If it's remembered at all, the 1970 WWII comedy Which Way to the Front? is generally attributed as being the film that ended Jerry Lewis' career as a leading man - at least for quite some time. During the 1950s, Lewis' partnership with Dean Martin made them the kind of pop culture idols that would only be rivaled by The Beatles and Michael Jackson. If that sounds absurd, search out newsreel footage of the thousands of people that stormed their hotel in Times Square, causing police to close the vicinity as Dean and Jerry merrily tossed autographed photos to the crowd below. When Martin left the act, thus bringing about one of the longest feuds in show biz history, both men went on to enjoy a successful careers on their own. Martin's friendship with Frank Sinatra did much to keep him in the public eye until he enjoyed his own fanatically loyal following. Lewis became a prolific producer and director, one of the first movie stars to successfully multi-task in front and behind the cameras. Others had given it a try only to give up after a film or two. Lewis persevered and earned respect for his knowledge of filmmaking techniques even as he enjoyed his ranking among the top boxoffice attractions in the world.
By the late 1960s, however, Lewis' brand of innocent slapstick humor had fallen victim to the new freedoms in the cinema. Suddenly he began to look like a quaint throwback to a much earlier era, even though only a few short years had transpired since the pinnacle of his career. His modest romantic comedies couldn't compete with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice frolicking in the same bed. Lewis was dismayed by this trend and tried to fight back by opening a national chain of Jerry Lewis Cinema franchises that would be allowed to play only family-oriented films. His timing couldn't have been worse. The lack of appropriate fare not only sank the theater chain but also took down such iconic family-themed theaters as Radio City Music Hall. (Ironically, audiences couldn't be persuaded to pay $5 to see a new movie plus a magnificent stage show starring the Rockettes. Today, they line up in droves and pay $100 just to see the stage show.) Lewis gamely fought on but his films became afterthoughts to his once loyal public. He remained very popular in Vegas nightclubs and his annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon continued to raise millions for charity.
Lewis' 1970 Warner Brothers comedy Which Way to the Front? has been released on DVD by the Warner Archive. The film is an curiosity in the funnyman's career in that, unlike his previous films, there is literally nothing funny about the movie at all. Even the least of Lewis' other works had a few scenes that would make his detractors chuckle, but this misguided farce seems to have been cobbled together at the last minute just to satisfy a contractual obligation. Lewis plays Brendan Byers III, "the world's richest man." Byers is bored with life and is surrounded by sniveling yes men who cater to his every whim. Thus they perceive a crisis when he gets a draft notice. That in itself is the first absurdity as Lewis was in his mid-40s at the time and would not have been of draft age. Nevertheless, Byers surprises his employees by rejecting their offers to find ways to get him out of military service. He has found his purpose in life: to fight for the American way of life. His joy is short-lived when he is rejected for military service. Crushed and humiliated, he befriends three other men (Jan Murray, Steve Franken, Dack Rambo) who were also classified as unfit for the army. The screenplay is so sloppy that it never explains why these able-bodied men were deemed unable to serve. Each one of his new friends has their own compelling personal crisis that makes it mandatory that they get out of the country. Byers comes up with a novel idea: if the U.S. Army doesn't want them, he'll use his unlimited wealth to create his own army.