Famed comedian Wally Branford has been killed in a plane crash, leaving his coterie of showbiz acolytes utterly devastated. Kind-hearted secretary Ellen Betz (Ina Balin) is part of a close-knit team headed by impresario Caryl Ferguson (Everett Sloane) and including gag writer Chic Wymore (Phil Harris), savvy publicist Harry Silver (Keenan Wynn), sinister-looking Morgan Heywood (Peter Lorre) and stylist to the stars Bruce Alden (John Carradine), all of whom find themselves facing an uncertain future. Then Caryl hits on a brilliant idea to save their careers. Using their combined talents and showbiz smarts the team will pluck some total unknown off the street and mould him into the biggest thing to hit Hollywood since talking pictures. But where can they find the perfect patsy? Lo and behold, bumbling bellboy Stanley Belt (Jerry Lewis) crashes into their hotel suite and tumbles off the balcony…
The Patsy finds comedian-director Jerry Lewis at the peak of his powers at his patron studio Paramount. Armed with a great premise and a killer cast, although Lewis does not always use them to their best advantage. In his last film role an ailing Peter Lorre (who passed away just before the film was released) sits out most of the action, but Mercury Theatre veteran Everett Sloane makes his mark while Keenan Wynn and Phil Harris (a former Las Vegas comedian and future voice of Baloo the Bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967)) are often very amusing in their repeated attempts to control their tempers in front of the calamitous klutz that is Stanley Belt.
Tackling an ambitious theme, Lewis and co-screenwriter Bill Richmond (who cameos as a piano player) set out to contrast what is real and fake in the world of showbusiness. In the former corner lies love, real talent, hard work and true friendship, in the latter lies showbiz chicanery and sycophancy. Lewis highlights a Hollywood contradiction in that it is a town that thrives on real talent but celebrates the fake. The Patsy is remarkably prescient in discussing the plastic nature of celebrity - how media moguls can mould some nameless nobody into whatever they want him to be. How someone without any discernible talent can score a hit record, grab a spot on primetime television or become a movie star.
As with many Jerry Lewis movies this is heavily episodic, structured around a series of skits that softens the satire, but when the scattershot gags hit their target they are sublime. Notably Stanley’s apocalyptic encounter with his vocal coach (Hans Conried) and his priceless performance of his hit single “I Lost My Heart in a Drive-In Movie”. Lewis shoehorns in a flashback-fantasy sequence wherein Stanley recalls being mocked at his high school prom before meeting a gawky teenage Ellen. It’s an engaging piece of poignant pantomime, but nevertheless a tad self-indulgent and misplaced.
Charming Ina Balin transcends the limitations of Lewis’ usual girlfriend-cum-surrogate mother role to emerge as one of his finest female foils. Her serene bemusement sells a lot of his zanier gags. The film has a beguiling philosophical undertone as Ellen argues the hardships we endure in life play a bigger part in shaping decent human beings than success does. However the scene in which legendary Hollywood gossip witch Hedda Hopper praises Stanley’s honest after he guffaws at her horrible hat, does not ring true. Not if you know anything about Hedda.
Ms. Hopper is but one of several celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout the narrative, including George Raft (in a sly mirror gag, given his real-life career as a gangland patsy almost mirrored Stanley’s), Rhonda Fleming, Ed Wynn, Scatman Crothers, Mel Tormé and Ed Sullivan who heralds Stanley’s screen debut by mentioning Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis also performed first on his famous variety show! Most of these figure in a sequence that deftly illustrates how far gossip and blather go towards shaping an overnight sensation (“I would love to see what I’ve been raving about!” remarks Ed Wynn). Eventually Stanley proves he has got talent after all, although quite how he pulls off his “Big Night in Hollywood” skit on live TV is either a devil-may-care lapse or another wry layer of self-awareness. By the movie’s end Stanley has morphed into, well, Jerry Lewis. Which, as he shows us with his playfully Pirandellian ending, is who he has always been, lifting off the final veil of illusion.