Some nerve, Jerry Lewis had, not tiptoeing through life. He’s heeded the advice of his mother, who told him at the age of eight: “Jerrela, please don't tiptoe. Tiptoe is weak. You don't live in a hospital.” His parents—performers in their own right—thrust him into the spotlight at five à la Judy Garland in A Star is Born, after her short pep talk, “This is it, kid. Sing!” But Jerry Lewis didn’t need a prod, and he didn’t tiptoe.
The clearest evidence of this arrives near the end of his 1961 movie The Errand Boy, Lewis’s self-directed and acted paragon of slapstick, released 52 years ago this Thanksgiving. The film is episodic, or, as The Errand Boy cowriter Bill Richmond calls it, “a plotless thing about the studio losing money.” Where Lewis’s bumbling Morty S. Tashman goes at Paramutual Pictures, hapless disaster follows: movies get dubbed with his voice instead of a songstress, a tractor is driven through a soundstage, background actors are almost drowned with a brobdingnagian bottle of bubbly.
In this particular boardroom scene, Morty takes a break from the arduous task of mail delivery, and, sitting at the head of a long conference table, issues orders while puffing on a fat cigar along to Count Basie Orchestra’s “Blues in Hoss’s Flat.” The big-band number slowly crescendos as Lewis gloriously pantomimes with a grapefruit mouth and grand, sweeping gestures. It's a middle finger to the corporate structure set to brassy stabs and plucked bass strings.
As Morty, Lewis knew exactly what he was doing. His dumb act is actually “in the trade, what they called a ‘dumb act,’” Richmond explains over the phone. “He took a little wind-up record player and put the record on and mimed it like he was singing.” At 15, after dropping out of school and before teaming with Dean Martin, Lewis had his “Record Act”—a vaudeville staple he cooked up that married operatic and popular songs with his own exaggerated pantomime. On stage with nothing but a phonograph and a knack for lithe, comedic movement, he paraded this act in his teenage years.