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The Ladies' Man (1961)

No matter how desperately unfunny the movies got as his career wore on, it's a film like The Ladies' Man (1961) that not only justifies the French adoration of Jerry Lewis's antic brand of comedy, but condemns American indifference toward it as a kind of ignorant, reverse snobbishness. Taking an absurdist cue from frequent collaborator Frank Tashlin, Lewis invests this second feature, the follow-up to his silly but endlessly clever The Bellboy (1960), with an astounding visual sophistication that counterbalances its unabashedly juvenile sensibility. It's a comedy of giddy invention, the work of a great cinematic artist at the height of his powers, and the freeform inspiration for every gonzo laughfest since, from Airplane! to Anchorman. The plot — and there's more of it here than in The Bellboy, but just barely — revolves around the lovelorn Herbert H. Heebert of Milltown (which, a sign informs us, is "A Very Nervous Community"), who copes with the post-graduation shock of seeing his fiancée smooching with a varsity athlete by running away to the city, where he hopes to find a job that will help him avoid young women altogether. Herbert eventually winds up securing a servant gig in the enormous, multi-story urban estate of Miss Helen N. Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), a wealthy widower who at first appears to live alone with her sweet-natured maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman). But what seems like a cushy gig promptly turns into Herbert's worst nightmare, as this vast residence turns out to be populated by a throng of young, demanding, and quite nubile women. Herbert, of course, panics, but Miss Wellenmellon appeals to what little pride he has left by framing the job as a challenge to his wounded manhood, though he does seem like a fairly dubious hire in light of the fact that the average length of employment for most houseboys, before they quit from estrogen-induced anguish, is three days. The tasks set before Herbert range from the mundane (handing out the mail, rounding up the girls when their male escort arrives) to the bizarre (feeding Miss Wellenmellon's beloved "Baby," a growling, ravenous beast of unknown origin, and, in a delicious postmodern twist, bantering and tangoing with George Raft), and he handles them all with the requisite Jerry Lewis ineptitude. The climactic episode concerns the live televised profiling of Miss Wellenmellon on a show with the slyly obscene title (at least in the way it's articulated) of "Up Your Street," which then leads into an unconvincing denouement where the most sensitive of the female boarders lobbies on behalf of the exploited Herbert, and this waning of forward momentum does slightly detract from the otherwise sustained delirium that makes The Ladies' Man such an absolute joy. Still, even at its lowest ebb of inspiration, the gags are singularly unpredictable — the product of a fully stimulated creative mind completely in sync with what makes people laugh. Though Lewis indulges in his standard shtick, gesticulating and mugging and yammering like a seven-year-old on a Pixie-Stix-with-Jolt-Cola-chaser high, what separates this antic masterpiece from his later disasters is his ability to get out three or four steps ahead of a set-up and tweak the gag, like he does in the priceless bit with the soundman who innocently asks Herbert to give him a sound check, which he, of course, shouts with eardrum-piercing ferocity. Most mainstream filmmakers would've opted for one of two results: 1) his glasses are shattered, or 2) he's blown backwards through a wall, or into some other kind of impediment. Lewis knows the viewer is expecting this, so he extends the bit, forcing Herbert to run down three flights of stairs, in one continuous shot, until he finds the soundman's chair upturned and curiously missing. He teases out the beat a few seconds more as Herbert and the viewer attempt to make sense of the scene. When Herbert finally finds the soundman, he's lodged in a place no one, not even the most astute comedic mind, could ever have guessed. This payoff induces a huge belly laugh, and, more importantly, the audience's hard-won respect, and that is but one reason why Jerry Lewis is a genius. Paramount presents The Ladies' Man in a very nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include a feature-length commentary with Lewis and Steve Lawrence, archival materials, and two theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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