HITLER’S BELLHOP: The Lost Screenplay
© Paul Kupperberg
Late one evening in 1967, Jerry Lewis sat in the private projection room of his Beverly Hills home, screening for perhaps the one hundredth time, Charlie Chaplain’s classic The Great Dictator. With him was longtime friend, film historian and critic Mel Melman. As was always the case when he watched The Little Tramp at work, Melman later wrote, “he was mesmerized, his gaze locked upon the screen as he watched, no, absorbed Charlie’s antics. Though as different in their cinematic and comedic approaches as night and day, he’d always found inspiration in the work of his predecessor. He saw in Charlie’s pantomime, pathos, and overwhelming bathos a spark from which his own creative fires might be ignited. Not, please understand, as a theft of ideological parenthood, but as a conceptual springboard, if you will. It would not be unfair to say that Charlie was and is his spiritual mentor.
“When Chaplain’s scathing satire of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany ended,” Melman continued, “He turned to me, his eyes wide and sparkling in what, through our long years of personal and professional association I had come to recognize as the first blush of the Muse’s touch, and said, ‘Charlie has his Hitler film. I want mine!’”
Melman reported being shocked by this pronouncement. As a Jew, he was apprehensive about such a concept coming under the scrutiny of the Jerry’s somewhat broad comedic brush. Indeed, almost as a reflex, Melman expressed that concern as soon as the suggestion came out of Lewis’ mouth. The response, he recalls, was chilling, a classic example of Lewis’ legendary temper. “Through clenched teeth, he stared at me as though I was something he had found upon the sole of his shoe and repeated his first thought, biting off each word. ‘Charlie. Has. His. Hitler. Film. I. Want. Mine!’
“With that, he turned his back on me and left the screening room. That was the last time we ever spoke.”
Lewis’ “Hitler film” would turn out to be, at least in screenplay form, Hitler’s Bellhop. After leaving Melman that evening, Lewis retired to his study and in what he later reported to be “a white hot cauldron of creativity,” churned out the screenplay over the course of three days. In the middle of his famous seven picture deal with Paramount, he immediately brought the finished screenplay to the studio as his next picture. Sammy Waldinger, a friend of many years and head of production for Paramount, took a look at the title page and blanched.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Waldinger said in a 1978 interview with Film Comment Magazine. “I was horrified, I mean physically in fear for my life at the very idea. He honestly thought this was a movie he should make. I asked him, ‘Is this a joke?’ and he gave me that look, that frozen reptile stare of his. ‘I’m serious, Sammy,’ he said, and he was. He sat in that chair for two hours, arguing with me. ‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘It’s not funny,’ I said. ‘Hitler isn’t grist for the comedic mill.’ What about The Great Dictator, he wanted to know. Or Brooks? Mel was preparing The Producers then. Or To Be or Not to Be?
“But what he never seemed to grasp was that Chaplain aside, those movies weren’t about Hitler per se, but comedies dealing with those around Hitler, or in the case of The Producers, a satire on Broadway more than Hitler himself. He thought that this...screenplay of his fit that mold. ‘It’s not about Hitler. It’s about the Bellhop.’ Well, while we talked, or I should say argued, I was flipping through this thing. And here was Adolph Hitler, that monster, that beast, he should be rotting in Hell even as we speak, being treated like some kind of sitcom next-door-neighbor buffoon. A perfectly harmless and hapless goof who kept getting pushed into committing history’s worst atrocities through his clumsy Bellhop. This is funny?
“Well, finally, I put my foot down. ‘No way,’ I said. ‘This crap doesn’t get made by my studio, not as long as I’m in charge!’ Well, you know him. He said, ‘That can change, Sammy!’ and walked out with his screenplay. Needless to say, I’m still in charge of the studio, and we never made Hitler’s Bellhop. But that was the last time we ever spoke.”
Though a consistent money maker for the studio, Jerry Lewis never did find a sympathetic ear there. His contract did, however, contain a clause that allowed him to make one independent picture a year, and he decided that picture would be Hitler’s Bellhop.
Independent producer Frank Schlessinger, a friend with whom Lewis had made several pictures over the years, remembers the initial pitch meeting. “Kind of surreal, you know what I mean? He was really up about this picture and I think his enthusiasm must have been contagious or something, because by the end of the lunch, I was ready to hop on the bandwagon. Come to think of it, I don’t know if it was his enthusiasm or that fourth martini. At any rate, we shook on it. I was gonna produce Hitler’s Bellhop.”
With the handshake deal in place, Lewis went on a publicity blitz. Bella Leven, a writer for the Hollywood Reporter recalls an interview where Lewis went on at great lengths justifying his choice of subject matter. “Sure,” he said. “I could have played the role of Hitler myself, but who would believe it? You see, the public has in its mind a picture of me as the ‘little guy,’ the poor man trapped in a greater system that is beyond his ability to comprehend or control. That’s why I’ve had such luck in my pictures portraying the little cog in the big machine, if you will. The waiter, the bellhop, the sales clerk, the handyman, what have you. I am not believable as the father figure, or the man in command.
“That’s why I settled on the character of the Bellhop... nameless, you’ll notice, throughout the picture, because he is the every man, the little guy trapped under the boot of authority. You know, there’s a comedic conceit in Jewish humor, although it applies to all forms of humor, of the schlemiel and the schlimazel. The schlemiel is the klutz schnook who trips over his own shoelaces and knocks a bowl of soup out of the waiter’s hand. The schlimazel is the poor bastard on whose head the soup spills. I am the schlemiel. That is my persona. That is what my public expects.”
When Leven asked if the subject matter of Hitler’s Bellhop didn’t trivialize Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust, Lewis dismissed the charge. “Never! I would never do such thing. Rather, what I’ve done is expose these horrors to the light of ridicule and broad satire. How scary is the monster once you notice his zipper is open and his wee-wee is hanging out? I’ve opened Hitler’s zipper.” The reporter next questioned the historical value of the screenplay and asked how much research went into its creation. Lighting a cigarette with a three foot high flame from his gold lighter, Lewis smugly conceded that he had not invested any time in research before writing Hitler’s Bellhop. The reporter expressed his incredulity that he would attack such a subject without first researching the historic and psychological aspects of Hitler when Lewis cut him off.
“I’m a Jew,” Lewis snapped, his eyes as cold as ice. “There’s nothing about that momza Hitler that I don’t know here,” he snarled, thumping his fist over his heart. “In my kishkas!” At which point Lewis terminated the interview and never spoke to Leven again.
Eventually, commonsense (or sobriety) got the better of Frank Schlessinger and he backed out of the handshake deal with Lewis. “He was livid,” Schlessinger recalled with a chuckle. “He accused me of everything from censorship to anti-Semitism, but what could I do? I was never going to be able to get backing for this thing, but let’s say I did. Then what? I’m gonna have my name on a comedy about a cuddly Hitler who accidentally perpetrates some of humanity’s evilest acts? What, do I look nuts to you? He ranted, he raved, he badmouthed me up one side of Hollywood and down the other, he sicced I don’t know how many lawyers on me, but it was all just a lot of noise. Pretty soon, he got tired of it and went away.
“I heard he spent the next few years trying to find other backers, but by then the whole industry had heard about this insanity and nobody would touch it with a ten foot pole. Eventually, I guess he just shoved the screenplay in a drawer and forgot about it.” Schlessinger sighed and shook his head sadly. “That was the last time we ever spoke.”
Apparently, Hitler’s Bellhop was forgotten, the screenplay itself lost, until last year when Lewis sold his Beverly Hills home in order to relocate to Florida with his new wife. Old file cabinets left out on the street for trash collection were immediately descended upon by souvenir hunters, one of whom, Audrey R. Freun of the Santa Monica Boulevard movie memorabilia shop StarFinders, discovered the yellowed and crumpled partial manuscript wedged under one of the drawers. “I was very excited,” Ms. Freun said. “Hitler’s Bellhop is something of a Hollywood legend, but no one outside of a few studio honchos had ever read it. Even the remaining bits and pieces that I found are a revelation. Of course, being a huge, huge fan of his, I was doubly thrilled to be able to read some of this lost work. What was most incredible was finding the cast page, featuring his very own ‘dream team’ for the picture.
“We’d met several times,” Ms. Freun continued, “and I’ve sold him some pieces over the years, mostly Chaplainania. I thought we had a cordial relationship, so I called his office to let him know what I found. His secretary put me through to him, and I started to describe what I had and there was just silence on the line. I asked him if there was anything wrong. He said, ‘What are you trying to do? Humiliate me?’ I assured him that wasn’t my intent, but he launched into this diatribe about the people who hate him, who refuse to understand his creative genius and what all. He accused me of all these things and then slammed the phone down. That was the last time we ever spoke.”
Attempts to reach Jerry Lewis concerning the screenplay have met with a wall of silence. He refuses to respond to any questions about it, and friends and associates will not speak without Lewis’ permission, which, needless to say, is not forthcoming. Lewis has not spoken to this writer since 1983, when I published a less than glowing review of his low budget comeback comedy, Salad Bar.
Here, then, the last surviving fragments of Hitler’s Bellhop.