Author Explains 'Why the French Love Jerry Lewis'
By John Wray
Anyone interested in the history of comedy - on stage and in film - will not want to miss Professor Rae Beth Gordon's reading from her recent book, "Why The French Love Jerry Lewis" at the UConn Co-op at 3 p.m. on March 27. The book (Stanford University Press, 2001) was the featured review in the Chronicle of Higher Education last June, and was named "Outstanding Academic Book of 2001" in the performing arts by the journal Choice.
But don't expect to hear much about Jerry Lewis.
In her book, Gordon, a professor of modern and classical languages, focuses on the development of a special kind of comedy that first appeared in the music halls of France in the 1880s. It was a comedy characterized by the kinds of frenetic movements, tics, facial grimaces, and other bizarre behavior that mimicked various nervous disorders such as "hysteria," epilepsy, and Tourette's Syndrome.
The French public was fascinated and entertained by watching these behaviors - which reflected many of the nervous diseases just being recognized and written about in the popular press - on the café-concert stage.
Gordon's research on popular entertainment in France during the period between 1880 and the First World War has led to a book which is both thorough and entertaining. The work describes the concurrence of discoveries being made in experimental psychology of the time, and the public's fascination with these mysterious subjects, as reflected in popular entertainment.
For most American readers, the book will be an eye-opener regarding not only this peculiar type of comedic entertainment, but also the extent to which it flourished, first on the cafŽ-concert stage, and later in early French film comedy.
By the turn of the century, the various tics, bizarre gaits, and frenetic movements and facial contortions that had been exploited by the French café-concert entertainers were being used in early film comedies as well. Gordon traces how these movements became the "signature" of film comics, such as Charlie Chaplin and his predecessors in French comic film. The Keystone Kops, so familiar to American audiences, were actually the progeny of French comic film characters Boireau and Bosetti.
Hysterical and rapid movement of a speeding human body, and the extreme velocity of the express train, a frequent subject of early comic and dramatic films, Gordon says, became the idiosyncrati c paradigm for modernity. The makers of comic films went to great lengths to heighten the effects of speed and grotesque movements to astonish the spectator, and used the gestures and movements of pathological conditions to increase tension.
This paradigm was later epitomized in Chaplin's "City Lights" and "Modern Times" film classics, in which everything moved with relentless, hedonistic velocity. Movie-goers will remember Chaplin's overwrought hero running, stopping, spinning around as a bus passes, or jumping a foot off the pavement at the sound of an auto horn.
What is important about this style of entertainment, says Gordon, is the reaction it evokes in the spectator. The physical effect of such comedy, she says, is muscular tension and shocks to the body, giving way to sudden release of tension through laughter.
And this is where Jerry Lewis comes in, because, as Gordon points out, Lewis's comic style and on-stage antics mimicked those of the classic French actors of the café-concert and French comedic films of 50 years before.
This is not a book about Jerry Lewis, but in no way is this book a disappointment.