Friday, February 03, 2006

Disorderly Conduct

If you didn't know Frank Tashlin got his start directing Warner Brothers cartoons before he moved into live-action, you could probably guess by watching The Disorderly Orderly. It's essentially a ninety-minute Daffy Duck adventure (which could have been called "Duck and Recover"), with Jerry Lewis playing the part of Daffy.

Lewis is a legitimate cartoon and Tashlin places him inside a world of cartoon physics and, I suppose, if anyone can give such a world a sense of reality, it's him. It's worth noting that Lewis is one of the few real-world figures to sustain their own long-running comic book. His Adventures of Jerry Lewis lasted over eighty issues and ran for more than a decade (or longer, if you also count The Adventures of Martin & Lewis, which his comic replaced). See for yourself:

Consider this blatant bow to cartoon technique. Early in the film, Lewis chases after a mental patient at the psychiatric hospital where he is employed as an orderly. The mental patient knocks Lewis unconscious, puts him in a strait-jacket and leaves him for dead. Lewis wakes up hours later and realizes he's late for a date with his girlfriend, so he crawls his way, at top-speed, back to the front desk. Just to show how slow he's going, Tashlin puts a snail in the foreground of the shot, and Lewis watches helplessly as it crawls ahead of him. Brilliant.

I'm of two minds about The Disorderly Orderly: I admire Tashlin's carefully refined comic technique (which we might call "Nouveau Goofball") but it's stunted as much as assisted by Lewis' antics. What Lewis does not have that his Looney Tunes brethern always maintained is a sense of reliability of character. Bugs is Bugs, Daffy is Daffy: they act according to a set of carefully maintained guidelines (i.e. Bugs chews carrot, doesn't give a shit about anybody; Daffy is repeatedly felled by Elmer Fudd and his own ego). Lewis, on the other hand, can rarely be predicted. Sometimes he does the whole "HEY LAY-DEE!" schtick, other times he stammers, other times he talks with a boyishly thick Italian accent, other times he talks like a dapper lover. Sometimes he's clutzy, other times he's just unlucky and confused for a clutz, other times he acts like he was dropped on a head as a child and, through sheer will alone, has somehow passed himself off as a contributing member of society. I suppose if one frame of the film has to stand for them all, this one is as good as any:

But even Lewis' outlandish (and frequently outlandishly unfunny) antics sap some of Tashlin's mojo, they can't lessen the impact of Disorderly's grand finale, which must stand as one of the single greatest prolonged bits of physical gag comedy in Hollywood history. Describing it would be a waste of time: you sincerely have to see it to believe it. But it involves several runaway hospital gurneys, two ambulances (one apparently driving of its own free will) bustling city streets, more near-collisions than a game of Grand Theft Auto, and a well-stocked grocery store with more tin cans than any store should reasonably have. The scene also contains little of Lewis, which might explain why it's so good.


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