – early on, Mrs. Wellonmellon urges the residents to come up with little things for Herbert to do so he “feels needed” and doesn’t quit on them. A bit later, Herbert has a scene with one of the residents, Fay (Pat Stanley), who’s just blown an audition; he gives her a bit of a cheer-up speech. Both of these points are totally dropped until the very last sequence, when a glum Fay spontaneously chastises the others for exploiting Herbert, and insisting they should treat him more fairly because “he’s a nice guy”. There is a “heartwarming” moment between Herbert and all the women, spearheaded by Fay, where they all insist that they genuinely like him and wish he would stay on. He agrees – and suddenly a lion starts roaming loose in the hotel, and I couldn’t tell you why.
That’s not a plot, that’s a bunch of random gags thrown together. I will grant that some of those jokes are funny; early on, during the “college graduation” scene, the professors name Herbert the class valedictorian, and the camera then cuts to a crowd shot of the graduates – with Herbert, seated towards the back, leaping excitedly into the air like an over-enthusiastic whack-a-mole. But then immediately after that we join Herbert’s parents outside in the campus green – where Herbert excitedly runs hither and yon shouting for his “Maaaaaa!” while Herbert’s parents stand in one spot, trying in vain to stop him. (There’s also a “sight gag” where we are kept from seeing “Ma” until the very end of the scene, where we see it is Jerry Lewis in really bad drag; I wasn’t amused.)
But as funny (or not) as the gags are, there is simply not enough framework to hang them on, and there is no comeuppance from any of the hijinks Herbert gets up to. I’m not opposed to gags that go nowhere as a rule; the 1980 comedy Airplane! is similarly “a bunch of gags thrown together”. But there’s much more of an overall plot throughout, so it still feels like a single story as opposed to An Excuse For Jerry Lewis To Be Stupid.
Think about that. Airplane has a stronger plot than this film.
I was discussing this with some friends after, and used an interesting analogy: I was focusing on how Dean Martin wasn’t in the picture any more to hold Jerry Lewis back, and compared it to how John Lennon and Paul McCartney were ideal collaborators because each was a check on each other’s worst impulses, and so after the Beatles split up, “John no longer had a check on his weird, and Paul no longer had a check on his twee.” I then went on to say that this film was therefore “the cinematic equivalent of listening to Wonderful Christmastime for two solid hours”.