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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Maybe TCM Can Give Jerry Lewis His "Labor Day" Due?

Jerry: Never Walk Alone
  • Jerry: Never Walk Alone

While those in the upper echelon film world associate Labor Day with trips to elite, celebrity-spotting festivals like Telluride and Venice, the holiday is forever tied in my mind to the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.

For the first time in my life, the annual broadcast (which was once a day-long marathon, but has since been cut down) was not hosted by Jerry Lewis.

The story (originally reported in August) flew under the RADAR, received little press attention. On Sunday the Los Angeles Times took notice, and issued this simple missive:

"For the first time in 45 years, Jerry Lewis will not be pleading for donations in front of a camera Labor Day weekend after he was abruptly dismissed as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.'s telethon, an event that drew attention to the childhood disease and in its heyday was an annual television highlight."

It wasn't until the Jerry-less broadcast hit the air that most folks took note.

That's when the Twitter backlash began.

There is clearly more to the story—something bad transpired behind-the-scenes that soured the relationship between Lewis and MDA.

No matter what one thinks of Lewis, his arrogance, misogyny and artistic output, there is no denying the fact that he deserves better. According to the Associated Press, show producer and co-host Nigel Lythgoe ("American Idol") told reporters that he had extended an invitation to the 85-year-old actor to "show up either during the telecast or earlier to record a segment featuring his signature song, 'You'll Never Walk Alone,'" adding that, "an orchestra was ready for Lewis, but he didn't come."

They're really going to throw him under the bus like that?

During his tenure, Lewis raised over $2.5 billion for the cause, for which he is so closely linked that the children with MDA are called "Jerry's Kids." In 1997, Jerry Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In 2009, Jerry Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 81st Academy Awards.

Here's an idea:

Since MDA so hastily stripped Jerry of his Labor Day duties, why not offer him a Labor Day platform on TCM, as a show of respect and to celebrate the auteur's considerable talents?

The Nutty Professor--Lewis taught filmmaking at USC
  • The Nutty Professor—Lewis taught filmmaking at USC

Bring in Lewis for the day as "guest programmer" to host a marathon of his work. Make it an event. (Hell, do it live! Why not raise funds for a charity of Lewis' choice—film preservation perhaps?—with a panel of operators standing by, a tote board, the whole nine yards!?!)

Though it is common in the U.S. to dismiss Lewis with the offhand comment, "He's considered a genius in France," the truth is that he IS a cinematic innovator, a comedic tour de force, and a "Total Filmmaker." (If you don't believe it, try to buy his book on the subject.)

Perhaps a true appreciation for Lewis' films won't come in his lifetime.

Lewis is under appreciated in the U.S., most likely because he dedicated his career to comedy which is seen as inconsequential. (Anyone who thinks directing comedy is easy ought to ask Steven Spielberg.) This despite Donald Wolfit's oft repeated line "Dying is easy; comedy is hard," and nods from filmmakers like Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels) and Woody Allen (Stardust Memories) about the value of comedy in our society.

(Scroll to 3:00)

Getting Jerry Lewis to discuss this work—the films he wrote, produced and directed, as well as works in which he starred (including his later self-reflexive performances in Funny Bones and King of Comedy), coupled with some of his favorite picks (Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy)—would go a long way to elevating his career to the status it deserves.

Lewis owns Labor Day. And he deserves to go out on his own terms.

Will TCM give him a Labor Day platform?

Who knows, it could become a new Labor Day Tradition:

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