Judge P.S. Colbert wrote, produced, directed, and played all six Chinese sisters in this review.
"Our mission tonight…is to try to find out what makes you tick."—David Susskind
In July 1965, two media giants squared off in stark black and white for two fifty minute interviews, shot back-to-back. The set was very minimal: Two canvas "directors chairs" and a craft services table adorned with black coffee, cookies, and ashtrays for men who smoke incessantly.
On one side, international star Jerry Lewis; the other, interviewer David Susskind, who once represented Lewis as his talent agent. By all accounts, their relationship was as contentious as it was financially rewarding. After parting ways some fifteen years earlier, both men went onto greater success. Susskind flourished as a producer of Oscar-winning feature films (Lovers And Other Strangers, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Emmy-winning television programs (East Side, West Side; Eleanor And Franklin: The White House Years) and Broadway shows, while establishing himself as television's first serious in-depth talk show host. Lewis had become, in Susskind's appraisal, "one of America's great comedians, a very talented director, a star of every entertainment media we have in this country."
These were not merely polite accolades oozing from one showbiz personality to another. By this time, Lewis had appeared in thirty three feature films (grossing approximately $204 million) not one of which lost money, making him the most commercially successful movie star in history. In the first in-depth interview of his career, Lewis' conversation with Susskind reveal much about how both men tick. Susskind cultivates a polished, urbane façade, politely deferring to Lewis who occasionally cuts off his questions and allowing him to free-associate at will.
An admitted control-freak, Lewis dominates the first segment, not merely providing lengthy answers—which invariably lead to verbose discourses—but almost dictating the direction of the entire discussion. By the end, Susskind asks Lewis if he has any closing thoughts, to which the comedian glibly responds: "I wish we had more time and with a little more time, we might have gotten into a little battle, you and I; it would've been fun."
Lewis should've been careful what he wished for, because the second segment finds him on the ropes. Using his personal knowledge of the interviewee, as a means of easing Lewis into a comfort zone, Susskind zeroes in on topics more provocative and painful to his guest, including frequent critical drubbings and the colossal failure of his short-lived ABC talk show, the first real chink in Lewis' seemingly failure-proof armor. Perhaps the biggest coup was that this conversation marked the first time Lewis spoke publicly about the cause and effects of his breakup with partner Dean Martin, a subject he's been wrestling to explain ever since.
I've long been a Jerry Lewis fan, but never considered myself a fanatic, choosing to cherry-pick through his catalogue and ignoring many of his films, including anything after his 1964 masterpiece The Patsy. I've further maintained that, as funny as Lewis has been in films with and without Martin, I've never laughed harder than when he's submitting to a serious interview, which invariably leads to him expounding on "the Human condition," whatever the hell that is!
Considering how many Susskind segments were erased, taped over, or lost to the ravages of time, the fact these interviews survived at all is a small miracle. Thus, one can forgive the occasional visual defects in the standard definition 1.33:1 full frame presentation of Jerry Lewis: The David Susskind Show "Open End." On the other hand, the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is flawless; not a word was missed, even by my age-battered ears. While there are no bonus materials, it does nothing to detract from the feature presentation.
All the elements you came to see are here: the pomposity, the mixed metaphors, the grandiose self-martyrdom, and so much more. Repeat viewings are required, to fully appreciate this timepiece in a manner deserving of The King Of Comedy or The Delicate Delinquent. At the end of the second interview, Susskind sums up by saying, "I think you'll agree, we've met a complicated, fascinating, talented man." True dat, Dave, True dat!
A guilty pleasure.
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