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December 1997, Week 1


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Shawn Levy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 2 Dec 1997 19:06:49 -0800
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In his post, Dan Gribbin wrote:
>...humor may gain something in the translation from
>culture to culture.  Do any other examples come to mind?
Well, Jacques Derrida is apparently more widely read in the US than in
France, but I digress.
A few points anent Le Roi du Crazy, the fabulous Monsieur Lewis.  The
French affection for Jerry's film work (they never, of course, saw the
Martin and Lewis Colgate Comedy Hours or, until much later, the MDA
Telethon or his live touring act) is implicated in nascent auteurism and
especially in French affection for Frank Tashlin, who directed two of the
last three Martin and Lewis films and a passel of Jerry's solo projects
between 1957 and 1963.  When Jerry himself began directing in 1960, there
was a clear evolution from Tashlin's work to his and he built an audience
out of both his fans and his mentor's.  It's worth mentioning that even the
films Jerry did with Dean had always done remarkably well in France (some
were renamed in French with titles specifically mentioning Jerry), but,
then, they did remarkably well in most countries, especially, of course,
the US.  Still, only in France, where a director-based criticism was widely
practiced and (perhaps more importantly) *read* did Jerry begin receiving
medals for his work in the mid-'60s.
Add to this the decidedly droll tendency of French audiences to seek in an
American icon signs of infantilism, sexual immaturity, materialistic
vulgarity and, for want of a better term, lack of social breeding, (if not
hebraic touches) and you get a pretty good idea of the not-so-subtly wicked
glee with which Jerry's French audience embraced him at a time when his
american audience was waning.
Perhaps there is more of a taste for physical comedy in France:  Chaplin,
Keaton and, of course, Tati were revered there more consistently and widely
than they were in the US; perhaps (and this is always Jerry's own
explanation) comedy just translates well (he always protests that he's more
beloved in Sweden and Portugal and such than France); perhaps there's a
perverse pleasure taken in France upon discovering bits of American culture
(Poe, hot jazz, noir fiction) that Americans don't appreciate.  It probably
all plays a part.
One other thing:  Jerry specifically encouraged his French reputation by
befriending several key taste-makers, most notably the critic Robert
Benayoun, who visited Jerry's Bel Air home, and the comedian Pierre Etaix,
with whom Jerry performed on French TV and at the Olympia theater.
At any rate, I don't anticipate the same effect trickling down to "Bean" in
anything like the same way.  The French love of and admiration for Jerry
Lewis is a complex phenomenon partaking of the two cultures' mutual
mistrust, jealousy, and fascination, as well as the specific historical
circumstances which held in Hollywood and Paris in the late '50s.  "Bean"
made money in France less because of some socio-aesthetic dynamic, I
suspect, than the fact that so few contemporary comedies made in English
are translatable, either culturally or linguistically:  Pity the poor
francophones trying to whip up spiffy subtitles for, oh, "Nothing to Lose,"
"Trial and Error," or "My Best Friend's Wedding."  "Bean," in this company,
takes on the dimension of Aristophenes...and I didn't even *like* it...
Shawn Levy
PS:  I hate to do this, but I've got to mention that much of the above is
touched on (at great, exhausting length) in my Lewis biography ("King of
Comedy:  The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis"), now in paperback from St.
Martin's.  Look for the chapter entitled "Frogs Legs and Pratfalls."
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