Director: Jerry Lewis; Cast: Jerry Lewis, Sir Laurence Olivier, Elke Sommer, Buddy Hackett and David Niven
In the summer of 1967, Columbia Pictures released the unlikely Jerry Lewis and Sir Laurence Olivier musical She’s My Gal, Pal! to breathtakingly bad reviews. One of the most scathing and possibly the most influential came from New York Times film critic Colin Higgenbotham, who once referred to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as “fanciful.” It was Higgenbotham’s review that drove Columbia executives to pull the film from theaters rather than spend additional advertising capital on what would clearly be a box office calamity of career-ruining proportions. Even though no trace of the original film has been recovered, happily, the Higgenbotham review can still be enjoyed in all of its vitriolic and curmudgeonly glory.
Although it seems as though the youth of the first-world has largely decided to abjure the trappings of capitalist wealth (albeit as a symbolic if not truly meaningful gesture), as a middle-aged man, I and many of my peers have spent our lives blithely enjoying the residue of our modest successes. True enough—modern American capitalism has insured our survival beyond the age of thirty-five, given us access to various and effective vaccines and supplied an almost indestructible mechanism for food production. However, if the collective abandonment of such luxuries will, in turn, render the making of films lik “She’s My Gal, Pal! financially untenable, I will gladly cast away my modern conveniences, live in a communal yurt, learn to macramé and possibly die of rubella. So should we all. The situation is just that dire.
The frenetic, juvenile, and un-musical musical She’s My Gal, Pal! opened yesterday at the 57th Street Royal Astor movie house. I only tell you this to fulfill my reviewerly obligation, and also so that you might be forewarned—coming within fifty yards of any theater playing this dreck could potentially expose the unwitting passerby to the sick-making strains of “Where You Go, I’m A-Gonna Be,” “Boo, Tickety, Tickety Boo!” and of course, “She’s My Gal, Pal!” There are others, but they blend together into so seamless a strain of unformed noise as to render any titular distinctions pointless. My head still throbs.
The story involves the inexplicable courtship between a young English heiress (Elke Sommer, whose clear German origins we’re all supposed to ignore) and a forty-year-old American lorry driver (Jerry Lewis) who unaccountably managed to charm said heiress via a series of hijinks, impersonations, spasms, twitches and shrill, nasal-y groans. The heiress’ father, Lord Percival Endicott Bellamy (Sir Laurence Olivier) is understandably vexed by the union, but he ignores the obvious relationship-thwarting resources of his wealth and class—namely having the unsuitable paramour deported or killed – and instead engages in a series of shenanigans to which the cast of I Love Lucy would object on the grounds of being too clichéd and undignified. These include persuading a fellow toffee-nosed aristocrat to pursue his daughter, hiring a private investigator to follow the suitor and stowing away in the flat bed of his truck. The latter strategy provides the setting for the number, “Where You Go, I’m A-Gonna Be,” a plinkety-plink music hall-style ditty rendered all the more intolerable by the accompanying animated petrol can.
Director/writer/producer/star Jerry Lewis gives us no less than six iterations of his trademarked Jerry Lewis-ness. Jerry as a yeoman warder! Jerry as a chimney sweep! Jerry as a Buckingham Palace guardsman! Jerry as a fussy hairdresser! Jerry as one of the fab four! Finally, and entirely unsurprisingly, Jerry as the Queen Mother!
In a display of uncharacteristic self-awareness, Mr. Lewis has delegated the songwriting task to someone other than himself—the Broadway and popular music composer Anthony Newley, who has obligingly jettisoned every shred of natural talent in service to Mr. Lewis’ vision.
Sir Laurence Olivier—Hamlet, Richard the III, Heathcliff and now Lord Percival Endicott Bellamy—has entered into the madcap spirit with admirable yet misplaced zeal. In all of their scenes together, Sir Laurence and Mr. Lewis engage in a duel of bafflingly unfunny shtick. Mr. Lewis mugs and grimaces; Sir Laurence minces and preens. Who emerges the winner? It certainly isn’t the viewer, or even humankind.
As bad as this film is, it isn’t the absurdity of the premise, the awfulness of the music or the shameful performances that have sparked the flame of outrage within my soul. It was the participation of Sir Laurence Olivier, undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest treasures, that has rattled me to my foundation. Why? Does Sir Laurence need the money that badly? Did some studio executive call in a favor? Did Jerry Lewis hire a team of goons and threaten to take Sir Laurence’s thumbs?
I will admit: I have always considered myself a fairly conservative man. I voted for Eisenhower more than once; I view mustachios as being slovenly and I have worn Windsor-knotted neckties to family picnics. Nevertheless, I am not too proud to grow out my hair, don a dashiki and join a commune if my fellow hippies agree to join me in commandeering all copies of She’s My Gal, Pal! and anoint them with the purifying kiss of fire. Sir Laurence, don’t bother to thank me.