From the air, this looks like any other town in America, but it is not: this is Hollywood, where dreams are made, from cowboy pictures to suspense to all sorts of thrillers and romances, it seems real enough on the silver screen but if only the audiences knew that the woman getting slapped around was actually a former heavyweight boxer, the boulder about to crush the hero is made of cardboard, and those lovers lost in each other's eyes? They're husband and wife and cannot stand one another. There are a collection of major studios here, all with their own sound stages to create the magic, but at Paramutual there has been a problem, for the head of the company, T.P. (Brian Donlevy), has noticed they are losing money - not at the box office, on the lot.
This leads him to bring in an investigator, but if you thought you were about to get a detective story with a comedy twist, well, that's not what director, co-writer and star Jerry Lewis had in mind, The Errand Boy was more of a series of skits he dreamt up to try out various ideas, making this one of the most experimental of his hits, or indeed any comedian's hits. It was not completely avant garde, he remained dedicated to delivering jokes in his signature goofball style, but the fact that this was a humorous enterprise dialled back to its component parts, the basics, made it look as if Lewis was taking his comedy apart to see how it worked, then putting it back together again for his cameras to capture.
Of course, setting about his material in this fashion could have rendered the experience of watching Lewis here as akin to seeing a bunch of television sketches strung together without much shape to the proceedings, yet he knew his persona was strong enough to create a common thread the jokes needed to justify their existence in a feature length movie. Lewis's Morty S. Tashman (that name surely a reference to his directing mentor Frank Tashlin) is one of his accustomed lowest rung of the ladder young men, putting up billboard posters in such an inept manner that T.P. immediately spots his potential as an undercover man, for nobody would suspect someone so gauche as working for the head honcho.
But as it turns out, all that business at the beginning was a ruse to get Lewis into the studio and deliver those scenes where he went from straight slapstick to verbal gags to something sentimental - the latter was what dated so quickly and proved a turn-off for the generations to come who would dismiss his often-excellent stylings without giving it a chance. The Errand Boy may not have been one of his greatest accomplishments, yet in its comparatively modest ambitions it paved the way for the insanely ambitious set-ups he would try next, and often succeed with them; at the time, he was regarded as a comedian mostly for kids, and they did love his antics, but there was a fair-sized adult audience who appreciated his ridiculous take on the world, which was often hostile to a well-meaning klutz like his characters.
Here the mission was to keep it simple, so we were offered such genuinely funny bits as Morty having to take a letter to a certain office, which necessitated a trip in the elevator, affording Lewis the chance to play on the awkwardness of crowded in a small box with people you did not know and would certainly not choose to get so close to in any other situation - OK, maybe the subway of a large city. On the other hand, there were the frankly bizarre sequences where he interacted with puppets, which are apparently operating themselves, one a clown glove puppet and the other an ostrich with a Southern Belle accent, which offer a reflective passage or two, but maybe not what you would show a non-convert to win them over to the cult of Jerry. With an "if in doubt, cause chaos" delivery of each sketch, this was as effective as it was unadorned, and as always there was an ending that saw his character triumphant to offer hope to the largely non-triumphant fans watching: see? Lewis's public generosity was not all an act. Music by Walter Scharf.