New York, 1943: billionaire playboy Brendan Byers III (Jerry Lewis) is bored with big business and seeks a challenge. Drafted into the army, Byers jumps at the chance to serve his country but is unexpectedly rejected as 4-F. Which prompts his series of weird, and not very funny, spasmodic fits and outbursts (“It’s that word - rejection. I just can’t take it!”). He’s not the only one with problems. Stand-up comedian Sid Hackle (Jan Murray) needs to escape some violent gangsters. Neurotic Peter Bland (Steve Franken) wants to get away from his monstrous wife and mother. Terry Love (Dack Rambo) has got two girls pregnant.
So Byers recruits these luckless losers, along with his right hand man Finkel (John Wood) and black chauffeur Lincoln (Willie Davis), and forms his own elite task force. Clad in bright orange jumpsuits and armed with solid gold sub-machineguns. To sweeten the deal, Byers pays each man $100,000, in cheques he’ll sign only when they return from their mission. Aboard a luxury yacht staffed by dolly birds in miniskirts (yes, I know it’s 1943...), our heroes sail to Italy where Byers plans to kidnap then impersonate Field Marshall Eric Kesselring (also Jerry Lewis), thus leading the Nazis astray. Sure enough, wackiness ensues…
A comedy misfire that borders on the surreal. Which Way to the Front? crawls by with nary a laugh to be had. Sporting a beatnik goatee, producer/director/star Jerry Lewis alternates between the laidback, debonair billionaire (coming across like a parody of the Matt Helm movies starring former partner Dean Martin) and performing those physical contortions and silly voices he’d later become castigated for. Contrary to popular belief (everywhere except France), Jerry Lewis made many fine films, from his early work with Frank Tashlin to self-directed efforts like The Family Jewels (1965), The Ladies Man (1961), The Patsy (1964), and of course The Nutty Professor (1963). By contrast, this slipshod parody of The Dirty Dozen (1967) marks the moment America fell out of love with its favourite clown.
As a filmmaker Lewis can be monumentally self-indulgent and here underlines every gag with a freeze-frame. He dwells on subplots for his supporting cast, yet these attempts at pathos grow stilted and awkward and none of their flashbacks prove relevant to the unfolding story. Yet these characters continue a theme that reoccurs throughout Lewis’ filmography, with each styled on some aspect of his personality: neurotic man-child, Las Vegas huckster, wannabe Romeo.
Several other characters, including Japanese combat instructor Yamashita (Star Trek’s George Takei) and retired mob boss Colonico (Robert Middleton) pop into the plot then abruptly disappear, leaving the impression this unwieldy movie was heavily re-edited. Production design and cinematography have a colourful comic book flavour and Jerry seems to have picked up a few camera tricks from his cameo on the campy Batman TV show.
Towards the latter half of the Sixties, Jerry Lewis seemed to be aping Peter Sellers by playing multiple character roles, and Mel Brooks by tackling “edgier” humour. A few amusing episodes occur when the disguised Byers abuses German war heroes and the team’s repeatedly botched attempts to kidnap Kesselring, but a bad taste suicide gag involving the Italian mayor’s wife (Kaye Ballard) and weak satirical jabs at Washington bureaucracy fall flat.
A late hour twist puts Byers in a pickle when he discovers the real Kesselring is part of the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler (Sidney Miller). That’s right. Jerry Lewis got there nearly thirty years before Tom Cruise in Valkyrie (2008), although Cruise and Hitler never ran into each other’s arms in slow-motion like long-lost lovers. This encounter proves fairly funny, although the film never really ends, it just sort of stops. Of course that’s after Jerry’s embarrassing stopover in Japan where, disguised in buck teeth and thick glasses, he does everything short of screeching: “Me rike-a flied lice!”
A relatively expensive looking production, Which Way to the Front? was also the last Jerry Lewis movie for eleven years, since his legendary The Day the Clown Cried (1972) went unreleased. Compare to the threadbare production values on his comeback hit: Hardly Working (1981).