Jerry Lewis had just wrapped up filming his latest movie Cinderfella in December of 1959. Everything was fine and dandy until Paramount executives informed Jerry that they wanted Cinderfella to be Jerry’s annual summer release. Jerry disagreed and wanted Cinderfella, a fantasy film based on Jerry Lewis playing a male version of cinderella, to be put on hold. Jerry figured Cinderfella was more a film for the holiday season and wanted it released at Christmas time.
Fair enough, said Paramount, but we still will need our Jerry Lewis summer film to placate the kids who are out of school. Jerry promised Paramount head Barney Balaban that he would deliver a replacement film for Cinderfella, a film that would be all ready for the kiddies to view during the summer months.
Jerry was performing at the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami at the time. While performing two shows a night, Jerry still managed to churn out a whopper of a script. The original script, which Jerry called The Bellboy, was 165 pages (enough for a two hour movie). It took Jerry eight days to write.
The filming would take place while Jerry was performing his two shows nightly at the Fontainbleu. Jerry (God only knows how) would perform nightly and shoot The Bellboy during the daytime hours. No word on just how he managed to get sleep, or how much sleep Jerry got, during this must-have-been-hectic period.
Perhaps to cut costs, or maybe because of the time factor, most of the other actors in the film were actually performers who happened to be appearing in Miami at the same time as Jerry. The Bellboy began production on February 8, 1960.
Jerry wanted something different for The Bellboy than any of his previous Jerry Lewis formula films. He wanted The Bellboy to be more or less a homage to the classic silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, et al. Thus, he decided it should be filmed in black and white.
He also wanted to pay tribute to one of his great comedy heroes, Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. Instead of the usual story line of a coherent film, Jerry basically just wanted The Bellboy to be series of gags strung together. The plot was no more complex than the antics of an inept bellboy (guess who?) and the trouble he gets into while working at the Fontainbleau.
Jerry plays Stanley (the name no doubt a tribute to Stan Laurel) as the titular star of the film, but interestingly, he also makes a cameo appearance -as Jerry Lewis- complete with a fawning entourage. In the film’s credits, Jerry is billed as “Joe Levitch” (Jerry’s birth name). To add to the fun (and confusion) of The Bellboy, and as a further tribute to Stan Laurel, Jerry wrote his pal Bill Richmond into the script as “Stanley,” a Stan Laurel look-a-like.
Okay, everything was fine- but just one last snag. Because the premise of The Bellboy was so unusual and different, the Paramount suits refused to finance the film. No problem again, said the ever-resourceful Jerry, who took $1.1 million dollars of his own money and financed the film.
Jerry had originally asked his friend, legendary director billy Wilder, to take the helm and direct The Bellboy. Wilder declined, but suggested Jerry direct it himself. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jerry agreed. So, for the first of what would be several occasions, Jerry wore not only the star’s hat on a movie, but the director and producer’s hat as well.
Also for the first (and last) time in a Jerry Lewis movie, because it is a tribute to silent films, Jerry, as Stanley, does not have any dialogue. Well, almost none. Playing his silent role in a Harpo Marx-like fashion, Jerry whistles all through the film.
Trivia: The song Stanley (Jerry) is whistling all through The Bellboy is simply the first six notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” repeated twice (off-key).
Jerry’s old friend, Milton Berle, happened to be performing in Miami at the time, and Jerry asked him to do a cameo. Milton filmed a hilarious bit as an anonymous bellboy who works with Stanley (Jerry). Also like Jerry, Milton has a cameo in the film as himself (trust me, it’s a riot).
The Bellboy, besides being a delightful comedy, would also give forth another, more important artistic legacy. Wanting to be able to view his own scenes as his own director, Jerry devised a primitive system of putting a video camera next to the movie camera to film the scenes as they were acted out.
The original name for Jerry’s seminal device was “closed circuit television applied to motion pictures.” It is now more commonly known as the “video assist” (or “the television assist”) and is standardly used on every film. According to Jerry: “I knew back in 1956 that one day I would direct, and I needed something in order to stand on both sides of the camera.” Jerry added: “The funny thing is, 99 out of 100 filmmakers who use the television assist don’t realize it’s mine.”
At the film’s conclusion, Jerry finally allows the until-then-silent Stanley the bellboy to speak. During a meeting with his fellow bellboys, Stanley boldly slaps his hand on the table. Confronted by hotel manager Novak (Alex Gerry) who asks him if he can talk, Stanley calmly utters his first words of the film: “Certainly I can talk. I suspect I can talk as well as any other man, Mr. Novak.”
The surprised Fontainbleau executive asks Stanley why he never spoke before. Stanley answers with the simplest of simplicity: “Because no one ever asked me.”
Just after filming was completed, Jerry had run into his pal, Dick Van Dyke. Both men were huge Stan Laurel fans. Jerry told Dick about all the little Stan Laurel tributes he had in The Bellboy. Van Dyke, who was friends with Laurel, put Jerry in touch with him. Jerry and Stan hit it off and became immediate friends.
Jerry offered Stan $150,000 to work for him as a technical adviser, but Stan turned down the generous offer, feeling it was thinly disguised charity. Stan did, however, look over Jerry’s script and offer advice. According to Jerry, Stan’s advice was spot on.
Jerry: “What he said should be shorter was shortened. What he said I should milk, I milked. Scenes that needed to be placed elsewhere, some that should be removed altogether, and some that should be altered only slightly were all commented upon.”
Jerry did the final editing of The Bellboy during a Las Vegas engagement. By the time The Bellboy was completed, and with the help of Stan Laurel’s advice, Jerry had whittled and shaved his script down and the finished product clocked in at just 72 minutes.
Just one thing was left before The Bellboy was done and in the can- a screening for the executives at Paramount. The screening went well enough, but the suits still were baffled and a bit upset by the film’s lack of an actual, coherent plot.
To placate his employers, Jerry shot one final touch. At the beginning of the film, a studio executive named Jack Emulsion, played by Jack Kruschen, comes onscreen and breaks the fourth wall. He explains to the audience watching that the following film has “no plot and no story.” He adds that it is “just a series of silly sequences” before lapsing into hysterical laughter.
The production was completed on March 5, 1960. The Bellboy premiered on July 20, 1960.
Although the reviews were not raves and were very mixed, The Bellboy proved to be a box office gold mine, earning $10 million in its original release in the U.S. alone. Jerry’s now paltry-seeming original million dollar investment really mushroomed over the years. Jerry was to later claim that The Bellboy was to eventually gross $50 million worldwide.
But besides the money, Jerry was to receive a special tribute from one of his personal heroes. Jerry met his greatest idol, Charlie Chaplin, in 1960. The two had a three hour conversation, during which Chaplin mentioned that he thought The Bellboy was Jerry’s best film. He asked if Jerry could send him a copy of The Bellboy to his home in Switzerland. Jerry happily complied.
In return for this favor, Chaplin sent Jerry a personal 35mm copy of his classic 1936 film Modern Times. Some things in life mean more to us than money ever could.
Quotes from Jerry Lewis in the preceding article are from the book The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic by James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda, used with the authors’ permission.