Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bad Movie Theatre: Jerry Lewis Pays a "Visit to a Small Planet"

This review isn't about Charo and
The Concorde...Airport '79.
I originally intended to review The Concorde...Airport '79 in this column. I actually watched that debacle because of its notoriety as an awful movie. After all, Roger Ebert included it in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (he doesn't review the film, but addresses one incredulous scene). However, I ultimately decided that the makers of The Concorde must have made a bad movie on purpose. I mean, I like Charo, but when you film a scene of her smuggling a chihuahua aboard an airplane--well, it's obvious that you knew what you were doing. We don't pander to the makers of bad movies at the Cafe, so that's all the press we'll devote to The Concorde... Airport '79 (for reviews of Airport 1975 and Airport '77, click here.)

I apologize for the digression. Let us shift our attention to Visit to a Small Planet. It's also a bad movie, but clearly not intended as such. Acclaimed playwright and author Gore Vidal, who penned The Best Man (a favorite), originally wrote Visit to a Small Planet in 1955 for the Goodyear Television Playhouse. He adapted it for Broadway in 1957, where it ran for almost a year. Cyril Ritchard--best known as Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin's Peter Pan--directed and starred as an alien being who visits Earth. The play earned three Tony nominations: Ritchard for Best Actor in a Play; Eddie Mayehoff for Best Featured Actor in a Play; and Best Scenic Design.

Lewis on the ceiling.
When Paramount decided to mount a film version in 1960, it naturally wanted to cast an established star in the lead. According to a 2012 article for Film Threat, David Niven, Alec Guinness, and Danny Kaye (my pick!) were considered for the role of Kreton the alien. Any of them would have been a better choice than Jerry Lewis--who got the part. Of course, to put things in historical perspective, Lewis was a reliable box-office star in the 1950s and early 1960s. His casting surely seemed like a good idea at the time.

Alas, my friends, I can attest to the fact that the combination of Gore Vidal and Jerry Lewis does not make for a funny movie. Nor even a good one. Of course, one can't really blame Mr. Vidal. I haven't seen the television or Broadway versions of Visit to a Small Planet, but I suspect they featured more social satire than what finally made it to the silver screen.

Kreton mugging in school.
Jerry Lewis plays Kreton as a child-like alien from Planet X47 with an infatuation with the Earth. Ignoring his teacher Delton (John Williams), Kreton sneaks off to visit his favorite planet during the time of the U.S. Civil War. However, he miscalculates by 99 years and lands near Richmond, Virginia, in the year 1960. He first reveals his identity to Major Roger Putnam Spelding (Fred Clark), a TV commentator who recently proclaimed: "Flying saucers--there ain't no such animal." Pretty soon, though, Spelding's whole family knows that Kreton is an alien being, including Roger's daughter Ellen (Joan Blackman) and her goofy boyfriend Conrad (Earl Holliman).

Delton soon tracks down Kreton, but decides to let the younger alien study the Earthings for a short period. However, he cautions Kreton not to "get involved." Naturally, Kreton ignores that advice and, after misinterpreting Joan's kindly actions toward him, he decides that he's in love for the first time (incidentally, love does not exist on X47).

The over-used right ear tug.
From the opening scene, Lewis appears to have no confidence in the screenplay. He resorts to over-the-top mugging whenever a visual gag falls flat. Yes, I realize that mugging was always part of Lewis' shtick, but there's an air of desperation in Visit to a Small Planet. It eventually grows tiresome watching Jerry issue commands by tugging his right ear and flaring his nostrils.The one scene with genuine possibilities--Kreton's visit to a beatnik club called The Hungry Brain--starts out well (seeing Kreton in his spacesuit, a groovy patron observes: "Who laid the threads on you?"). Unfortunately, it segues into a musical number that drones on for too long and deflates any sense of fun.

Blackman, Lewis, and Holliman.
Lewis can't be faulted for everything. Joan Blackman is a dull female lead and Earl Holliman grates as a country bumpkin with a pet goat named Myrtle. Even veteran comedians like Fred Clark and Gale Gordon are incapable of finding a way to salvage the humorless proceedings.

I must admit that I had fond memories of watching Visit to a Small Planet as a youth. Honestly, I thought I was a more discerning film buff even back then. Perhaps, the movie still holds some appeal for juvenile audiences--though I doubt it. Still, if you're a fan, please remember that dissenting opinions are always welcomed at the Cafe!


  1. Sounds like your least favorite Martian. Lewis was also an alien in Slapstick of Another Kind, another terrible movie that's best left forgotten.

  2. I'm a Jerry Lewis fan. He was one of the greatest comedians on the silver screen. This movie was okay. It's not among his best, but there's some great physical comedy. The club scene is hilarious.

  3. Not a huge Jerry Lewis fan here. I don't think I would ever watch this movie unless I was trapped under something heavy & unable to reach the remote. However, I did enjoy your review very much.

  4. I have to go with Silver Screenings. I always wondered why the French were supposed to be so enamored with Jerry Lewis, as everyone always said when I was growing up. Could that possibly have been true? Never could stand his comedy, and I managed about 6-1/2 minutes of this movie before leaping toward the TV (no remote at the time) and turning the channel. Great choice for Bad Movie Theatre, Rick!

  5. Imagine Jerry Lewis as Henry Higgins. Jerry Lewis as Willy Loman. These would be more apt than Jerry Lewis as Kreton. Let's just say they changed the play a little to fit Lewis's less-than-subtle style. I hope Gore Vidal made a lot of money from the sale to Hollywood, he certainly sold his play down the river.