At some point Americans decided Jerry Lewis was only for weirdos and French people. That never should have happened, and it wasn’t always this way. The comedian spent over a decade as one of the box office’s biggest draws, stretching his face and his body, and even the art of filmmaking, in all manner of directions and shapes.
His brand of brash, anything-for-a-yuk comedy fell out of favor, but time has a habit of turning the uncool into cool art. Now something like 1961’s “The Errand Boy” — one of 16 films playing in MoMA’s Happy Birthday, Mr. Lewis: The Kid Turns 90, for his b-day on March 16 — can be seen as a radical experiment with form, as well as gut-bustingly funny. There’s no plot, just one elaborate gag after another, which employs the camera as creatively as Lewis himself uses his body.
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The series skips certain films — sorry, even MoMA couldn’t wrestle his notorious, self-suppressed concentration camp comedy “The Day the Clown Cried” from Lewis’ hands — but it mixes things up. Some co-star Dean Martin, some are by legendary animator-turned-live-action filmmaker Frank Tashlin, some are by Lewis himself, who whether you like it or not is one of the most innovative filmmakers to ever hop behind, and in front of, a camera.
"Happy Birthday, Mr. Lewis: The Kid Turns 90" runs through March 15 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.
Follow Mat Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge