Monday, March 23, 2009

The Big Mouth (1967)

Analyzed by The Flying Maciste Brothers

"The Big Mouth" is Jerry Lewis’ masterpiece. Plain and simple. With a script by Lewis and his most intimate collaborator, Bill Richmond (co-author of Lewis strongest, most psychoanalytical comedies -- THE LADIES MAN, THE ERRAND BOY, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE PATSY, THE FAMILY JEWELS and SMORGASBORD aka CRACKING UP), THE BIG MOUTH is not just an exploration of the fragility of the human mind, it is also a film about the resilience of the human spirit. It is also insane.

As always, a spectacle revolving around the protagonists painful shedding of deep neurosis and self-loathing, director Jerry Lewis this time reaches in between the folds of his complex, overloaded brain -- somewhere east of ego and west of id -- and dumps out a Freudian aquarium-load of colorful, exotic and disturbing oddities in a fruitless quest for rationality or even a coherent definition of rationality. In the process, audience, characters and director alike are victimized by it's madness. In director Lewis' world, delicate human minds are set adrift in a psychotic societal sea. In THE BIG MOUTH his driving metaphor is the sea --

-- its currents, cross-currents, tides and undulating waves a symbol of the complexities of human interaction, social organization and his own mysterious creative impulses -- with boats representing the frail individual personalities battered and tossed about in the briny maelstrom.

The characters in the film have organized themselves into authoritarian teams whose individuals have become irretrievably ensnared in their professional personas. On top of this individual psychosis is the group madness that ensues when obsessive fealty to the team's organizing, utilitarian protocols obliterates both their perception of reality and their ability to communicate.

In Lewis' formulation, society is a human invention that is, ironically, hostile to the human spirit. Society does not create monsters -- it is the monster. Jerry, on the other hand, is an outsider in this world of sub-groups and becomes a kind of reluctant anarchist, upsetting the delicate balance in each self-contained group when he is accidentally dragged into their midst.

The movie, in fact, opens with Jerry, in his role as the character Gerald Clamson spending a beautiful morning fishing on the San Diego coast --

-- literally reeling "himself" in from the crashing waves --

-- in the form of look-alike gangster “Ice-Pick” Syd Valentine.

Gerald is forced to take this criminal alter-ego on board his mental "boat" and can only unload it if someone, anyone, listens to his "problem": the tale of this eventful morning’s fishing trip and the map he now possesses (conferred upon him by the ever dying but never dead “Ice-Pick” Syd) that leads to a fortune in hidden diamonds.

Diamonds that are being sought after by those “Ice-Pick” betrayed -- a motley quintet of gangsters led by Thor (Harold Stone with a neo-Mort Sahl-ian command of speech).

Thor owes the diamonds to a dangerous business associate -- the sadistic Fong (Leonard “no relation to Harold Stone” Stone) who will eliminate Thor and company if the diamonds are not found. Needless to say, no one's listening -- or is even remotely capable of listening.

This image of Lewis/Clamson, reeling himself in with a fishing pole, is also a visual pun. The director means to suggest a "reeling" of the cinematic variety that is related to the cinematic meta-psychotherapy he pursues within the thematic constructs of the film itself. He even fashions an impromptu analyst's couch for his criminal doppelganger and lets "Ice-Pick" know, observing the etiquette and lingo of a psychiatrist, that he's a good listener.

It is here at the outset, that we also meet the movie's appropriately demented Greek chorus played by Robert Aldrich's usual composer Frank DeVol (familiar to many as Happy Kyne, the bandleader from Fernwood 2 Nite and shortly after, America 2 Nite who, ironically, never actually scored a Lewis film) who informs us that "Everything you are about to see is true. It actually happened."

At first blush one suspects this is a nutty, contradictory, comedic statement, but given the self-referential, self-reflexive approach of the movie the statement is actually true. The movie is real. It was written. It was filmed and edited. And it is an accurate depiction of the director reflecting upon his own mind and the "mind" of the world he inhabits -- Hollywood, the United States, the world of the product-conscious, celebrity and wealth obsessed, status oriented 1960's.

Gerald exits the beach, diamond map in hand, leaving behind the body of his criminal “twin” and entering a world where their identities will become intertwined. “Ice-Pick” Syd turns out to be a tenacious entity as Thor’s gangsters machine gun and torpedo him to no avail --

-- instilling a panic and disbelief in them that is depicted, by director Lewis, with a synchronized reverse-motion retreat to the nearby rocks.

Gerald's search for someone, anyone to listen to his "problem" proves utterly fruitless for the duration of the movie. Hope appears early when he is coincidentally pulled over by the very police department he intended to contact and inform.

As he tries to explain the morning’s events to the two patrolmen, more and more squad cars arrive on the scene, discharging more and more officers who engage in a maddening, escalating debate about their "book" and which numbers in it correspond to which violations, eventually forgetting that they even pulled someone over in the first place.

Gerald, already starting to crack in the face of this lunacy, drives away in search of a sympathetic, or even slightly perceptive ear.

Getting desperate, Gerald stops at the nearest pay phone to call -- you guessed it -- the police.

The operators, like the police, exhibit similar institutional and mental dysfunction, depositing Gerald into a self-perpetuating customer service loop that ends with the operators accusing HIM of being the crazy one.

Following the instructions of “Ice-Pick” Syd, Gerald proceeds to a "hotel with a yardarm" hoping to get help with his situation.

He finds the hotel, a ship themed establishment that allows Lewis, in his role as director, to leave the beach without leaving his boat/ocean metaphor. The hotel lives up to its symbolism -- the world inside the hotel is no saner than the one Gerald is fleeing. His encounter with the manager, Mr. Hodges (portrayed by Del Moore -- comic champion of a dozen Lewis projects) is yet another encounter with a sub-culture blinded by its protocols and led by a man whose identity is locked into a phony, professional persona.

Gerald isn't a guest at his hotel so Hodges has no natural interest in him or the nonsensical fortune in diamonds he's blathering about. Gerald accidentally knocks a heavy statue off the front desk, crushing the manager's foot --

-- and causing mind-excoriating pain.

Hodges angrily banishes him with a hostile "beat it" and moves down the counter to attend to another psychotic apparition -- a flesh and blood, finger-lickin'-good living product placement: Kentucky Fried Chicken entrepreneur, Col. Sanders!

The Colonel is a high paying guest at the hotel, so the manager's demeanor switches to one of subservience in spite of the bucket-load of Kentucky Fried insults the celebrity-in-white smites him with. The only promising development in the lobby is the friendly stewardess Suzie Cartwright whom Gerald accidentally knocks to the ground on the way in.

But even she innocently contributes to his mental disintegration -- her beauty turning him into a spasming, babbling, groping moron.

We meet our initial sub-group again when Thor’s gangsters assemble on a real boat (not a symbolic one), hunting for the stashed diamonds (on board -- Thor tearing the place to shreds) and "the fisherman" (on land -- Gerald, ironically unaware of his close resemblance to “Ice-pick” Syd) who has the map.

The leader, Thor -- the mobster boss, projects a phony persona --

-- this one of cultured intelligence -- using the word "accomplished" instead of "accomplice" and, later, using the word "pacific" in place of "specific". When this faux-haughty manner of speech fails, he resorts to an animal growl -- a vocal technique his hotel manager counter-part also later employs to similarly keep his "team" in line. His thugs project familiar variations of the tough guy persona but these brittle, superficial constructions will not survive the withering physical and psychological assault launched by director Lewis in his cartoon-like world.

Another hue in the film's spectrum of alternate personalities appears when Gerald returns to the hotel disguised as a wealthy eccentric, but it's more than just a superficial costume -- Gerald feels compelled to inhabit this character internally as well, transforming completely into a nerdy spaz clearly intended to evoke audience recognition with a prior Lewis alter-ego, Professor Julius Kelp from THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963).

Donning fake protruding teeth, glasses, and geekish hair and clothes (both inadequately styled and cut), Clamson’s psychological full-form take-over by this costume is frightening.

In THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, Kelp’s transformation of appearance and behavior into suave, megalomaniacal Buddy Love is entirely chemical -- a by-product of a serum created and ingested by Kelp. In THE BIG MOUTH, the Clamson/(Kelp-esque)Clamson transformation is entirely psychological or perhaps, more specifically, pathological.

The initially annoyed, suspicious manager, not recognizing this new incarnation of Gerald, prepares to eject him from the hotel as well until the bell hop signals to him that the spaz is actually a rich spaz. Suddenly, the manager switches to his polite, subservient persona and signs Gerald in, patiently enduring a few stiff whacks from Clamson’s cane.

These schizophrenic personality transformations continue throughout the film. Later, Gerald even dons full kabuki theater garb (in a bid to elude the pursuing gangsters) --

-- and, not satisfied with a purely visual disguise, starts talking pigeon Japanese while bowing and shuffling aimlessly.

Also, the Gerald character is, itself, multi-faceted -- the Gerald who fishes on the beach is a child-like incarnation, contorting his face and sticking out his tongue as he reels in “Ice-Pick” Syd.

On the other hand, the Gerald who goes on a date with Suzie to Sea World --

-- is more like a smooth, suave, Rat Pack-esque Jerry Lewis --

-- a more socially agreeable incarnation of NUTTY PROFESSOR’s Buddy Love.

The self-conscious references to previous Lewis screen personae are there to always remind the audience who is really in charge here -- that there is another God creating this world and his name is Jerry Lewis.

The influence of Jerry Lewis' comedic mentor Frank Tashlin --

-- former cartoon animator and director of seven prior Lewis or Martin & Lewis live-action vehicles -- is evident in the film's cartoonish (external) physical distortions that serve to illustrate Gerald's (internal) psychological tumult.

To wit: Suzie invites Gerald on a boat ride.

As he pushes the boat away from the dock he hesitates to jump on board, clinging to it with his hands while his feet remain fixed to the dock.

Logic would dictate a plunge into the water. Instead, as the boat floats away, his legs stretch to ridiculous proportions as he hangs, suspended like a human clothes line --

-- maintaining a tenuous grasp on Suzie's boat and the sanity that she and it represent.

Again, this calls to mind Professor Kelp’s horrifying physical ordeal at Vic Tanny’s gym in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.

The difference here being the degree of the conscious excruciating physical pain in Clamson’s current calamity -- Clamson screams in agony as his legs are stretched to inhuman lengths and Suzie screams out of sympathetic shock, whereas Kelp barely bats an eye after his nightmarish arm extensions and nobody at the gym seems to notice anything out of the ordinary.

Later, Gerald, reverting (vocally) back to his rich spaz persona, unknowingly takes a tennis lesson from the gangster's moll who is, herself, disguised as the hotel's instructor, Bambi Berman.

The physicality of Gerald's environment changes immediately in conjunction with his own physical transformation.

A sudden cut to slow motion followed by a cut to sped-up motion exaggerates the high velocity of her serves aimed at the dumbfounded Gerald. He then attempts a leap over the net to congratulate her, landing, instead, on top of it, catapulting himself high into the air and out of the tennis court entirely, accompanied by a deafening rush of wind, eventually embedding his body in the ground like a spear, only his legs visible, sticking out of the dirt.

Soon, the cartoon schizophrenia reaches a disturbing apex -- Gerald's two identities occupy the same frame simultaneously at one point during one of his quick changes from nerdy Gerald to "normal" Gerald replicating a multiple image cartoon blur.

A more brutal, cartoonish brand of mental distortion is introduced at the marina, alongside the physical distortion of Gerald's extended legs.

Gerald surfaces from his plunge into the water in front of the mobster thug, Gunner.

Gunner's mind is locked on the belief that “Ice-Pick” Syd is dead. His confrontation with Syd's very much alive lookalike, Gerald, has the mental effect of sanding the grooves in his brain down to the smooth texture of a shiny bowling ball.

Faced with the contradiction of what he sees (or, as his boss puts it later, "What you think you saw.") Gunner solidifies into a permanent, canine crouch, eventually barking and eating his food out of a dish on the floor --

-- his boss even pets his head.

If this transformation seems familiar, it's probably due to its later manifestation in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety (1978) --

-- only the institutionalized dog-man in this film was portrayed by non other than then frequent Tonight Show spasmatician Charlie Callas who plays Gunner's buddy Rex in Lewis' film!

Because the other gangsters share Gunner's belief that “Ice-Pick” Syd is dead, they also share the same, psychological devastation when they lay eyes on Gerald.

Studz (another Lewis stalwart, Buddy Lester) is so shocked, he smashes his face into the glass of a phone booth, knocking out all his teeth as his hair extends outward in pointed horns of disbelief.

His skull now hollowed out, he wanders through the remainder of the film in a catatonic stupor accompanied by his faithful, four-legged companion, Gunner.

Rex (played to the hilt by Callas) doesn't fare much better --

-- melting into a babbling, jerking, eye rolling invalid.

Gerald's swath of destruction is not limited to the minds around him -- he also visits physical violence (always accidentally) upon the hotel manager on several mind-abradingly painful occasions, crushing his foot twice (the second time, literally blasting it to pieces with a tennis racquet) --

-- and plowing him and his assistants into several waiter-loads of food.

At this point in the film, it becomes obvious that David Lynch must be quite a fan of THE BIG MOUTH --

-- similarly structuring his own TWIN PEAKS around a hotel that F.B.I. agent Cooper and his officers occupy while they, too, hunt for clues in a complex mystery and explore the disturbing, surreal and sometimes comical events in the surrounding town. Several settings, images, scenes and themes seem too allied to be mere coincidence: Lewis uses a dinner scene with the gangsters to advance his theme of blocked communication --

-- filming them conversing with mouths full of food, rendering their speech unintelligible. Lynch riffs on this scene in PEAKS when two brothers talk about a girl they knew in high school through mouths stuffed with baguette and brie; their conversation a series of muffled exclamations.

In PEAKS, the mysterious shaking “Red Room” dwarf who speaks in reverse seems to have a lost brother in the gangster thug Studz as he suffers his breakdown -- also speaking in reverse -- accompanied by a tender piano melody not at all dissimilar to Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting TWIN PEAKS’ piano theme.

In fact, the discombobulated Studz and the alternate universe Laura Palmer seem to share a similar, discolored mouth (due the blacking out of Lester’s teeth).

The shifting personalities, dual/mirrored personae and identities of TWIN PEAKS (Laura Palmer/Maddie, Mr. Palmer/Bob, etc.) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE may also owe a debt to Lewis’ film as does the tragic theme of desperate non-communication among all characters in FIRE WALK WITH ME. All this parallels and redefines the unstable and at times terrifying world Lewis has created in THE BIG MOUTH.

Back in the MOUTH, Gerald again fails to get his "problem" off his chest. His tale of the frustration experienced in his search for a caring, attentive ear is misinterpreted by an insulted Suzie as a tale of sexual frustration involving her. He retreats to the hotel restaurant where he finally finds someone willing to listen to him: a member of another sub-group, this time the F.B.I.

The agent expresses an interest in Gerald's story and a willingness to help him out of his situation.

An elated Gerald, at last, unloads his tale on this stranger... until the men-in-white from the nearby sanitarium come to take the "agent" away as he declares himself the President of The United States in the Texas drawl of Lyndon Johnson.

Now it's Gerald's turn to suffer the same obliterated mental state as his gangster antagonists. The warped reality of the situation purées his brain, driving him temporarily insane as the burden of his untold story is placed firmly back in his head.

As if all this wasn't enough for the audience to wrap its head around, they are asked to swallow yet more, mind-contorting lunacy. What are we supposed to make of the sinister Fong -- this distressing creature from the xenophobic depths?

What are we to make of this character's insidious Asian brand of savagery?

Given the film's technique of literalizing cartoonish slapstick, it comes as an unexpected, disorienting shock to see a man plunged, screaming, into a vat of molten plastic amid all the playful hijinks.

In addition, an image from the film's climax presents a particularly daunting conceptual challenge. Here we have Caucasian actor Leonard Stone, caked in exaggerated, caricatured Fu Manchu make up, portraying a dangerous Chinese smuggler.

Next to him is actor/comedian/total filmmaker Jerome (Joseph) Levitch whose stage name is Jerry Lewis, portraying character Gerald Clamson, disguised as a Japanese Kabuki theater actor.

Here, Jewish, Japanese and Chinese culture are rendered indistinguishable -- ground up in the same, nightmarish cultural Cuisinart. Japanese pearl divers work outside Fong's lair while the Japanese/American actor George Takei portrays one of the Chinese smugglers.

Also, Fong's lair is located at Sea World, a location that furnishes director Lewis with a third, ocean themed location -- allowing him to pursue the film's central theme and recurring metaphor in a fresh locale as well as providing additional, bold product placement (squeezing as much out of this commercial coup as far as he can, he even has the evil Fong operate directly out of a Chicken Of The Sea pearl diving exhibit).

This sequence forces the audience to accept multiple levels of demented "reality" as a natural extension of the film's narrative. It is also another acute example of Gerald's habit of "disappearing" into his disguises. As Clamson/Lewis puts it earlier in the film, "If I detect hostility in people then I tend to submerge my inner emotional structure". And there is certainly plenty of hostility directed at him.

Violence comes naturally to the story's criminal element, but even the polite, smiling and shit-eating hotel staff is driven to fantasies of barbarism -- their minds pushed to the breaking point by Gerald's destructive idiocy, and launching them into a recitation of atrocities they intend to visit upon him when he is caught.

Add to all this mayhem the periodic, pantomimed freeze frames in which background actors stop moving simultaneously as Frank DeVol enters the frame and addresses the audience directly with commentary regarding the film's plot.

On top of this, add the numerous times characters in the film look directly into the camera lens .

This visual motif has the effect of implicating the audience as a culpable accessory to the film's multi-layered psychological crimes against humanity.

Like the phony plastic pearl dropped in Fong's lair, that cracked open to reveal a real diamond hidden inside, so have Gerald's concocted outer shells have been cracked and shed, exposing his "submerged inner emotional structure". The hidden "diamond" of his true self has been retrieved from the "depths" of the film's demented society by both his "pearl diving" savior Suzie and Gerald’s own tenacity in the battle to reconcile his fragmented emotions.

Pursued back to the beach (where all this mishegoss started) by a mob of mobsters --

Gerald and Suzie bump in to a bloody, battered, but still living “Ice-Pick” Syd who, literally, resurfaces in the surf (apparently as tenacious a figure, in his own right, as Gerald).

His return to the living -- and the film -- relieves Gerald of the burden their intertwined identities caused him and the attendant, untold story that formed the mental block that so frustrated him.

As the love birds safely wade out of the film's watery, metaphoric madness, the crowd of criminal lunatics chasing them dive right in after Syd -- now ignoring Gerald completely. Their lack of hesitation indicates that Gerald’s identity is now his and his alone and will no longer be mistaken for his criminal counterpart.

Recall that upon their second meeting, earlier in the film, in the hotel lobby, Suzie didn't recognize the thinly disguised Gerald in his "Professor Kelp" costume, even when he broke out of "character" and spoke to her in his normal voice.

By the film’s conclusion, Clamson has struggled mightily to prove that no one else can be who he is.

This leaves the film’s equally insane narrator to gaily scamper off into the dunes declaring, “film is still your best form of entertainment”.

A self-conscious nod to a yet explicitly unacknowledged overriding level of identity -- Clamson is, above all, Jerry Lewis and this particular world belongs to him -- and don’t you forget it!

In the end of a Jerry Lewis movie, it turns out, in a crazy, mixed-up world -- against all odds -- love really does conquer all:

Shared love between man and woman --

-- that’s an award earned.

Maturation of identity and self love --

-- that’s a battle won!

post ⓒ Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr


Temple of Schlock said...

I forgot about the reference to THE BIG MOUTH in HIGH ANXIETY. Interesting, because Mel Brooks worked with Lewis and Richmond on THE LADIES MAN but was fired and received no credit.

You can also see the influence of THE BIG MOUTH on Don Calfa's hitman character in WEEKEND AT BERNIE's, right down to Calfa mimicking Charlie Callas when he gets carried off in the strait jacket at the end.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of analysis that can only be conjured up by truly obsessed fans. Congrats on your painstaking work - and I hope you don't go so far down the rabbit hole that you end up barking like a dog... or turn into a toothless backwards-babbler... or wind up reduced to a collection of twitches and stutters... etc., etc...

Kris Gilpin said...

I guess this was the beginning of Lewis's laff-spotty, color films, but many parts repeatedly cracked me up back in the day--like Callas freaking out & doing his spastic routine & esp the look Lewis gives to the camera after the looney say, "Young man, I AM the President!"

I'd still love to get this on DVD, tho! ;-)...

Justin Bozung said...

This is a brilliant piece. I've read it a few times since I first discovered it. I think it's one of the Top 3 things written on Lewis or his films in America following the James Neibaur and Ted O'Kuda book - The Films Of Jerry Lewis, and then the ultimate Lewis book - The Total Film-maker. Also, Mel Brooks was never fired on THE LADIES MAN, he quit after two weeks of work with Bill Richmond. The ego's of Lewis and Brooks clashed in a major way during pre-production on THE LADIES MAN. Nothing from the Brooks writing of the film survived in the final film.