This was my first experience with Jerry Lewis, and for the whole run time of 1960’s “Cinderfella”, I was torn between whether I found him hilarious or annoying. I eventually concluded that he managed to be both, which I guess is to be expected from actors who rely so heavily on physical comedy (Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean and Jim Carrey come to mind).
The concept of the film is pretty simple, basically the classic story of Cinderella with the genders reversed. Fella (Jerry Lewis) has been reduced to a servant for his wicked step-mother (Judith Anderson) and his two step-brothers Maximilian (Henry Silva) and Rupert (Robert Hutton) since the death of his father. When news comes of Princess Charming, pronounced Charmaine, (Anna Maria Alberghetti) of Morovia coming to town, there is a grand ball and every eligible bachelor in town is invited. Except of course for poor old Fella, but with some help from his Fairy Godfather (Ed Wynn), Fella attends the ball dapper in a red smoking jacket and the smoothest moves around. The Princess of course falls for him and they end up living happily ever after.
The story doesn’t really matter here, its basically just a vehicle for Lewis’ signature comedy stylings and his talent as a singer and dancer. I laughed quite often throughout this film; a lot of Lewis’ gags are beautifully timed and perfectly executed, while others unfortunately start out as funny but then go on for far too long and ruins the joke completely. Of the goodies, my favourites included Fella putting a bowl outside for the lemon tree outside, shaking the tree a little and picking it up again with the bowl full of lemons perfectly cut in half, Fella sleeping on a tiny mattress which sits upon a king sized bedframe and then there’s Fella simply scatting along and playing his imaginary flute to the radio which is funny enough in itself! Others don’t fare so well. There’s a gag about half way through the film during a dinner scene in which Fella is sitting on one end of an extremely long dinner table with a pitiful plate of soup, while his step mother and step brothers sit on the other end with prime rib, wine and all manner of luxurious accoutrements. Fella is asked by his step-mother to pour her some wine, so he changes his suit jacket into a butler’s jacket, walks all the way up to the other end of the table and pours her some wine which had been sitting right in front of her. This is pretty funny. But then the same joke happens about four times in a row and by the end, none of it was remotely funny anymore and the memory of the first time it happened has been soured in the eyes of the audience. Maybe since this was the first time Lewis had directed himself, but I can’t help but feel that if he had held back just an inch on some of these jokes it would have made a world of difference.
Having read up a little bit about Lewis’ other work, I think that something like “The Nutty Professor”, a parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and considered his most famous work (which admittedly I’m yet to see) would on paper work better for Lewis because there at least is a distinct duality between the two characters he’s playing. It doesn’t quite work here because when the Fairy Godfather works his magic, all he’s really supposed to be doing is giving Fella a makeover and a cool car for the night, basically an opportunity for the world to see him the way he really is, had it not been for his Stepmother’s cruelty. The problem is that neither version of Fella is very well defined; the servant Fella is clumsy, goofy and trips over his own words constantly yet is somehow capable of managing an entire estate by himself and cooking world class meals. Then all of a sudden Fella at the ball is suave and a kick ass dancer, but when he talks to the Princess he’s a blithering mess again. It would have been good as well if the step-brothers were actually ugly and obnoxious like in the story, I couldn’t figure out why they were both characterised as charming and sophisticated bachelors.
The scene where Fella makes his entrance to the ball is sensational, essentially just Lewis showcasing what he can do for a good seven minutes (after which he famously collapsed of a heart attack, the first of three he would experience throughout his life). For some reason he enters to Count Basie and his band, (one of the most famous jazz musicians of the time), and the whole scene is overstuffed but good fun. Likewise, even though it wasn’t exactly necessary, the set design is genuinely breathtaking and for a lot of the film its hard not to marvel at the furniture and gardens of the family mansion (I later found out that it was the same set they used for the “Beverley Hillbillies”. The costumes too are inexplicably glamorous, something which again probably wasn’t entirely necessary for a slapstick comedy but a nice touch nonetheless.
Like I said, the story isn’t the reason to watch “Cinderfella”, but its better to not question it all too much and just enjoy the spectacle and Lewis doing his thing. Sometimes it is too much, and maybe this wasn’t the best forum for Lewis to showcase his true comedic chops, but there’s enough here for a good bit of fun.
By Jock Lehman