Jerry Lewis gets hired to be the houseboy for a boarding house full of women.
That is all.
It’s an episodic film like many Lewis movies. There’s slapstick, surrealism, dancing, Jerry running around, but the thing that everyone takes away from The Ladies Man, the one thing that is more impressive than anything else in the film is the spectacular set of the boarding house. I’ll get back to that.
Lewis plays Herbert H. HeeBert who has been dumped by his girlfriend and vows to stay away from women. Looking for work where else does he land but at this all-women boarding house. Oh the irony.
I didn’t find much funny going on. Lewis does his standard bits – breaking a lot of items, making a mess of stuff, ending scenes with him screaming when something bizarre happens. He gets frequent co-star Kathleen Freeman’s blood pressure mounting. None of it got a laugh out of me.
I’ve said this with every Jerry movie I’ve written about, so I might as well repeat it – you either like Lewis’ humor or not, I’m somewhere in a grey area where he’ll sporadically get a laugh out of me, but in this flick none of the gags even got me to chuckle.
There are some truly odd turns the movie takes. Things start with him having comical interactions with the girls. He runs into them they act nutty and he gets all flustered. One is practicing acting and uses Lewis to scream at and slap.
He is petrified of feeding the off-camera house pet who sounds like a real humongous beast. It’s later when we see it and get the punchline it’s just a little dog. He screws up a visiting tough guys hat in a drawn out scene. And so on and so on.
Things really start to get into some surrealistic territory with latter gags. For some reason George Raft shows up in the house who Lewis has a dance with. He opens the door to one room and the Harry James orchestra is there allowing Lewis to dance with the resident recluse.
For some reason a Person to Person-type program visits the house to interview the house mom Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel). A huge crew comes in with equipment and an Edward R. Murrow-type of news man sets out to interview Wellenmellen and take tour of the house. And what do you know – Jerry screws things up.
This whole episode allows Lewis to use the soundstage and equipment that he was shooting this movie on. He doesn’t try to hide that everything is taking place on a set. Kind of like a fourth wall gag. This is before the fictional broadcast ends with some kind of dance show the girls and Jerry put on to honor Mrs. Wellenmellen.
There’s real no point in trying to rationalize any of this. The movie is meant to be funny, entertaining bits. I just didn’t find much of it either funny or very entertaining. Lewis fans probably love it.
I will admit some of the more dreamlike segments are interesting. It’s those where I imagine much of the adulation for Lewis comes from.
His falling down schtick is very in your face, but it’s the dreamlike excursions he ventures into is where it allows you to delve into deeper meanings and representations of his art. View it from the perspective of him having more to say than just trying to go for cheap laughs. Interpret the film as being much more sophisticated than what it initially appears.
Those segments will give you more to think about and ponder than Lewis just breaking some expensive china and making Freeman cry.
One thing that always gets me with Jerry Lewis movies is that for the bulk of them it’s usually all craziness, him acting like an idiot, people screaming, stuff breaking. Then out of nowhere he tries to incorporate a bit of an emotional touch in them and I always think it comes off so awkward!
Like, after seeing him destroy an entire library, causing embarrassment to some innocent sap or something like that he’ll show up in the next scene for a sincere moment with someone. He’ll drop his loud voice and juvenile behavior and ‘get real’. It’s like suddenly the brakes are forced down and I always thought these scenes come off so corny I can’t buy them for a moment.
I was surprised that those are kept to the barest minimum in The Ladies Man. I think there was only two of those scenes and both are with Pat Stanley as a sympathetic girl who doesn’t like seeing all the girls use Jerry to run their errands. The artificial cornball stuff is not as bad as other Lewis movies I’ve seen.
Without a doubt the real standout is the boarding house set. It is amazing to see! It’s a life size dollhouse with various rooms and floors cut in half that allows Lewis to film some incredible crane shots panning from room-to-room with action taking place. You know, we see the large cast of girls getting ready in the morning or Jerry running all around the place. It reminded me of something Buster Keaton would have done – creating this huge imaginative set to stage his comedy on.
The set is impressive to see now, back in 1961 it must of been truly mind-blowing! I would rather see a documentary solely about the house set than the movie itself.
In fact, it’s this house set that is the real star. Even if you’re not a fan of Lewis or don’t like ‘old’ movies or even just hate comedies, I can’t imagine anyone not seeing a clip of The Ladies Man featuring the use of the set and not say, “Oh that’s pretty cool.”
So I guess I’d have to say that the genius in The Ladies Man is the construction of the boarding house set and some of the ways Lewis uses it for comic use. I marveled at that over his typical Jerry schtick, but at least he created an unforgettable stage to perform it on.
Here’s the trailer. It’s clear they knew that the house set was a unique selling point and wanted to use it to promote the movie to audiences.