True to its (new) name*, Cracking Up splits up the body as soon as the film begins. In fact, the first scene is Bressonian in its economy and emphasis of physicality: the shadow of a head lit on a wall; black dress shoes walking back and forth across a hotel room’s green carpet; and hands that scribble a note, clutch a suitcase, drag a chair, then grip a hangman’s rope. The camera re-aligns its gaze, focusing on this figure’s chest now, teasing the viewer as to who these body parts belong to. Who is this figure ready to die? We will learn soon enough. The camera fixates on the upper body as the hands toss the rope over a crossbeam (Yet one cannot be too sure, since the rope catches on something out of the frame). A cut back to the shoes reveals them to be resting on a chair.
It is here, the scene comes to a head, to a punch line: the soundtrack (heavy strings, a faux Bernard Herrmann score), which plays over the wordless scene and deliberately instills it with ironic artifice, climaxes. All of a sudden, the music mutes as the shoes kick the chair out from under them. The shoes dangle briefly, and surprisingly, drift back down to the floor. The camera pulls back to reveal a flummoxed Jerry Lewis ("Who else?" onscreen text tells us later on, during the title sequence.)
I can think of no film that embodies Murphy’s Law better than Jerry Lewis' Cracking Up. Better yet, the film renders the epigram cinematic. For Lewis, a self-described misfit, nothing can go right, not even suicide. To cure his neuroses, he seeks the help of a psychotherapist (a mild Herb Edelman). Using such subject matter, this may be Jerry Lewis at his darkest hour. Not too bleak though, since Lewis’ absurdist humor dispels any whiff of severity.
If this is Lewis’ “darkest” film, it is also his most experimental. With Cracking Up, the clown prince of film strips away anything resembling a conventional narrative structure. Like his first feature-length film, The Bellboy, Cracking Up consists of a series of situations. In the former, Lewis creates gags based on a bellboy’s behavior at a ritzy Florida hotel. With Cracking Up, however, Lewis does not tether his gags to a “type” -- bellboy, patsy, ladies man, orderly -- but to a neutral, blank figure. As Serge Daney puts it, Lewis “is no longer a nice, crazy simple kid with a big heart; he’s a universal type: the Misfit by essence, addicted to shrinks, a real loser of our time. Age is no longer relevant.”
Riffing off this essential premise (a man who seems to be a failure at everything), Lewis explores the principles of cinema, one of which is the dynamic between on- and off-screen space, and the hilarity that ensues from this relationship. Now, Lewis is no stranger to the relationship, for it is evident in his previous work, such as The Ladies Man, and may even stem from his tutelage under Frank Tashlin.
In Cracking Up though, the exploration of spaces is pervasive. It is apparent in the scene I described above, in which, concomitant with the reveal, (off-screen space becomes on-screen) in comes comedy, in comes cinema, emerging from the abyss that’s on the other side of the frame. Lewis thus sets up gags at the edges of the frames. They begin out of view. Lewis allows only so much time to pass, building up anticipation, before revealing the gag on-screen. When the concealed is revealed then, the moment of failure is upon us.
*Originally called Smorgasbord, the distributors re-titled Jerry’s last film with the generic name, Cracking Up.
For more writing on Cracking Up, look no further than Steven Shaviro's great essay on the film, in which he approaches it from the contexts of psychoanalysis and Jewish humor.