Jerry Lewis and Those Rings

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I was delighted when the special guest announcements began to roll in for TCM Classic Film Festival 2014. Each name made me think of movies I had loved. Kim Novak, Margaret O'Brien and Maureen O'Hara were all a part of many happy memories.

The announcement that Jerry Lewis was to be a guest of honor at the festival didn't have that effect on me. I remembered liking The Nutty Professor (1963) and cracking up at a couple of scenes from The Bellboy (1960), but other than that, I didn't know his work well. I didn't like what I'd seen well enough to go any further.

I know that Jerry Lewis is one of the most successful entertainers in the world though, and that and the TCM announcement were enough to inspire me to see more of his films. They had a weird effect on me. Parts of them were soul-cringingly bad, other times I'd be choking with laughter. Dick Cavett once said something to the effect that you enjoy Lewis in spite of yourself. You're sitting there thinking how corny and stupid it all is, and suddenly you're cracking up without fully realizing why.

My mixed feelings kept me working my way through Lewis' filmography. I've seen twenty of his movies so far. I have a lot to say about what I've seen, which I will share in a later post, but in watching Lewis onscreen my dominant thought has always been: what is the deal with those rings he wears?

No matter what character he played, it appears Jerry Lewis almost always wore two rings. One looks like a large gold wedding ring, which is weird, because he tended to play single characters:


The other is a pinky ring with an enormous sapphire, which can be seen in the photo at the top.

These rings almost never fit with Lewis' characters, who tend to be not only single, but not wealthy enough to afford such fancy jewelry. So you've got his Fella character in Cinderfella (1960), who has no money of his own, working like a dog for his stepmother and stepbrothers, but he's got the rings:


In Who's Minding the Store? (1963) he's struggling to make a living working at a department store, but there they are again:


I thought they were most bizarre on his Professor Julius Kelp character in The Nutty Professor. I can't picture this guy caring about jewelry:


However, they work perfectly when he becomes Buddy Love in the same movie, which is funny, because when I see Jerry Lewis in interviews, he sometimes reminds me a bit of this guy:


I'm not sure when the sapphire ring first showed up. But Lewis wore the wedding ring as early as The Stooge (1952), one of his first flicks with Dean Martin:


In fact, I don't know for sure why he had to wear either of those rings, regardless of the character he played. I can't think of any actor more determined to keep a personal piece of himself in every performance like that (He even wore them in his notoriously unavailable The Day the Clown Cried (1972), as can be seen in this footage).

I've found very little to explain the rings, though the wedding ring was acknowledged on this page and in this review of Lewis' memoir about his partnership with Dean Martin, the author claims Lewis said the pinky ring was just his way of flaunting his wealth. Is it really that simple?


12 comments:

george sager said...

please remember that jerry lewis developed ''video assist'' placing a tv camera on a film camera and recording it on a video tape, allowing for instant playback to insure a scene was RIGHT, before moving on or having to wait for THE RUSHES

KC said...

Oh yes, I read that in his Martin/Lewis memoir. I hear he was also quite the organized filmmaker, always efficient and in control of his set. He had a confidence that drove him towards his goals with clear-eyed inevitability. Whatever you think of his comedy, and I'm not sure what I think yet, this is a sharp guy.

Forgotten Films said...

Thank you!!! I have been thinking this for years!! So glad I'm not alone. Jerry Lewis' obsession with jewelry is ridiculous...you are absolutely right that it does not fit the great majority of his characters. You can see something similar in the silent Larry Semon version on The Wizard of Oz. Semon playing a farm hand wears a gigantic ring...something his character could never dream of affording. It struck me as if Semon was unconsciously saying "Hey, look at this...look what I bought." I've often wondered if something similar might be going on in the back of Lewis' mind as well.

KC said...

It isn't just the rings either, sometimes there's a big 'ol gold watch or a bracelet. And it's almost *never* in character. I read that about Semon's ring in The Wizard of Oz, and I think you've got a point about his intentions and perhaps Lewis' as well. I think if he was doing dramatic work I'd take issue with it, but despite the irritation at the incongruity, it makes it more entertaining for me. Sort of like looking for the Hitchcock cameo. I can't totally blame them for being proud of working themselves up so high from humble beginnings.

Zeca said...

The Large gold ring he used was to hide his real wedding ring, i've read it somewhere!

Mary Conrad said...

Quiz: Which movie was JL not seen wearing his wedding ring?

KC said...

Ah, that's interesting Zeca! Though it was on his ring finger, I couldn't quite accept that it was a wedding ring because it was so huge. Now it makes sense.

Mary--I'm trying to think of any Lewis movie where I haven't seen the wedding ring and drawing a blank. Which one was it? Such a good question.

Mary Conrad said...

Thanks! JL was not seen wearing his wedding ring in just one film: Hardly Working, 1983.It was on this film set that he met his soon-to-be second wife, SanDee Pitnick and split with his wife of 35+ years, Patti. I always thought that it looked like he had stuck a signet-type addition on top of his wedding band to make it look like a fashion ring in his films, right?

Mary Conrad said...

Oops, I meant 1980 for the year of JL's film Hardly Working...

KC said...

Thanks--this is good to know. I should add that Lewis kept his rings on for the handprint ceremony during TCMFF. They were very messy by the end!

Mary Conrad said...

I must correct myself-- I was posting some photos to my Tumblr blog and I realized that Jer is wearing his wedding ring in the scene in the post office in Hardly Working. Although, behind the camera on the set--he is not. I believe it is actually Cracking Up that is the only film that he is not seen wearing his wedding ring. I guess the only way to jar my memory and know for sure is to watch the films again! :)

KC said...

Well I'm going to have to check it out now. Thanks for letting me know!

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