‘Three on a Couch’ (1966): Jerry Lewis comedy offers few laughs

Mill Creek Entertainment has released the Jerry Lewis Comedy Triple Feature, a single disc—that’s a lot of info crammed onto one disc—collection including 1966’s Three on a Couch (first time on DVD, I believe), 1968’s Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, and 1969’s Hook, Line, and Sinker. Now…these aren’t exactly the titles I’d pick for an dusk-till-dawn drive-in Jerry Lewis triple feature (I’d polish up the old man’s Pontiac Grand Safari for The Nutty Professor, The Geisha Boy, and maybe Boeing Boeing), but it’s tough to say no to this collection, no matter how marginal the material, because good or bad, Jerry is always fascinating to watch. Today, let’s look at Three on a Couch.

By Paul Mavis

Curiously well-dressed starving artist Christopher Pride (Jerry Lewis) has been awarded a $10,000 commission by the French government to design a mural in Paris—providing a perfect opportunity for a one-year honeymoon with his beautiful fiance, Dr. Elizabeth Acord (Janet Leigh). There’s only one problem—actually three: Elizabeth has three female patients who are doing so poorly because of their treatment at the hands of men, that she can’t leave them right now.

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Christopher’s insistence on Elizabeth’s compliance leads to a plan, hatched with their mutual friend, OB-GYN Dr. Benjamin Mizer (James Best): Christopher will disguise himself as the “ideal man” for each of the women, make them fall in love with him, and thus cured, free them from Elizabeth’s treatment. Simple. So, Christopher becomes a Wyoming rancher for cowboy-hating Anna Jacque (Gila Golan), a sports jock for Susan Manning (Mary Ann Mobley), and an effeminante zoologist for Mary Lou Mauve (Leslie Parrish), with an impersonation of the sissy’s butch sister as a bonus. Christopher almost kills himself wooing the three women while keeping his fiance sweet, but trouble comes when Elizabeth becomes suspicious.

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During the Punic Wars, when I was in “film school” (blech), I wrote a paper on how Jerry Lewis’ 1963 The Nutty Professor was a masterpiece of visual and aural comedy. It wasn’t the greatest paper in the world, but the professor I had read one page while we were taking a test and gave it an automatic “F,” writing in huge red ink, “Jerry Lewis isn’t a filmmaker, and he doesn’t direct ‘masterpieces!’” (yep…she was just as much fun as she sounds).

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When I was growing up in the 1970s, Jerry Lewis had quit making movies, but he was still a huge “name-recognition” star, with his old comedies playing regularly on TV, as well as his highly-anticipated yearly hosting duties on the MDA Telethon drawing tens of millions of viewers. Back then, the Jerry Lewis camps were pretty easily defined: kids loved him, parents (mostly fathers) remembered liking him when he was with Dean Martin…while women rolled their eyes at his later efforts, and most American critics sneered at or outright dismissed him. It was a universally accepted joke, often used by stand-up comedians and TV personalities, that he was only critically respected in of all places, France.

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Of course that’s all changed…but for the worse. Only hard-core “film enthusiasts” (blech) know and seek out Jerry Lewis, while mainstream pop culture recognition for Lewis has gradually faded and disappeared over the ensuing four decades, just as it does and will do with anyone who used to be “someone.” Everybody knew Lewis’ face when I was a boy; if you went to random elementary schools and showed a picture of him today, you’d be lucky to find one kid in a hundred thousand who could name him (when he died this past summer, there were a remarkable number of obituaries, written by obviously bewildered millennials, who made it clear they had never even heard of Jerry Lewis before his passing).

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What’s striking about the critics that do continue to write about Lewis is how serious they are when discussing him. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising; as “film criticism” (blech) becomes more and more convoluted and self-reflexive and self-consuming, the only validation for it becomes ever-increasing intellectual opaqueness and self- aggrandizement (“I See and Understand And More Importantly…You Don’t, Therefore I Am”). I’ve played that parlor game, and it can be fun, but ultimately it’s a useless exercise in mental jerking off (you bet your ass I’m being what those critics would call “reductive”). Reading some of the frankly astonishingly laudatory online reviews for Three on a Couch, I had to stifle the desire to giggle like a schoolgirl at some of the humorless overreaching that’s going on out there (it’s a curious fact, but the critics who seem to be laying down the heaviest thinking are the same critics who seem incapable of actively, passionately enjoying the movies they write about—you can tell they don’t really love movies).

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I still believe Jerry Lewis’ 1963 The Nutty Professor is flat-out one of the most brilliant comedies anyone can laugh at or study. I don’t think, however, that there is anything of serious critical value in Three on a Couch. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a slave to auteur film theory, wherein an artist’s body of work is automatically elevated just because personal signifiers filtered through cinematic means are found repeated throughout the canon. The Nutty Professor, directed and acted by Jerry Lewis, is the work of a genius. No qualification. However, Three on a Couch, directed and acted by Jerry Lewis, and containing themes and visual stylistics similar to Nutty (those hoary Lewisian cliches about “visual stasis versus chaos” and the umpteenth “new” realization by a nube critic that Lewis was aware of his own splintered personality and, gasp, exploited it!), is an unrecognizable, unfunny mess that doesn’t even stand up to some of the lesser Martin and Lewis efforts…let alone Jerry’s superior Frank Tashlin-directed efforts.

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Years before its production, Three on a Couch was originally announced as a starring vehicle for Tony Curtis and then Jack Lemmon, before it was reworked as Jerry Lewis’ first movie for Columbia Pictures. Everyone mentions this break away from Paramount to Columbia, but they never say why: Lewis’ old studio declined to renew his multi-million dollar contract. The execs saw the persistent downward trend of his increasingly unprofitable pictures…and politely showed him the door. Anyone tempted to assign some pedigree to Three on a Couch because of co-screenwriter Samuel Taylor’s presence (Sabrina, Vertigo) should remember that Taylor was also capable of writing crap like The Love Machine. Three on a Couch’s other scripter, Bob Ross, was a veteran of episodic television (The Andy Griffith Show, which falls more into line with Three on a Couch’s choppy, vignette-style construction. Auterists take note, though, that Lewis was known for taking scripts not written by him and tossing them in the can (ad libbing and on-set “inspirational” story structuring was apparently rampant on this particular shoot).

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Some contemporary critics claim Three on a Couch eked out a small profit, but it didn’t—it was a financial flop and a critical disaster (at least here in the States) when it was released in the box office doldrums of July, 1966, continuing and leading to Lewis’s further streak of one b.o. dud after another: Way…Way Out, The Big Mouth, Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, Hook, Line & Sinker, and Which Way to the Front?. There’s no big mystery why Three on a Couch performed as such; it’s as easy to see today as audiences and critics found back in 1966: it’s simply not funny enough.

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Granted, you can find a few things to laugh at here (you always can in even the worst Jerry Lewis picture), like Jerry the rancher furiously working that cee-gar, or the Tashlin-inspired shot of the rodeo cow having roped Jerry. Shockingly, however, the vast majority of Three on a Couch is a technically crude, self-indulgent mess. After the tantalizing opening credits scene, that seems to promise so much (Lewis’ trademark jazzy, insistent score punctuating shots of various patients seeking psychiatric help at Elizabeth’s office, highlighted by those deep pools of switching color as she shrinks their heads), we’re dazed by a long, tiresome opening scene at the French embassy that features unconscionably awkward staging and too-tight, uninformed framing (this whole movie is framed and shot as if the camera viewfinder was knocked 5 degrees off-kilter). This is the same director who marshaled the brilliant The Nutty Professor? It can’t be.

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And it only gets worse. The new critics who love this movie mildly gripe about its caveman politics (Jerry and his friend wanting Leigh to choose between being a woman and being a doctor; Jerry manipulating the three patients by “seducing” them back into romantic, sexual “health”), but all that’s historically contextual (guess what, today’s P.C.-straitjacked movie makers and critics? In 20 years, new audiences are going to be laughing at your context). The critics discuss at length Jerry’s supposedly complicated sexual politics in contrast to his man/child persona, along with his manipulation of women via his intricate mise-en-scene, but frankly, the post-“Kid” Jerry Lewis’ take on sexuality was at once simple and immediately accessible, regardless of the movie, and it went like this: “Love ME! I’ll switch from tender and childlike to bullying and manipulative. I’ll make funny faces and noises, or I’ll zero in all pseudo-suave and smooth like a greasy ladykiller. I’ll do ANYTHING for you (the girl, the audience) to LOVE ME!” That theme runs through so much of Lewis’ work, most fully and productively—and hilariously—realized in The Nutty Professor…but not at all in Three on a Couch.

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All of which, by the way, could be forgiven, if Three on a Couch was at least mildly amusing. So much doesn’t work here that one begins to wonder if something was just “off” with Lewis when making this (by this point, he was going through a professional downturn, after all, while later admitting his private life was complicated by rampant infidelity and drug abuse). Jokes fall flat (that old lady doing backflips isn’t just random, it’s poorly executed), or are quite thin (Jerry’s barroom talk with Best is fascinatingly bad—smoking and drinking Jerry’s so sweaty and oily and gross…and shockingly dull as a “normal” character).

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The supposed highlights of Three on a Couch—Jerry’s impersonations of three romantic suitors—are mostly misses; only the rancher character gets laughs, and that’s because it’s a reworked retread of his old Eddie Mayhoff bit. I’m for equal opportunity offensiveness directed at any and all religious, ethnic, and gender stereotypes in a comedy (anyone tired yet of only straight white males being made fun of on TV and at the movies? Of course you’re not, if you ain’t one of them!). But why the always touchy P.C. critics today didn’t have their feelers out for Jerry’s unfunny gay zoologist is a mystery (I’ll bite: it’s because they’re afraid of their liberal readers pouncing on a critic who likes a movie with a gay stereotype in it, so…just don’t mention it in the review!), while his drag act is abysmal (check out his eyes during this cringe-worthy bit—they’re as flat and dead as a serial killer’s).

Not helping Three on a Couch’s paucity of laughs is the basic unlikeability of Jerry and his lead character. I guess it’s not important that I don’t buy slicked-back Jerry’s conception of a starving commercial artist as someone who owns $300 Sy Devore suits and cufflinks, and lives in a fabulous bachelor pad…but does Jerry himself have to be so grimly humorless in executing that character? I get no “joy of performance” coming from Jerry, no pleasure in creating this “Christopher Pride” non-entity (what a lame, obvious attempt at “meaning,” having himself named “Pride,” and Leigh monikered “Acord”). Nutty’s Julius Kelp/Buddy Love character embraces a myriad number of moods and emotions and psychological traits, from childlike naiveté to spastic, kinetic energy, to corrosive, bullying sexuality. It’s a full, rich, humorously complex creation.

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Where is any of that here? All we get in Three on a Couch is the visibly tight, anxious, vaguely angry Jerry Lewis whose clowning comes off forced and aggressive. There’s a nasty smugness to Jerry’s approach here that’s entirely off-putting. Critics rhapsodize about two long scenes where Jerry turns his back to the camera, “allowing” Janet Leigh to be the focus in each, but the rigidity and totality of this denial of the camera is actually Lewis’ most ostentatious acknowledgement of it (you don’t wind up watching Leigh…you keep looking at the back of Jerry’s head waiting to see if he’s ever going to turn). It’s egomania not masked by false modesty, but defined by it.

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At one point, Janet Leigh (poor Janet—asked yet again to give the same performance she always gave) turns to Jerry and states, “I’m going to believe someone is manipulating things for me…some god or something.” Jerry, arrogantly smirking in a manner that’s familiar to anyone who saw TV interviews with the real Jerry Lewis, condescendingly replies, “Yeah, I suppose you could say that, Liz,” enjoying his own joke of manipulated dress form Leigh. Critics think moments like that in Three on a Couch are ironic self-commentary for Lewis, and laud him for his artistic bravery. Those moments aren’t purposefully ironic; they’re all too real. Ultimately, that’s beside the point, though—what’s worse is, they’re not funny.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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