Happy Birthday, Melvin!

Who am I?," I once asked in my diary. "My father maybe, or one of those French film snobs I've been reading for years? What is suddenly responsible for my revisionist appreciation of Jerry Lewis? Granted, the films aren't great, marred by bouts of off-key song and over the top sentimentality. But there are some wonderful gags in them, moments of memorable surrealism that no doubt influenced The New Wave, and irrefutable evidence that Lewis is the finest physical comic of the post war era. None of his current imitators – Carrey, Sandler, Ferrell – can hold a candle to him."

And this month, as he turns an undeterred eighty, latent praise again wells up from me: I don't think anyone has ever written about his unique art direction, that bright, distinctly American collegiate look, like an Archie comic come to life, nor of his often clever editing, a process he particularly took pride in.

If Lewis never amassed laurels, it isn't because of that popular theory: that his Melvins, Stanleys and Harveys embody the schizophrenic nature of America, squeaky and Puritan on the outside, devious as a misbehaving nine year old on the in, and that domestic audiences smart enough to recognize that hold him in disdain for the assualt on their character.

It's simply due to a lack of people accepting him for whom, as a talent, he is. Lewis is a gagman through and through, not, as was too often the expectation, a storyteller – and as such, he had the misfortune of making films in an age where the only cinematic vehicle left the comic was the feature. Had he come along at an earlier time, the golden era of Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd, he would be as revered on home soil today as he is in the land of Bardot and brie. The French still honor the episodic – what are films like Ameliebut a collection of little bits? – while America stands firm in its belief that it's the situation, regardless of how inconducive to gags, that's the sell.

What gift, then, to bestow upon you, Jerry? How 'bout a time machine? You can travel to the past, help yourself to your ideal vehicle, and secure your rightful due? Sorry, pussycat. You'll have to ask the Nutty Professor to build you one of those. All I can give you is that small, personal appraisement I once penned. It isn't much, but hey, it's in English.

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