When I think of Jerry Lewis, my brain does not automatically think of him as being one of the biggest comedy film stars of all time. Having grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, when his film career was on the decline, my first association with him is as the host of that telethon. I always found his telethon persona to be a bit strange. I mean, here was this guy dressed in a mussed up tuxedo (more mussed depending on when you tuned in), with a cigarette dangling from his hands which were covered in gaudy rings and gold chains…and he was asking me for money. I don’t mean to disparage his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he did a lot of good, but it came across as very Vegas and just didn’t seem to fit an appeal for donations in my mind. But all that aside, Lewis was a huge box-office draw in the 50’s and 60’s and a real pioneer as a filmmaker. The idea of recording a video version of what’s being shot so the director could look back at it instantly on the set…that was his idea! Though the man himself is far from “forgotten” many of his films are definitely not known to audiences today. So let’s take a look at one from 1963, “Who’s Minding the Store.”
Many of Jerry Lewis’ films followed a simple formula: put Jerry into an interesting environment and let him run loose. “The Bellboy” was Jerry Lewis set loose in hotel. “The Errand Boy” was Jerry Lewis set loose in a movie studio. Well, “Who’s Minding the Store” is Jerry Lewis set loose in a department store. Jerry plays a dog walker named Norman. He’s in love with Barbara, played by future Bond girl Jill St. John, who works at Tuttle’s department store. Little does Norman know that Barbara is actually the heiress of the Tuttle fortune. Her mother, played by Agnes Moorehead, runs the Tuttle empire and does not approve of her daughters’ fiance. So, she plots to show how worthless he is by employing him at the store and having the store manager, played by Ray Walston, give him ridiculous tasks that Norman is sure to fail at. The tasks range from selling women’s shoes to painting the knob on the end of the flagpole that hangs off the building. These are all just setups to let Jerry do his thing. Some of them end up being funny and some don’t…which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Jerry Lewis. While all this is going on, Norman also befriends Mr. Tuttle, played by John McGiver, who is President of the company in name only. Mr. Tuttle takes an instant liking to Norman and even offers to let him marry his girl at his home, not realizing that the bride-to-be is his own daughter.
The film was directed by Frank Tashlin, a frequent collaborator with Lewis but better known as director of many classic Looney Tunes cartoons. Tashlin and the other Warner Brothers animation directors were masters when it comes to comic timing, and that’s put to good use with Lewis here. Some would probably disagree with me, but I’ve, at times, found Lewis’ timing to be…well…inconsistent. But under Tashlin’s direction, it’s pretty strong. The best example is a musical sequence early in the film in which Jerry mimes working at an invisible typewriter in perfect sync with the musical score. The Looney Tunes influence is very evident in this scene and brings to mind the perfect timing to music that Warner Brothers cartoons were known for. The climactic battle between Jerry and a runaway vacuum cleaner is also a very funny, as is a scene where he fits a lady wrestler for shoes. However, other sequences, such as the one in which he tries to sell an elephant gun to Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies, fall a bit short.
The focus is rarely off of Lewis’ character, but the supporting players do a fine job. Ray Walston’s character makes a good slimy nemesis for Jerry, but he does get a bit too creepily gleeful about putting Jerry into situations that could result in serious injury or death. Agnes Moorehead also makes a good villain, but would’ve been stronger had she had more actual interaction with Jerry. But Jill St. John, though appealing, seemed a bit underused and it’s never clear just what she sees in the uber-doofus Norman.
In the end, “Who’s Minding the Store” is not as strong as other Lewis films, say “The Errand Boy,” but there is a lot to enjoy.