In the summer of 1988, I paid to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit five times in the theater, which is still my personal record. I loved it unconditionally, and I still do. It struck me as a great comedy, a brilliant satire, a social commentary, a solid detective film, a breakthrough technical achievement, and also a potential classic. The character of Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) already seemed worthy of company like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck; he made the transition to just three animated shorts, but in a simpler time, he could have been the star of dozens more.
I loved Roger. I liked his attitude. I liked his philosophy. I thought he was funny. But I guess I wasn't too surprised when I discovered that there were people out there who despised him. They thought he was too frantic, too squeaky, altogether annoying. Which brings me to our summer double feature. If Who Framed Roger Rabbit is our first feature, then Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man, which opened June 28, 1961, has to be the second. Like Roger Rabbit, the living cartoon character Jerry Lewis is considered a genius in some quarters, and obnoxious in other quarters. You can bring on the "French" jokes now, but let me just explain that the French love Jerry Lewis not only because he's funny, but because he's a genuine film artist, committed to the art of the director.
His films have a definite style and personality, especially his trio of masterworks, The Ladies Man, The Bellboy (1960), and The Nutty Professor (1963). The Ladies Man in particular has a unique, stylish visual scheme. Lewis plays Herbert H. Heebert, a recently-dumped, woman-hating schlub who somehow gets a job as caretaker in a girls' boarding house. Of course, he's constantly surrounded by sexy, available young women. But the film is shot on an open, three-story set so that Lewis and the girls can move vertically and horizontally, with each block painted its own bold color. A psychologist could probably figure out which colors are attached to which emotions, but for the rest of us, it's just a dazzling, visual feast.
It's Lewis at his most cartoony, which brings us back to Roger Rabbit. Roger is another entertainer totally dedicated to his craft, even if both he and Lewis can get a bit shrill about it. Nevertheless, even the most intellectual of film critics saw the genius behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, just as intellectual critics are have discovered -- and are still discovering -- the genius of Jerry Lewis. The major difference between these two movies lies in the careers of director Lewis and Roger Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis actually won an Oscar, an award for which Lewis was never once nominated, and yet his career has drastically swung from insanely creative (Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, etc.) to the depths of technological bloated, dead-on-arrival parade floats (Cast Away, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, etc.)
But at one time, he helped bring Roger to life, and the spirit of Jerry Lewis lives on in him.