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With: Jerry Lewis, Brian Donlevy, Howard McNear, Dick Wesson, Robert Ivers, Pat Dahl, Renée Taylor, Rita Hayes, Stanley Adams, Kathleen Freeman, Isobel Elsom, Sig Ruman, Felicia Atkins, Doodles Weaver, Fritz Feld
Written by: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
Directed by: Jerry Lewis
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 92
Date: 11/28/1961

The Errand Boy (1961)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cracked Actor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jerry Lewis's third directorial outing is another work of genius, though perhaps not as consistently funny as it might have been, and with a few themes that could be either sweetly appealing or perplexingly puzzling. However, part of Lewis's greatness as a filmmaker is the way he constantly bashes back and forth themes of clowning vs. identity, and sophistication vs. simplicity. He wants to be funny, but he's curious about what it all means. He stages gags, even if they're more existential than hilarious.

The Errand Boy opens with a little "documentary" (narrated by Paul Frees) about Hollywood that skewers all its little shortcomings. Then, Lewis plays Morty S. Tashman, an inept employee on the "Paramutual" studio lot, attempting to paste up a billboard for a new Jerry Lewis movie. The studio head (Brian Donlevy, a Preston Sturges veteran) holds a meeting; Paramutual is losing money and they must figure out how. They decide they need someone to spy on things without looking like a spy. Morty is the perfect candidate.

This simple setup allows Lewis to wander all over the studio lot, finding jokes wherever they may be. He takes over a snack counter and performs an elaborate joke with jelly beans. He accidentally mixes up script pages after eating sticky candy. He snags his coat on a hook in a room full of mannequins and spends the night hanging there, alarming the poor prop man the next morning. The gags are largely unconnected, and the plot device of trying to find the money loss is forgotten.

The weirdest and most poignant part comes when, in a room full of props, he encounters a tiny clown puppet on a shelf. The puppet moves on its own and interacts with Morty (Lewis's hands are visible, and he himself is not the puppeteer). The clown makes a little bed for himself and makes a fuss about going to sleep, and this, in turn, makes Morty sleepy. He closes his eyes, but rather than falling down from the shelf, he simply dozes off. It's a moment of peace and rest.

Later, Morty returns to the room, looking for the clown, but comes across an ostrich puppet with a "Southern Belle" voice. She knows who he is; the clown told her all about him. This time, Morty begins talking about himself, about how he wanted to be in the movies. The ostrich talks about the magic of puppets and how, as a kid, you could believe they were real. The scene indicates that Morty, too, is innocent enough to continue to believe in magic. The scene could be ridiculous, or wonderful, depending on your point of view. Lewis allows for both.

The movie closes with Lewis accidentally being "discovered," and a young director giving a speech about acting and performing, and how only a chosen few are given the skill and the chance to do it. In the context of the movie, the speech is moving, because we're happy that Morty has found his calling, but in the bigger picture, it's more troubling, given that Lewis has written and directed the speech about himself. Is it a moment of supreme ego, or a moment of tentative self-exploration? Again, both are possible.

The Errand Boy is not a "pure" comedy like The Bellboy or The Ladies Man, nor is it a fully-realized masterwork like The Nutty Professor, but I have spent more time thinking about it than any of the others. I believe it's something of a troubled masterpiece, one that asks questions but doesn't necessarily have any answers.

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