Lewis carried the torch of auteur comedy stardom between the time of Chaplin and Keaton and the age of Woody Allen, and was the most successful actor-auteur in any genre during that period. His popularity on stage, screen and TV as Dean Martin's partner enabled him to be more prolific than contemporaries like Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde once he went solo. He was probably the last living legend of his era -- Kirk Douglas is revered but not as proverbial. Lewis is almost a folkloric figure for his paradoxical popularity, appealing both to the lowest common denominator and to intellectuals; it's his reputed popularity among French intellectuals that has become folklore in a way that usually doesn't reflect well either on Lewis or the French. I suppose they admired him as an auteur at a time when French critics were cheerleaders for anyone they could identify as one, and because they saw him as an auteur they credited him with more satiric ambition than he probably had, taking him as a critic of modernity along the same lines as their own man, Jacques Tati. The awkwardness that embarrassed so many Americans -- Lewis as a performer was more in the Harry Langdon tradition than a follower of Chaplin or Keaton -- the French and (presumably) other intellectuals took as a traumatic response to an increasingly dysfunctional modern society. It's easy to dismiss such pretension, but Lewis still was more than the contemptible geek others took him to be.
In an early directorial effort, The Bellboy, he made a point of proving that he didn't depend on his obnoxious voice to be funny, allowing himself only a couple of lines of dialogue toward the end of a picture designed as a showcase for his newly-learned virtuosity behind the camera. Bellboy was his most determined effort to work in the silent tradition, but it was telling that he could not think of a feature-length story to tell in that style, and made a collection of blackout vignettes instead. That picture is also noteworthy for an early appearance of "Jerry Lewis" as a character distinct from the normal on-screen Lewis persona. Egotistical without malevolence, Bellboy's "Lewis" is a rough draft for the auteur's most honored creation: Buddy Love, the lounge-singer Mr. Hyde of Lewis's consensus masterpiece, The Nutty Professor. On that film stands whatever justified reputation Lewis has as a satirist, though in hindsight it looks less like satire than a confession. Who can look at Buddy Love today and see him as a parody of Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or anyone other than Jerry Lewis himself, or the Jerry he knew he was becoming, or had already become -- the one most of us saw only in the Seventies, once he spent most of his time playing himself on talk shows or his objectively admirable telethons? The fact that people can reasonably question whether Buddy Love was self-satire or score-settling illustrates Lewis's problematic place in pop-culture history. I cared little for him as a comedian -- though his turn in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy, more a send-up of Johnny Carson than a self-portrait, definitely deserves a shout-out -- and his telethons entertained me more as camp spectacles than as anything else, but on the occasion of his passing this weekend aesthetic judgments rightly take second place to an objective acknowledgment of his legendary status in the wild world of cinema.