The skeleton of Hollywood, half fakery and half magic: "What's your pleasure?" Brian Donlevy, the splenetic head of Paramutual Pictures, needs an efficiency-expert stooge and locates one from his window, pasting up a billboard for the "Directed by Jerry Lewis" card. Lewis bursts into the conference room mid-non sequitur, is knighted errand boy and scampers off to take the medium apart and show you the pieces. The hunt for the absolute gag, started in The Bellboy, pushes on: Some are led to the expected resolution (Lewis slams the door after his boss orders him not to), others are set up just to let punchlines flutter away like butterflies (the slapstick threat of an enormous jar of jellybeans as Lewis carries it up and down a ladder). The spazz finds himself cast behind the scenes, yet how could the Total Filmmaker possibly remain a polite, background extra? He takes over a Roaring '20s production by the sheer force of his sing-along squawk, and razes dailies by meeting the camera's eye from the other side of a deep-focus soiree -- as Teutonic auteurs watching the dismantling of their mise en scène, Fritz Feld and Sig Ruman offer deadpan and hysterical versions of the reaction shot, both magisterial. Lewis' sound editing is masterly: There's the deafening clatter of a roomful of screenwriters, the electronic squeaks emitted by Kathleen Freeman as she emerges dripping from a drive through the carwash, and, above all, the Dueling Cavalier satire from Singin' in the Rain brought to the modernist '60s. The protagonist is entranced by a shaft of light and follows it into the arms of a starlet (Felicia Atkins) at a Tinseltown premiere; the great underwater joke has been regularly revisited (Altman's Popeye, Strange Brew, Top Secret). Lewis's formalism may accommodate the aggressive bathos of puppets, but the concluding jest reminds us that the search for comedy is the search for the Self. With Howard McNear, Kenneth MacDonald, Dick Wesson, Renée Taylor, Doodles Weaver, and Del Moore. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce