Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sometimes I'm Happy

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” 

                         -Robert Louis Stevenson,   The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde

We here in America like to make fun of the French.  Considering part of what we don’t like about French people is their uppity mentality, we can be rather uppity on the subject.  Now when it comes to a certain War and some felt ungratefulness, I get that.  But we also like to ignore the fact we would not be a country at all if not for France.  Dang that little factoid.    

I told you that to tell you this.  The French love Jerry Lewis.  It’s almost  a tired joke to say, but it is and has been true.  So if the French like someone so much, someone so low brow, certainly we can be smug about the whole thing right?  I mean, that scrawny, mugging comic with the high voice?  Really?  

But also, is his own home country missing something?

Jerry Lewis has interested me for a long time.  Which is weird in a sense because I am not exactly a fan.  Or haven't been.  There are things here and there I enjoy.  His performance in The King of Comedy was flat out outstanding.  Critic Peter Sobczynski said he not only should have been nominated for the Oscar but won it.  It feels to me to be unquestionably a superior performance to the one given by the winner of that year, Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment).

His performance is full of nuance, which is not quite the word people think of when they think of Jerry Lewis.  His confident gate as Jerry Langford, walking down the street, both effeminate and completely masculine.  (I can only picture John Entwistle holding a cigarette as comparison)  As Comedy director Martin Scorsese described, "his brilliant solemnity." The feelings of surprise that he could act is ridiculous in hindsight.  His performance in The Nutty Professor should also have been at least nominated, if not won.  And Andrew Dice Clay (for better or worse) owes his career to Buddy Love.

Scene written by Lewis based on a real encounter he had with a fan

During the filming of The King of Comedy, Scorsese and Deniro would ask Lewis what it was like to be as famous as he was.  This was at the peak of Deniro's acting career, and yet not even he at that time could understand the celebrity Lewis endured.  Comparing any act to The Beatles feels a bit lazy and exaggerated, and yet look up Martin and Lewis and you can see hordes of screaming young fans outside their hotel window.  Lewis knew that level of fame; and both relished and detested everything that went with it.  
   

Underneath the child like antics was a brilliant mind.  He not only excelled at many different formats of entertainment, but he was an underappreciated technically skilled director.  When you study film and come across who invented the video assist, which lets directors and camera people and actors see what is being shot in the very moment, it was one Jerry Lewis that invented that.  His lectures at USC were turned into a book “The Total Filmmaker” which is considered essential reading for a would-be filmmaker.  One of his students was an aspiring filmmaker with only a single short film to his name; Steven Spielberg.



Despite all his success, one comment I heard the day of his passing was one that from an outsiders point of view like myself, felt to have some truth.  

“He never seemed really happy.”

I hope that is not accurate, but it feels like it is.

We're headed cross the river, wash your sins away in the tide.  It's all so peaceful on that other side.  Forget your troubles and just get happy.  You better chase all your cares away.  Shout Hallelujah come on get happy.  Get ready for the judgment day.



Lewis was as famous for being a grumpy old man in his last 15 years or so as he was anything else.  At times I would tell a friend, “Can you believe what Jerry Lewis just said?” While at other times I would think, “Why are people caring so much with what he said?”

The height of grumpy Jerry occurred in his very last interview, The Hollywood Reporter seven minute masterpiece where Lewis answers most questions with “why?"  The initial reaction that came out was “oh here Lewis goes again.”  But once you watch it you realize something quickly.  Lewis is 100% in the right, and giving the young reporter who is asking asinine questions a more memorable interview than he deserves.

You are nearly 91, still performing across the country and a crew comes tearing up your home with cameras and cables and lights, the extent of which you find unnecessary.  You were a movie director, so you would know.  And to top it off you are asked why you choose work over dying?

The very question is condescending ageism.  To me, his answers were exactly as they should be.  The King of “not suffering fools.”  Lewis was my new hero. 

"Only this morning, looking in the mirror while shaving, I enjoyed seeing what I saw so much I couldn't tear myself away."
         -Jerry Lewis as Buddy Love  (The Nutty Professor)

        

Before I knew Lewis as anything else, I knew him for his huge role in the MDA Labor Day Telethon.  My mother would explain to me that he was previously a “silly comedian,” which shocked me at the time because the man I saw talking seriously about helping “his kids” was unrecognizable from the skinny young man with the high-pitched voice that became famous with Dean Martin.

Second hand accounts from people who worked those telethons relay stories of a tough leader yelling often backstage to keep the show flowing just right. 

Lewis was notoriously cantankerous and at times difficult to work with.  He vaguely blamed himself for the breakup between he and Dean Martin; late in life when he would give any hint of a reason at all.

His personal life at times mirrored his professional one; full of peaks and valleys.  His first wife blamed numerous affairs for why she left him after 36 years of marriage.  He also suffered an addiction to painkillers during the 70's, a side effect of years of pratfalls.  

His most notorious career low was his abandoned 1972 film, The Day The Clown Cried.  The film was deemed unworthy of release.  But more accurately, too offensive to be released, being it told the story of a clown that tried to lighten the mood for children in a concentration camp.  Then at the end of the movie (the script is available online) he leads them inside a gas chamber himself, because he does not want them to be scared in that final moment.  Unable to deal with the horrors around him he dies alongside the children. 

The movie has only been seen by a small handful of people.  Maybe most famously, actor/comedian Harry Shearer was somehow one of those handful and stated “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.  ‘Oh My God!’- that’s all you can say.”

While much of why people detest the movie is the very idea of a comedian being involved in a film about the Holocaust, you cannot say it was a safe choice.  Of course Frenchman Roberto Benigni would years later win Oscars for the very similarly themed, Life Is Beautiful. 

While that movie has its detractors as well, I personally felt Benigni found the right delicate balance.  After defending the work for years, later in life Lewis seemed to agree he was not able to toe that line as effectively as Benigni.

“It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic.  You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.” 

But he seemed to have mixed feelings about his movie.  Feelings of a lost opportunity and a near miss.  “It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful,” he told a questioner at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.   

No matter how bad the film is; and for the sake of everything I will assume it is awful, I still have tremendous respect for Lewis for the attempt.  Yes, you could argue it was a blatant pursuit for an Oscar.  But that does not make the subject matter any less of a risk.  Lewis was not against taking risks.  This was just his most famous one.  And one he still seems to want people to view despite his previous statement, though he set it up to be after he was gone.  In 2015 Lewis donated his copy to the Library of Congress on the stipulation it not be shown for at least ten years. It is as if he hopes from the afterlife to have at least some people prove him right.  

"It's either better than Citizen Kane or the worst piece of shit that anyone ever loaded on the projector."  -Jerry Lewis

Despite the film being famously mocked for decades now, it has at least one rather staunch supporter amongst the small handful that have seen it.  

French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon:   “I’m convinced it’s a very good job. It’s a very interesting and important film, very daring about both the issue, which of course is the Holocaust, but even beyond that as a story of a man who has dedicated his life to making people laugh and is questioning what it is to make people laugh. I think it is a very bitter film, and a disturbing film, and this is why it was so brutally dismissed by those people who saw it, or elements of it, including the writers of the script.”


For some context, there was not a mainstream Holocaust film made at this time.  Not one that showed the gas chambers.  The fact this would be the first is like imagining if Adam Sandler were the first to make such a movie. 

The very MDA Telethon I knew him for before anything else, could also be seen as an interesting choice.  You would think this is where there could be no criticism of the man.  But Lewis, raised in an era long before “politically correct” was a term, was one of those people who you sense would never have had the patience to follow or care about the sensitive right word or not, no matter the era.  He was helping people, but for some that was not enough.  Some of his “kids” would later call themselves “Jerry’s Orphans” for the way they believed Lewis used pity for them to raise money.  Lewis would on occasion refer to children with MD as “cripples.”  

In a first-person account he wrote for Parade Magazine in which he imagines life as a child with MD, he refers to himself in character as “half a person.”  It is not out of the realm of possibility to believe these thoughts would go through the mind of someone suffering from this disease.  But a group of people with MD found them highly offensive, and began protesting the very telethon that had made Muscular Dystrophy a household word.  

"It's not grammatically correct, but I think you have the idea."   

This raises many discussion questions and conversations about people who suffer from disabilities, and I well applaud anyone who does not see themselves as a victim.  But it also seems like if a man raises more money than any single individual for any single cause, maybe you cut him a little slack. 

Lewis would put it succinctly.  “They’ve got a problem.  I hope they get better.”  

“Why wasn’t I a terrible person when we bought them the wheelchairs that are getting them around?”

Mike Wallace:  “You’ve called them half a person, do you really feel that way?”

Jerry Lewis:  “They can’t run with me down the hall can they?  In truth, aren’t they given half?  Haven’t they been left with half?  If there is a degree of measurement, are they whole?”

No one seems to know why Jerry Lewis picked MD as a cause.  Possibly, for such a physical comedian, the idea of not being about to use one’s body as they wished was unimaginable to him.  When asked even by good friend Larry King as to why, King said he never once answered him.  But to assume it was all for simple personal glory, seems a jaded viewpoint I cannot imagine wanting to be on board with.      

Yes the man could be a jackass, but to stay up for entire weekends raising money and making appearances so it might win you some award some day?  That is a level of cynicism I hope to never have for anyone.  Write a check and get a building named after you.  Undeniably, Jerry Lewis did far more than that. 

Lewis’ straight talk was often (and accurately) looked at as an old crank in his later years.  But even some of this you can excuse as a man of his time.  I see my grandfather in his “women aren’t funny” comments. 

Sure, maybe he meant them in that very moment.  Maybe he meant “many are not to me because____.”  And any nuance in this “all genders are exactly the same and how dare you suggest otherwise” moment in time, is certainly not allowed.  It should also be pointed out that Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin praised him for his good will towards them during their careers.  To broad brush him with labels and "I'm glad he's gone" sentiments, as I have seen done by self righteous (and far less talented) comedians I know, is both lazy and hack.

Maybe Jerry Lewis was a simple man.  A jerk who got famous and remained a jerk.  Or maybe, the over the top performer was someone misunderstood that we never got to know completely in 90 plus years. 

One thing possibly more easy to analyze was his love for his comedy partner, Dean Martin.  “I fell in love with him the day we met.”  

Jerry Lewis oozed ego.  But when it came to the straight man of the comedy team, Lewis acquiesced.  “His comedic skills were unparalleled.”


“We were both six feet tall.  I took his shoes one day and put lifts on them, so he would be a little taller than me. “

The reason being, Lewis looked up to the 9 years older Martin, and so he should literally on stage and screen. An only child, Lewis felt a kinship as if in Martin he now had a sibling.  “I loved him so much.  And I knew how much he loved me.” 

In Martin, Lewis found a soul mate.  The only child had found his brother.  At 90, and during that famous final interview, Lewis gives the closest thing to an answer when asked, "what was the most enjoyable part of your career?"  His answer: "when my partner was alive." A partner that he had not worked with since 1956.  




During the famous surprise reunion that Frank Sinatra set up during the 1976 Telethon, the men that had not spoken in twenty years at that point fall effortlessly into a chemistry.  A chemistry that Sinatra himself, despite being the one at that point that had worked with Martin for years, could not match when they sang a song together afterwards.  Martin and Lewis feel natural.  Martin and Sinatra, off moment or not, feel awkward and forced by comparison. 

"He was a miracle that God put in my life and working with him was a feeling I will never forget."   -Jerry Lewis on Dean Martin

Tragedy would bring Lewis and Martin together again.  When Dean Martin's son died from an airplane crash, Lewis went to the funeral unannounced.  There the old friends spoke for two hours.  Martin let Lewis know how much he loved him.  

"That was the first time he had said that or ever related to loving me.  He showed it enough, it was just difficult for him to say."

Losing a son would be something the old friends would one day have in common.

Joe, one of Jerry's six son's, committed suicide at age 45.  His oldest son Gary would blame his father for his brother's tragic end. 

"Jerry Lewis is a mean and evil person.  He was never loving and caring towards me or my brothers."  

Kliph Nesteroff is the author of "The Comedians," which gives a history of American comedy.

In it, he says Lewis's influence "cannot be overstated."  He cites him as one of the best examples we have of the comedic mind.

"The comic neuroses, the good and bad side, the happy, funny, smiling side and the brooding, angry, depressed side - Jerry Lewis had both of those.  Whether he was aware of it or not, we frequently saw both sides of him on display."

Jerry Lewis helped raise 2.6 Billion Dollars to fight Muscular Dystrophy.  



"Sometimes he's happy, sometimes he's blue.  You can't he blue and happy too.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Worth Having












I went to an estate sale the other day and found an original Uncle Wiggly game for sale. Ridiculously, I bought it.  It reminded me of fond memories of playing that game at my grandparents' house in Richmond, Va.

It brought back a lot of great memories from my childhood.  My Big Wheel.  How cool it was to use their rotary phone.  Watching Song of the South over and over.

Song of the South is a groundbreaking film that used "live animation;" cutting edge in its day.  It contains one of the most memorable songs ever put to a children's film, or really any film.

It is a depressing day when you find out one of your favorite films is racist.

But is it completely?  Or does that even matter?  Or how much is it?  And does not intent matter?

But beyond all those considerations, does it not still deserve to be seen?

All of these thoughts have gone through my mind when I first started to write this post seven years ago. For seven years I have started to write this, assumed I would not get the tone I was going for correct, and abandoned the article.

I think of this now because often the first thought that comes to mind when you bring up this movie is, "Oh that's racist."  End of discussion.  But why is it this film?  Meaning, why can it not even be discussed?  Or seen?  It seems Birth Of A Nation, is easier to find.

This film has not been available to be seen in the United States since the 1980's.  Disney has all but disowned it here.  But not abroad.

Multiple Disney films have racist scenes or characters in them.  I am not arguing, "so what's the harm in one more."  I am asking why is this film, imperfect as it might be, the only film Disney has never released on DVD, and the only Disney film they seem to refuse to ever show again?  Why when its central character is a strong black man?  A hero to the children.  In how many other Disney films is a black man the hero?

What about the racist stereotypes in Dumbo, The Aristocats, even the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp?  By contrast, Song of the South has some redeemable, even honorable elements to it.
Uncle Remus is the hero of his own Disney movie.  A black man.  A former slave who is now treated as an equal with everyone he encounters.  He is downright beloved.  At a time when films were still very much tone deaf in regard to race, a black actor is the focal point of a big movie.  He is not a villain or betrayed as stupid.  He is the smartest person in the movie.  Years later, this will be looked at as a negative.  The "magic negro," concept.  But in 1948 what was more surprising?  This or the stereotypical black man that was portrayed as always drinking and trying to avoid work, such as Rochester on The Jack Benny Show?

Another way to look at this movie is how groundbreaking it was for black actors going forward.

Halle Berry did not accomplish as much as she wanted to take credit for by winning her Oscar. She does not have to play maids (unless she chooses to).  To cry and state that what she accomplished was now going to pave the way for so many, was disregarding many of the actors that came before and paved the way for her.  That played the roles many would now see as beneath her.

Hattie McDaniel is sometimes looked at, justifiably, as a groundbreaking performer who paved the way for other black actors and actresses.  She famously said, "Id rather play a maid than be one."

But James Baskett is never mentioned in the "groundbreaking" discussion.  That is a crime.  Those who came after owe him a debt.

Both of these actors, as well as others, had to deal with things no actor has to worry with today.  Not even mentioning the obvious day to day racism, Baskett was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta.  He was the star of the movie!  When becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel was not allowed to sit anywhere near the other Oscar nominated actors.  She was at a table for two at the very back of the ballroom.  A ballroom that movie executives had to beg to get her into at all.

"Halle Berry is here.  Whose win last year broke down barriers for unbelievably hot women."
                     -Steve Martin

Song of the South is a classic film no one wants to admit being a fan of.  Kind of like the previously mentioned Birth of A Nation, or Triumph of the Will.  But while those films' intentions were never honorable, Song of the South, one could argue, at least naively, desired to be honorable. And in some ways it succeeds. And in this we (and Disney) have our conundrum.

Disney World as well as Disney Land have a ride called Splash Mountain.  It is based on the film Song Of The South.  But while you hear Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit, you will not be able to purchase anything from the film in which this very popular ride is based.  And Uncle Remus is conspicuously absent.  

In all other ways but Splash Mountain, Disney does not want you to remember the film ever existed.











But the mistakes and reasons to criticize the film are not hard to see.  One huge mistake is that people are led to believe Uncle Remus is a slave.  And a very happy one.  But every story by author Joel Chandler Harris was set in the POST Civil War South.  Maybe Walt Disney (who loved the Uncle Remus stories as a youth) assumed people would know this.  But it is never made clear and people assumed instead of a depiction of a man happy to be free, it is a depiction of a man who could care less he is not.

The next and biggest reason to criticize the film is the Tar Baby story.  No matter  what one might argue about original intent, (and this was a parable told by slaves) there is plenty that now makes this scene uncomfortable. 

Was it uncomfortable to me as a kid?  No.  I never once thought, "hey, is this offensive!?"  What can seem 100% magical as a child can then years later, through the prism of life, become something else.

That racism is taught might seem a bit trite of a sentiment. But it does not make it not true.

I suppose this film embodies that sentiment.  We can look at how a white child is helped by a black man, and race is not an issue with either.  We can also see elements, as we get older and "learn" racism, that we would never have even noticed previously.

True of many, Walt Disney was more complex than simply "a racist;" though there is some argument that he was.  Andrew Jackson was responsible for "The Trail of Tears."  He also adopted an American Indian Boy and raised him as his very own son.  People are more complex than a Disney Villain might be.  And such it was with Walt. 

Walt Disney not only loved the stories as a child, he was a huge fan of James Baskett.  He called him one of our finest actors.  And by accounts in private conversations, not to sell movie tickets.

For his portrayal of Uncle Remus, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award, becoming the first black male performer to be awarded an Oscar.  The award was in no small part championed by Walt Disney.  Argued Disney, Baskett had worked "almost wholly without direction," and had alone, devised the characterization of Remus.  He was also the voice of Brer Fox, as well as Brer Rabbit in one sequence.

Receiving his Oscar from Ingrid Bergman
















After Baskett's death, just two years after the release of the film, Baskett's widow would write to Walt Disney.  "You have been a friend indeed and (we) certainly have been in need."

I can remember so many years ago seeing clips of Baskett singing "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" during movie or awards' shows.  Or, "The Wonderful World of Disney."  But now I can not remember the last time I have seen any clip from the film from any television program.  With outrage from black actors that they are not getting enough Oscar recognition, there is no foreseeable way we will see clips honoring this work ever again.

But the film is not without its defenders.

Herman Hill in The Pittsburgh Courier believed that Song of the South would "prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations," and considered criticisms of the film to be "unadulterated hogwash of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."

It was slaves that created these stories.  Think about that for a second.  A man with the education to do so, (Joel Chandler Harris) wrote down these wonderful stories he heard and shared them with the world.  In many ways preserving a part of a culture's history.

Joel Harris was always hanging out with black Americans as a youth.  He would spend hours in the slave quarters because he was fascinated and entertained by them, and eventually wrote down the stories they shared. He believed as an illegitimate son of an immigrant, he was allowed inside their inner circle in a way others may not have been so quickly.  One argument is that Joel Harris helped preserve black history when few black people had the power to do this for themselves. A white man who loved stories told by black people, helped bring them to life and preserve them. Until we allowed ourselves to find them offensive. Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementos of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."

The 185 Uncle Remus stories became incredibly popular among readers of all races in both the North and the South.  The Northern readers were especially fascinated by a dialect that few had heard.

This was not a mocking but a celebration in a time where that did not happen to a large degree.  Mark Twain said in 1883, "In the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

President Theodore Roosevelt stated, "Presidents may come and presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature."

Even today, some educators have their students read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" over Twain's masterpiece, ""The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."  Because "Finn" is "racist."  When of course it is the complete antithesis of that. But having these kinds of discussions seems no longer an option, if certain words or vernacular are used.  Accuracy is irrelevant.

If  pegging a dialect of speech, that was accurate to the time period, as racist...then is  not  that thought, a misguided and prejudiced one?

In a time when we must take down all statues of Confederate Soldiers, tell Native American High Schools the mascot they handpicked for themselves is racially insensitive, and attempt to completely wipe out any history worthy to discuss and learn from...how much do we lose, and what is really gained?


"Telling these tales gave the slaves hope and faith that they could survive and persevere in the face of their troubles just like Brer Rabbit."    -Diane Ferlatte 


Diane Ferlatte is a wonderful storyteller that often uses various Brer Rabbit stories in her performances, as well as audio recordings.

She continues in a way, the work made famous by Joel Chandler Harris; as a voice for this part of history.  Because that history has some roots in sadness, does not mean a prime example of perseverance beyond it, should now be lost.



"Listen to the story that came out of the mouths of slaves."

Joel Chandler Harris retold these stories.  So did Walt Disney.  So did James Baskett; an incredibly talented and too often forgotten actor.

Wiping Song of the South from existence, is maybe not as moral and helpful an act as Disney would now have us believe.

"I believe that certain groups are doing more harm to our race in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the positive images Mr. Disney shows in this film."
    -James Baskett

The Uncle Remus stories are popular internationally and have been translated into over 40 languages.

"I'm convinced that this charming film will eventually be made available to all to enjoy-and maybe even argue over.  After all, some arguments are worth having."

-Floyd Norman, (Disney's first black animator)