Most of us remember the late Jerry Lewis (1926 – 2017) as a comic actor inhabiting worlds of film, television, stage, and radio. Millions of baby boomers recall the teaming of him and Dean Martin (1946–1956) in a series of films. Moreover, over a span of 45 years, the public watched Lewis’ annual Labor Day weekend telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), of which he served as national chairman.
But Lewis was more than simply an actor with great comic timing. As Jean-Pierre Coursodon noted, Jerry Lewis “was the only Hollywood comedian to rise from mere performer to ‘total firm maker’ during the sound era.”
On Oct. 13, 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Science and Technology Council honored Lewis at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in an event entitled, The Innovative Genius of Jerry Lewis. It focused on the visual effects and sound techniques used in the films Lewis made with his own production unit at Paramount Pictures: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies’ Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1962), “The Nutty Professor” (1963) and “The Patsy” (1964).
But Lewis’ love affair with film and video technology originated in his youth, as was demonstrated when he staged a gala opening of a camera shop, Jerry Lewis’ Camera Exchange on Vine Street in Hollywood on April 20, 1950.
Lewis’ owned an extensive range of 16mm film equipment and, throughout the 1950s he made several elaborate home moves with a circle of friends that included Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Jeff Chandler, Van Johnson, and Shelley Winters.
James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda, in their book, “The Jerry Lewis Films,” quote actress Janet Leigh, who recalled, “We did the pictures for fun, but you could see that Jerry was learning all the time — how to direct actors, how to set up a scene, et cetera.”
When Lewis finally got a chance to direct his own film, it was the low-budget, rapidly produced and practically plotless 1960 comedy film “The Bellboy.” The film was about the antics of a silent bellboy named Stanley at the Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami, Florida where Lewis was performing onstage.
Lewis was on such a tight schedule that he couldn’t wait a day for the “dailies” or “rushes” of each “take” to be developed and produced for viewing. He needed a way for him as director to look at and evaluate what the actors had done immediately rather than send the film footage to a lab for processing.
To remedy the situation, Lewis used what is now called “video assist.” The film camera used by Lewis (a BNC Mitchell) had an industrial RCA Vidicon camera attached next to its lens. A portable video tape machine and television monitor nearby enabled Lewis to playback each scene and check both the actors’ performance and the scene’s pacing.
Paramount Pictures, deciding it didn’t want to back a “silent picture,” pulled its financing on the production. Lewis made up the difference and “The Bellboy” grossed more than 50 times its original investment, establishing Jerry Lewis as a film director.
The technical innovation of video assist took a while before it was adopted in Hollywood. In their 2006 book, “I’ll Be in My Trailer,” John Badham and Craig Moddemo stated that “A poll of working directors in 1970 showed almost nobody wanted to use video assist.
In addition to the expense, it could take control away from the director. Stars and producers could waste all kinds of time watching takes and haggling over details.”
But video assist eventually won out thanks to action directors, second unit directors, and stunt coordinators, since dangerous stunts no longer had to be repeated if the camera operator wasn’t sure if the shot was any good.
Ironically, when Jerry Lewis was making his 1961 film, “The Ladies Man” his set was open to the public and a young page at Paramount named Francis Ford Coppola visited the set and saw video assist technology in action.
By this time, Lewis had taken the video assist concept to an incredible level, with as many as 30 video monitors strewn across the set while doing a scene. In this way Lewis could see himself not just later on video tape but also as he was performing, no matter where he was in the scene and regardless of the direction he was looking as he stood before the film cameras.
Coppola was so impressed with what Lewis was doing that, many years later, he used the video assist technique when making one of his own films, “One From the Heart.”
Today, color video cameras are built into just about every camera, along with LCD monitors for the cameramen.
Because of his “open set” policy and vociferous advocacy of video assist, Lewis was often been credited by many as the inventor of the technology — including by Lewis himself, as he did in a 2008 interview with Peter Bogdanovich. Indeed, during the February 2009 telecast of the Academy Awards, Lewis was credited as not just the inventor of video assist, but also as holding a U.S. patent on the technology.
Later that year, author Peter Glaskowsky contacted the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which conducted a search. The results? “The bottom line is that there is no such patent,” wrote Glaskowsky at Cnet.com.
Glaskowsky did find U.S. Patent 2,420,197 by Adolph H. Rosenthal, issued in 1947 with a 1944 filing date. The patent describes placing film and video cameras on the same chassis. Since there is no “beam splitter” and the video camera isn’t looking through the lens of the film camera, the video image resulting from the configuration described in this patent — unlike modern video assist systems — wouldn’t exactly resemble what the film camera “sees” because of what’s called parallax error.
Jerry Lewis’ video-assist system also used separate video and film cameras. Thus, as Glaskowsky speculates, his arrangement may have been unpatentable because of the “prior art” of Rosenthal’s 1947 patent.
Although Jerry Lewis basically popularized the concept of video assist and put it on the map — to the point where many people believe he invented it — modern video assist technology appears to descend from a 1955 patent filed in 1953 by Arthur E. Reeves and Robert Gordon Nichols (U.S. 2,709,391).
This adds the crucial element of a second beam splitter so, as Glaskowsky observes, “both an optical viewfinder and a video camera could be used simultaneously.”
Lewis, the consummate filmmaker, became a member of just about every union in Hollywood. If he needed to adjust something or move a light, he didn’t have to tell a union employee to do it — he just went ahead and did it himself.
One technically impressive, though little-known film in which Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared, was the 1953 comedy “Money From Home.” It was their only film done in both Technicolor and 3-D. Technicolor was still done using the three filmstrip process, and so the Technicolor Corporation had built a special camera which used two lenses and exposed six strips of film in synchronization. The special camera had only been used once before, on the Nat Holt production of “Flight to Tangier” (also in 1953) and it would never be used again. (Interesting, a different system had been used in 1951 by a British company, using two three-strip cameras side-by-side for a 9-minute short called Royal River)
“Money From Home” premiered on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31, 1953) as a special preview in 322 theaters. Ironically, because of technical problems, the pairs of prints for the special projectors were not available in time, so the film appeared in 2-D. The film went into general release, also as a “flatty” in February of 1954.
Many years later, there was a screening of “Money From Home” at the World 3-D Film Expo III held at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles in September of 2013. In a Q&A session following the screening, actress Pat Crowley, who had made her movie debut playing Lewis’ girlfriend in the movie, recalled that “the cameras were pretty darn big.”
To sum up, in addition to being a talented Hollywood performer, Jerry Lewis was a technically adept innovator when it came to motion picture production. Whether or not he actually invented anything, he did advance the technical aspects of cinema art.