By SJ Otto
I was a small child when I first went to see Visit to a Small Planet, back in 1960, my first Jerry Lewis movie. I was only 5 years old. I thought the movie was screamingly funny. But my taste in humor has changed a lot since I first saw that movie. Years later I saw the movie as an adult and I still found it to be humorous. There were parts of the movie I still found funny. There was humor I probably didn’t get as a child and some things I laughed at as a child were no longer so funny.
Lewis was probably the first adult human movie star I took a liking to. He was not animated like Popeye the sailor, another person I liked watching as a child. So I was seriously affected when Lewis died last month. He is no longer my favorite adult movie star. But I still like him and consider him an important influence on my life—not because he was a great philosopher, or a great meaningful hero, but because as a child I thought he was funny. Even today I feel like Lewis was a kind of comic genius. That’s not to say all his movies were great. He put out some real stinkers. Some of his early movies really sucked. But he was an innovator. He experimented a lot with humorous ideas. That meant that some of his films missed badly. The one I found really disappointing was Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River. And most Lewis fans probably agree that his master piece is The Nutty Professor. The latter movie turns the story of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on its side. Instead of the Professor turning into a monster, he turns into the kind of sophisticated and dominating person he always wished he could be. The movie is more than just funny. It takes up the issue of people wanting to be someone they are not and, with the magic of chemistry, the professor is able to become all he wants to be. So it is a movie that raises issues and subjects more than just mindless slapstick. Even Visit to a Small Planet has some satire in it.
It took a while, as a child, for me to realize that Lewis had been a part of the team of (Dean) Martin and Lewis. When I first saw some of those movies I thought they were pretty good. I especially liked Living It Up. But I think Lewis did his best work after he left Martin.
It’s been almost a month since Lewis died. He was 91 so he got a lot of years for himself. He made the best if his life—making movies, and many of us are glad he did.