THE BOOTLEG FILES: BOY

BOOTLEG FILES 422: “Boy” (1993 short film written and directed by Jerry Lewis).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: I am not aware of this film being released in U.S. home entertainment channels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive coda to a comic legend’s career.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

While doing research for a recent column about the Martin and Lewis comedy “3 Ring Circus,” I accidentally discovered another Jerry Lewis endeavor that can only be appreciated via bootleg viewings: a 1993 short film called “Boy.” This effort was the last time Lewis got behind the camera to direct, and it is one of the most peculiar filmmaking swan songs imaginable.

In the early 1990s, the great minds at UNICEF and the International Red Cross decided to call attention to the rights of children by producing an anthology film that showed kids around the world in various stages of crisis. The organizations recruited directors from different continents, including Jean-Luc Godard (who collaborated with Anne-Marie Mieville), Euzhan Palcy and Lino Brocka.

In choosing an American filmmaker for this project, UNICEF and the International Red Cross bypassed the A-list hot shots of the era and went for a genuine wild card. Jerry Lewis had not directed a film since the 1983 flop “Cracking Up,” and his best-known behind-the-camera work primarily consisted of self-indulgent slapstick romps that were eons removed from social drama. Indeed, his sole effort to make a serious cinematic statement – “The Day the Clown Cried” – resulted in one of the most disastrous endeavors in motion picture history.

Nonetheless, Lewis took it upon himself to write a film that dealt with the decidedly non-comic subject of racism against children – and its title, “Boy,” carried the double meaning as an American racial slur.

“Boy” takes place in an undetermined location where a young white boy is the only member of his race in an all-black society. His isolation is symbolized in his school, where he sits in the rear of the classroom. The other students pick on him by breaking his pencils and putting eraser chalk in his hair, and his teacher is exasperated by the child’s inability to grasp basic arithmetic.

On the school bus ride home, this pale pariah is the subject of more abuse. He sits in the back of the bus and is mostly ignored, until a few nasty kids physically tease him. He makes no effort to fight back. The film then employs flashbacks that show nasty adults antagonizing the boy in a supermarket and assaulting him on the street. Again, he makes no effort to protest his maltreatment.

The school bus arrives at the child’s house, and he retreats to his bedroom to fiddle with a model airplane. He then washes his hands and face, changes his shirt, and goes to join his family for dinner. Up to this point, the entire film is without dialogue. Then, abruptly, the boy apologizes to his family for being late. In the closing shot, it is revealed that the family members are black, and the white child is accepted at the dinner table as hands are joined in a circle of prayer.

The film ends with a series of messages flashed on the screen. The messages include, “Children have the right to equal opportunities,” “Prejudice is not part of us…until we allow it to come in…” and “20th November 1989, the UN unanimously adopts the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of children continue to be exploited…to suffer…to die…And yet…Henceforth, the rights of children are recognised.” Yeah, Jerry, whatever you say!

“Boy” was clearly a work of sincerity, yet Lewis’ concept and direction is a mess. The scenes where the child is being ill-treated in public (shoppers at a supermarket cut in front of him at a checkout line, a bag of groceries is torn from his hands) are amateurishly staged, and the young actor playing the child (he is not identified in the credits) is such a stolid cipher that it seems as if he channeling Buster Keaton. As for the ending – well, who knows what Lewis was trying to get across?

“Boy” was packaged along with the other short films into an offering with the somewhat flippant title “How Are The Kids?” The film had its U.S. premiere in December 1993 in Chicago at Facets Multimedia. Chicago Reader Jonathan Rosenbaum singled out Lewis’ effort as the gem of the show. “Lewis’s filmmaking gifts – he initially patterned his work after that of his mentor Frank Tashlin, but substituted an invented, free-form universe for a social and satirical one – have been almost totally obscured in this country by debates about his qualities as a comic performer, but here they can be seen in almost pristine form (albeit with an unmistakable social dimension),” Rosenbaum gushed.

However, John Petrakis of the Chicago Tribune was decidedly less enthused – his review did not even mention that Lewis had a film in the anthology! The city’s most prominent critic, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, did not review “How Are The Kids?”

The theatrical release of “How Are The Kids?” was somewhat spotty – it received theatrical playdates and television broadcasts in several countries, but it was hardly seen in the U.S. I am not able to confirm whether it was ever released in any home entertainment format in the U.S., though I assume that it was probably available at some point for nontheatrical release. A duped copy of the Lewis short can be seen on YouTube.

It is not certain whether “How Are The Kids?” will ever be brought back into commercial release. Considering the abysmal state of child welfare throughout the world, this 1993 production can be seen as being less than successful in achieving its lofty goals. And while Lewis’ fans may enjoy a peek at this offbeat sign-off to his filmmaking career, the real holy grail is his still-unseen Holocaust production. Come on, Jerry, please slip that gem into bootleg circulation and let the world see what you can do!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on April 6, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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