Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening was a Jerry Lewis double bill of Visit to a Small Planet (Paramount, 1960) and Way … Way Out (20th Century-Fox, 1966). You didn’t know Lewis had made two science-fiction spoofs? Neither had I. Visit to a Small Planet began life as a TV script by Gore Vidal for the Goodyear Playhouse anthology program in 1955, with Cyril Ritchard in the lead role of Kreton, an alien from an unnamed planet at the far end of the Milky Way who visits Earth on what he thinks is the eve of the Civil War but is really the contemporary South, on the eve of a Civil War-themed costume party. Kreton hangs out on Earth for a while and makes a few acidly satirical observations about our planet and its inhabitants before high-tailing it from whence he came, after issuing a curtain line that’s about the only thing I remember from the time I saw the piece staged as a play by my junior-high drama department: “I’m coming back to the Civil War, and this time I’m gonna make sure the South wins!” A kinescope of the original TV show exists in the vaults at UCLA’s film preservation unit but, like so many of the treasures they’ve restored there, they’re sitting on it like Fafner on Alberich’s hoard and not letting the rest of the world see it either theatrically or on DVD. Vidal later expanded his TV script into a play that opened on Broadway in 1957, again with Ritchard as Kreton, and ran for two years. Its success naturally attracted the interest of film producers, and the movie rights were snapped up by Hal Wallis, formerly studio head at Warner Bros. and then independent producer releasing through (and filming at) Paramount. Wallis continued to make prestige pictures through Paramount but he also signed lower-brow talents including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also perfected a device called “cross-collateralization,” whereby he could pair a production with his low-brow talents with a high-end movie aimed at the sophisticated audience and the Academy, and directly use the profits from a Martin and Lewis or an Elvis movie to finance a major prestige film.
Visit to a Small Planet was made towards the tail end of Lewis’s association with Wallis and Paramount, and Vidal was predictably unhappy that his mordant, satirical play was grabbed and remodeled (by writers Edmund Beloin and Harry Garson, no doubt with some major assistance from Lewis himself) into a dumb Jerry Lewis slapstick vehicle. Jerry Lewis is one of those alleged comedians, like the Three Stooges, whom I found hilarious when my age was still in the single (or very low double) digits — I remember being taken to the Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley in the early 1960’s for a double bill of Rock-a-Bye Baby (in which Lewis gets stuck with triplets by their mom, 1940’s blonde bombshell Marilyn Maxwell in a short-lived attempt at a 1958 comeback) and Don’t Give Up the Ship (Lewis more or less in command of a Navy vessel with the unattractive and unamusing name U.S.S. Kornblatt, which under his watch sinks — all that’s salvaged is its bell). I thought it was hilarious as a kid but about a decade later, when Don’t Give Up the Ship turned up on TV, I watched part of it and was bored silly. That’s pretty much been my reaction to Jerry Lewis since — that and my typical outrage when his biographers and critical fans pull “first-itis” on him and credit him with innovations other people pioneered — I’m still mad at a Los Angeles Times article that credited Lewis’s 1960 film The Errand Boy with being the first comedy that used an elevator crane so the camera could follow the action on different floors of the set (it was actually Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, 32 years earlier). The biggest thing that puts me off of Lewis is the deliberately infantile persona he created — itself something that had been done way better by the previous two generations of film comedians, including the awesome Harry Langdon in the 1920’s and Laurel and Hardy in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. I can’t stand that hideous whiny voice in which Lewis delivered his dialogue to indicate his character was supposed to be an immature child-man, and the gags he worked up for that character also grate on me — he simply didn’t have Langdon’s or Laurel’s subtlety in balancing an infantile persona with an adult body.
Visit to a Small Planet has its points; John Williams’ performance as Kreton’s teacher back home (who monitors him on TV when he cuts class and sneaks to Earth in a flying saucer) is marvelously acidulous and carries over some of the spirit of the original play; and Fred Clark as Kreton’s unwilling host, TV personality Roger Putnam Spelding (who, in what passed for irony on Beloin’s and Garson’s part, has just filmed a show declaiming once and for all that there are no flying saucers coming to Earth and bearing aliens from outer space), also delivers a treasurable comic performance. (It’s nice to see Williams and Clark reunited from the 1956 comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac, though that was a considerably better film than Visit to a Small Planet.) There are some good gags in Visit, including one in which Kreton, not used to alcoholic beverages, responds to drinking one by walking up and down the walls and ceiling of Spelding’s living room the way Keaton did in the submarine at the end of The Navigator (1924) and Fred Astaire did in his solo dance in Royal Wedding (1951) — and, though Lewis probably filmed his action the way Keaton and Astaire had (a revolving room set and a camera bolted to it so he was always on the ground but looked like he was defying gravity), he and his effects person, the great John P. Fulton (the man who’d figured out how to make Claude Rains disappear in The Invisible Man in 1933), go Keaton and Astaire one better by having Fred Clark stay on the set’s apparent floor even while Lewis goes up the walls and ultimately stands on the ceiling. There are also some nice moments when Kreton, who explains that his own planet gave up love millennia ago, spies on Spelding’s daughter Ellen (Joan Blackman, a fine actress whose casting here practically defines “overqualified”) and her boyfriend Conrad (Earl Holliman) as they try to neck, first in Spelding’s home and then in a car.
And Visit has one genuinely great scene: Ellen takes Kreton to a Beatnik coffeehouse called “The Hungry Brain” (probably a parody of the genuine Hungry I bar in San Francisco, whose sign was actually a painting of an eye), where he hears a jazz singer (Barbara Lawson) deliver what appears to us (and to her) like just another scat-sung song but which has Kreton in tears as he explains to Ellen that it’s really a tragic story about a woman having been abandoned by a man, who comes back into her life only to beat her up. Then Kreton plays the bongos by remote control and does a dance with Lawson that’s surprisingly well done and the most entertaining part of the film. (The jazz band seen in the film has some surprisingly major talents, including Frank Socolow on sax — there are actually two saxophonists, one playing alto and one playing what looks like a bass sax, an instrument I thought had left jazz when Adrian Rollini abandoned it and took up vibes in the mid-1930’s — Don Bagley on bass, Jack Costanzo on percussion and an uncredited but recognizable Buddy Rich on drums; there’s also a trumpet player who’s shown playing open horn, but what we hear on the soundtrack is muted.) But most of Visit is just dull, with Lewis really trying hard to make us laugh and giving us only a few isolated chuckles. Lewis had been a major comedy star throughout the 1950’s, largely by appealing to children and teenagers, and he was able to take the breakup of his partnership with Dean Martin in stride — Visit was directed by Norman Taurog, who had done a number of the Martin and Lewis movies as well and recalled that the experience was not all that different from his work with real children like Jackie Cooper in the early 1930’s — and continue as a major box-office attraction until his film career started to fall apart in the 1960’s and he ultimately had to fall back on his main gig outside of moviemaking: hosting the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethons.
One thing I hadn’t realized about Visit to a Small Planet before is that virtually the entire Mork and Mindy TV series, starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber and the vehicle that “broke” Williams to a mass audience, is a ripoff of it — though Williams was a considerably subtler comedian than Lewis and he made quite a lot more of the central premise of a fish-out-of-water space alien bamboozled by Earth’s customs. Indeed, I couldn’t help wishing there had been a 1980’s remake that had stuck closer to Vidal’s original script and had cast Williams as Kreton — he could have pulled off both Vidal’s satire and the slapstick antics of the Lewis version (better than Lewis, who this late in the game was pretty obviously being doubled in a lot of his pratfalls). There’s a third version of Visit to a Small Planet listed on imdb.com, one made for German TV in 1971 and probably closer to Vidal’s original than this one, since the only other writer credited is Eric Burger, and he’s listed only as “translator” of Vidal’s script into German. That one was directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, who’d made some of the biggest-budgeted Nazi propaganda films (including a two-part biopic of Bismarck as well as I Accuse, a pro-euthanasia movie that was inoffensive in itself — today’s right-to-die crowd would probably be O.K. with it if it weren’t for its dubious provenance — but which was probably greenlighted by Joseph Goebbels to prepare people for the Nazis’ campaign to exterminate Jews and others they considered “undesirable,” including people with disabilities) but managed a long career in postwar Germany (though he didn’t make his first postwar film until 1949) and didn’t seem to have suffered from his Nazi associations the way Leni Riefenstahl did.