As part of my research into other matters, I came upon the rather fascinating question that has baffled many film goers in the modern age. It has been discussed in articles, columns and there is even a book devoted entirely to it. But I was so intrigued by the answer to it that I decided to share it on these pages. The question that has haunted people for generations is ‘Why Do The French Love Jerry Lewis?’ Or rather why did they since you can’t really say that he has had much output in recent years. The answer as to why is literally as old as film itself in many modern mediums and actually took decades to understand why a French film audience would be so cultured to the antics of a slapstick comedian.
Pre-World War I , the film industry was in its golden age of silent films. It has also essentially never heard of a Hollywood or knew that they were supposed to film everything in the beautiful San Fernando Valley. So pre-war, the French were actually a leader in silent film making. There are two names that you really need to remember for this one. The first is Georges Méliès and the second is Max Pinter. Méliès was the maker of the famous 1902 film A Trip to the Moon in which you see the big capsule in the eye of the face on the moon. Méliès made hundreds of films and mostly got his work stolen from him and re-created internationally by other film makers. Of course, they did not have a lot of litigation on royalty rights in those days and Méliès maverick film career ended working as a toy maker. The second is Max Pinter. Pinter was a French film star in the early part of the twentieth century who was famous for playing foppish romantics and down and out ragamuffins.
If Pinter sounds strangely close to Charlie Chaplin, then there is a reason for that. Pinter was not a French Chaplin. Chaplin was more accurately an American Max Pinter. Chaplin even devoted a film to Pinter out of respect. Chaplin was also huge in Europe to the point where he, in fact, spent his last decades living in Europe married to the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil. For the record, I forgot to name a child Ooona. So what happened to the French silent film industry? What was known at the time as The Great War and would be later retroactively called World War I. United States involvement in World War I was limited to the nearly the end of the conflict. Most of the War was played in foxholes in what used to be beautiful vineyards in France. World War I led to World War II as well as an economic and cultural malaise. All of this fighting led to a type of time capsule effect for entertainment. The prominent stars that they remembered were silent film stars that relied on physical comedy. The characters were often foppish or ragamuffins and as times got better for France in the 50s and 60s discretionary entertainment and laughter started to really make a comeback.
But what sort of individual would still be doing the comedy that they remembered and loved. So literally, after five decades of build up Jerry Lewis and his brand of wacky humor were in the right place at exactly the right time. The rest of the world had no idea what was going on, but the French were merely going back to the tropes that they initially found enjoyable before all of the dark times came. And at the time, Lewis was the only one really partitioning it. Especially when you consider the wacky screwballness put together with sauve rogueishness in movies like The Nutty Professor. And the French reciprocated with one of their biggest film successes in the 1960’s which was a Lewis-esque romp called La Grande Vadrouille which in French literally means The Great Stroll. It was released in the United States as Don’t Look Now … We’re Being Shot At. This is in no way we must stress connected in any way with Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot. Then Lewis would give away to such masters as Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks in to a great line of screwball succession.
So in case you were interested and never bothered to take a couple days to look it up and put all of the pieces together, that is the reason why Jerry Lewis was big in France. An easy reference for avowed film buffs everywhere.