Judge Bill Gibron warns you: This is the martini-swilling Jerry Lewis's movie with that title, not the courvoisier-swilling Tim Meadows.
MA! OH MA!
Herbert H. Heebert is having a fantastic day. He is graduating from Milltown Junior College. He has just been named valedictorian of his class. And he is about to ask his childhood sweetheart, Faith, to marry him. But when he catches his gal in the arms of another man, Herbert is devastated. Vowing to give up women altogether and live the rest of his life as a bachelor, Herbert leaves home and heads west. There, he finds a job in ex-opera star Helen Wellenmellon's magnificent mansion. What Herbert doesn't know is that the doddering diva runs a hotel for…women! That's right, Herby has jumped from the fiancé frying pan directly into the female fire as he becomes the houseboy for thirty—count 'em, thirty!—unattached dames. Naturally, this challenges his declaration of singleness. Will Herbert survive his tenure as a jack-of-all-trades for an all-girl boarding house? Or is he doomed to always be The Ladies Man?
Built on a brilliant gimmick and floating along on the fog of funny that Lewis does so well, The Ladies Man is one of the oddball auteur's forgotten masterworks. When people point out the films that support the proposition of Jerry's joking genius, few look to this simple story of a bachelor playing maid for a women's hotel. Certainly, on the surface, The Ladies Man seems too disjointed to be potent perfection. It was only Lewis's second film as a director (the very basic The Bellboy being his first) and it had, at its center, one of the largest and most expensive sets ever built for a family comedy. Lewis demanded and got a full size, scale model dollhouse-like home built inside one of Paramount's soundstages, an amazing monstrosity containing four separate stories, a grand concourse, several open-walled bedrooms, a series of serpentine staircases, and an old-fashioned elevator running up the side. Shown in several severe long shots by Lewis (who is obviously proud of the perspective it gives the film), this art department masterpiece is stunning to behold.
Just like David Fincher's desire to have an entire Brownstone mock-up to work within for Panic Room, Lewis uses this amazing effigy to stage several standout slapstick set pieces—from an initial escape from the horde of females (featuring four Lewis doubles to add to the animated feel) to the opening choreographed rise and shine where the girls gather for breakfast. Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker's dexterity with a dolly. Lewis's lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.
Naturally, any movie runs the risk of being overshadowed by such a substantive stunt. It would take a larger than life star to survive within the labyrinthine layout of the Wellenmellon manor. Naturally, Lewis is that more than sizeable superstar. Having worked with ex-Warner Brothers animation director Frank Tashlin on three previous films (Rock-a-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, and Cinderfella), you can see the quasi-cartoon style starting to stick to Lewis. While feeding an unseen animal named "Baby," Jerry is drowned in a veritable fountain of milk. During an opening montage, we get the kind of quick snippet blackouts made famous in old pen and ink insanity as Lewis attempts to avoid a series of amorous misses. From a strange graduation ceremony to an equally obtuse talent spot during a television program, The Ladies Man is Lewis experimenting with the film format, pushing its limits and defining its boundaries. This would all come in handy later, when he would devise some of his finest films, including The Errand Boy, The Patsy, and what is unquestionable his finest cinematic hour, the brilliant Nutty Professor.
Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert's beloved "MA!"), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry's own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you've got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.
There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic's typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley's Fay finally makes her play, it's far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.
Paramount must be proud of this film as they give it a star-spangled treatment on DVD. The 1.85:1 is a direct from the original negative knockout, an amazingly multihued combination of Technicolor bliss and remastered radiance. Lewis's unique framing and complex compositions—including a marvelous opening master shot—are preserved in near pristine perfection. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono captures the ring-a-ding swing of a Lewis soundtrack (complete with an appearance by Harry James and his Orchestra) in vibrant vigor. All the dialogue is easily understood and the Foley effects hilariously understandable.
As for bonus material, the usually bare bones benefactors give The Ladies Man a healthy helping of amusing added content. There are a couple of deleted scenes (one featuring Traubel in full aria action), a bawdy blooper reel, some interesting audition footage (featuring the unseen voice of Lewis in full lothario mode), a set of trailers for the film, a time-lapsed snippet of the massive mansion set being built, a few minutes of dance routine rehearsal, and an on-set plea by Lewis for contributions to his beloved Muscular Dystrophy Association charity.
However, the best extra here is the full-length audio commentary by Lewis (again, accompanied by Steve Lawrence, for some strange reason). During the discussion, we learn that Francis Ford Coppola visited the set every day, feeding off Lewis's innovations and ideas. Lewis also praises dancer and movie star Bobby Van for handling the choreography in the film. The filmmaker informs us that his humungous set took nine months to build and cost $950,000 to construct—and that's in 1960 dollars—and highlights several of the technological breakthroughs he championed here that are currently used in modern moviemaking. Though the men do tend to trail off toward the end and get absorbed in the film itself, this alternate narrative still gives us a chance to hear Lewis's own thoughts about this challenging and cheerful production.
Over the course of time, The Ladies Man has either been a clear cut fan favorite, or a movie that is dismissed as being overwhelmed and somehow undermined by the gargantuan facets of its creation. However, viewed through the revisionist eye of DVD, we can celebrate the film for what it truly is: a genial and genuinely funny family comedy. Lewis may be divisive when it comes to critical appeal, but there is no denying his proficiency or professionalism. Lewis was/is a controversial clown prince of cornball kookiness, and The Ladies Man is a perfect illustration of this anarchic oddity.
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