Judge Bill Gibron recalls one fateful evening when he didn't return home before midnight, and his date turned into Jerry Lewis.
Our review of Jerry Lewis: The Legendary Jerry Collection, published November 29th, 2005, is also available.
Once upon a time…Jerry Lewis made this middling movie.
When his beloved father dies, Fella (Jerry Lewis) is left in the care of his evil stepfamily—an incredibly mean mother (Judith Anderson) and two baneful brothers, Maximilian (Henry Silva, the original Ocean's Eleven, Never a Dull Moment) and Rupert (Robert Hutton, Trog, Tales from the Crypt). Under their terrible tutelage, Fella is a veritable slave, acting more like a servant than a member of the clan. While his stepmother and stepsiblings spend money like it's growing on trees, Fella lives a humble life of incredibly limited means.
Such extravagant ways have finally taken their toll on the moochers and they need a moolah-making idea, pronto. Mother decides to spend the last of the wealth on a fancy-dress ball for a visiting dignitary, her Royal Highness, the Princess Charming (Anna Maria Alberghetti, Here Comes the Groom, Kismet). Mom thinks that Rupert will be able to woo her majesty into a profitable proposal of marriage. The boys have a plan of their own. Seems that Fella's father left a fortune for his son buried somewhere on the estate. Fella occasionally dreams of the location, but fails to recall where it is when he wakes. The boys will want to follow him around while he sleepwalks to hopefully find the cash.
As the gala draws near and the princess arrives, Fella is excited. Yet his family won't let him near the visiting royal. Thankfully, Fella has some help in the guise of a Fairy Godfather (Ed Wynn, Mary Poppins, Babes in Toyland). He will help Fella get to the ball, but he must return home by midnight, or all the magic will…hey, wait a minute. Where have we heard this all before?
More hindered than helped by the fairy tale format, and less reliant on Lewis's manic persona than perhaps any of his solo films since The Delicate Delinquent, Cinderfella (or as it is symbolically represented, CINDERfELLA) is Jerry Lewis at his most mediocre. This is not to say that the film isn't entertaining, or filled with some simple delights. But the last thing an audience expects from a Lewis comedy is something bordering on the tragic or weepy. Cinderfella has far too many maudlin moments, times when Jerry's character is lamenting his sad-sack life and losing out to his high-maintenance stepbrothers. While it can be said that the script by Frank Tashlin (the ex-Warner's animation genius also directed the film) does a good job of turning the classic feminine wish-fulfillment tale into a matter of male identity, there is simply too much sloppy syrup here and not enough Le Genius insanity. We want to see Jerry Lewis going apesh*t for 90 minutes, not musing over his ill-considered lot in life.
Part of the problem with Cinderfella is that producer Lewis wanted to craft a sweet, sentimental family film for a holiday audience (Lewis planned, with Paramount, for the movie to be a Christmas 1960 release). As a result, the overall tone here is not as chaotic and clothesline as other Lewis madcap fracases. Tashlin must maintain the parameters of Fella's formulaic existence, and this over-reliance on narrative and exposition is deadly to Lewis's brand of all-over-the-map anarchy. With Jerry hemmed in and kept in check, we get none of the classic cacophony of the Lewis lunacy we come to expect. Indeed, there are only two or three outstanding showcase set pieces for the comic to work his weirdo genius. Anyone who's seen an MDA Telethon will recognize Lewis's classic drummer pantomime (he plays along with a song on the radio), and we do get an extended section where Fella must simultaneously eat and wait on his family, servant style. But the rest of the movie is just meandering pap.
The supporting cast is indeed excellent, though they are not given much to do. Judith Anderson (before she was a Dame, or T'Lar in The Search for Spock) is an interesting choice to play a mean matron. There is a depth to her performance that illustrates her longtime legend as a great actress. As Fella's wicked stepbrothers, Henry Silva and Robert Hutton are all flash, with very little fleshing out. Provided to make Lewis's peculiar visage stand out even more peculiarly, they are pretty boy pawns in the staid story. Even famed comedian Ed Wynn is more serious than silly here (though he gets a dopey drag moment toward the end). Like everything else in Cinderfella, we see more solemnity than surreality, something that undermines this type of movie. Indeed, the pace is passive, with far too many elements of the basic fantasy foundation as the focus, leaving very little leeway for Lewis to mug and monkey around.
And then there is the music. Not the score, featuring the phenomenal big band brassiness of Count Basie and his orchestra (literally exemplifying the meaning of ring-a-ding swing). No, Cinderfella contains four sour solo songs for Lewis to croon, and it is obvious why Dean Martin handled most of the melodies during their famed pairing, to put it mildly. Tinny and harsh, with a hampering abrasive quality, Lewis really can't sing. Yet he gives it the old collegiate struggle through some very tired, uninspired numbers. One, in particular, stands out in its overt strangeness. Anyone familiar with the musical Carousel knows that Billy Bigelow has a musical soliloquy in which he makes his innermost thoughts known through an operatic aria. Well, Lewis gets a similar chance to "sing" his feelings. Shuffling around the darkness of his cellar, unable to go to the ball, Fella "thinks" his sentiments, which we hear as a bad bravura bit of Lewis vocalizing. The sequence is inadvertently hilarious since Fella/Lewis doesn't move his mouth with the music. Instead, he "expresses" these emotions through some incredibly hammy gesturing. Every time a song starts, Cinderfella stops dead. It is up to Tashlin and Lewis to find ways to revive it time and time again. And sometimes they don't succeed.
Interestingly, like The Disorderly Orderly or The Patsy, Cinderfella is also a film with an interesting script, filled with inventive, insightful ideas. Instead of merely granting Fella's wish of being a "person" (Fella believes in two classes—"persons," individuals of importance, and "people," meaning everyone else), his Fairy Godfather states that Fella is about to represent all men undermined by the original fable. Seems ever since Cindy's story of landing a perfect prince, guys around the globe have been living in the long shadows of such a flawless love. Fella will become a symbol, showing that even an average schlub can land a sizzling bit of skirt (Anna Maria Alberghetti, in a nothing of a role). The conversation between Wynn and Lewis is wonderful—warm, rich, and filled with clever observations. Similarly, near the end, Lewis has a confrontation about money with his stepfamily, and it too has the ring of realism mixed with just a little cinematic comeuppance. It's a shame there's not more of it here. Instead, one gets the impression of omnipresent mandates about keeping this enchantment as simple and inoffensive as possible. And there is nothing worse for a comedian known for his hyperactive persona than to be mired in restrictions of earnestness. Had Lewis been allowed to let loose, Cinderfella could have been a great satirical statement. Instead, it's far too light and languid to be considered classic Lewis.
Paramount's presentation of this title also has its issues. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is faded, with the usual brightness of the tantalizing Technicolor muted and muddy here. You can see the primary pizzazz of the original presentation struggling to get out from under the nondescript transfer. Unlike other films in this reissue series, Cinderfella looks its age, and doesn't "pop" with the same sense of newness as, say, The Nutty Professor or The Patsy. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Mono is excellent, showcasing the overly orchestrated score by Walter Scharf (a Lewis regular) magnificently, and during the songs, you can tell when Lewis is recorded "live" or merely lip-syncing to a backing track. Such audio detail is praiseworthy in what is, by today's standards, a very primitive single-speaker technology.
There are only two bonuses on this DVD, and both are fairly perfunctory. The five minutes of bloopers are interesting, but not really revealing. They mostly consist of Lewis cracking up and goofing off for the camera. The full-length commentary by Lewis (and for some strange reason, singer Steve Lawrence) is also a letdown. With both men so wrapped up in watching the film that they fail to offer much narration, this incredibly sparse track provides little in the way of context on the making of, or behind the scenes facets of, the film. While Lewis does discuss the importance of music to a film, and how he had to be hospitalized after the classic staircase sequence (he claims to have climbed 67 steps in nine seconds before collapsing), this is mostly a chance for Lewis and Lawrence to goof on and glorify the movie and its makers. There is nothing essential about this discussion.
Had it found a way to mix more of Lewis's patented pratfalling peculiarity into its retrofitting of the archetypal fable, Cinderfella could have been a classic. As it stands, it's an interesting experiment with more miscues than merriment. Lewis and Tashlin needed their own goofy guardian angel to guide them through this baffling bewilderment. Maybe the results wouldn't have been so pedestrian.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Actor Jerry Lewis and Singer Steve Lawrence
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