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.
Noticing that Allied troops are bogged down in Anzio, Byers outfits his men with unique uniforms and plenty of supplies. He also supplements his small group with a couple of additional "soldiers": his butler and his chauffeur. He loads up his yacht with supplies, fine wines and even a few girls (though, this being a Lewis movie, they are virtually never seen again.). Byers' plot is to kidnap the German general in charge of Anzio operations. Turns out the two men bare a striking resemblance to one another. Once Byers assumes the identity of the general, he will order German troops to make a sudden retreat, thus allowing the Allies to advance. If the premise sounds ridiculous, wait until you see it play out. Lewis wasn't the first filmmaker to use Nazis as the subject of satire. Mel Brooks did so memorably in The Producers and would do so again in the remake of Ernst Lubitsch's classic comedy To Be or Not to Be. However, even in those farces, there was some basis of reality. Not so here. It's never explained how this merry band of warriors makes it behind enemy lines. The scene in which they attempt to kidnap the German general is so over the top that it literally doesn't hold water even by slapstick comedy standards. The production aspects are also a distraction. Though it's supposed to be set during WWII, many of the characters sport big bushy mustaches and 1970s hair styles. The ultra low budget sets look like they were imported from a community theater. One sequence, set on Byers' yacht, consists of a wall with a couple of portholes- and the damned boat doesn't rock even though it's supposed to be on the high seas. Most absurdly, Byers' African-American chauffeur (for L.A. Dodgers player Willie Davis) is part of the team that impersonates Wehrmacht troops!
Things go from bad to worse once Byers takes over as German commander. Lewis shrieks every line at an ear-shattering pitch while indulging in seemingly endless sights gags that go nowhere. Most bizarrely, he ends up playing the Count Von Stauffenberg role in the ill-fated July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. Der Fuhrer is played by Sidney Miller, whose over-the-top performance makes Dick Shawn's impersonation of Hitler in The Producers look like a model of restraint. Curiously, none other than the New York Times critic Howard Thompson called the Hitler sequence "really hilarious". I guess so, if you're the kind of person who still slaps his knee at the site of Laugh-In's Nazi-clad Arte Johnson taking a drag on a cigarette and whispering "Very interesting...." The film finally lumbers towards its "ironic" conclusion in which Byers and his men are impersonating Japanese naval brass to continue to help undermine the Axis war effort. (Yes, Lewis wears his trademark Asian buck teeth in the sequence, which would cause a major firestorm of protest today.)
The saddest aspect of Which Way to the Front? is that the talents of so many beloved performers are wasted. These include cameo appearances by the likes of ventriloquist Paul Winchell, Joe Besser of The Three Stooges, George Takei, Kaye Ballard, Neil Hamilton and Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman, all seen to negligible effect.
We're not Lewis-bashers here at Cinema Retro. Quite the opposite. We've always defended his work and legacy and are happy to point out that he did make a mini-come back a decade later with his surprise boxoffice hit Hardly Working. He also gave a brilliant dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and enjoyed a successful run on Broadway in Damn Yankees. Now in the twilight of his years, it's also become hip for younger comics to heap praise on Lewis, and justifiably so. Like any major artist, he's had his misfires and Which Way to the Front? doesn't do anything to negate his accomplishments. However, it is awful enough to merit the Cinema Retro "Bad Movie Seal of Approval" in that it's so bad we can recommend that you add it to your DVD library.