Monday, September 3, 2012

Which Way to the Front? (1970)

          Funnyman Jerry Lewis’ screaming-nincompoop shtick was beyond passé by the time he made the painfully unfunny World War II comedy Which Way to the Front? The film’s barrage of brainless sight gags and witless verbal jokes makes the lowbrow WWII-themed TV series Hogan’s Heroes seem inspired by comparison, because Lewis’ idea of a show-stopping joke is having Adolf Hitler idiotically rhapsodize about the Jewish snacks (e.g,, knishes, etc.) that Eva Braun prepares for him. Worse, Lewis plays the leading role in his typically oppressive manner, mugging nonsensically when his character goes into gibberish-spouting spasms and shouting nearly all of his lines in the second half of the picture, when his character masquerades as a German officer.
          However, it’s not as if producer-director Lewis would have done himself any favors by hiring a different star—every single aspect of Which Way to the Front? is as tiresome as Lewis’ performance. The silly story begins when billionaire Brendan Byers (Lewis) gets drafted for Army service—never mind that Lewis was about 43 when he made the picture—only to get classified 4F. Determined to help the war effort, Byers uses his fortune to build a private army comprising a handful of fellow 4F losers. Decked out in anachronistic uniforms that look more late-’60s than mid-’40s (oh, the turtlenecks!), Byers’ militia crosses the Atlantic on his private yacht, breaks into the stronghold of a Nazi officer who resembles Byers, and lures Hitler into an ambush. There isn’t a single worthwhile comedy idea here, and Lewis seems to know it; he often ends scenes by freeze-framing, jacking up big-band music on the soundtrack, and cutting to a bright swirl, Batman-style, as a means of hiding inanity behind momentum. So, need we even discuss the sequence of Byers learning German by listening to the album Music to Mein Kampf By? Or the scene at the end in which Byers masquerades as a Japanese officer by putting on Coke-bottle glasses and gigantic buck teeth?
          Inexplicably, Lewis stuck with the WWII theme for his next picture, the notorious unreleased concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried. After that production derailed, Lewis was sidelined for several years with health problems, and didn’t return to directing features until the 1981 misfire Hardly Working. Given the quality of Which Way to the Front?, he probably should have quit while he was behind. (Available at

Which Way to the Front?: LAME


Anonymous said...

In between these flops, Jerry Lewis got involved with exhibition with his "Jerry Lewis Cinemas". The business model was actually viable. The concept of opening smaller twin theaters that were mom and pop operations not linked to any distributor with automated projection to keep costs down. The idea might have worked if he allowed a variety of product to be booked in them like indie features and foreign films. Unfortunately, Lewis insisted they only show 'family' films, primarily those rated G. There simply weren't enough quality movies in that categories in the seventies. Indeed, the G rating was so linked with poor quality juvenile fare, filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg preferred PG ratings for "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" even though the content of both were clearly within the G classification. In the long run the Jerry Lewis cinemas failed because of it's product requirements but the concept of small theaters with automated projection became the new business model for later twinned theaters, multiplexes and megaplexes.

Lionel Braithwaite said...

George Takei was in this picture as the gardener of Lewis's character who helps him to be Japanese, IIRC.

top_cat_james said...

Admittedly, Hardly Working is hardly funny, but where did you get the notion it was a "flop"? Critically, yes, but not financially. A worldwide gross of $49 million on a budget of $3 million--That doesn't constitute a box-office failure. Hate on Lewis if you wish, but let's be fair.

By Peter Hanson said...

Point taken about the box office performance of "Hardly Working." I've adjusted the language.