Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

April 23, 2021

Jerry Lewis is HARDLY WORKING (1981)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 11:28 am

(originally published in 2016)

Forgetting for a moment the as-yet-unreleased THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, made circa 1972, HARDLY WORKING was Jerry Lewis’s first starring vehicle for almost ten years when it was released, his previous film being 1970’s WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT. During that period, though, Lewis was far from forgotten. His old movies played constantly on television, and he hosted the yearly Muscular Dystrophy telethon every Labor Day. He certainly had a devoted following, and I certainly considered myself a fan….although I did not take it to the level of a guy I worked with in the mid-70’s who owned one of the early video tape recorders and who recorded the entire MD telethon each year, and then would watch it over and over until the next one to get his fix of Jerry!

By the late 70’s, although Lewis was universally known, his days of starring in major films for major studios were over, so he sought to put together an independent “comeback” film, find financing, and get the film made. That film was HARDLY WORKING. It was shot in Florida in 1979 and into 1980. Supposedly, production came to a halt once or twice because the funds ran out. It was released in Europe in 1980 and did very well. This led 20th Century Fox to pick it up in 1981 for American distribution, but (unfortunately) with 20 minutes cut. (I had a friend from Austria in 1981 who had just moved to the US, and she had seen the full European version theatrically before coming here!)  I saw it with a packed house in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1981 and the crowd loved it, as did  I. After a draining work week, this was exactly the kind of entertainment that the average person in 1981 needed. The reviews were not good, but who expected them to be? What was important was that it was Lewis at his purest. It belonged on the same shelf as films such as THE BELLBOY and THE BIG MOUTH (yes, and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR too).

I recently re-watched my grey market DVD of HARDLY WORKING (it’s never been legitimately reissued on DVD, alas) and thought I’d share a few observations with you.

The plot is essentially that Jerry, who is a clown for a small regional circus, loses his job when the bank forecloses on the circus and closes it down. He’s forced to go live with his sister and her jerk of a husband, and he gets a series of jobs where he keeps messing up until finally he gets a job at the post office which he’s able to keep for a while….and he finds romance. I won’t give away the ending.

Here are some observations about HARDLY WORKING.

When I originally saw the film, my first and immediate impression was that it looked like a regionally made film. Not just the Florida location shooting, but the amateurish room tone in the sound recording in a number of scenes, the use of real locations to avoid building sets, etc. It had the look of something made by William Grefe or Herschell Gordon Lewis….it looked like a slapstick comedy made by people who made southern drive-in films. Have you ever had the experience of watching a major star in some low-budget regional film or some straight-to-video feature? Henry Fonda in THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK comes to mind or Tim Holt in Herschell Lewis’s THAT STUFF’LL KILL YA! There’s something off-putting about seeing someone you’re used to seeing in major studio productions put into a VERY different setting, and that’s the way Jerry Lewis appears in this Florida-helmed production.

Next, it plays like a series of Educational or Columbia comedy shorts, the I love and have championed for decades. This is PURE comedy. When you see a display of tires or a bottle of milk or a washing machine, you just KNOW it is going to be used for a slapstick set-up, and this film is all about slapstick set-ups. Each job Lewis gets becomes one or two set-ups, and then when he gets the job at the post office, it’s one set-up after another. Although there is a romantic sub-plot which takes up some screen-time later in the film, Lewis wisely never strays too far from the pratfalls.

In a two-reel comedy short, often times the two reels are only peripherally related to each other. Sometimes the entire first reel sets up the second, or the first and second reel  present different situations, united mostly by the buffoonery of the star. That’s what is going on here.

Speaking of comedy shorts, I’m reminded most of the comedy shorts that Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton made at Educational Pictures in the mid-30s. As with Lewis, they were no longer starring in their own features and were reduced to doing low-budget films where they re-worked some of their old routines and even got to work with some of their old colleagues, also now in reduced circumstances. Many of the routines in HARDLY WORKING are re-works of older Lewis set-pieces, and he brings back people like Susan Oliver, Harold J. Stone, Billy Barty, and Buddy Lester who’d worked with him in the glory days. HARDLY WORKING is not, however, really like the Columbia shorts of Keaton and Langdon, where they were shoehorned into the Columbia formula (funny as those shorts may be) and under the control of Jules White. Educational seemed to give Langdon and Keaton a free hand, as long as they stayed within budget. As Lewis directed this, co-wrote it, and has his stamp on every frame, it’s very much a Lewis creation, just in reduced circumstances…and on location in Florida.

The first thing many people mention about the film is the in-your-face product placement. Brad Kohler, who saw HARDLY WORKING at a drive-in when it came out, remembered little about the film when I asked him recently, but mentioned that at the time for him it was the first film where product placement called attention to itself. Hey, if that’s what it takes to get the film made, I’m all for it! Lewis clearly takes advantage of it for comic effect, essentially rubbing the audience’s nose in the name-brand products. For instance, the scene in the post office with the Dunkin Donuts on the boss’s desk, or the scene where after a long day, Lewis’s character wants a beer, and the Budweiser Clydesdales come waltzing around the corner and the musical score switches to a variation of the old “When you say Budweiser” commercial jingle that anyone in the audience would know. I wouldn’t be surprised if the US Postal Service was hit up for some kind of “promotional consideration” to help with the budget, in addition to providing the uniforms, postal jeeps, and mailrooms we see in the film’s middle section.

There’s also an interesting and jarring mix between the very realistic and the surreal in this film. Lewis clearly (as you can also notice in THE BELLBOY) had some painful employment experiences as a young person, and he’s working them out of his system in this film. That really made an impact on me when I saw the film originally—-I remember thinking that I understood why European critics would praise Lewis for his skewering of capitalism or his depiction of the society of the spectacle or whatever. Anyone who has ever had a sadistic a-hole boss or worked a sh*tty job will know that Lewis has too, and he knows what it’s like. What’s odd though is that these sections of realism are mixed with surrealist flights such as the Goodyear blimp (product placement again!) sequences, or the rabbit invasion, or the Clydesdales coming out of the blue. Maybe this is some kind of comment on how a surreal imagination is one way to daydream and lose yourself while working a crappy job (it’s always worked for me!), or maybe Lewis is just the kind of man who’ll do ANYTHING for a laugh.. In any event, I feel that this mixture works, and worked for the audience I saw this with, who howled at every scene in the film.

With today’s jaded post-modern ironic stance, it’s refreshing to see the old-fashioned sentimentalism in this film. There are a number of almost tear-jerking sequences that show, once again, how well Lewis knows how to play an audience.

When this film was cut for American release, one thing was added: a short pre-credit montage of lightning-fast clips from Lewis’s earlier films, set to the rhythm of his old “typewriter” routine. This was a brilliant touch. Not only did it remind audiences of the day of Jerry’s comic greatness, it also reminded the children in the audience what a great funnyman this was and set the tone for the movie. My two year old grandson could watch this prologue and howl at it and KNOW what he was in for with the rest of the movie. When I saw HARDLY WORKING theatrically, the audience applauded wildly at the end of the montage (it ends with a segue into the clown character in the present-day plot, then fades, and then the credits begin)–in fact, some stood up and applauded during the pause after the montage and before the credits. There was still a lot of love for Jerry Lewis and his films when HW opened in 1981. The film did well on its US release, but Hollywood must have sensed that such success was a one-shot happening. When Lewis followed this up with another independently made pure visual comedy film—-CRACKING UP (aka SMORGASBORD)—-a few years later, a film that was more slickly made and even more purely physical comedy (and would appeal to any Lewis fan), it did not even get a US theatrical release (though again, it did well overseas). Lewis did not try again after that.CRACKING UP has such long physical comedy sequences, often with no dialogue, it seemed to be a homage to Jerry’s silent comedy heroes. Unfortunately, the silent film revival had not yet started in 1983, and one had to catch the film in the middle of the night on cable TV, and if you wanted a copy, you needed to tape it off the air at 3 a.m. (as I did).

Lewis still makes the news today in 2016. Every once in a while, you’ll hear about some controversy regarding some politically incorrect statement or joke Lewis makes in some backwater place he’s doing a show or overseas. As if anyone would expect (or want) him to do otherwise! And THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED makes the news anytime ten more seconds of it are found. And surveys of showbiz history still show the clips of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s awkward “reunion” on a mid-70s MD telethon. Lewis is in that unfortunate area of show business where he is almost universally known, but his actual work is not that well known. While THE NUTTY PROFESSOR is well-known, largely through a horrible re-make with Eddie Murphy, how many people have been talking about THE BIG MOUTH or THE BELL BOY or THE PATSY or THE FAMILY JEWELS recently, outside of whatever small Lewis cult may exist on the internet? Unfortunately, not many….but then physical comedy never gets any respect. The late great Jim Varney wound up having his films going straight-to-video near the end of the run of his “Ernest” films. Larry The Cable Guy did a few hilarious films in a kind of redneck Bowery Boys vein, but those never gained much traction and he moved permanently to the greener pastures of live comedy shows and Pixar voice work. That’s the way it is…

We always hear about one group or the other talking about feeling unrepresented on the screen. For those of us who feel like OUR identities are best represented on screen by the clueless Shemp Howard or Larry Fine, or the grinning but out-of-it persona of Billy Benedict in a Bowery Boys movie (or Jerry Lewis), times are not good at the cinema. Whatever his flaws may be, I’m thankful that Jerry Lewis devoted his life to physical comedy. There’s a large body of work out there for future generations to enjoy….and HARDLY WORKING is a prime example. Of course, I’d love to have this get the Criterion treatment with the alternate release versions, commentary tracks, etc., but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

I did get the chance once to talk briefly with one of the stars of this film, the wonderful Deanna Lund, who is his romantic interest in the film and  the daughter of his boss at the post office, the gruff and hilarious Harold J. Stone. Ms. Lund is well-known for her work in the cult TV show LAND OF THE GIANTS and has many film and television credits, including successful runs on daytime dramas such as ONE LIFE TO LIVE and GENERAL HOSPITAL. She was appearing as a guest on a local radio talk-show in southwest Virginia, where I was living at the time (mid-to-late 80s). I don’t remember now what prompted her appearance on the show….was she appearing on stage in the area? shooting a film in the area? had she written a book?…..but she was on there, and I called in and told her how much I’d enjoyed her in HARDLY WORKING. She was gracious and charming as ever…and thanked me and said that she liked the film and that she’d been given a good role and was grateful to Jerry for that. Unfortunately, her work with Lewis was not why they had her on that radio show, so the host quickly moved her on to another subject….and I was no longer on the air. Still, I’m glad I got to tell Ms. Lund how much I enjoyed her in the film. If I could ever meet Jerry Lewis, I’d like to tell him how much I like it too. Lewis has kind of written it off in the past, saying that he was ill during its making and was in the midst of many difficult life situations at the time (he’d had to declare bankruptcy during this period) and was thus somewhat distracted. Perhaps, but Lewis is an old-fashioned professional. He could get the news that a family member died and still go out on stage and knock ‘em dead and no one would know anything was amiss. That’s the generation of performer Jerry Lewis was from. We will not see his kind again, unfortunately….

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