"Duke does the Dean Martin shtick (poorly, I might add) while freak-of-nature Sammy takes the Jerry Lewis role, and holy old sheep s*** is he frightening. I can't begin to describe how disturbing this guy is, you just have to see for yourself." - Scott Phillips, Film Vault
Night club performers Duke and Sammy fall out of a plane (oh, if only) and wash up on the tropical island of... Cola Cola. (Seriously, kids, that's as funny as it gets. Better buckle up for a rough one.) The duo are marked for sacrifice by the local natives until Princess Nona intervenes, having falling madly in love with Duke at first site. The tribe instead holds a luau in honor of the pair during which Sammy tells jokes (Stop me if you've heard the one with the punchline "so I bit him". Oh yeah, Sammy goes there.), Duke croons a tune, and Nona's younger, but much larger, sister Saloma becomes hopelessly infatuated with Sammy. (So does a monkey later on. Who knew Sammy was such a chick magnet?) Nona suggests the boys go and see Dr. Zabor, the mad scientist who has set up shop on the other side of the island in order to perform experiments in evolution, in hopes he can help them get back to their tour. Unfortunately, it turns out that the not-so-good doctor wants Nona for himself, and so takes an immediate disliking to Duke. From there it's utter chaos as Duke is transformed into a gorilla, lab monkey Ramona competes with Saloma for Sammy's attentions, everybody runs through the same jungle set for twenty minutes, another gorilla shows up and falls in love with Duke, Dr. Zabor drinks a lot, and everyone laughs at the fat girl. By this time the movie's plot is hopelessly lost, so Zabor simply walks up and shoots Sammy in the crotch. (oh, if only) Sadly, the screenwriter must have seen the Wizard of Oz, so the movie has a "shock ending" in store for us.
Doppelgangers, shadow selves, evil twins, sinister goatee wearing duplicates from a mirror dimension. As long as there have been stories there have been tales of malevolent duplicates appearing in people's lives as harbingers of doom or bringers of evil. In an interview from a few years back, Jerry Lewis clone Sammy Petrillo recalled his first meeting with the popular comedian. "[Milton] Berle sent me and his agent, Herb Jaffee, in a cab over to Sherry Nevlim's hotel where Jerry Lewis was staying. Jerry was in the bathroom in his shorts shaving. And so help me, he almost cut his throat when he saw me!" (I can imagine. I had the exact same reaction while watching this movie for the first time and I'm not even Jerry Lewis.) Still, the meeting got Sammy into show business, playing Jerry's infant son in a skit on The Colgate Comedy Hour. But when Sammy hooked up with Dean Martin wannabe Duke Mitchell and began performing a carbon copy nightclub act, Jerry was displeased. And when the pair made Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla, (which is a ridiculously long title to type. From now on we'll just refer to this movie as BLMABG, which coincidently is the exact sound you'll start making as you struggle to hold down your gorge while watching.) Jerry Lewis felt compelled to take action. As in legal action. As in cease and desist.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, we offer up for your viewing pleasure the one and only screen pairing of the faux-legendary Mitchell and Petrillo. We give you BLMABG. In bucket loads. Now let's be fair. It's not like all the evils of this movie rest solely on the shoulders of Duke and Sammy. This is, after all, a movie which uses stock footage... in its trailer. This is a movie where all the supposed Polynesian natives are 40 year old white guys in Hawaiian shirts. This is a movie directed by a guy known around Hollywood as William "One-Take" Beaudine. This is a movie whose only recognizable name, Lugosi, was reportedly zonked out on morphine throughout the production. This is a movie whose title was chosen by the ten year old son of the producer. (Actually, that's not such a bad thing. The original title the kid rejected was White Woman Of The Lost Jungle.) This a movie which Martin & Lewis producer Hal B. Wallis allegedly offered to buy the negative of... SO HE COULD BURN IT!
But despite all of that, BLMABG really is Duke and Sammy's movie to carry, and wow, do they fumble the ball. I'm not saying the guys are completely talentless, they're just... a little off. Duke comes across like one of those guys who gets wasted on nickel beer night and spends the rest of the evening bellowing out mediocre Sinatra karaoke while hitting on any woman he isn't related to. He's interesting for a few minutes, but you quickly start to wish he would call it a night and just go home. And as for Sammy... honestly, it just gets painful. His one-liners are the kind of stuff you find in Bazooka Joe comics. (He likes being on Cola Cola because it makes a "guy feel all pepsi!" Arrrgh, not only is it a bad joke, I'm not even sure I know what it means!) His continuous unfunny put-downs of the portly Saloma start to border on cruelty as he calls her everything from a blimp to a two-ton salami. (Sammy pronounces Saloma's name like salami, you see, because she's overweight, and salami is a food, and you get overweight by eating, and, and, ehhh....) And his impersonation of Jerry Lewis with all it's accompanying flailing about and nasally screeching (Duke-eeee!), while technically spot-on, really starts to get to you after awhile. I know a lot of people can't handle the real Jerry Lewis as it is, but when I was a kid I always thought he was kind of funny. If I had seen BLMABG as a child, though, I think this... thing... might have frightened me out of my wits. It looks like Jerry, it talks like Jerry, it moves like Jerry... but it ain't Jerry. No. It's a pod person. I'm sure of it. After all these years of watching them in movies, I believe I've finally seen one in real life. Some malevolent alien lifeform came down from outer space and took Jerry's shape while he was sleeping, but it couldn't duplicate his soul. Don't laugh, this is serious. "Look, you fools. You're in danger. Can't you see? They're after you. They're after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They're here already. YOU'RE NEXT! YOU'RE NEXT!"
Or maybe not.
Maybe Sammy really was just some guy who looked eerily similar to Jerry Lewis and found a way to make a buck off of it. But he was such a good counterfeit that Lewis himself got a little concerned that there might be some confusion. Again, recalling their first meeting, Sammy claims that Jerry "said something to the effect of, "Don't sign any checks and tell people you're Jerry Lewis!" He wasn't being funny. He was being serious." It seems Jerry had little faith in his contemporaries to be able to judge who was the real deal and who was not. So little in fact, that he was willing to wage an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against Duke and Sammy just to keep them out of the public eye.
Okay, so maybe Jerry was guilty of a little overkill, but can you really blame him for not trusting the masses to be discerning? BLMABG was, after all, released in 1952. The war was over, the soldiers were home, and the economy was booming in order to meet their demands. In his book The Victorians author John Gardiner suggests that the mass-production era this boom ushered in resulted in a lack of discrimination on the part of consumers in regards to the "goodness" of any particular something. As long as their desires were met in an economical and efficient way, quality and authenticity were optional. At a fundamental level, the 1950s jump started what philosopher Charles Taylor referred to as the Malaise of Modernity, the inevitable cultural slide into a "soft relativism" in which the good or bad of something was irrelevant as long as you had the ability to choose between them. And the really bad news, as Gardiner put it, was that "the culture of consumerism, mass entertainment, and moral relativism was here to stay." And growing. Need proof?
In October of 2004 Zachary Stein and Theo L. Dawson-Tunik of Developmental Testing Service, LLC conducted a "study of relativism in the moral reasoning of 122 schoolboys, 72 of whom were interviewed in the 1950s and early 1960s and 50 of whom were interviewed in the 1990s." The paper concludes that "respondents from the 1990s were more than 4 times more likely to express uncertainty, almost 4 times more likely to make relativistic references to belief or opinion, and 10 times more likely to express the notion that one can speak only for oneself. If these findings are robust—and additional research is required before we can feel confident in making this assertion—there has been a major shift in the moral thinking of American youth... Consequently, a radical form of relativism—which holds that any opinion is as good as any other—is increasingly becoming the default philosophy of American adolescence." Wow. Everything is equal, nothing is bad. Doesn't that sound cool? It's a shame there's a big but attached to it.
Buried in the report is first this sentence, "The value of relativism seems ambiguous. It leads towards tolerance, learning and diversity, on the one hand, and conflict, fragmentation, and confusion, on the other." and later on this one, "we see uncertainty in attempts to articulate and explain some of the most basic and fundamental moral intuitions - inarticulacy concerning the very normativity of the moral ought. This kind of deep moral uncertainty and inarticulacy is a bedfellow of subjective relativism and seems to follow logically from its premises." The Catch 22 to all these equally viable choices found in relativism, apparently, is the accompanying inability to actually make a choice. I guess relativism isn't all it's cracked up to be.
In his 2005 inaugural address Pope Benedict XVI stated that "Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own "ego"." It seems the Holy Father has had relativism in his sights since day one. But how to combat it when, as noted earlier, it appears to be the primary philosophy of a good chunk of the world's population. We got a little hint in last week's review of Frogs in which we noted the Pontiff's hope that environmental concerns will be instrumental in reigniting an interest in natural law theory. "The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history" states the Catechism, "it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies."
And if Benedict gets his way, then now is the time for natural law theory to reemerge into the limelight. Two weeks ago in an address to the International Theological Commission, the Pope said "the consciences of all men and women of good will must be mobilized, both lay people and followers of religions other than Christianity, so that together they may make an effective commitment to creating... the conditions necessary for a full awareness of the inalienable value of natural moral law." To that effect, the Catholic News Service reports, he's had members of the commission "working on a document on the foundations of natural moral law and, specifically, on how those principles form the basis of a "universal ethic" that can be recognized and shared by all peoples of all religions."
Why bother? "Despite its naturalistic stance," wrote theologian Carl F. H. Henry. "modernity seeks, unavailingly, to find some semblance of transcendent anchorage, or metaphysical linkage, however vague, that will escape complete subjectivism or relativism in ethics." And if we can convince a modern world uninterested in religion that what it is seeking can be found in a natural law, and that such a thing exists, then those who follow it to its logical conclusion will find the very real possibility that God exists too. "The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin" wrote Pope Leo XIII, "but this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted."
For my small contribution to the fight against relativism, I bring to the table a little movie we call BLMABG. It's bad. It's objectively bad. "I thought it was so bad" said associate producer Herman Cohen, "I didn't even want my name on it." It was so bad that Jerry Lewis, who wasn't even in it, sued because he thought it hurt his good name. Go ahead and watch it yourself. Guess what? You'll think it's bad. Finding those little absolutes we can all agree on, that's where to start.
According to the biography page on Jerry Lewis' official website, "1977 marked the year that the highest honor ever bestowed upon an entertainer, would recognize the tireless efforts Jerry Lewis has displayed since 1949, in his fight against Muscular Dystrophy. "Jerry Lewis is a man for all seasons, all people, all times. His name has, in the hearts of millions, become synonymous with peace, love and brotherhood." With those words, Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin concluded his nomination of Jerry Lewis for the Nobel Peace Prize." For some reason many people were shocked when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Sounds to me like they've had a thing for comedians for a long time.